Retour de Flamme, 1900-1928

Saved from the Flames

A special presentation by film collector Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films
 
Musical Accompaniment Serge Bromberg on grand piano
 
Essay by Robert Byrne
 
Turn-of-the-century Paris was the amusement capital of Europe, if not the world. All manner of spectacle and diversion commanded the attention of Parisian society, from diorama and panorama displays and wax museum tableaux to magic shows and public displays at the Paris Morgue. Commerce, too, became spectacle as improvements in plate glass and electric lighting allowed department stores to create vast displays for sidewalk gazing. Soaring over this wonderland was the most visible marvel of all, the Eiffel Tower, which opened to the public in 1889.
 
Just as the industrial revolution enabled mass production of consumer goods, technological advances prompted the production of mass entertainment. New developments in lithography and photography made illustrated books and newspapers cheap and accessible. Into this era was born the newest innovation in entertainment: the ability to project “animated photographs.” In the hands of a small group of innovative pioneers, this new technology would revolutionize mass communication, entertainment, and the performing arts.
 
On May 14, 1894, American inventor Thomas Edison presented his cinematic invention, the Kinetoscope, to a Paris audience. Among those in attendance were magician Georges Méliès and photographer Antoine Lumière. Méliès, who owned the Robert-Houdin Theatre where Edison presented his marvel, saw great potential for using the new invention in his magic act. Méliès’ theater was equipped with trap doors, pulleys, and mechanical devices designed for performing illusions. In time, Méliès would find inspiration in these mechanisms and create illusions beyond the limitations of physical possibility.
 
Situated on the upper floor of Melies’s theater was the photographic studio of Antoine Lumière. In 1883, Lumière established a manufacturing plant for producing photographic plates. His sons Auguste and Louis took over the business in 1893, only one year before Edison’s presentation. If Méliès saw the artistic possibilities for the new medium, the Lumières saw business potential in manufacturing cameras and raw film stock as well as in distributing their own finished films.
 
Less than two years after seeing Edison’s Kinetoscope, the Lumières presented the first motion picture exhibition to paying customers on December 28, 1895, at the Grand Café. The astonished audience of thirty-three, which again included Georges Méliès, viewed a program of twelve short films, each screening less than a minute. The subjects ranged from a street scene of workers leaving the Lumière factory (La Sortie des usines Lumière), to a comic scene depicting a gardener being sprayed with a garden hose (L’ Arroseur arrosé). Méliès later described the experience: “a horse pulling a cart started to walk towards us, followed by other vehicles, then passers-by — in short, all the hustle and bustle of a street. We sat there with our mouths open, without speaking, filled with amazement.”
 
When the Lumière brothers introduced cameras and film for sale, the final requisite for commercial cinema was in place. In March 1897 Méliès opened his new “glass house” studio designed exclusively for creating moving pictures, the first such studio in Europe. Over the next ten years Méliès made more than 500 films, and along with other early pioneers, experimented and established the techniques, technology, and language of film.
 
An astonishing variety of films were produced during this period. Actualités (non-narrative reality scenes), trick films, fantasies, short comic acts, dances, magic, Biblical, dramatic episodes, travel, and even “erotic” scenes could be found screening all over Paris. This “cinema of attractions”, so named by historian Tom Gunning, did not necessarily strive for narrative structure or characterization. Instead, the “attraction” consisted of figures, landscapes, tricks, or the wonders of motion picture technology itself. The actors conveyed physical action or stock theatrical stereotypes rather than actual characters with individual motivations.
 
By 1898 Méliès had mastered fantasy, magic, and trick films. Not only did he perform magic in front of the camera, he also performed magic in the editing room where he discovered how to create effects that were both spectacular and told a story, as in A Trip to the Moon (1902). His innovations include fade-in, fade-out, cross-fade, double exposure, stop action, and dissolve. As Méliès’s enterprise grew, other film pioneers developed around him, such as Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomón, hired by Méliès as his distributor in Barcelona with responsibility for Spain and Latin America. After a stint in the Spanish army, Chomón moved to Paris in 1897 where he and his wife worked for Méliès, hand coloring films frame by frame. In 1901 Chomón left Méliès to work for the fledgling Pathé Laboratories, where he continued to specialize in adding color to film.
 
Almost unknown today, Chomón became an important innovator and pioneered many film techniques, such as single-frame camera tricks, optical dissolves, and complicated traveling shots. In 1902, he was the first to combine live action with miniatures in the short Choque des Trenes. Chomón used stop motion to make inanimate objects “come alive” on screen, and developed a technique with mattes to bring miniature human figures into the same frame with life-sized figures. He also developed a traveling shot, first used in a scene for La Vie et la Passion de Notre Seigneur Jesus Christ (1907), directed by Ferdinand Zecca. He later perfected the technique, now called a “dolly shot,” while filming Cabiria for Italian director Giovanni Pastrone in 1914.
 
Between 1904 and 1907, the Pathé studio began its surge to industry dominance. Regular film programs became the norm as permanent venues were established for their presentation. The transition to narrative cinema was underway with more complex plots, fully realized characters, and longer running times. Individual actors were increasingly identified in film credits and soon developed their own fan bases, which were targeted by studio marketing. Filmed spectacle itself was no longer enough, movie stars were what audiences wanted to see, and the “cinema of attractions” gave way to longer and more developed films.
 
As the public appetite for trick films declined, so did Méliès’s popularity. He produced his final film in 1913 and the closing of the theaters with the onset of World War I prompted his financial ruin. He closed his Theatre Robert-Houdin in 1915, though reopened it briefly after the war before giving his final performance there in 1920. It was demolished three years later.
 
In contrast to Méliès, Segundo de Chomón’s artistic development and influence increased throughout the silent era. He worked in Italy, France, Spain, and the U.S., as well as with seminal directors such as Ferdinand Zecca, Giovanni Pastrone, and Abel Gance. His film credits number in the hundreds, and his cinematography and special effects made important contributions to some of the era’s most influential films, including Maciste all’inferno (1925), Cabiria (1914), and Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927).
Fascinated by the combination of color on film since his days of hand coloring film for Méliès, Chomón continued to innovate until the end of his life. He died in Paris in 1929 shortly after returning from Morocco where he had been shooting experimental color footage.
 
Georges Méliès died in 1938, at the age of seventy-two. The man that helped define an art form, whom Charles Chaplin called “the alchemist of light,” and whom D.W. Griffith praised saying “I owe him everything,&rdquo, had spent his final years selling toys and candy from a kiosk in the Gare Montparnasse.