Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Gaumont Film Company

The Fantastic Dog Pack (1917)

Alternate Title: La Meute Fantastique

This episode of “Judex” is longer than the previous one, but to me it seems like less actually happens. We do get the pay-off of the cliff-hanger from the last story, and also several new entanglements are established, but the story overall feels a bit off-track to me here.

As the story begins, Musidora and her criminal companion Morales (Jean Devalde) bring the chloroformed Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor) to a villa where they keep her unconscious while they await payment. This soon comes in the form of Cesar de Birargues, the overly-amorous employer who contracted with the pair to kidnap her in “The Mysterious Shadow.” But when he offers his payment, Morales demands an additional 10,000 francs hazard pay. Cesar goes home depressed and confesses what he has done to his sister and father; the father tells him to go to their country home while he takes care of the problem. Read the rest of this entry »

The Atonement (1917)

In this third chapter of the “Judex” serial, things finally start moving, as the villains put their plans into action, an important cameo is seen, and the hero discovers that he actually has a mystery to unravel. Great tinting and moody lighting and makeup add to the effectiveness of the film.

This chapter begins by establishing the revived banker, Favraux (Louis Leubas), as the captive of Judex (René Cresté) in his underground lair. The mirror in his cell follows him as he moves, and we learn that Judex and his brother can observe the prisoner through a hidden camera. When Favraux tries to disable it by putting his towel over the mirror, the towel bursts into flame! Judex uses a “flame device” to transmit a message to him: he has been spared from his death sentence by his daughter’s acts of decency, but now he faces lifetime imprisonment for his crimes. Meanwhile, that daughter’s estranged son Le Petite Jean (Olinda Mano) is plotting how he can see her. He sneaks out of his bedroom and onto the back of a truck covered in cabbages. The truck drives to a shop to sell its wares, but before the driver can begin to unload it, Bout-de-Zan sneaks up to steal a cabbage, inadvertently finding the stowaway and quickly referencing the first big hit of Louis Feuillade’s mentor, Alice Guy. He and Jean sneak away before being caught, and Jean shows him the letter from his mother, and Bout-de-Zan agrees to help him get to her. The two kids sneak onto the back of a fancy car bound for the right neighborhood, and manage to hang on without attracting attention all the way there!

Meanwhile, Musidora has gotten to Jean’s mother (Yvette Andréyor) first. Although Yvette is under an assumed name, she advertised her services in the papers and Musidora has come in answer to that ad. Even though she should know better than to accept employment with a governess she previously discharged, Yvette gets into the car with her and her accomplice who, we remember, are still hoping to get the money that Yvette has donated to charity. They quickly capture her. But, Jean has arrived at the apartment, and is taken in by the maid, who shoos Bout-de-Zan away as an undesirable. Jean is sympathetic with the two pigeons who are caged in the apartment, and, when his mother does not come home promptly, he releases them. This was exactly the right thing to do, fortunately, because these are homing pigeons that return to Judex and inform him that all is not as it should be. He investigates, putting on a great black cape and bring a large mastiff with him. The dog is charmed by Jean, and Judex realizes that Yvette has been detained for some unknown purpose. But how? And how can he find her now? These answers will perhaps be addressed in the next installment.

This episode was short and worked well for me, not least because it ended on a kind of cliff-hanger, where we don’t know how the hero will manage to help the apparently helpless heroine. Bout-de-Zan is also a great treat to watch. He plays off the saccharine innocence of Jean by appearing to be the worldly-wise street kid (who still thinks children are born in the cabbage patch), and his outfit makes me think of a French Huckleberry Finn. When he and Jean are finally run off the car by the chauffeur, he refuses to leave until he’s had a chance to kick the man in the backside! I also really like the way Judex comes across in this movie. Finally, an interesting hero from Feuillade! His underground lair is marvelously shot and the mirror watching the prisoner is still creepy, even in an era where such surveillance is common. He also has a great look going with the hat, the cape, and the dog.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera:André Glatti, Léon Klausse

Starring: René Cresté, Louis Leubas, Olinda Mano, Yvette Andréyor, Musidora, René Poyen, Édouard Mathé, Jean Devalde

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Alice Guy-Blaché: Mother of Film

For many years, film historians and critics ignored the contributions of women to early cinema. Despite this, one name often did show up, at least in parentheses or a footnote: that of Alice Guy, who had been the head of production at Gaumont, one of the world’s leading film studios, from 1896 to 1906, after which she moved to the United States to found Solax with her husband, Herbert Blaché. As women’s history and the influence of feminism finally began to make some headway into film studies (much later than in other fields), various writers “discovered” Guy and turned out hagiographical re-assessments of her work. Suddenly, from a footnote, she became the “inventor” of narrative cinema, the one person with the insight to see the camera’s potential for telling stories, the most important director of her time.

Alice Guy

I rather think the time has come to make a realistic assessment of Guy’s work. She is, to begin with, much more than a footnote. She was one of a handful of creative people who created the body of “early film” in the final years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. During that time, she made at least 350 movies (these are what survive in archives today), and quite probably closer to 1000. She took chances with new technologies, and made some important experiments in both color and sound film. Her output is comparable to any male producer of the time, and it is clear that recognizable “pioneers” of cinema, such as Georges Méliès and William K. Dickson, borrowed from and learned from her works, as she also borrowed and learned from theirs. If you are interested in the history of film, you owe it to yourself to check out some of what she did.

On the other hand, she did not invent sliced bread. Some of her defenders have made some pretty strong claims, claims which I would say do not hold up. There are not 300 extras visible in her magnum opus, “The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ.” I counted maybe 30-45. “The Cabbage Fairy” is not the “first narrative film.” It has no story, in the sense of a beginning, a middle, and an end, whereas the Lumière brothers’ “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” which came out four months earlier, does. As Fritzi Kramer, kind hostess of this blogathon, likes to point out, the “first” anything in film is notoriously difficult to prove and probably not as important as it sounds in the first place.

