“All Cinema Begins in France” (E Fink, really not an expert on much of anything)
Several years ago, I had an umbilical hernia fixed. Insert “yucky, icky, poo” here. During my recuperation, I decided to delve into the origins of film. This led me to France. Initially, I watched everything Melies. As time went on, I discovered that there was more to meet the eye. Other names began to appear, names that I was unfamiliar with. Thanks to the inexhaustible silent film libraries that can be found on YouTube, I was able to school myself on the incredible advances in film that came from the late 1890’s to about 1910.
It became clear that the men and women of France advanced the art and the technology of film beyond those of their peers in other countries and would create the blueprint for the future of Cinema.
The Lumiere Brothers (Auguste and Louis)
The brothers attempted to create their own camera at their father’s photographic plate factory. Unsuccessful at first, Louis came up with the idea to use a mechanism that would advance the film much in the way a sewing machine advances a piece of cloth. Soon, everyone wanted a Cinematographe. Later, it would be surpassed by machines, but the contribution of the Lumiere Brothers’ contribution to the advancement of film would stand forever.
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895)
Imagine that you have never seen a film before. There you are, sitting in a small room with a screen in the front and an odd machine in the back. The lights go off and the machine turns on. A beam of light projects the image of a train coming into a train station. But you, like the rest of the audience are not familiar with what will happen next. Everyone in the room believes that a real train is coming to run them down. Men shout, women faint. There is mayhem. The only calm in the audience are the two Lumiere brothers and an amused and suddenly inspired man in the back…
Le Squellette Joyeux (The Merry Skeleton) (1897)
It’s a puppet. You can see the strings. It is still an amazing display of puppetry. And you can see that it won’t be long before animation will come into play.
…Everyone in the room believes that a real train is coming to run them down. Men shout, women faint. There is mayhem. The only calm in the audience are the two Lumiere brothers and an amused and suddenly inspired man in the back. The amused individual is none other than Georges Melies. The magician and theater owner grasps the power of the movie and realizes that he has seen the future.
Unable to purchase a movie camera, he reverse-engineers one and begins to make movies at his theater. In most cases, the camera never moves. The actions filmed are on a stage. Melies used elaborate sets, and stops and starts that give the impression of people appearing and disappearing and changing costumes automatically.
He was the first true genius of film, taking the new medium as far as it would go at that time.
The Vanishing Woman (1896)
Melies calls upon his experience as a magician to make a woman appear, reappear and change her form.
The Devil in the Convent (1899)
Even the nuns have to deal with the Devil sometimes.
The Black Imp (1905)
Almost a remake of “The Haunted Castle” as a demon taunts a group of weary travelers.
Segundo de Chomon
Initially making films in his homeland of Spain, he moved to Paris where he worked with Pathe, a competitor of Melies’ Star Film Company. In many of his films, de Chomon seems to copy Melies, who he admired. Further analysis shows that, in some ways, he improved on Melies’ techniques. Unlike many of his peers, his career would venture into the post-WWI period as he would be called upon to create special effects for other’s films, most notably, Abel Gance’s masterpiece “Napoleon.”
The Red Spectre (1907)
Giant heads, red menaces and other frights await those that cross the path of the demon.
The Haunted House (1908)
One area that Melies seldom used was stop motion. Not the first to use this technique, he seems to have perfected the method. For the curious, the first stop motion film belongs to Great Britain’s Arthur Melbourne Cooper with “Matches, An Appeal” (1899). The film was a request to send the soldiers in South Africa during the Boer War matches and tobacco.
Alice Guy Blache
Originally hired as a secretary, Alice Guy Blache learned about the film industry, made important friends like the Lumiere Brothers and became Leon Gaumont’s top asset, having input (writer, producer, director) in more than 700 films. As Melies was in the audience for “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” she and Gaumont were in the audience to see the Lumiere’s “Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory.”
In 1907, she married and came to America. In 1910, Alice Guy Blache formed her own studio, Solax, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, until 1920. She would never make a movie from then on.
The Cabbage Fairy (1896)
Her first film. More than cabbages grow in this garden.
Faust and Mephistopheles (1903)
Most filmmakers for the period found Faust a usable subject for film. Alice was no different.
Another member of the Pathe team, Zecca worked a lot with de Chomon, as well as directing his own projects. Later, he would be put in charge of Melies films when Star Films became property of Pathe. He would continue to work behind the scenes at Pathe, in both France and the USA.
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1902)
One of the first times this fantasy was brought to the screen.
The Policeman’s Little Run (1907)
Granted, this is not a horror film. It is a comic romp, as the police chase a dog through the streets of Paris. But, it carries many fantasy elements that were initially used by both Melies and de Chomon, taking them to a higher level. One wonders after seeing this if Mack Sennett saw this and began to conceive The Keystone Kops.
These are but a few of the men and women who helped mold the early days of Cinema. There are more out there. The true horror here is that most died penniless and forgotten.
Melies sold some of his films to Pathe. Many others were destroyed to obtain the gold that was used in the process of filmmaking back then and used for the war effort (WWI). Still others were destroyed by Melies himself due to legal problems. He did run a small toy and repair shop in a large train station, as was shown in the movie “Hugo.” Many did think him dead. The Surrealist Movement in Art helped to bring him back to receive the acclaim he deserved.
Segundo de Chomon died in poverty, no longer needed for film. Five years after his death, his remains were removed from his grave. No one knows where he is buried to this day.
There is little about the end of Ferdinand Zecca. He seemed more successful than the rest.
Alice Guy Blache, after her divorce, which closed Solax, went back to France. No one was interested in her work anymore. She spent her time writing children’s books and lecturing. Finally, she settled back in America with her daughter. She is buried in Maryrest Cemetery in Mahwah, New Jersey. Her name, however, is being spoken more and more.
Early cinema can be found in great abundance on YouTube, remembering that all movies made before 1922 are Public Domain. Although Wikipedia is a great source of information for these and others, the best source is Who’s Who in Victorian Cinema. This site covers the entire world cinema of the period and is frequently updated.