The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Mad Men
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Gaumont Treasures
Last Year at
St. Elmos Fire
ASC Close-Up
Gaumont Treasures (1897-1913)
1.33:1
Kino International, $79.95



In the years prior to World War I, Paris-based Gaumont emerged as one of the preeminent production companies in the world. The company’s roots were in photographic-equipment manufacturing, and founder Léon Gaumont only ventured into filmmaking in order to supply purchasers of his combination camera and projector with films to screen. Uninterested in crafting the stories himself, Gaumont placed his secretary, Alice Guy, in charge of the filmmaking operations. Kino International’s three-DVD boxed set Gaumont Treasures offers a primer on Guy’s pioneering work, as well as that of her two immediate successors, Louis Feuillade and Léonce Perret.
    
Between 1896 and 1907, Guy directed somewhere between 200 and 400 films, 64 of which find a home on this set’s first DVD. The selection cuts a wide swath through Guy’s work, showcasing everything from static shots lasting only a minute in The Fisherman at the Stream (1897) through the director’s epic The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (1906, photographed by Guy’s longtime cinematographer, Anatole Thiberville). The selection demonstrates a growing mastery of camera, lighting and editing techniques and incorporates huge set pieces and hundreds of extras.
   
Guy’s work in particular underscores the nascent cinema’s growing pains, and modern eyes can see almost a blog-like sensibility in her work, much of which presented quick ideas in a raw, unedited form for public consumption. Nevertheless, she was clearly an innovator with a deep interest in pursuing cinema’s full potential. She experimented with “trick films” (At the Hypnotist’s and Disappearing Act, both 1898); her location work around Paris branched into early travelogues (Spain, 1905), and she created a number of “synch sound” phonoscènes as early as 1905. (The phonoscène process actually involved lip-synching to a pre-recorded wax cylinder. The included Alice Guy Films a “Phonoscène” from 1905 shows her starting the phonograph to which her actors would synch their performances.)
   
In 1907, Guy left Gaumont’s Paris studio, bound for the United States with her husband and fellow filmmaker, Herbert Blaché. Before leaving, however, she tapped Feuillade to succeed her as the studio’s artistic director; Feuillade had joined Gaumont in 1905 as a writer but quickly began directing, and his early films show a great debt to Guy’s “house style” (The Colonel’s Account, 1907; A Very Fine Lady, 1908). As artistic director, he soon wrote a manifesto declaring the birth of le film esthétique, declaring the cinema more visually dynamic than the theater and promising to prove it by way of historical reenactments (The Roman Orgy, 1911; The Agony of Byzance, 1913), fantasies (Spring, 1909; The Fairy of the Surf, 1909) and tragedies (Custody of the Child, 1909; The Defect, 1911).
   
The cinema was rapidly evolving, and the 13 Feuillade-directed films presented on Gaumont Treasures’ second disc demonstrate an increasing deftness in terms of editing, camera movement and the use of intertitles, all in service of the director’s increasingly complex plots. Feuillade’s own evolution as a filmmaker prompted him to create films under the banner “Life as It Is,” in which he eschewed fantasy in an attempt to present “real” life on the screen. Nevertheless, even as his camera adopted an objective stance, Feuillade’s subject matter betrayed a penchant for the bizarre that would later make his serials (such as Fantômas, Judex and Les Vampires) favorites of the surrealists. In The Trust (1911), one of the “Life as It Is” films, a scientist tricks a group of masked businessmen in a secret hideout by writing his formula for synthetic rubber in disappearing ink.
   
During his tenure at Gaumont, Feuillade directed between 600 and 800 films, and he also brought Perret into the company fold. First working as an actor, Perret soon began writing and directing his own scenarios in which he demonstrated an acute interest in social realism; this is clearly evident in his masterfully crafted, 124-minute The Child of Paris (1913), one of two features by the director presented on the third disc. While Feuillade’s camera observed action from a distance, Perret thrust his camera into The Child of Paris’ drama, and, working with cinematographer Georges Specht, the filmmaker infused his rollercoaster story with an array of camera angles and movements as well as a nuanced use of light with a film stock that was still notoriously slow and lacking in dynamic range.
   
Perret and Specht also collaborated on the 43-minute The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador (1912), the third disc’s second feature, which incorporates the filmmaking process into its plot. Again, the technique on display shows a great maturity, and it is no wonder when Feuillade left Gaumont to join France’s war effort later in the decade, he left Perret in charge as the studio’s artistic director. In total, it is estimated Perret directed some 250 films, and after the end of World War I, when his Gaumont contract expired, he left the studio for the U.S.
   
Given the age of the source material and the varied places from which it had to be pulled, there are numerous instances of dirt, scratches, missing frames and jittery registration throughout the three discs. Guy’s work is in the worst shape although the flaws are never so egregious as to completely obfuscate the action (save for a brief moment in each of The Glue and A Four-Year-Old-Hero, both from 1907). On a purely positive note, the original hand coloring has been preserved in many instances, and the painted images maintain a magical allure to this day.
   
Hand coloring gave way to color tinting of entire scenes in Feuillade’s work, which appears in much better condition than that of Guy. In comparing the discs, however, Perret’s work is almost shockingly well preserved, both films having been restored in the 1990s by Pierre Philippe with the assistance of Béatrice Valbin. (Philippe is also credited as curator of this DVD collection.)
   
The only disappointment from this set is a near absence of special features. Feuillade and Perret each have a short documentary summarizing their years at Gaumont, and while both are illuminating, they mostly leave the viewer curious as to why a broader sampling of Perret’s films was not included. (One also wonders why Guy did not receive this documentary treatment.) The set might also have benefitted from a selection of essays offering a fuller understanding of the historical context, as well as these filmmakers’ lasting significance to the cinema. Additionally, notes on Philippe’s curatorial process and details regarding the film elements used and how they were transferred for this collection would have been welcomed.
   
Regardless, Kino has done an incredible service with this collection, and it is well worth its price tag. Gaumont Treasures is essential viewing. It also whets the whistle for more work from all three filmmakers; it is to be hoped Kino will soon oblige.
 

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