Alice Guy was a secretary to Léon Gaumont in 1895. At the time, his still photography company had failed, but he was still managing the inventory with a small staff, and was looking into motion picture technology. He invited Guy along to a demonstration by the Lumières, and agreed to put Guy in charge of what he no doubt thought would be a pretty minor film-production operation, “so long as it did not interfere with her other duties.” As Guy proved the lucrative advantages of film production, that quickly became her primary responsibility.

Whether it’s the first narrative movie or not, “The Cabbage Fairy” is a very interesting contribution to early film. Lea at Silentology has recently discussed the importance of the féerie show in French theater, and its apparent influence on the work of Méliès. Féerie was a ballet spectacle that was usually based on fairy tales or mythological sources, and emphasized stage magic, elegant costume, and fantastic situations over plot. “The Cabbage Fairy” may not be a narrative in the strictest sense, but it is a tableau that fits the concept of féerie perfectly, right down to having a fairy as its central figure! Guy did beat Méliès to the punch in this area, at least, and I have no doubt that Georges watched Alice’s movie with profound interest, although he probably would have made a féerie movie sooner or later, given his interests and talents, whether or not he saw it.

I watched and reviewed about 80 of Guy’s films from Gaumont last year, which may not make me an expert, but it gives me some sense of that period of her career. Honestly, it took me a while to warm to them. A lot of the really early stuff is just short dance movies or “trick films” that aren’t as well-executed as those of Méliès. As I worked through them, though, I began to see that they weren’t so much copies of other filmmakers work as they were part of a “discourse” between the pioneers of early cinema. Like blues or jazz musicians, they were listening to each other, then “riffing” off of what the others did. Somewhere along the way, Guy developed a more discernible voice, especially in her comedies. She had a quirky, idiosyncratic sense of humor that often involved taking logical premises to some crazy kind of extreme. The later comedies I would even call “surreal,” although that term hadn’t actually been invented yet, when they start involving mattresses that take on personality, beds that steer themselves through the streets of Paris, or footraces in which the participants trade clothing!

One of the more recent academic discussions or Guy talks about the importance that cross-dressing has in her films. This is probably nowhere more obvious than in her movie “The Consequences of Feminism,” which shows a future world in which effeminate men are dominated by masculine women. It cleverly pretends to be a critique of feminism when it is in fact a feminist critique of patriarchy and rape culture. In a “A Sticky Woman,” a masher is punished for kissing a woman at the post office when his mouth sticks to hers – because of all the stamps she has been licking! A lot of her movies take on a different aspect when you consider that she was a woman in a leadership role in a male-dominated industry at a time when women were expected to submit to male authority.

The final thing to consider about Guy’s Gaumont period was her early experiments in sound film. There are a few examples on “Gaumont Treasures,” and also a clip of Guy at work on a sound stage. These are comparably static images, as one might expect from a sound film in 1905 (it was still a problem in the early thirties), and generally just show a single song or dance number. It’s still fascinating to be able to hear the voices of performers in such early films, and gives a bit of insight into the musical culture of the period as well. Felix Mayol, in particular, is a very unusual discovery from the early twentieth century – a gay man with a very sophisticated sense of humor.

Who’s this?

In many ways, then, Guy pushed the boundaries of cinema at a time when nothing was established. She took chances, she tried new techniques, and she helped to define what “the movies” would really be about for the next 100 or more years.

This has been my contribution to the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently. Click on the link to check out all of the other contributions!

The Mysterious Shadow (1916)

This is the first official episode of “Judex,” the first having been mere “prologue.” This one would make very little sense without it the other, however, so I’d be inclined to call it episode 2.

judex-mysterious-shadowThe story picks up shortly after the engagement party at which the banker Favraux (Louis Leubas) unexpectedly died after taking a sip of wine. His daughter Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor), who is completely innocent and ignorant of the crimes he has committed, is grief-stricken, but now Cocantin (Marcel Lévesque), the detective Favraux hired, shows her the threatening notes that he had received, which explicitly accuse him of theft and murder. She checks with her father’s secretary and learns that it is all true. Then, to add to her stress, a new note arrives that explicitly enumerates the crimes the mysterious “Judex” holds Favraux responsible for. She decides that she cannot keep a fortune earned dishonestly, and makes arrangements to give it all to the Bureau of Public Assistance. Since the Viscount (Georges Flateau) had only wanted to marry her for her money, she releases him from their engagement. She puts her son, Little Jean (Olinda Mano) in the care of trustworthy servants, dismissing the others (including Musidora), and seeking work to support herself and to send money for his education.

Judex strikes a pose.

Judex strikes a pose.

Before she can leave the now-empty mansion, however, she receives an unexpected phone call. The voice on the other end sounds like her father, and he begs for her forgiveness. Jacqueline thinks she must be going mad, and goes out into the street alone, but we shift scenes to the recent past and an explanation. For now we first see the shadowy Judex (René Cresté) with a gang of grave robbers, retrieving the body of the deceased and taking it to an underground catacomb. Jude is tall and slender, and wears a hat and a long cape, looking somewhat like the Shadow, although his face is visible. His base is “the underground passages of Chateau Rouge.” He revives the “dead” man, revealing that the poison in the drink only gave the appearance of death, and forces the man to call his daughter and beg forgiveness.

