This chapter presents a history of French cinema through the people who worked in or for the new industry during the early silent period. Besides exploring the contribution of key individuals, it seeks to suggest ways of rethinking the relationship among them as well as between them and the topics addressed in subsequent chapters in the 1890–1920 period. The discussion follows the transformation of moving pictures into ‘cinema’. Organised chronologically and divided into eight sections, it focuses on those who made significant changes in the cinema as a cultural institution and/or in film-making as a practice, or did most to consolidate and stabilise it as an institution or practice at particular historical moments.
Prelude: Prior to 1894
Of the numerous strands of scientific, technological and cultural practice that intersected in the late nineteenth century to produce moving pictures, there were two in which the French especially excelled: the analysis of movement and the optical synthesis of movement. For the first, Étienne-Jules Marey was undoubtedly the crucial figure. A professor of physiology at the Collège de France in Paris, Marey originated a graphic method of recording the movements of humans, animals and objects. Initially, his research led him to develop electrical and mechanical devices to record physiological movement in and of the human body: e.g. blood circulation, heat changes, respiration, locomotion. After seeing Eadweard Muybridge’s serial photographs of moving figures, published in France (1878), and meeting the photographer in Paris in 1881, Marey turned to single-plate chronophotography as a much more precise method. His first device, a ‘photographic gun’, was modelled on an apparatus that astronomer Pierre-Jules-César Janssen had used to record a solar eclipse in 1874. Once Marey’s publicly funded centre, the Station Physiologique, opened in Paris in 1882, he constructed a number of single-plate cameras to advance his research. In 1888, Marey again improved his recording methods by designing a camera that substituted Eastman paper roll film for glass plates; the first series of photographs taken by this apparatus (a pigeon in flight, a hand opening and closing) were presented later that year to the Académie des Sciences. Within another year, he was using transparent celluloid negative film. During his career, Marey amassed thousands of glass plates and nearly 800 short chronophotographic films, many images from which were reproduced in his encyclopaedic work, Le Mouvement (1894).
Marey was committed to analytical research, so it was left to others to work on the optical synthesis of movement. In France, the crucial figure was Émile Reynaud. Trained in industrial and optical design, Reynaud assisted Abbé Moigno’s illustrated lectures on popular science in Paris. This magic lantern work led him to tinker with improving the Zoëtrope and Phénakistoscope, popular toys of synthesised motion. Patenting his Praxinoscope in 1877, he decided to market a toy Praxinoscope Theatre, in which a band of images reflected by a spinning mirror was viewed through a proscenium arch. His next step was to develop a projecting Praxinoscope, and in 1888 he patented a Théâtre Optique, using a long band of coloured images, painted on gelatine squares linked by leather straps and metal strips, with holes to engage pins on a cranked revolving drum (analogous to a bicycle chain). In 1892, Reynaud contacted Gabriel Thomas, director of the Musée Grévin in Paris, who had already explored, unsuccessfully, an option to project Marey’s motion studies as visual spectacle. Thomas contracted with Reynaud to present five half-hour shows a day (twelve on Sundays and holidays) in the museum’s Cabinet Fantastique, with himself narrating the stories of his first three bands – Pauvre Pierrot, Clown et ses chiens and Un bon bock – accompanied by a piano player and singer. The shows quickly became popular, and over the next eight years (as he created at least one new set of images a year), Reynaud gave 12,800 performances to half a million museum visitors. By 1894, it was clear that the Parisian public seeking entertainment would pay to view lengthy bands of sequential moving images (not yet fixed on celluloid) projected mechanically, and repeatedly, on a large luminous screen.
In 1894, the strands of scientific, technological and cultural practice began to come together. One of Marey’s collaborators, Georges Demenÿ, founder of a ‘rational gymnastics’, was perhaps the first to link the recording and projecting of moving images. In 1892, at the International Exhibition of Photography in Paris, Demenÿ exhibited his ‘phonoscope’, an apparatus for viewing some of the chronophotograph series he had made at the Station Physiologique: e.g. himself speaking the phrase ‘Je vous aime’. Against Marey’s wishes, he set up a company to promote the phonoscope, especially for amateurs and families to present ‘animated portraits’. He also developed a camera for taking moving images, using 60mm celluloid film and an intermittent device, a roller (mounted on a rotating gear) that advanced just enough film to achieve precise exposures. After Marey fired him in 1894, Demenÿ opened his own laboratory in Paris, patented his improved camera as the Chronophotographe and began filming the first of a hundred short subjects: e.g. street scenes, boxers, dancers, passing trains, a baby’s first steps. His attempts to market both apparatuses, however, through George William de Bedts (Paris agent for European Blair, suppliers of celluloid film) and Léon Gaumont, proved unsuccessful. Underfinanced and lacking a good business sense, Demenÿ had to cede all his patents to Gaumont in 1896, after which he resumed his research on physical education and, in 1902, was appointed Professor of Applied Physiology at Joinville. Yet his designs (recently discovered) for a combined camera-projector and a large projector (with a claw intermittent movement) intended for publicly exhibiting moving pictures would soon be realised by others, including De Bedts and, most significantly, the Lumière brothers.
