Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: sound-on-disc

Félix Mayol Performs “White Lilacs” (1905)

Alternate Title: Félix Mayol, lilas-blanc

My final Félix Mayol phonoscène by Alice Guy portrays one of his most popular songs. He sings and dances a bit, working in lip-synch with a prerecorded gramophone record.

Felix Mayol White Lilacs

Once again, Mayol enters the stage in long-shot and the camera remains stationary for the length of his song. We get no color or close-ups this time. The curtain is the same: especially sharp-eyed viewers may have noticed that it is adorned with white lilacs, and that Mayol has one in his buttonhole as well. This time, I can spot the Gaumont symbol way down in the lower-right corner. Presumably, it was there for the other movies as well, but the cinematographer failed to get it in the frame.

White Lilacs” is a love song, told more or less from the woman’s perspective, with a tragic ending (the woman chooses a man who doesn’t love her over one who does). Apparently Mayol suggested the idea to the songwriter, Théodore Botrel, because they were his favorite flower and he wanted it to be his signature song. Apart from phonoscènes, Mayol didn’t have many screen appearances until the advent of “Talkies,” but he did a number of French talking pictures in the 1930s. He would die in October, 1941, in what was then Vichy France, the collaborationist regime with the Nazi occupation force.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Félix Mayol

Run  Time: 3 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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Félix Mayol Performs “The Trottins Polka” (1905)

This is another of the short sound-on-disc phonoscènes that Alice Guy shot with Félix Mayol. It fits in neatly with the others I’ve looked at this week, but has some distinctions from last night’s entry.

Felix Mayol Trottins PolkaOnce again, Mayol walks onto the stage and sings. This time, the image is black and white, and the camera is set back to give us a full-shot of the actor, including some of the studio floor. This latter is probably because, unlike in “Indiscreet Questions,” Mayol does do a bit of a dance here, and needed more room to move around on camera. This was clearly shot in the same session; even the curtain is identical to last night’s film. His hair is also identical – apparently it was part of his act, as caricatured in the poster below:

Felix Mayol PosterI thought at first that the “polka” might mean that this song would make fun of Germans, but if these lyrics are correct, it doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, it seems to be a song about the culture of young boys who hang around railroad stations hoping to pick up tips for helping to cart luggage for tourists. Given that Mayol was apparently gay, and that young boys at railroad stations sometimes make money in less savory fashions, this song may have a certain racy implication as well. As before, Mayol communicates the humor of the song with subtlety, and only suggests, rather than making anything obvious.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Félix Mayol

Run Time: 2 Min, 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Félix Mayol Performs “Indiscreet Questions” (1905)

Alternate Title: Félix Mayol, Questions Indiscrète

This is another of Alice Guy’s sound-on-disc releases. It is shot in a somewhat different (perhaps more “modern) fashion, but is essentially just a static performance of a song by a known performer.

Felix Mayol Indiscreet QuestionsOnce again, a singer walks onto a small stage and performs a single tune for us. In this case, the backdrop is a curtain, and the performer is shot in mid-shot, from the waist up. We never see his feet or the floor of the stage. The more intimate distance allows us to see his handsome face and expressions more clearly. He does not move around or dance, however, because the tight shot doesn’t give him room. This time, there is no Gaumont logo visible in the background. The image is in color, which looks to me not like hand-tinting, but some form of early two-color process.

Felix_MayolHaving read up a bit more on Phonoscènes, I am beginning to understand that they are not “sound” films in the sense of having the sound and action recorded at the same time, but rather an early form of lip-synch. In the case of “Alice Guy Records a Phonoscène,” that large sound device I saw her playing with actually was a gramophone, not a recorder. This does make more sense, but I believe that in the case of “Cyrano” we may have heard live sound recorded experimentally; the “Dickson Experimental Sound Film” definitely does have it.

The performance does strike me as more modern, even without movement or cutting, and that’s largely due to the camera angle. It somewhat reminded me of the old “Lawrence Welk Show,” with the fancy curtain backdrop. Being able to see the actor’s face makes a huge difference. I’d noticed with Dranem and Polin that they seemed to close their eyes while they sang, but with Mayol I could be sure. This might have been because of the bright studio lights, or maybe it was just the style at the time. The song appears to be rather suggestive, but unlike the broad comedy of the other singers, Mayol handles it with occasional smiles and winks, which would have been harder to catch at a distance.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Félix Mayol

Run Time: 2 Min, 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Dranem Performs “Five O’ Clock Tea” (1905)

Alternate Title: Dranem, Five OClock Tea

This short sound-on-disc movie from Alice Guy is very similar to the Dranem film I discussed yesterday, even the backdrop is the same. The slight changes, however, may tell us something about ourselves in the modern world, as well as offering insights into the past.