judex-mysterious-shadow2Next, we see Little Jean, apparently enjoying helping out with chores on the farm he now lives on with the former servants, and receiving a letter in which his mother tells him about the work she has taken on, tutoring English and music. He tucks the letter lovingly into his blouse. Then, we see Jacqueline at her work, still wearing the black clothing of grief, and fending off the advances of an overly amorous employer. Said employer, it transpires, is buddies with Moralés (Jean Devalde) and Musidora, and he tells them of his infatuation. They advise him to let them abduct the woman of his dreams, possibly because they connect her with the disappearing heiress, whose whereabouts the papers are speculating about, or maybe just because they are criminal types who think that way. As they present the plan, they can capture her and then allow him to rescue her. Judex, however, is watching over Jacqueline, and sends her two white doves, which he instructs her to release if she ever needs his assistance.

judex-mysterious-shadow3This episode isn’t really a complete story, nor is it a “cliffhanger” the way serial episodes would be in years to come. It still seems to be taking its time in setting up situations without actually developing them very much. We now know that Jacqueline’s father is still alive, and in the custody of Judex, but it isn’t clear what justice Judex plans to enact on him. We know about the kidnapping plot, but haven’t seen it put into action. Also, we know that Jacqueline is effectively in hiding, but it’s not really clear what the bad guys want with her since she no longer has a fortune. We do get our first look at the title character and his home base, which is really just a room with various technical gadgets and a sliding panel, but it does fire the imagination that he has this underground chamber with apparently more secret rooms attached. In the background lurks Judex’s brother, played by Édouard Mathé, the bland star of “Les Vampires.” He seems more suited to his sidekick role, here. Sadly, we haven’t seen any more of Lévesque, who was really the saving grace of “Les Vampires.” I hope we aren’t done with him.

judex-posterThe photography in this episode is a bit less mobile than in the prologue, and we spend less time in close-up, and there are longer waits between edits, making  this one seem a bit slower than the previous one although it is ten minutes shorter. There is, however, some nice tinting on the night scenes. The scene of the retrieval of the banker’s body is tinted red, I assume to give the impression of torchlight, or perhaps to heighten the mood a bit, and Jacqueline’s race into the unknown is tinted blue. This adds some visual interest to the story, but we’re still just getting started.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: André Glatti and Léon Klausse

Starring: René Cresté, Yvette Andréyor, Louis Leubas, Marcel Lévesque, Olinda Mano, Édouard Mathé, Georges Flateau, Musidora, Jean Devalde

Run Time: 26 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Judex – Prologue (1916)

Another crime serial from Louis Feuillade, this one has the remarkable twist of making the masked mastermind into a force of good! This first episode only really sets up the premise, but it is effective at drawing the viewer in to what promises to be a good ride.

judex-posterBefore I talk about the movie itself, let’s talk about the date. I generally date the movies I review by the year of release, which is usually the same year they are shot, or in the case of movies shot at the end of the year, sometimes the year after. In this case, Feuillade made this movie and “Les Vampires” more or less simultaneously in 1914, then went off to serve in World War One. Gaumont Studios released “Les Vampires” beginning at the end of 1915 and running through early 1916, then finally released the first episode of “Judex” in December, 1916, but most of the episodes weren’t seen until 1917. As a result, you may find it listed in different places as a 1916 movie, a 1917 movie, or even a 1914 movie! I’m going to stick to my tradition of reviewing the episodes separately, and dating them according to which year they were actually released. Note, that this means that only this episode and the next one qualify as nominees for the 1916 Century Awards.

judexOK, let’s get on with the movie. The home video version begins with a lengthy credit sequence that I suspect did not exist at the time of original release. More common would have been an introduction to the cast of characters through short clips showing them in action (as with “Fantômas” and “Child of the Paris”), and that would have made it a lot easier to keep track of all of these character names. I kept recognizing actors from other Gaumont productions, but then not being able to remember who they are supposed to be. Imdb will be my friend in reviewing this series! We are quickly introduced to several characters once the movie does begin: There is Favraux, the banker (Louis Leubas), Robert Moralés (Jean Devalde) and Diana Monti (Musidora), who hope to blackmail the banker, and Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor), the banker’s innocent daughter who is engaged to the impoverished Vicomte de la Rochefontaine (Georges Flateau). Musidora manages to infiltrate the premises by getting a job as the governess to Jean (Olinda Mano), Jacqueline’s son presumably by an earlier marriage.

judex1One day, a tramp (Gaston Michel) shows up at the gate demanding to speak with Favraux. He is an old man who was swindled by Favraux, then sent to prison for 20 years when he embezzled to try to get out of financial difficulties. His wife has died, and now he hears rumors that his son is involved with crime as well, and he blames Favraux for all of it. Favraux, predictably, tells him to go away, and then less predictably runs him over in a car on the road a few minutes later (actually, his chauffeur runs him over, but Favraux is in the car). Soon, he receives a threatening letter signed only “Judex” (Latin for “judge”), which informs him he must turn over half his fortune to charity or die. Since the letter appeared mysteriously on his desk without anyone seeing who delivered it, Favraux is understandably concerned.

judex2So, he hires a private investigator named Cocantin (Marcel Lévesque, who “Les Vampires” fans will remember as the wonderful Mazamette). Cocantin has only just inherited the detective business from his father, and there’s some amusing business between him and his employee, who clearly feels that Daddy was better-suited for the job. Cocantin doesn’t do much to prove himself, skulking around in bushes, but avoiding eavesdropping while his employer makes time with the governess, and failing to figure out how a second threatening note manages to mysteriously appear on the premises. At the dinner to celebrate Jacqueline’s engagement, Favraux makes a toast, sips his wine, and promptly drops dead. Cocantin is now uncertain whether or not he should reveal the existence of the letters (!).

Only seconds to live.

Only seconds to live.

