Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Louis Leubas

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 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).

Satanas (1916)

This week’s episode of “Les Vampires” tries to inject new blood into the serial by introducing a new, more sinister villain, and also alludes to the horrors of the First World War by giving him a cannon to conduct his malevolent will. Of course, it is designed more as a crime-adventure film than a horror movie, much less a Satanic movie, but the title alone earns it a place in my October history of horror.

Musidora goes as Cleopatra this Halloween

Musidora goes as Cleopatra this Halloween

The movie’s opening takes us back to the penultimate scene of the previous episode, where Irma Vep (Musidora) and Moréno (Fernand Herrmann) have just killed the Grand Vampire. They stuff him into a trunk and prepare to dump the body, when there is a mysterious ring of the doorbell. The man outside is an older man (Louis Leubas), and he prepares before going in by putting a glove over a spike tied to his hand so that it points out from the palm. He tells them that he knows what they have in the trunk, and when Moréno tries to eject him, he stabs him with the spike, which contains a paralyzing poison. He informs Moréno that he is the true leader of the Vampires, the man they just killed was an “underling.” Then he leaves them to dump the body in the river.

satanas1That night, Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) is carousing with two girls and a male friend at a cabaret owned by Moréno’s gang. Apparently, he has quite forgotten the wife and children of the first episode, because the girls are hanging all over him and he does not protest. When Moréno and Irma Vep arrive at the club, Moréno receives a card telling him that the Grand Vampire will demonstrate his power at 2AM. We see the Grand Vampire, who apparently has an office below the cabaret, pull a large cannon out of a secret cabinet, load it, and, at precisely 2AM, he fires it, destroying the cabaret (but somehow not injuring Moréno or Irma).

A well-appointed office.

A well-appointed office.

Philipe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) now decides to pay a late-night call on Mazamette, but finds only the butler there, concerned over his master’s late hours. When Mazamette returns, Guérande hides behind a curtain and listens as he entertains his guests. When the man starts going through his things without permission, Mazamette becomes annoyed and pulls a gun on him and the girls. They switch off the lights and run out (you’d think opening the door would create a silhouette, but Mazamette behaves as if he can see nothing while the light is out). When he turns on the light, he sees Guérande’s shoes beneath the curtain, and shoots blindly at the figure hiding there, making me think of Hamlet and Polonius, but fortunately Guérande has been squatting down behind the curtain, so the bullets pass harmlessly over his head.

Never stab an arras.

Never stab an arras.

The next morning, Irma Vep and Moréno go to surrender to the true Grand Vampire, but he offers them a job instead. He wants them to steal from George Baldwin (Émile Keppens), a billionaire American who is staying at a Paris hotel. Moréno calls on his friend Fleur-de-Lys (Suzanne Delvé), who was one of the girls Mazamette was running around with the night before. She goes to Baldwin’s hotel and poses as a magazine reporter collecting signatures, and she gets Baldwin to sign a piece of paper. Then Irma Vep shows up with a bulky Edison cylinder-recorder and asks him to speak the only French phrase he knows into it: “Paris has the most charming women” adding on, “All right!” in English at the end. Now, Moréno uses the signature to forge a check to Fleur-de-Lys in the amount of $100,000, and sends her to cash it at a local bank. Irma Vep, meanwhile, kidnaps the switchboard operator at Baldwin’s hotel and infiltrates as her replacement. So, when the cashier at the bank gets suspicious about so large a withdrawal and calls the hotel, she plays back the cylinder recording of Baldwin praising Parisian girls, and the cashier decides Fleur-de-Lys is a high class call girl and gives her the money.

satanas4At this point Mazamette walks into the bank and sees Fleur-de-Lys getting the cash and recognizes her from the cabaret. He disguises himself by pretending to have a toothache and follows her. He sees her turn the money over to Moréno and calls Guérande, who joins him at the home of Fleur-de-Lys. They threaten her with guns to make her talk about the robbery, but she, probably realizing that they wouldn’t dare shoot, refuses to say anything until they call Moréno on the phone and threaten her with arrest instead. She now tells Moréno to come over immediately. He has, meanwhile, taken the money to the Grand Vampire, who tells him to keep it, no doubt to build the morale of this highly useful follower. Now, Moréno and Irma go to the home of Fleur-de-Lys, but as soon as they walk in the door, they fall through a huge trapdoor into a bag in a basement full of police! Mazamette and Guérande congratulate themselves on capturing the desperate criminals, who are taken into custody, from which they will doubtless escape in the next episode.

satanas5This was an episode entirely without murders, unless Irma Vep killed the switchboard operator offscreen (possible). I was quite surprised when the new Grand Vampire only paralyzed Moréno, I thought he was dead when he got stabbed. I also thought the cannon would kill him, so this was an episode of lucky escapes for him or considerable mercy for the Grand Vampire. I said at the beginning that he seems to have been brought in to rejuvenate the series somewhat – the old GV (Jean Aymé) was sort of lame, and he kept getting defeated by Moréno’s ingenuity. Mazamette continues to be the more interesting and active hero, but his apparent abandonment of his family in his time of good fortune is disappointing. Even the butler says so!

satanas

Closing the lid on a lame villain.

So, for this week’s roundup of logical inconsistencies, we can start with Guérande’s narrow escape. Who would crouch down so low while eavesdropping and why? Wouldn’t his knees tend to make a big bulge in the curtain? And, really Mazamette, don’t shoot at people you can’t see clearly enough to identify, that never ends well. The crazier leap-of-logic, though, is the giant trap door that Guérande and Mazamette use to capture the villains. So, Fleur-de-Lys happens to live in a building with that trap door built into its lobby? How did they know that? Or, are we meant to believe that they cut that hole in the floor while Moréno and Irma Vep came over from their place? How will they pay back the building’s owners for all the damage? Either way, it’s wonderfully absurd.

Director: Louise Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Fernand Herrmann, Louis Leubas, Suzanne Delvé, Émile Keppens

Run Time: 43 Min

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

 

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