Ministry of Silly Walks, anyone?

Ministry of Silly Walks, anyone?

As with “The True Jiu Jitsu,” Dranem walks out onto the small stage and performs a song. He has changed wardrobe slightly: his ponytail is gone, his hat is in a British fashion and he carries a walking-stick. Given the title and the getup, I immediately knew that this song was about the British, and would be making fun of middle-class propriety and the persistence of Victorian values into the Twentieth Century. His body language and movements reflect the change in stereotype – where before his motions were jerky and short, often tending towards bowing or withdrawal, here there are haughty and broad, displaying the concept of British arrogance.

DranemOne wonders whether Dranem made his career on lampooning other nationalities, or is it just that these are the examples that happen to have survived. Anyway, my own reaction to a Frenchman mocking the British are rather different to when he mocked the Chinese. Partly, from my familiarity with the culture, I know that he’s making fun of a lot of the same things that British comics would in later years (think “Monty Python”). But, there’s always that question of power as well – while the French were a colonial power and the Chinese were at this time colonized, the British were if anything leaders in the colonial game. Still, it’s a reminder of the very human nature of making fun of what is unfamiliar to us, the question of what kinds of humor are or are not acceptable in different times and places, and the difficulty humans have in accepting one another without judging.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville)

Starring: Armand Dranem

Run Time: 3 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Dranem Performs “The True Jiu-Jitsu” (1905)

Alternate Title: Dranem, Le Vrais Jiu-Jitsu

This is another short sound-disc movie from Alice Guy which features a singer. In this case, the singer is Armand Dranem, often just called by the stage name “Dranem” (which is a reversal of his birth last name, Menard), who was a rising star in France at the time.

Dranem Jiu Jitsu

What we see is quite familiar by now: a small stage with a backdrop and the singer walks out and begins his song. In this case, the backdrop is sort of abstract – it reminded me at first of the sea floor, but after a while I decided that the floating shapes were not actually fish. Dranem himself is somewhat non-descript and closely resembles Polin, in fact. The song he performs, and his attire, however, would be more acceptable in 1900’s comedy than today. He wears a long ponytail and is dressed up to resemble an Asian, specifically a Chinese man. I did not look up the lyrics this time, because I got the idea without them: he is making fun of Chinese accents and people. Probably a big hit at the time, it doesn’t seem that funny to me now.

Dranem was a music hall singer whose comedy songs were very popular in France, and he went on to do a number of movies, the best-known of which may be “Monsieur Albert” (1932), in which he has a small part. He didn’t do much during the silent period, apart from these phonoscènes, but made money from stage and audio performances before becoming in-demand at sound studios.

Keen-eyed observers will note the “Gaumont” logo on the lower right, again much smaller than its counterparts in American films of the time.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville)

Cast: Dranem

Run Time: 2 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Cook & Rilly’s Trained Rooster (1905)

Alternate Title: Le Coq dressé de Cook et Rilly

Well, this is a movie in which a rooster sits on a stool and crows. That’s it.

If it were a silent film, that would be pretty darn silly. However, it’s an early experiment with synch-sound recording, for which, happily, the sound disc still survives. There are actually thousands of such movies, and quite probably thousands of such discs, but in general they have not been reunited, which is too bad, because neither element would work alone.

Cook and Rillys Trained RoosterAdmittedly, even with sound, this is a pretty boring film, and I’d bet it wasn’t intended for commercial distribution, just as a test to show that the system worked. One thing it got me thinking about is the sound that roosters make. In English, we are told from a young age that roosters say, “cock-a-doodle-doo.” I have never heard a rooster say this, however. To me, their call sounds more like, “Er-Er-ER!-Errr…”, with the emphasis unfailingly on that third syllable and the final one trailing off. I have no idea where this silliness about “cock-a-doodle-doo” comes from.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville)

Starring: A rooster

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.