It’s a little too early for me to say how I feel about this series so far. I found “Les Vampires,” on the whole, a bit uneven compared to “Fantômas,” although it had its good aspects, including Mazamette, Musidora, and some very memorable visuals and outrageous crimes. It seems like silent fans always end up picking a “favorite” Feuillade serial, and I wouldn’t be surprised if “Fantômas” remains unbowed in that position for me. But, I am excited to see a new one from him, to see how this plays out, and to see how Bout-de-Zan makes an appearance. Some people credit “Judex” with inventing the whole “caped crusader” concept that led to Batman, the Shadow, and other superhero vigilantes, so this could be an important piece of nerd history.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: André Glatti, Léon Klausse

Starring: Louis Leubas, Jean Devalde, Musidora, Yvette Andréyor, Georges Flateau, Olinda Mano, Gaston Michel, Marcel Lévesque, Édouard Mathé

Run Time: 36 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Gaumont Treasures (1897-1913)

gaumont-treasuresLink to Worldcat for Interlibrary Loan: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/429915190

It’s been quite a while since I’ve reviewed a DVD collection of Century Films, although for quite some time I’ve been reviewing the individual movies in this one. It consists of three discs, each with a different filmmaker from the pioneering days of the French film industry. The discs feature the work of Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, and Léonce Perret, respectively. The vast majority of these movies are shorts, and all of them are rare outside of this collection. Each has been cleaned up and presented in the highest available quality, given new English-language intertitles, and is accompanied by appropriate non-distracting music.

Cabbage FairyThe movies give a great perspective on the development of cinema. Anyone only familiar with the “usual suspects” of early film (Méliès, Porter, Griffith) will receive a wonderful education as to what was going on at the same time as the more well-known pioneers. The Guy disc includes some commentary that helps contextualize her work, while the Perret and Feuillade discs both have short documentaries about their work. For Guy, we get over 60 of her short movies, including a good number of sound experiments and “The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ,” a 33-minute featurette. For Feuillade, there are 13 films, representing a great range of his work, far beyond the crime serials he is mostly remembered for now, with dramas, film-poems, light comedies, and historical reenactments. Perret is represented with two longer pieces, “The Child of Paris” and “The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador.”

Bout_de_Zan ElephantIt’s a little disappointing, after having so many movies from Feuillade and especially Guy, to wrap up with only two samples of Perret, especially since the documentary shows clips from at least a half a dozen others, but it does make sense in terms of run time. Because the other filmmakers worked in short and very-short formats, the length of each disc is about the same. It does leave you wanting to see more of Perret, though, and hopefully someday I will. The other criticism I have is that the index for the Guy disc is hard to navigate, so that if you want to examine each film independently (as I did), you spend a lot of time wading through pages of movies you’ve already seen.

mystere-des-roches-kadorThese are really minor criticisms, however, of a really lovely collection. Vital viewing for any Century Film fan.

The Child of Paris (1913)

Alternate Title: L’enfant de Paris

This feature film from Gaumont Studios came out while Louis Feuillade was in the midst of his brilliant serial Fantômas, but comes from a very different director, Léonce Perret, who also gave us “Les mystere des roches de Kador” in the previous year. In style and plot, this is a much more lyrical storyline than the anarchic crime serials Feuillade was working on at the time, but it bears some similarity to earlier work he did at Gaumont.

child-of-parisThe movie begins by introducing the major characters in close-up, some with clips we will see later in the film. There is a surprising number of them, and it’s unlikely that many will stand out as we wait a half hour or more for them to be introduced, although the fact that the only female character introduced is a small child (played by Suzanne Privat) is noticeable. As the story begins, that child is happily ensconced in a loving middle-class home, with a father, a mother, an uncle and an affectionate nanny. Then, the father, a captain in the army (Émile Keppens), is summoned to duty in one of the Moroccan Crises, leaving the care of his wife and child in the hands of his brother. There are some very stagey battle scenes, but for the most part we find out about his exploits through a series of telegrams sent back home, where the child continues to play happily and eagerly runs up every time there is news of daddy.

Moroccans Attack

Moroccans Attack

Eventually, of course, the dreaded telegram comes informing them that the father has been killed in action, and that his body has not been recovered. The mother, who had moments before been frolicking with the daughter and a large ball, suddenly collapses with grief. Despite various concoctions prescribed to her by a “psychiatrist” (including morphine and ether!), she also dies. Now the child is an orphan, though her uncle does his best to console her. Then he, too, is called up, and has no choice but to instruct the nanny to deposit the child in a boarding school. She is miserable there: the other students pick on her and make her a “scapegoat” for their bad behavior, and the teachers are cruel and unsympathetic. Naturally, she runs away one night when everyone is asleep.

Excluded.

Excluded.

Now she is alone and defenseless on the streets of Paris. Perhaps she is looking for her home, but she has no idea how to get there. After hours of wandering the streets, she collapses from exhaustion, exposed to the elements on a street corner. She is found by an unseemly fellow known as “The Graduate” (Louis Leubas), who proceeds to take her rings and an identifying necklace while she sleeps. He is about to leave with his booty, when he seems to have second thoughts. He picks up the girl and takes her to a drunken cobbler (Marc Gérard), who takes her in and puts her to bed in a small loft-space or cupboard with no real mattress. She has to share this space with Bosco (Maurice Legranée), the hunchbacked assistant to the cobbler, who has soft, effeminate features and seems to fall in love with the little girl as soon as he sees her. The cobbler is cruel to her and refuses to give her bread if she doesn’t work hard enough, but Bosco waits until he passes out drunk and sneaks food in to her.

The nanny has not been idle. She goes to the police and initiates a search for the missing child, blaming the school for her disappearance, but the police can do nothing. Now she gets a sudden telegram from the father – he’s alive after all! We see newspaper stories telling us that he was assisted by a “sympathetic Moroccan woman” and hidden until he could return to France. He has heard about his wife’s death, but looks forward to seeing his daughter again. There is a triumphal ticker-tape parade for his return, during which he learns the truth. He seems completely deflated. Why did he bother to live, if everything was to be taken from him?

child-of-paris4Now the Graduate figures out that he’s on to something. He recognizes the officer’s name from the identification medal he pawned, and writes out a ransom note to the captain and arranges to meet him with a gang of “associates” on hand. Although the captain does bring a pistol (he’s no fool), he is forced to write a check for 50,000 francs. The Graduate takes this money and goes to the cobbler, offering him 100 francs to get the child back. The cobbler is thrilled – think of all the wine he can buy with 100 francs! – and willingly surrenders the child. Bosco is suspicious, sure that the Graduate is up to no good, and so he follows them, then reports the location of the meeting to the police.

