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Studio: Kino International
Year: 1897-1913
Cast: Renée Carl, Luitz-Morat, Albert Reusy, Jean Ayme, Fernand Hermann, René Navarre, Paul Manson, Suzanne Grandais, Léonce Perret, Maurice Lagrenée, Louis Leubas, Émile Keppens, Suzanne Privat, Marc Gérard
Director: Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, Léonce Perret
Release Date: October 27, 2009, 8:59 pm
Rating: Not Rated for (some violence, kidnapping, adult themes)
Run Time: 10h:03m:09s

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 Although the Gaumont studio is not a household word in America, it was at the very forefront of motion pictures in the early years. This amazing set from Kino brings to home video over 100 seldom-seen movies from the dawn of cinema by three of the leading creators at Gaumont. One DVD each is devoted to the directors Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade and the little-remembered L╚once Perret, giving the viewer a fascinating cross-section of these early silents, with some amazing treasuresˇwould you believe color and sound movies in 1905?

Movie Grade: A-

DVD Grade: A-

The first disc features one of the first women involved in moviemaking, Alice Guy (who would later be known as Alice Guy-Blaché after her 1907 marriage), who served as Gaumont's head of production for ten years and directed, produced or wrote over 700 films. A pioneer of technique and dramatization, her work is shockingly advanced when compared to the equivalents in America. This DVD covers the period 1897 to 1907, and the range over that decade is amazing. The first years include the typical and fairly boring actualities, slices of life, Méliès-style trick films and single-gag comedies. But it doesn't take long for her to take on more complex narratives, and by 1905 she is producing poignant little melodramas such as The Game-Keeper's Son, knockabout slapstick like The Race for the Sausage, and absurd silliness like The Glue, which anticipates any number of Three Stooges shorts.

The centerpiece is a 33-minute production of The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (1906). It's an ambitious demi-feature, with fairly elaborate staging. It is a bit creaky due to the use of tableaux style, with a camera that never moves and presents everything in a long shot. It's hard to get any immediacy as a result, but Guy is definitely striving for a sense of epic scale. Guy was no stranger to technique: in Madame's Cravings (also 1906) she interjects some close-ups for comic effect, which also breaks up the monotony of the stationary camera and starts to move her a significant distance toward modern filmmaking technique (many years before Americans would adopt that technique).

There are also some startling technical innovations present here. The use of hand coloring is not exactly novel, but the colors are particularly brilliant in the prints presented here. Of more note are a series of "Photoscènes," musical performances with synchronized sound, as early as 1905. The sound is reasonably good even 100 years later (though one misses subtitling to translate the French lyrics). For some reason, La Esmeralda (1905), the first adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and one of the more notable titles in Guy's filmography, is not included here, though Faust and Mephistopheles (1903), one of the first film versions of that legend is present.

When Guy left Gaumont's French office for America, she hand-picked Louis Feuillade as her successor. Best known today for his serial thrillers such as Les Vampires and Judex, this second disc spotlights his less-familiar work in a wide variety of genres. There are some lyrical little fantasias with faeries, which quickly give way to Feuillade's version of realism, La Vie tell qu'elle est, or Life as It Is. While that rubric includes social commentary films about such topics as child custody, the most prominent of those pictures included here is The Defect (1911), about Anna Moulin (Renée Carl), a unibrowed flower girl working in a dance hall (which apparently is some kind of euphemism for prostitution). Taken out of the dance hall by a philanthropic doctor, Anna becomes a highly esteemed nurse at his home for the aged and infirm, and is known as "The Saint." Everything comes crashing down when a spurned lover learns of her new life and reveals the old one in the newspapers, bringing disrepute down on her head. While this does show a more gritty view of life than the American films of the time, the examples here at least suffer from unreasonably optimistic finales.

Some of the suspense shenanigans of Feuillade's later serials are hinted at in shorts like The Trust (1911), featuring industrial espionage, kidnappings and invisible ink as well as Macguffins such as a formula for artificial rubber. The clearly cynical anticorporate attitude is one that would be unsurprising in the days of the muckrakers. The Obsession takes the topical news of the sinking of the Titanic, and places a supernatural twist to it. As a supplement, the disc offers a fragment of the Gaumont short, Chiromancy, which treats palm reading as if it were scientifically sound. At the other end of the spectrum from these dark pictures is a delightfully charming episode from one of the two sets of long-running children's comedies that Feuillade shot, Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant. It cannot fail to raise laughter, and the antics of the well-trained elephant are quite amazing and enjoyable.

