One time the largest studio in the world, the influence that
The Gaumont Film Company had in the early days of film is often
today. Back in the late 1800's and
through WWI however, they were an important force in world cinema. Kino has gone into the vaults of film
archives to put together an important collection from the company: The Gaumont
Treasures: 1897-1913. This three
disc set has each DVD devoted to
an important director that worked for the company:
Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, and Leonce
Perret. These give an excellent overview
of the work (or early work in some cases) of each director and also
evolution of film language in the early days of cinema.
Disc One - Alice Guy:
Starting out as a secretary working for Leon Gaumont's still
photography company in 1894, but by 1897 Alice Guy (Alice
Guy-Blaché after she
married in 1907) was head of production
at Gaumont Films.
Guy not only directed films at Gaumont, making her the first
female director, but she was also responsible for many innovations in
evolution of both story telling technique and film technology. Along with Edwin S. Porter, the Lumiere
brothers, and others, Guy helped to create film 'language' and advanced
film narrative. The earliest films were
just scenes of every day life. Trains
entering a station, people eating lunch or going home from work, etc. Guy was among the first directors to see
movies as a way to tell stories rather than just record life. She was behind the camera for the first
(though some sources say it was the second) scripted fictional film
(1896's Cabbage Fairy which is not included
though 1900's remake The Cabbage Patch
Fairy is in the set), and was one of the first to make a film more
one-reel in length. Technically Guy
experimented with tinted film, sound movies as early as 1905 (several
of both are included in this set) and color film with her movie The Fairy Spring (sadly not included on
This collection presents more than 60 Guy films chronologically,
including examples from 1897 -1907. Many
of her earliest films are indistinguishable from other pre-1900
creations. She films kids playing in a
stream (Bathing in a Stream (1897)) and a dancer
performing her act (Serpentine Dance by
Mme. Bob (!) Walter (1897).) She
soon moves adds some Melies-like magic
tricks to her catalog. The
Disappearing Act (1898) has a man
cover a lady with a cloth, turns her into an ape, and then causes the
to vanish, and At the Hypnotist's
(1989) is built around some quick-change effects.
These mainly one-minute early films include comedies
(Wonderful Absinthe (1899)), war adventures (Surprise
Attack on a House at Daybreak (1898), and fantasy films (The
Cabbage Patch Fairy (1900).)
The set includes some nice examples of Guy's experimental
work too. At the Floral Ball
Escapades (both 1900) are hand colored films, where each frame of a
was pained by hand. The dress of one
lady would be colored red, the other green, frame by frame, and this
illusion of a color movie. There are
several "Phonoscene" films included too, an early attempt to match
The centerpiece of this disc is Guy's 1906 film The Birth,
the Life, and the Death of Christ. In
it she tells the story Jesus from birth to
resurrection in under 34 minutes. It's a
large scale production with lots of extras, superimpositions, and 25
scenes. It is quite impressive for the
time and very well done.
This set concludes with some of Guy's films from 1907.
In that year she left France
and went with her new husband to America
where he had been appointed as the head
of Gaumont's US
operations. By 1910 they left Gaumont
and started their own movie studio, The Solax Company, which was the
film studio in America
at the time.
Disc Two - Louis
Feuillade got his start in movies by selling scripts to
Gaumont in 1905, and soon found himself directing movies also. In 1907 when Alice Guy left for America,
Feuillade was promoted to artistic director for the company. By the time of his death in 1925 he had been
at the helm of an estimated 800 movies, but he is best known today for
serials. Les Vampires
(1915) is a wonderful crime thriller that has some
eerie scenes of Paris
at the height of WWI, and is available on DVD (though not included in
collection.) This disc features 13 of
his films created between 1907 and 1913.
Being a prolific director, Feuillade made many types of
films and a good representation of them are included.
There are comedies like A Very Fine Lady
(1908) where men can't help but stare at a beautiful woman who walks by
causes a series of accidents, and dramas like The Heart and the Money
(1912.) There's also a film that could
be called a precursor to the grindhouse films of the 60's, The Roman
(1911.) In this 8 minute film a decadent
Roman ruler first approved the clothes that his mistresses will wear,
throws a female slave to the lions after she makes a small mistake. (She's eaten off camera.) There's a banquet,
and then the "ogry" which involves clothed women dancing.
That is until there's a rebellion and lions
come strolling in. The emperor comes to
a bloody (well, actually it is bloodless) end when he's stabbed by his
guards. Not much in the way of plot, but
I'm sure it got the blood racing in 1911.
One of the best offerings on this disc is the historical
epic The Agony of Byzance (1913). This
29 minute film tells of the sack of Constantinople
(referred to as Byzance in the movie) by the forces of Mohammad II in
1453. It's a spectacle picture, with
great battles between the Muslims and the defenders of the Empire. A good number of extras are employed and the
sets, while clearly on a sound stage, are well done for the time. The subject was a bit of an odd choice for a
film since the Christians loose, but like some of the other films on
there is a lot to satisfy viewers including the women of the city being
into slavery, and the head of Constantine
being presented to the victor.
The only thing that was a little disappointing is that none
of Feuillade's "Baby" or "Bout de Zan" films are included.
From 1910 through 1913 he made 90 "Baby"
movies (Napoleon, Baby, and the Cossacks,
Baby and the Satyr, etc.) featuring a four-year-old infant and then
a new child in 1913 with his Bout de Zan series
of 60 more films. I would have
liked to have seen an example of
this type of films that he produced so frequently.