The father and child are thrilled to see one another, but the Graduate isn’t willing to end his little game. He now demands an additional 50,000 francs. The father reluctantly begins to write the check, but suddenly the gang clobbers him and ties him up. Now the police rush in and begin making arrests. They find the father and release him from his bonds, but the Graduate has snuck off with the child.

child-of-paris5Familiar with the ineffectiveness of the police, Bosco writes a note to the father informing him that he will conduct his own investigation. He trails the Graduate to a train bound for Nice and sees him take a cab from the station. Then, alone and penniless in a strange city, he finds a place to sleep under a tree in a park. The next day he awakens dirty and hungry. While he ponders his next move, a rich woman gives him a coin. He runs after her to return it, protesting that he is not a beggar. The woman is so charmed that she takes out a 100-franc note and forces it on him. This is enough money for Bosco to get cleaned up, buy new clothes, rent a hotel room, have a sumptuous breakfast and send a telegram to the father, letting him know where he is and what he has found.

Now he finds the cabby he saw drive off with the Graduate and pays him to take him to the villa where the child is hidden. He sneaks in and breaks down the locked door to her room, then spirits her back to the hotel without being detected. He sends word to the police as to the Graduate’s whereabouts, and they catch him climbing over the wall of the villa, following Bosco’s trail of broken branches. The daughter is returned to her home and the captain adopts Bosco as a reward for reuniting his family.

Middle-class comfort.

Middle-class comfort.

I found this a very interesting and charming film. It was also surprisingly long for 1913. Most of the movies I’ve seen from before 1915 are an hour or less, a few just a bit longer. This one clocked in at over two hours. That could be partly due to the decision to run it at 16 frames per second, “standard silent speed” for this video release (see my article on frame rates for more detail). Even running it at 18fps would have reduced the run time by 12.5% or about fifteen minutes. I can’t say that anything looked painfully slow, although the action scenes in Morocco and occasionally a horse running seemed a bit slower than “normal.”

This movie also has a surprising amount of opening credits for 1913. I suspect that these have been added by Kino or Gaumont for this 2009 release, and were not included in the original print. Giving any credits was unusual at the time, but these give not only a lengthy list of actors and the director, but also the screenplay, art direction, and cinematographer. The reason this matters is that the list of actors here differs from what is given on imdb. Here, actor René Navarre (known for “Fantômas”) is billed as “Chief of Police.” He does not appear as one of the actors shown in close-up, however, and I wasn’t sure I spotted him. He could have been the fellow who informed the nanny that the police were giving up the search, but that’s a pretty minor role. Imdb doesn’t list him at all for the movie, so it could be a mistake, although I would regard Kino as more authoritative than imdb. Imdb also fails to list the cinematographer.

The narrative struck me as somewhat unconventional. At first, I thought I was seeing a domestic drama, with a focus on the relationships among the adults, then it shifted to kind of a “Little Princess” storyline, and then suddenly the focus was on the Paris underworld. As we moved through these stories, the “star” of the show changed too: at first it seemed to be the captain, then the child, and finally Bosco. I actually somewhat enjoyed the way the protagonist changed during the course of the film, making it feel like we got the chance to meet new characters and get to know them as the story progressed. The one part of the narrative that didn’t work for me was the Graduate’s taking the child to Nice and locking her in a villa. What was his motivation for doing this? The only way he could make money by kidnapping her was to sell her back to the father, who was in Paris. Keeping her just meant added expenses and risk for him, with no clear benefit, and hauling her off to another city served no apparent purpose.

The squlaor of poverty

The squalor of poverty

Now, although I’ve complained about the Nice sequence in terms of the Graduate’s motivations, it does allow Perret to make some interesting observations about class in French society. When Bosco takes his 100 franc note to a café and asks for service, the waiter chases him off because of his dirty clothes, ignoring the money. Bosco has to buy a new suit before he can get service. He also makes a big deal out of the soft hotel bed – which is unlike any he’s ever slept on, and there seems to be a moment when he reflects sadly that the child had been used to such luxury before she fell into the Graduate’s hands (I could be reading that in myself, no title card cues us as to what he is thinking). In a way, much of this movie is about the tragedy of a child losing her middle class comforts, and about how the basic decency of Bosco allows him to move from poverty toward a more “normal” middle class existence. For that reason, I think the sequence in Nice was important to the narrative, I just don’t think it was set up properly.

There’s an interesting bit in a newspaper clipping during the father’s military service about how the Moroccans have “advisors” with “strong German accents. This reflects the tensions between Germany and France even in the years before World War I, and the fact that they were already in undeclared/indirect conflict repeatedly during the final years.

Great lighting

Great lighting

Most of the movie is edited in sequence, with each scene playing out before moving on to the next one, although there is some cross-cutting in the sequences when Bosco follows the Graduate and calls in the police. The real strength of the movie, however, is the photography by Georges Specht. There are a number of interesting backlit scenes, as well as some shots which are much darker than we usually see in movies from the time, including the “dark” themed crime movies of Louis Feuillade. The use of mise-en-scene establishes the contrast between the comfortable and opulent home of the family, and the squalid conditions of the cobbler and his underworld associates. I found it to be a technical as well as a narrative success.