Feuillade apparently also had a fondness for historical epic, and there are several examples present here. Roman Orgy is set during the reign of the mad emperor Heliogabalus in 218 AD, and prominently features the decadence and fashion of the time, as well as demonstrating the deadly results that may come from a botched pedicure. Several scenes feature actors in suspiciously close proximity to a number of lions. Even more spectacular is Agony of Byzance (1913), a 29m:34s three-reeler about one of the most notable events of world history, the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. It's surprisingly poignant, and there's an effective sense of dread amidst the hopelessness. The sets are occasionally striking, though there are moments of painted cheesiness as well. In this as well as the other pictures on the disc, one is struck by just how naturalistic most of the acting is; the histrionics favored by many American film producers, which seem ridiculous today, are simply not present here in any significant quantity. This second disc is rounded out by an 11-minute appreciation of Feuillade's versatility, Louis Feuillade: Master of Many Forms.

The third disc is devoted to the least known of the three creators, Léonce Perret, who starred in a series of over 100 comedy shorts early in the 20th century. It's also probably the most rewarding DVD in the set. The disc includes two features directed by Perret, and he also stars in the shorter of the two, The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador (1912). Suzanne de Lormel (Suzanne Grandais) is an orphan who will inherit great wealth when she reaches the age of 18; if she goes mad, enters a convent or dies, however, the fortune goes to her tutor and guardian, Fernand de Kéranic (Perret). Stymied in his attempts to marry Suzanne, who loves dashing Captain Jean d'Erquy, Fernand lures them out to the Rocks of Kador, attacks them and leaves them to die. This movie is notable for a scene in which a psychiatrist attempts to shake the catatonic Suzanne out of her stupor by filming a re-creation of the attack and showing it to her! It's novel and self-referential, and the brisk pacing keeps viewer interest.

The other feature, The Child of Paris (1913), running a whopping 2h:04m:03s, is regarded as Perret's masterwork, and it richly deserves that approbation; it's quite far ahead of anything else I've seen dating from that year in its technical accomplishment, storytelling, acting style and visual appeal. The melodrama centers on Marie-Laure de Valen (Suzanne Privat), the titular Child of Paris, who is sent to a boarding school after her mother has a neurasthenic collapse and her father is lost and apparently killed in Africa. Marie-Laure escapes from the boarding school and is found on the streets by Edmond Talmin (Louis Leubas), a double-crossing con man, who promptly sells her into slavery to an abusive and alcoholic cobbler (Marc Gérard). But the cobbler's apprentice, Bosco (Maurice Lagrenée) takes a fondness for Marie-Laure, and when Talmin kidnaps the child to extort money from the family, Bosco starts a cross-country journey of implacable determination to rescue her. It's a little slow-moving (not really traceable to the 16 fps projection speed, since movement appears normal), but Privat is an engaging little heroine. The plot boils down to a fairly standard race to the rescue, but it certainly gets there in creative fashion and in a manner that would not really be seen in American films until the 1920s. Perret pulls out all the stops here: there are dolly shots moving from room to room, use of backlighting, moody photography of the bereft father, and once again, quite naturalistic acting. Except for the lack of closeups, it seems almost like a modern picture. Clearly, Perret knew how the movies should work, and he demonstrates it skillfully here, in a large format. This third disc also includes a 17m:38s biography of Perret, amply illustrated with a mass of film clips that makes one desperately eager to see more from this forgotten genius of film.

The condition of the prints is generally very good indeed, especially considering their extreme age. A few spots suffer from brief nitrate decomposition, but on the whole the restored source prints are excellent. The two Perret films in particular are in excellent shape, with lots of fine detail and greyscale present. There is some mild PAL-NTSC ghosting present, but it's not noticeable for the most part unless you step through.

Mark Zimmer October 27, 2009, 8:59 pm