In the early 1890s, the Lyons family firm of Lumière was one of Europe’s most important suppliers of photographic film and supplies. In late 1894, Louis Lumière discussed Demenÿ’s designs on a visit to the latter’s new laboratory in Paris; about the same time, he and Auguste Lumière took note of Edison’s popular Kinetoscopes (which used 35mm film), perhaps in the concession that Michel and Eugène Werner had opened near the Musée Grévin. This conjunction spurred the brothers to design their own apparatus, an elegant, lightweight, sophisticated machine that not only recorded and projected but also printed moving images on 35mm film. Patented in February 1895, the Cinématographe (their father Antoine suggested the name ‘Domitor’) was demonstrated at professional meetings in France and Belgium throughout the year, and Jules Carpentier, a maker of scientific instruments in Paris, was engaged to manufacture twenty-five machines. Anxious to promote the Cinématographe, Antoine Lumière organised afternoon and evening showings in the Grand Café’s Salon Indien, on the Paris Boulevard des Italiens, beginning 28 December 1895. That day, photographer Clément-Maurice sold tickets and Charles Moisson (an engineer who constructed the first model) ran the Cinématographe, showing films such as Sortie d’usine, Arroseur et arrosé, and Repas de bébé. So successful was the show that Clément-Maurice continued to give performances for several months thereafter, and Carpentier was ordered to make 200 more machines. Instead of selling their apparatus – as De Bedts did his patented Kinétographe in early 1896 – the Lumières leased franchises in France, its colonies and elsewhere to agents who would pay a daily fee for the services of an operator and machine. Consequently, the company trained dozens of operators – among them Félix Mesguich, Alexandre Promio and Gabriel Veyre – to conduct pioneering exhibitions of the portable Cinéma-tographe around the world, and ship the results of their film-making back to Lyons for inclusion in a growing catalogue of short films. Their apparent aim was to use the machine as a means to expand the company’s primary business: the manufacture and sale of photographic film.
Entertainers and Entrepreneurs: 1896–1903
One witness to that first Grand Café show was Georges Méliès, owner-manager of the Robert-Houdin Théâtre in Paris, where he directed his own popular magic acts and féeries. Méliès immediately saw the Cinématographe as a new technology of amusement that could augment his own performances. Within months, he had purchased a projector from Robert Paul in England (since Lumière would not sell him one), used its design to construct his own camera, begun to shoot short subjects in imitation of Lumière, and projected them as an added attraction in his theatre. In the spring of 1897, sensing the public’s interest in this new spectacle, he erected a glass house studio on family property in Montreuil in order to make ‘transformation views’; the following autumn, the Robert-Houdin was regularly showing moving pictures that now bore his trademark, Star-Film. Méliès also began selling his trick films for exhibition at the music halls and cafés-concerts in Paris as well as at the annual or semi-annual fairs in the provinces, pre-empting such competitors as the inventor-entrepreneurs, Georges Mendel and A.-F. Parnaland. Soon he was able to produce moving picture adaptations of his and others’ féeries that ran ten to fifteen minutes, some of which, like Cendrillon (1899), were sold in hand-coloured prints as far away as the USA and featured as headline vaudeville acts. Unlike the Lumières and others, Méliès remained above all an entertainer and owner of a small family business; that did not change even after the worldwide success of Le Voyage dans la lune (1902). The one thing he did, in order to counteract others from duping his popular films (no copyright protection existed), was hire sales agents in England, Germany and Spain and, in 1903, send his brother Gaston to open a Star-Film office in New York. The following year, Méliès produced a total of forty-five films (many of them lengthy féeries), in what turned out to be the apogee of his career.