Director: Léonce Perret

Camera: Georges Specht

Starring: Suzanne Privat, Émile Keppens, Louis Leubas, Marc Gérard, Maurice Lagrenée, possibly René Navarre

Run Time: 2 hrs, 4 Min

I have not found this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

The Bloody Wedding (1916)

Alternate Titles: The Terrible Wedding, Les noces sanglantes

We finally reach the last chapter of the serialLes Vampires” by Louis Feuillade. Although this episode ends with a kind of resolution, it doesn’t differ all that much in structure from the previous chapters of the story.

A happy couple.

A happy couple.

One change is that, whereas previously episodes had little time lapse between them, in this case the story picks up several months after the last one. Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé), the reporter-hero of the story, is now married to Jane (Louise Lagrange). We don’t even get to see a wedding! Philippe writes an obscure article about how the Vampires have been quiet lately, but refers to some never-depicted crimes in which he can “detect their handiwork.” Then Augustine (Germaine Rouer), the widow of the poisoned concierge from the previous episode, stops by for a visit. Guérande hires her as a housemaid at Jane’s suggestion, to help her through her difficult time. Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) stops over and appears very happy at this news.

A grieving widow.

A grieving widow.

We learn, however, that the Vampires are spying on Augustine by crawling on the rooftop and watching through the skylight. They see her trying to predict her fortune with cards, something which Jane disapproves of. So, they send her an anonymous invitation from a fortune teller who promises to reveal “the mysteries that surround you.” Of course, what she really wants is information that will lead to the capture of the Vampires. So, she lies to Guérande and says she is going to visit her husband’s grave, but actually goes to the fortune teller. Fortunately, Mazamette is now smitten with her, and follows her secretly, discovering the location she is really visiting. Irma Vep (Musidora) and another Vampire put on a show of spiritualism for her, pretending to be visions of themselves so that she will believe in the fortune teller’s powers, and then hypnotize her so that she will admit them to Guérande’s apartment. Mazamette confronts her on the way out, but doesn’t see any Vampires, so doesn’t really think anything is wrong.

A jealous suitor.

A jealous suitor.

That night, Irma Vep and Venomous, the new head Vampire (Frederik Moriss), show up with an apparatus for filling a room with poison gas. Augustine lets them in under a trance and they attack her and tie her up, then attach the apparatus to the keyhole of Guérande’s bedroom, but Mazamette, who cannot sleep because his infatuation is so strong, sees all of this happen and hides behind an arras. Once they have begun to pump the gas, Mazamette fires his gun, and they run off in a panic. He switches off the device, and helps Guérande untie Augustine when he wakes up. Augustine, Mazamette and Guérande (still in his bedclothes) go to report to the police, and Jane is left alone with a pistol for protection. Venomous returns, trying to break into Jane’s bedroom with a glass-cutter, but she shoots at him and then goes to the window. A Vampire on the sidewalk below lassos her and pulls her down, thus capturing her and they drive off with her as a captive.

A nocturnal attack.

A nocturnal attack.

It takes quite a few hours for Mazamette and Guérande to rouse the police to make a raid on the fortune teller’s house, but eventually they all drive out together (without even checking at home first). Astonishingly, the Vampires are there, rather than some other hideout, so the police are able to roust them. Irma Vep escapes by winding a long rope around herself and spinning to the ground like a yo-yo. They leave a bomb (that never goes off) and manage to capture Augustine, who was brought along for some reason, so the whole thing is a failure anyway, except that Mazamette shoots at their car and causes an oil leak, giving him and Guérande a trail to follow. For some reason he goed alone, without calling in the police this time or even waiting for Mazamette. He finds Jane and Augustine held in a cell below the chateau and passes them a pistol. Then he goes away until nightfall.

A daring escape.

A daring escape.

That night the Vampires are all drinking and celebrating the marriage of Irma Vep and Venomous. No one is guarding the prisoners or the chateau, so Guérande knots a rope and ties it a second story balcony in preparation for an escape. The police raid the party and a gun battle breaks out, and most of the Vampires wind up on the balcony, which Guérande now causes to collapse with the rope. Venomous and his lackeys are killed in the crash. Irma Vep, meanwhile, runs down to the hostages and threatens them with a gun. Jane shoots her with the pistol Guérande gave her and he runs in to find them over her body. A few days later, Mazamette proposes to Augustine and all ends on a happy note.

A lively dance.

A lively dance.

As I said above, this episode is a lot like the others, in that we see various captures and escapes, and the trade-off between hunter and hunted, as the story proceeds. There are the usual leaps in logic: Why did Venomous and Irma Vep go back to the fortune teller’s house, when they know the police will get that information? Why doesn’t Guérande have better security by now? Why does it take so long for the police to organize either of the raids? We’ve gotten used to the idea that Mazamette is estranged from the wife he had at the beginning of the story, but it still seems odd that he starts stalking the widow so soon after her bereavement. Also, the idea that you could follow a trail of motor oil on city streets is pretty hard to credit – anyone leaking that much oil wouldn’t get far.

An unlikely discovery.

An unlikely discovery.

In all, I would rate “Les Vampires” a little lower than “Fantômas,” not least because of the lack of a truly effective villain. The Vampires go through three leaders (or four, if we can count Moréno), none of whom really seems as diabolically brilliant as Fantômas. The one consistent thread is Irma Vep, who I must admit makes up for it somewhat with her powerful presence. Musidora is at times sultry and seductive, at others snarling and animalistic, and always seems dedicated to crime and evil. Unfortunately, she also seems to be more of a girlfriend than a leader. She’s always “with” the head Vampire, never taking charge herself. On the other side of the law, Juve wasn’t a great hero, but he’s a darn sight better than Guérande. Mazamette is the character we care about on that side of the team, but he’s ultimately a sidekick as well.

A tense situation.

A tense situation.