Disc Three - Leonce Perret:
The final disc is devoted to Leonce Perret who is nearly
unknown in the US. (I certainly never heard of him, though I was
familiar with the work of the other two directors featured in this set.) Perret came to film through the theater. He had aspirations to become an actor and
toured France and Europe with several productions, always as a
character however. He found it difficult
to live off of the pittance he was being paid, so when he got the
1909 to join Gaumont, he did. He acted
and directed several films, first at Gaumont's branch in Germany then in Paris under the eye of Louis
Feuillade. In 1915 he even took over
Feuillade's job as
artistic director while the Feuillade was in the army, fighting at the
Perret's background in the theater served him well. As
a director he added a bit of flair to his
productions by including low camera angles, close-ups, and even filming
outdoors and on location. While there
are only two films included on this disc (the running time for both
to three hours) they go a long way towards establishing Perret as an
and important director.
The Mystery of the
Rocks of Kador (1912): This is a
convoluted and a bit of an odd film. The
main plot revolves around a woman, Suzanne de Lormel, who comes down
amnesia when she is falsely convinced that she has shot her lover,
d'Erquy. To cure her of this condition,
d'Erguy and a psychologist reenact the shooting and film it, then show
to poor Suzanne in the hopes of curing her.
This film, written by Perret who also has a featured role in
it, is a good amount of fun, though the premise is hard to swallow
nowadays. It was great fun to see how
they filmed the assault and there are even scenes in the lab where the
is developed. There are extensive
exterior shots and they even filmed on location at the beach. Because of this, the film has a more modern
feel than most movies from the early teens.
Even when compared to Feuillade's movies of the same time,
style was superior.
The one thing that does hamper the film is the frequent
intertitle cards. The plot is very
twisted and in order for viewers to be able to follow what's going on
frequent interruptions for dialog. It's
a very wordy film, and that does slow the pace down more than it should.
The Child of Paris
(1913): In this melodrama, a little
lives a happy life until tragedy strikes.
Her father goes off to fight in the First World War and is
missing in action, presumed dead. The
grief of this news causes her mother to die.
(Someone dying of a broken heart seems to be a theme in French
and literature.) The adorable cherub is
then sent to an orphanage.
Things are bad for her there, where the other children taunt
her and even the matron is cruel, taking away her doll.
Marie-Laure is soon fed up with her treatment
and runs away, only to be captured by an evil thief.
Things go from bad to worse for her as the
film progresses, and she eventually forced to work for a drunk and his
hunchback assistant, Bosco. The latter
falls in love with Marie-Laure, and when she's sold to a scoundrel, he
after her to so he can protect the girl.
This is an interesting contrast to The Mystery of the
Rocks of Kador.
While the former had an interesting and complicated plot and
title cards, this movie has a very simple and straight forward story
only occasional cards. It's almost hard
to believe that Perret was responsible for both scripts.
What this film lacks in story though, it makes up for with
style. The tinted movie was directed
very well with the camera placed in interesting positions.
One shot holds on a close up of the top of a
wall and soon hands are seen and a head pops up. Perret
also creates an interesting set for
the drunk cobbler's house. It has the
main room where most of the action takes place, and a small triangular
area where Marie-Laure stays just too the side.
Perret has the camera focus on the main area most of the time,
Bosco puts the girl to bed, it pans over to follow the action. The technique works very well and was quite
innovative for the time.
All in all I was quite impressed with these two films.
Though the slightly over 2 hour running time
for The Child of Paris is too long by
about half an hour, both movies were exciting finds for me.
The scores that accompanied these films were all recorded
recently and sounded fine with good fidelity.
The Alice Guy shorts had piano and various synthesized (at
least that's what it sounded like) other instruments that weren't
but her Christ feature had a nice piano score by Patrick Laviosa.
The second disc devoted to Louis Feuillade was accompanied
by mainly piano music (there was some flute and violin sections)
Patrick Laviosa. These were nice and
solid tracks that did a good job of accenting the action on screen.
Philippe Dubosson used a synthesizer for the Perret disc,
and while he's a talented musician I didn't care for the electronically
sounds playing over movies that were created long before the
The image quality varies from film to film, but generally
these looked outstanding. The Child of
Paris was restored from the preserved negative and looks nearly prefect. On the other end of the spectrum some of the
Guy shorts were a little rough, especially the hand colored reels that
scratchy and in worse shape. Over all
however I was very impressed with the quality of these films.
There are a couple of nice bonus featurettes included with
this set. The second disc has a
10.5-minute documentary, Louis Feuillade Master of Many Forms that
gives a nice
overview of the director's career.
Disc two also includes a fragment of a 1912 educational film
Gaumont produced entitled "Chiromancy," which attempted to give the
and rational explanation of palm reading, of all things.
The final disc includes a documentary on Perret entitled
Leonce Perret: The Filmmaker's
Filmmaker. It runs nearly 18-minutes in
length and is a very nice introduction to the forgotten (in the US at
This set is a wonderful overview of early French
cinema. From Alice Guy's experiments in
the 1890's through Perret's 1913 dramas, the techniques used and
films changed. Not only did the length
increase, going from minute-long slices of life to a two-hour+
viewers can see a film language start to develop. The
static medium shots of the early shorts
evolve into a variety of camera angles and placements, as well as
camera move to convey the action more efficiently.
All together this is a magnificent course on
early European film.
Of course modern viewers not familiar with silent movies
might find the collection a bit hard to get through.
The ultra-short Guy films have no real plot
and come across as rather avant-garde today, and some of the Feuillade
will appear slow and pointless. People
just starting to discover silent film may want to explore other sets,
aficionados of early cinema this set comes highly