Workers outside the Lumière factory in Lyons
Although he did not witness the Grand Café shows, Léon Gaumont did have an indirect connection to the Lumières. He had served briefly as a ledger clerk for Carpentier in 1881, before working his way up to be manager of a reputable Paris photographic supply firm – its clients included psychologist Jean Charcot, politician René Waldeck-Rousseau and writer Émile Zola. In 1895, with the backing of entrepreneurs such as Gustave Eiffel, the ambitious Gaumont seized an opportunity to buy the company (after the previous owners quarrelled) and set out to manufacture and market optical and photographic equipment on a larger scale. Acquiring Demenÿ’s patents, Gaumont had his chief engineer, Léopold Decaux, design an improved ‘Chronographe’ that used 35mm film, and gave his young office manager, the equally ambitious Alice Guy, whose family fortune had been lost in Chile when she was sixteen, the task of producing short films for its promotion. So successful were Guy’s actualités, comic films (often drawn from postcards), dance films and other short fictional subjects such as La Concierge (1899), that Gaumont began to market the films in France and then hired a sales agent for England. Gaumont’s personal interest remained focused on technological developments, and not only in cameras and projectors – one of which won a top award at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle – but in colour cinematography and image–sound synchrony. In 1902, he presented his own speaking image to the French Photographic Society by synchronising a ‘Chrono’ projector with a phonographic cylinder. This ‘Chronophone’ system he then promoted through performances at the Musée Grévin and other Paris venues, using phonoscènes that Guy produced of celebrated Paris music-hall performers.
Although he had no connection with the Lumières at all, Charles Pathé did share their interest in Edison’s Kinetoscope. The son of Alsatian butchers, and a Protestant (in a largely Catholic country) with an unusually keen desire to gain wealth, Pathé had initially made money exhibiting and selling Edison phonographs at the fairs near Paris, which led him and his brother Émile to open a supply shop in Vincennes. When the Kinetoscope appeared in 1895, Charles bought several made by Robert Paul in London and installed them at the same fairs. Realising the need for a ready supply of films, he joined with Henri Joly, a former gymnastics instructor at Joinville (where Demenÿ had sometimes filmed) who had already designed his own version of the Kinetoscope, to construct a camera using intermittent movement and 35mm film. This partnership was brief, but Pathé retained rights to the camera and began to exploit the films it could produce at the fairs. In 1897, Claude Grivolas, the new owner of Pierre-Victor Continsouza and René Bünzli’s precision tool factory at Chatou, approached him with a financial offer to transform Pathé-Frères into a joint-stock company, in alliance with his own firm. The phonograph branch of the business, run by Émile, generated most of the company’s profit at first, while Charles supervised the work of Continsouza and Bünzli in perfecting marketable cameras, projectors and negative and positive filmstock. As work progressed, Charles realised the growing commercial value of exhibiting films and, in 1900, hired Ferdinand Zecca, a Paris café-concert writer of comic and dramatic monologues, to supervise the production of a wider range of films than was available from Méliès or Gaumont. Once Pathé-Frères films began to circulate throughout France and elsewhere, several met with great success, from Histoire d’un crime (1901) to Ali Baba (1902). By 1902, Charles was constructing a glass house studio and related laboratories in Vincennes and preparing to make his company’s films a major fairground attraction.
If only a few people led the development of apparatuses for recording and projecting moving pictures as well as the production of films in this early period, those involved in developing exhibition venues were more numerous and more dispersed. In Paris, for instance, at the Musée Grévin, Thomas convinced Reynaud to use celluloid for his bands of images by 1896 and then switched to showing Gaumont films, including phonoscènes. In managing major music halls such as the Olympia, Parisiana and Folies-Bergère, Émile and Vincent Isola (originally from Algeria) became regular clients for Méliès and Pathé films, as did Georges Froissart, who showed films at cafés-concerts, such as the Eldorado. The Lumières operated two small cinemas up until 1897, with Clément-Maurice managing one that continued at the Grand Café. As the most popular source of amusement for France’s largely rural population, the fairs were even more important than the urban venues because, much like weekly newspaper supplements, they disseminated news, fashions, and ‘scientific wonders’ throughout the provinces. Touring these fairs were a number of small family businesses with portable theatres (perhaps seating as many as 500 people) that offered entertainments, including, shortly after they became available, moving pictures. The families worked regional circuits, encamping in designated public spaces for several weeks: e.g. Pierre Unik to the west and north of Paris, Alexandre Camby to the east, Charles and Schelmo Katorza around Nantes. The Dulaar family, originally from Belgium, was one of the largest, with several brothers each managing a separate theatre in their circuit around Lyons. From his experience with the fairs around Paris, Pathé had come to know these businesses well, and he quickly turned that to an advantage, becoming their principal source of projectors and films.
Between 1903 and 1907, the cinema in France underwent a process of industrialisation, several years earlier than in any other country, including the USA. The Lumières played no role in that process, having limited their attention to the production of filmstock after 1900. Nor did Méliès, whose influence waned, even though some of his expensive féeries, such as Le Voyage à travers l’impossible (1904) and Le Raid Paris-Monte Carlo en deux heures (1905), had long runs in Paris music halls. Instead, that industrialisation, increasingly dependent on fiction films, was led by Pathé, followed at a distance by Gaumont, with the assistance of new business associates and employees.
Confirming his famous line, ‘I may not have invented the cinema, but I did industrialise it’ (Pathé 1970: 36), Charles Pathé augmented the cinema division of Pathé-Frères in...