That’s all from the point of view of the script, but in terms of filmmaking Feuillade does show some interesting improvements in “Les Vampires” over “Fantômas.” There’s much more use of close-ups and different camera angles, rather than proscenium-style set pieces, for example. The editing has improved as well. For example, in this episode the sequence in which Venomous tries to get in the window to get Jane is cross-cut in a wonderfully suspenseful manner that actually had me tense to the point of yelling at the screen. The audience knows that Jane has a gun, and we see her see Venomous’s hand at the window, but Feuillade keeps cutting back and forth and we wonder if she has the courage to shoot right up to the last moment. It’s a sequence worthy of Alfred  Hitchcock, and there was nothing like it in “Fantômas.” The first police raid also includes some good cross-cutting between the police and the villains, although that was sort of ruined when the bomb didn’t go off.

I probably won’t return to this series as often as I do to “Fantômas,” but it’s been good to see Feuillade’s further development. Next, I’ll have to move on to “Judex!”

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Frederik Moriss, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Louise Lagrange, Germaine Rouer

Run Time: 55 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Poison Man (1916)

Halloween has come and gone, but I’m not yet finished with the crime serial called “Les Vampires!” In this episode, a new Grand Master takes charge of the Vampires’ ongoing quest to snuff out Mazamette and Philipe Guérande, but Irma Vep still gets most of the screen time.

Venemous at work.

Venemous at work.

At the beginning of the movie, we establish “Venemous,” (played by Frederik Moriss) the “brilliant but deranged chemist” who is the new Grand Master of the Vampires, hard at work in his chemical laboratory, assisted by Irma Vep (Musidora). He receives a message with invisible ink on it, revealing it by brushing it with a special chemical. It states that Guérande (Édouard Mathé) is engaged to be wed to Jane Bremontier (Louise Lagrange), and that he visits his fiancée every day. He sends Irma Vep and two female collaborators to rent the apartment above Bremontier’s. They are able to learn about an upcoming dinner party and get the proposed menu from a maid. Venemous now calls the caterer and cancels the order, substituting Vampires for the caterers on the night of the event.

A generous tenant

A generous tenant

On the day of the party, the Vampires are admitted and allowed to prepare and serve the meal. However, Jane’s mother gives a bottle of the champagne to the concierge to thank him for helping to bring up the food from the delivery, and when he tastes it, he dies! His wife runs up to the party to warn everyone not to drink the champagne, which no one has touched yet because Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) is making a very long-winded toast. The Vampires in the kitchen realize the gig is up and escape out the window, but Venemous, who is dressed as a valet, must hide in a cabinet in the dining room. Mazamette tries to catch him in the dark, but winds up fighting with Guérande instead. Venemous is also able to escape over the rooftops of Paris.

poison-man2Now Guérande becomes convinced that he must move his fiancée to the country in order to hide her, but Irma Vep sees the car arrive to pick them up and takes a perfume bottle full of sleeping gas to surprise them. Mazamette has been hiding in a trunk on the side of the car, however, and he attacks her. Irma Vep is able to spray him with the gas and her accomplices remove him. Then, she hides in the trunk. Mazamette is dumped on the street and taken to the police station, believed to be drunk. When he wakens, he calls Philipe to warn him, but Irma slips out of the box and gets away in the car before Philipe can catch her.

Musidora is horizontal for much of the film.

Musidora is horizontal for much of the film.

Irma Vep now finds herself at a fancy restaurant in the Fontainebleau forest. She summons Venemous by telephone, but Guérande turns up first and attacks her, tying her up and leaving her on the road as a car approaches (almost a rare case of a woman tied to train tracks!). The car contains Mazamette, who stops at first to assist the damsel in distress before recognizing her. Guérande has been waiting nearby with a pistol, and now he joins his friend. They put Irma Vep in Mazamette’s car and go to lie in wait for the arrival of the Grand Master of the Vampires at the restaurant. However, when he arrives, Irma Vep honks the horn with her head and he finds her there and they drive off together in Mazamette’s car, with Guérande and Mazamette in pursuit in his car.

poison-man4

You’re doing it wrong! You’re ruining it for me!

After a lively chase, Venomous leaps out of the vehicle; Philipe chases Venomous on foot, following him onto the top of a moving train, but Venomous gets away, shooting him in the leg. Mazamette has been restrained from jumping onto the train by two well-meaning policemen, and he punches one of them. He is held for assaulting an officer, but when Guérande shows up and strikes him in the police station, the police decide to forget the whole affair.

poison-man5I found this episode to be more visually satisfying than most of the others, in part because so much of it is shot on location in the streets of Paris or the forest of Fontainebleau. We get some nice blue tinting on the night shots. Also, there was a good amount of close-ups, including on Mazamette and Guérande when they first enter the darkened room, and some good camera angles when, at various times, Irma Vep is lying on the ground, and in order to see the figures escaping across the rooftops. Finally, the editing of the chase sequence was very satisfying, including some classic cross-cutting, even though I’ve seen critics who claim Feuillade never used any. The chase across the top of a train was, of course, similar to many Westerns that had already been released, beginning with “The Great Train Robbery,” but it is handled well here also.

This is how Mazamette rolls.

This is how Mazamette rolls.

