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Authoritative collections of rare silent films have become more popular of late, as seen in the 2008 release of Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema. Kino International has taken a bold step forward with their 3-Disc set entitled Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913, a compendium of sixteen years of seminal Gaumont releases, from 30-second moving snapshots to short features as sophisticated as any being made anywhere in the world. The films are organized under Gaumont's three artistic directors of the time, interesting personalities and highly creative filmmakers whose contribution to the nascent cinema art has never been fully recognized.
Disc One begins with the Gaumont work produced under the aegis of Alice Guy, said to be the world's first female film director. Starting with two short pieces showing some men and boys swimming in a stream (1897), Guy's work soon branches out to stage comedies, performance pieces and travelogues. The fantastic comedies rely on the basic Méliès trick of making people appear, disappear and change clothing by stopping the camera. Mme. Guy appears to use ballet personnel as the subject of a Serpentine Dance that reaches the epic length of two minutes. In a "snow dance", a card on a stick intrudes with what looks like an early attempt at a copyright notice. By 1899 signage in the little films is in both French and English, to accommodate overseas sales. A pair of highly amusing "cabbage patch" films show a couple from the "upper classes" shopping for a baby. A midwife plucks bawling infants one by one from behind painted cabbage heads, and lays them naked on a blanket!
An entire series of films carry a Spanish theme, including a 1905 travelogue filmed in Madrid, Seville and Barcelona. The famous public buildings are fronted by cobblestone streets traversed by ancient trolley cars. A gypsy dance appears to be the real thing, but other dances are clearly performed by professionals, who add ballet moves and gestures.
The more than sixty films represented include views of a rickety-looking dirigible, short-form melodramas and inspirational films. The biggest production is a 30-minute story of Christ, a series of elaborate formal tableaux. More than once, Guy's Jesus pauses in a formal pose to better allow a host of angels to materialize around him, as in a devotional painting.
Many of the short subjects use hand or stencil-inked tinting to excellent effect. Most impressive are a series of 1905 synch-sound films called Phonoscènes". The one-shot pictures feature singers and comedians. One short shows Mme. Guy supervising the technical setup for a musical number. A cable running between the camera and a phonograph contraption might be a mechanical synchronizing link.
Film historians looking for a feminist angle in Guy's work may be disappointed by the 1906 comedy The Consequences of Feminism. The hilarious satire reverses the sex roles, showing emasculated males fussing with children and household chores. Bowler-hatted, cigar smoking women pick up shy young men in the street, and carouse in bars. With small children in tow, a meek husband pleads with his wife to return home, and is hustled back where he belongs!
Alice Guy departed for America in 1907, leaving Gaumont in the hands of a promising creative assistant, Louis Feuillade. Before he became famous with the enormously popular serial thrillers Fantômas and Judex, Feuillade expanded the studio's subject matter into lyrical fantasies (The Fairy of the Surf, 1909) as well as prestigious historical and literary epics to compete with foreign product. The Roman Orgy (1911) is a grand costume drama with live lions in the emperor's arena, while 1913's The Agony of Byzance uses massed crowd scenes to show the defeat of Constantine by the Ottoman Turks. The exploitative show stresses scenes of nubile Christian women seized by the Muslims, to be sold as slaves.
Feuillade also introduced a genre of social realist films that purported to present "Life As It Is", serious dramas about broken families and the effects of bigotry. The heroine of The Heart and The Money is forced to marry for position instead of love, and suffers an atypically bleak fate. Even darker is the 41-minute The Defect (1911), about a prostitute who becomes a model philanthropist, only to be destroyed by scandal.
Future Feuillade themes emerge when some of these "issue" dramas lean toward thriller melodrama. A film about a conspiracy to corner the market for synthetic rubber involves kidnappings, disguises and other spy devices. The bizarre The Obsession (1912) debunks palm-readers. A charlatan predicts doom for a devoted husband and father -- who books passage on the Titanic. The sinking is depicted via primitive miniatures.
Disc Two is accompanied by a docu on Feuillade illustrated with abundant clips, including many not from films presented in this collection. While advancing his artistic fare, the director also maintained a popular series based on the adventures of little-kid heroes, urchins in cute hats. When the star of the "Bébé" films outgrew his role, he was replaced by the talented child actor René Poyen, billed as "Bout de Zan". The representative comedy deals with Bout de Zan stealing an elephant; in one very funny scene the talented pachyderm panhandles and picks pockets. Poyen would later portray "The Licorice Kid" in Feuillade's famous superhero serial Judex.
Feuillade left Gaumont at the outset of World War One and was succeeded by Léonce Perret, a talented actor turned writer-director. The informative disc notes make the case that Perret, now completely unknown in the U.S., was a major film artist. He starred in comedies while directing melodramatic thrillers. Perret used advanced techniques such as moving camera shots, close-ups and expressive angles. He also made good use of silhouettes in his compositions. The two long-form examples of Perret's work on Disc 3 were filmed before he assumed directorship of the company.
Perret was partial to making "movies about movies", and confected stories in which cinematography becomes an active plot device. The 43-minute short feature The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador (1912) is an elaborate thriller about a wicked Count's efforts to kill his niece Suzanne for her inheritance. When a failed attempt leaves Suzanne in a catatonic state, a progressive psychiatrist produces a film re-enacting her traumatic experience, to shock her back to reality. Most of the studio material plays out in familiar master shots, but scenes in the open air are blocked with looser coverage that looks quite modern. Compared to D.W. Griffith's 1912 output, the film seems much more advanced.
The second Perret film offered is the 1913 epic thriller The Child of Paris, an elaborate pot-boiler about an orphan who runs away from a boarding school and falls into the clutches of street thugs. Tiny Marie-Laure (Suzanne LeBret) is dragged here and there until the expected emotional reunion at the finale. Director Perret orchestrates a series of menacing situations that heighten audience concern for the little heroine. As the pursuit leads Marie-Laure's rescuers from Paris to Nice, the film is now a priceless, vintage travelogue.
A second documentary illustrates Léonce Perret's talent with clips from his starring comedies and other productions. Clips show him composing scenes in painterly depth. Perret uses a wall like a split screen to depict a rescuer attempting to free little Marie-Laure. Kino's Bret Wood adapted the French disc set for U.S. release and produced the two extra documentaries.
A favorite of Cinematheque Francaise director Henri Langlois, The Child of Paris was the subject of a major restoration. Most of the other films in the Gaumont Treasures 1897-1913 collection look just as good, with only one or two showing a little decomposition. The Obsession lacks part of a reel, a gap covered by an explanatory inter-title. Kino's menus and playback architecture grants quick access to the films, and permits the sixty Alice Guy short subjects to be screened individually or with a "play all" choice. Pleasant and theme-appropriate music tracks are performed by Sorties d'Artistes, Patrick Laviosa and Philippe Dubosson.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.