Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Léonce Perret

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.

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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.

Le mystère des roches de Kador (1912)

LéoncePerret

Alternate Titles: The Mystery of the Kador Cliffs, The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador.

The French had the largest and most successful film industry in the world prior to World War One, and so it’s no surprise that their movies appear rather “advanced” already by 1912. Of the films of this period I have reviewed so far, this made the strongest use of text – both in the form of intertitles, and many handwritten documents that characters wrote and sent to one another, or found and used as evidence. Unfortunately, since I don’t read French and no translation was provided, this was an impediment to my following the action. It also didn’t help that the version I watched had a very modern Dark Ambient soundtrack superimposed (I turned it off after 15 minutes). It did have some interesting bits, however. I particularly liked that they solved the “mystery” with the relatively-new science of Psychotherapy, and that the method of treatment was showing the traumatized witness a film recreating the event they had experienced. This gave the filmmakers a chance to reflect on some of their own techniques for the audience.

Update 12/12/2016: I wrote this review shortly after starting the project of watching 100 year old movies back in 2012. I have now been able to see it with English subtitles (and a decent soundtrack), so the time has come to update the review.

mystere-des-roches-kadorThis movie is the story of a young woman whose rich father dies while she is still a minor, and who then falls into the clutches of the malicious executor, who hopes to inherit by means of marrying or killing her, whichever is more convenient. If that plotline sounds familiar, that’s probably because it was used with rather less subtlety by Pathé in the famous serial “The Perils of Pauline” in 1914. In this instance, the scheming trustee is played by the director, Léonce Perret, who brings a certain decadent boyishness to the role. Unlike Pauline, the heroine (Suzanne Grandais) doesn’t want to seek “adventure,” she just wants to marry her true love (Max Dhartigny), who she met once at a spa and fell instantly in love with. When she therefore spurns Perret’s advances against the backdrop of a lovely rock formation at the beach, he decides to poison her and shoot her lover. He leaves them lying on the beach, but neither one is actually dead, so they manage to crawl into a rowboat and spend the night adrift instead of drowning when the tide comes in.

mystere-des-roches-kador1The whole experience remains a mystery, however, because Max didn’t see who shot him and Suzanne is so traumatized that she becomes catatonic. So, the brilliant psychiatrist Émile Keppens is called in and he brings a camera crew back to the beach to shoot the whole incident and makes Suzanne watch. This triggers her memory, but now they have to trap the evil Perret. They arrange to show up in costume at a masquerade he is holding and spring a trap, demonstrating that he must have written the note that lured the lovers to their near-doom.

mystere-des-roches-kador2As with “The Child of Paris,” this movie’s strength is in its imagery and a series of well-chosen shots, not in pacing or editing. The use of the motion picture as a new technology to recover memory is also interesting, particularly the scene in which we see the recreation of a scene we just watched, only now there is a cameraman in frame, cranking the film by hand as the action plays out. The doctor/director then says “OK, let’s get the shots on the waves,” letting the audience in on the fact that movies are shot out of sequence. It still strikes me as a clever and effective idea, however unlikely that it would actually help someone with PTSD. Perret’s approach works because the whole movie seems to occur in a kind of fairy tale or mythic space, so that the scientific details don’t really matter.

Director: Léonce Perret

Camera: Georges Specht

Starring: Suzanne Grandais, Léonce Perret, Émile Keppens, Max Dhartigny, Jean Aymé, Louis Leubas

Run Time: 44 minutes

You can watch it for free: here