I usually criticize some aspects of the strained logic in each episode, but this one has only minor departures from logic. The biggest is that, since we’ve already established that Guérande is a teetotaler, it doesn’t make much sense to put poison only in his champagne, instead of the rest of the meal. Of course, it may well be that even a truly sober Frenchman has to sip a little champagne at his own engagement, so maybe that was safe. I was a little surprised that Venemous himself turned up at the party in the guise of a butler, but at this point we’ve gotten used to the Grand Vampires taking ridiculous and unnecessary personal risks, so we’ll give that a pass as well. There’s a somewhat silly bit when a figure in Vampire disguise climbs up a drainpipe – in order to deliver a perfume bottle in Irma Vep. Surely the front door would work just as well. The one part that doesn’t make much sense to me is why is Mazamette riding in the trunk in the first place? Surely the Vampires are going to assume that he is wherever Guérande and his fiancée are, so it doesn’t seem like it would really help much in terms of security. Still, it’s a minor point and doesn’t interfere much with the enjoyment of this episode.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Frederik Moriss, Louise Lagrange, Florense Simoni

Run Time: 50 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

The Lord of Thunder (1916)

This week’s episode of “Les Vampires” continues the serial’s pattern of capture-and-escape, with the emphasis on the villains this time out. Musidora, as Irma Vep, manages to have a record number of wardrobe changes, and Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) remembers that he has a family.

lord-of-thunder

Irma Vep in her prison uniform.

This episode begins where the last one ended – with Moréno and Irma Vep in the custody of police and Satanas (Louis Leubas), the true Grand Master of the Vampires, still at large and unknown to the heroes. Irma is informed that her lover has been executed for his crimes, and that she will be transferred to a prison colony in Algeria for life. Satanas reads this news as well, and disguises himself as a priest, taking a hotel room with a view of the ocean in Montmartre. He then visits the women’s prison, distributing religious literature, but Irma Vep is able to decode a message in her pamphlet that warns her to leap into the ocean, because the boat will be destroyed by an explosion. Satanas then returns to the hotel, where his cohorts have been building one of his handy transportable cannons, and he destroys the ship with a single shell.

Irma Vep, in her traveling-to-Algeria getup.

Irma Vep, in her traveling-to-Algeria getup.

Meanwhile, Philippe Guérande has managed to use the codebook he got from the Grand Inquisitor in episode 2 to figure out that the shell must have been fired from Montmartre. Mazamette, who has dropped by to let him and his mother know that he is being considered for the “academic palms,” offers to investigate. He is unsuccessful on his first day, but then his son Eustache (played by Bout-de-Zan) arrives, having been expelled from school for bad behavior. The two of them dress as garbage pickers and return to Montmartre, where they find a cannon shell being delivered to the Grand Master of the Vampires in a hat box.

lord-of-thunder2Satanas stops by Guérande’s house and uses his paralyzing pin to immobilize him while secreting a time bomb in a top hat to blow up the apartment. He sticks a note to Guérande’s collar that proclaims that he has been condemned to avenge the death of Irma Vep. Mazamette arrives in time to see Satanas leaping from the window of the apartment into a waiting getaway car, then is able to find the ticking top hat and dispose of it before it explodes, saving the day. He announces that he now has the address of the Grand Master of the Vampires.

lord-of-thunder3Eustache and Mazamette return to Montmartre and attempt to sneak in to Satanas’s home, but Satanas uses a peephole hidden in a mask on the wall to see what they are doing and locks Mazamette into a chest, while threatening Eustache, who pulls out a gun and shoots at Satanas. Satanas acts as if he was hit, but then gets up and grabs the child, when suddenly thee police break down the door and apprehend him. Mazamette is rescued from the chest, but his face is covered with blood – somehow Eustache’s bullet hit him in the nose!

lord-of-thunder4Meanwhile, Irma Vep has escaped from the shell after all, and turns up at a railroad station, fainting from hunger and weakness. The railyard workers help her to recover and take up a collection for her, charmed by a phony story of a romantic tragedy that she makes up. She then heads back to the nightclub we saw in episode three, and announces her survival by performing on the stage – the assembled Vampires all recognize her voice. She is taken to the hideout in victory and a couple perform an Apache Dance in her honor. Then, the news of Satanas’s arrest comes, and Venomous (Fredrik Moriss), a “brilliant but deranged chemist” announces that he has been deputized to lead the gang in such a circumstance. They mail a seemingly innocuous letter to Satanas, which Satanas eats to commit suicide.

Irma Vep, in her

Irma Vep, in her “riding-the-rails” outfit.

We’re certainly going through the villains quickly in this serial! Only Irma Vep seems to survive, while the male leaders of the gang fall like flies. I found Satanas to be at least as dull of a villain as the old Master Vampire was, though, so no great loss here. I have some hope for the “deranged chemist,” Venomous, for these final chapters. The scene where Irma Vep arrived at the train station was somewhat shocking to me – because Louis Feuillade had Musidora lie on the tracks while an actual train passed overhead! A very dangerous stunt, luckily she was thin enough to pull it off without injury. The arrival of Bout-de-Zan was quite a thrill as well, although he didn’t have all that much to do in this episode, besides shooting his father in the nose, and we didn’t get much of a sense of the playful troublemaking that made him a huge star. Also, the shots of the ship blowing up appeared to be taken from actual footage of naval warfare, suggesting that this was one of the first movies to cut stock footage into its storyline.

Irma Vep's not even sure where these clothes came from.

Irma Vep’s not even sure where these clothes came from.

And, now, let’s pause to consider the logic of the story, as always. OK, so assuming that you can transport a cannon in pieces inside of a couple of large trunks, what are the chances you can fire it out a hotel window without getting reported to the authorities? No one complained about the noise? Montmartre must be a pretty raucous place for no one to have minded cannon fire! Also, Mazamette is remarkably fortunate in this episode: not only does he just happen to literally stumble upon a cannon shell being delivered to a particular address, he takes a bullet to the nose that fortunately didn’t go into his brain! Finally, I certainly wouldn’t be eager to advance in a criminal gang with such a high death rate among its leadership. Given the frequency with which they escape from the police as well, it would seem some kind of rescue would be attempted before sending the “poison pen” letter to Satanas.

Irma Vep goes incognito.

Irma Vep goes incognito.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Musidora, Marcel Levésque, René Poyen, Louis Leubas, Fredrik Moriss, Florense Simoni, Renée Carl

Run Time: 51 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).