FILMIN’ ROUND THE WORLD: FRANCE (1890’s – 1910’s)
As well as critiquing films with a perspective that only SMReviews can offer, I am also fascinated by the rich history of film. As someone who lives and breathes film, I am also someone who has a huge respect for history. I live in the UK and in my younger life I would watch either Hollywood blockbusters or mainstream British films, it was rare that I would see something that wasn’t from either of those two places. There are 195 countries in the world today and possibly two-thirds have an active film industry which got me intrigued about how this came to be.
This series aims to answer my questions and to spread the importance of film history to you, the reader. I’ll be taking you on a journey around the world as we look at the history of film from countries on every continent from different time periods.
This is Filmin’ Round the World, and today we are going back to where it all began. Vive la France.
It began with the invention of the cinematograph.
The term cinematograph in Greek means “writing in movement”, coined by the French inventor Léon Bouly. The device itself was a work of genius and would inevitably make Thomas Edison’s invention the Kinetograph redundant. The cinematograph could not only shoot film but also project the images onto a screen so the masses could enjoy the wonders of a moving image, it weighed only 16lbs so it could be transported easily. It also didn’t rely on the power of electricity, all it needed was a few gears and a hand crank.
Bouly was well ahead of his time, but there was a problem. Bouly was not a wealthy man and was unable to keep up payments for the patent he had created for his soon to be revolutionary invention. This led to Bouly having to sell the rights to a pair of brothers who would become the very first filmmakers in history, Auguste and Louis Lumière.
On 13th February 1895, the Lumière brothers patented their own version of Bouly’s cinematograph, essentially it was the same as the original cinematograph but was improved by implementing film perforations to make the film run smoother through the camera and projector. A month later the Lumière brothers decided that they would put their new patented tool to use, this saw the birth of the first ever footage recorded using the device and more importantly, the very first film. “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon” translated to “Workers leaving the Lumière factory” showed exactly that, 46 seconds of workers leaving a factory. Does exactly what it says on the tin, doesn’t it?
Surprisingly, all Lumière films would follow exactly that method of filming. Everyday life would be captured and wouldn’t be shown for public viewing until later that year but the Lumière brothers had already made a big impression. On 22nd March 1895, three days after shooting the workers leaving the factory, the Lumière brothers had shown their creation at a secret screening at the Society for the Development of the National Industry in front of 200 people which included French pioneer Léon Gaumont who would later become a key figure in the film world. It wasn’t until December 28th of the same year that the first public screening at Le Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris, by that time the Lumière’s had been very busy making nine more films. But it wasn’t until the year later 1896 in January when the moving image would become a popular culture icon with the release of “L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat” translated to “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station”.
The Lumière’s weren’t happy, they saw moving pictures as a novelty act that would eventually vanish into a metaphorical non-existence, being quoted “The cinema is an invention without any future”. They had become disinterested in film and stopped all their tours and screenings, however, the world didn’t share their views. Theaters built for screening films were popping up everywhere from the UK to America. Everyone wanted this new, exciting technology. In France, the film production company Pathé Frères was established and is still in business today under the name Pathé, but one individual was about to take film to a completely new level, under the noses of the world he had been experimenting with film and had developed the first early techniques of editing, special effects and stop motion.
At the very first public screening of the Lumière brothers work, amongst the crowd was Georges Méliès whom before becoming a filmmaker made his living as a stage magician. It was at this screening that Méliès offered to buy the Lumière’s cinematograph for 10,000 francs, but they refused. Méliès didn’t stop there, he was desperate to become part of this new technology and eventually found what he was looking for after purchasing an animatograph from an English pioneer Robert W. Paul. After some modifications made by Méliès himself, transforming it into a film camera as well as many other essential purchases, Méliès shot his first film “Dix Chapeaux en 60 secondes” translated to “Conjurer Making Ten Hats in Sixty Seconds”.
During his film career, Méliès shot over 500 films under the production company Star Film Company, his big break came in 1902 when he created what some would argue the most innovative film of all time, “La Voyage dans la Lune” translated to “A Trip to the Moon”. This film is no doubt cemented into the very pages of cinema’s history, it also marked the revolutionary turn of how a film could be used to tell stories beyond our imagination. A Trip to the Moon was praised around the world for its use of special effects and interestingly became a much-pirated film with production companies around the world producing illegal copies of the film and making lots of money from them, even Thomas Edison was in on it.
Méliès was very much an underground type of filmmaker, the film world in France was still being led by Pathé Frères and the Gaumont Film Company, both were battling it out to be the leading distributor of film which led to a massive boom in the construction of cinema theatres, film was very much becoming an economic contender in the world of entertainment. By the late 1900’s, Pathé Frères was in the lead in terms of production and distribution not just in France, but in the world. The company was spreading globally bringing the construction of new cinema theaters wherever they went. It was estimated that over half of all films produced globally used Pathé equipment.
Léon Gaumont was also having major success as he operated the biggest film studio in the world, Cité Elgé Studios at La Villette in Seine. Not only that, Gaumont Film Company was also responsible for the widely considered first female director Alice Guy-Blanché. Alice was also an incredible innovator, she experimented with the cinematograph by attempting to synchronize it with the gramophone which led to the creation of what we would call music videos. Her work was noticed and she became the Head of Production at the Gaumont Film Company until 1906.
It looked as though the future of film was going in the right direction. France was benefiting from film both culturally and economically, but all good things must come to a stop and in 1914 cinema in France had done just that. War had arrived.
The 1910’s weren’t very kind to France, much like the rest of Europe, countries were too occupied by the war effort to even think about new films. Even before the war came about, there were early signs that cinema in France was not what it used to be. George Méliès who at the time was contracted to Pathé had stopped making films due to bankruptcy which could be attributed to the financial mistakes caused by his brother Gaston Méliès. It wasn’t until war broke out that George Méliès quit film altogether.
It was during the period of war that France saw a massive decrease in the amount of film stock being produced, this led to the French government placing a practical embargo on commercial filmmaking, another one of their motions to concentrate all efforts on the war. These sanctions were an open door to other countries taking over as the leaders of film output, and across the sea, the United States was doing just that.
Across the pond, Thomas Edison was the main benefactor of cinema in the US, his patents on filmmaking, in general, made him even richer than he already was. It was because of these patents that many filmmakers moved away from New York and headed for Los Angeles in the west coast creating the first film studio in Hollywood. Because US films were cheap to sell, they entered the European film market and began to spread like wildfire. Before long, the number of foreign films in France massively outnumbered the number of French films being produced.
However, the line of work for filmmakers hadn’t been halted and in 1915 Pathé studios convinced the French military that filming the war itself would boost morale and patriotism amongst the soldiers and people of France. Therefore, the Service Photographique et Cinématographique des armées (Photographic and Cinematographic Service of Armies) was established. The cameramen serving in this division had the job of documenting battles and compiling a newsreel that would be broadcast all over France.
This provided a great opportunity for filmmakers to stay active and serve their country as a bonus, but the division ultimately amounted to nothing and left people very disappointed. Because the cameras were still too bulky and would be disastrously expensive if any were to break, the filmmaker could only capture footage behind the front line, when the public saw the footage it was vastly disappointing as they felt they hadn’t seen the whole picture of the battles. Filmmakers at the time complained about the military’s strict restrictions when American filmmakers like D.W Griffiths were being given permission to shoot anywhere on the front line. The footage shot by Griffiths can be seen in his film Hearts of the World.
After the war had ended the damage had already been done, people were just not interested in films anymore after seeing the horrors of what war could bring. It looked as though cinema in France was done for and that the Lumière brothers prediction of a film being a novelty act was coming true, at least that was the case in France. It would take a miracle for French Cinema to be rescued.
Thank you for reading what I hope to be the beginning of a successful blog series. I leave you now with a hint to when and where we will travel to next:
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