"Cruel and Unusual Comedy"...on the air on NPR

Elif Rongen-Kaynakci and Steve Massa were guests on the Leonard Lopate Radio Program on March 16, 2012.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

EYE Institute Program 2: "Science Fiction"

Program 2: "Science Fiction"
Sat, Nov. 17, 5:00 (Introduced by Elif Rongen-Kaynakci); Thu, Mar. 22, 1:30.
film notes © 2012 by Steve Massa.

Onsime horlogmaker (1912) France. Gaumont. Dir: Jean Durand. Cast: Ernest Bourbon, Gaston Modot, Paul Bertho. (7 min)
In an effort to secure a promised inheritance, Onesime invents a time machine that speeds up activity on earth, hyper-animates men and machines, and telescopes the human life-cycle.

This is probably the best known film of this series, thanks to its memorable time-tripping elements. Star Ernest Bourbon had created the Onesime character in the music halls, so it was already well-developed when he brought it to films. His outfit of the jacket, gray bowler, white spats and gloves, gave an air of would-be sophistication to this inept bungler. The Onesime films were definitely a strong influence on the young Rene Clair, which can be plainly seen in his early films such as At 3:25 (a.k.a. The Crazy Ray) and The Imaginary Voyage (both 1925).

La police de l’an 2000 (1910) France. Gaumont. Cast: Eugene Breon, Clement Mige, Marcel Perez (Fabre). (6 ½ min)
From a futuristic airship, the French police stop crime, arrest criminals and catch dogs without touching the ground.

In 1910 director Jean Durand put together a comedy ensemble at Gaumont that was known as “Les Pouics” (which translates as “bedbugs”). Performers such as Ernest Bourbon, Clement Mige, and Gaston Modot all shared a common background of circuses and music hall, and had the knockabout skills necessary to crank out a regular assembly-line schedule of one-reel comedies. Gaston Modot is a particularly over-looked performer who had an incredibly long career, and whose later work includes masterpieces by Luis Bunuel and Jean Renoir such as L’age d’or (1930) and Grand Illusion (1937). La police de l’an 2000 is at the beginning of the group coming together and as futuristic police it makes a nice comparison with their American descendants the Keystone Cops. It also looks like Marcel Perez, who had been appearing in French comedies since 1900, may have been an early member of Les Pouics as he appears here as the apprehended safecracker. Around this time he embarked on his popular Robinet series for Ambrosio in Italy.

Ein neuer erwerbszweig (a.k.a Een niewe werkkring) (1912) Germany. Messters Projection Gmbh. Cast: Curt Bois. (8 min)
A love doctor successfully produces men on order for needy women, until his system for delivering them – through the mail as puppets in canisters – goes awry.

Although French and Italian comedies dominated cinemas at the time, and today get the lion’s share of film scholarship, slapstick shorts were being made everywhere. Popular clowns in Germany included Rudi Bach as “Purzel” and stage clown Karl Valentine, while England had Fred Evans as “Pimple.” This German short doesn’t feature an established comic hero, but instead is part of the rich tradition of the “trick films.” The early “trick films” of masters such as George Melies and Segundo de Chomon were full of grotesque and gruesome imagery, but essentially comic, and the tradition continued and reached its apex in the late 1920s shorts of Charley Bowers.

Een modern broedmachine (a.k.a. Auch faulhiet kann von nutzsein) (1912?) Germany. Deutsche Mutoscope und Bioscope Gmbh. (6 min)
In a twist on the “Baby Incubator” phenomenon of the age, a fall into the slop pit gives a heavyweight farmer the power to incubate chicken eggs on his belly, much to the delight and advantage of his neighbors.

The Berlin-based Deutsche Mutoskop und Biograph GmbH was founded by Curt Hanzer in 1898. At first they mostly turned out non-fiction actualities, but soon moved to making comedies and dramas. By 1904 they had built a new large studio and produced a longer film – the nine minute Der Raubmord am Spandauer Schiffahrtskanal bei Berlin (Robbery and Murder on the Spabau Ship Canal Near Berlin), which was modeled on the American western The Great Train Robbery (1903). The company produced at a steady pace until hit badly by the economic downturn caused by the 1st World War, and eventually closed its doors in 1923.

Bobby als aviatiker (1911) Germany. Messters Projection Gmbh. (4 min)
High on the new fad for flying, a reckless enthusiast constructs an airplane from home furnishings and sails out the window, sending country folk into spasms and splintering himself into a pile of body parts.

Messter Projection Gmbh was founded by Oskar Messter, one of the great pioneers and inventors of the early cinema. Taking over a family business that produced scientific equipment as well as effects for stage and variety artists, in 1896 Messter began building and selling film equipment, inventing the “Maltese Cross” shutter device that is still used in projectors today. Besides the technical advances, he also produced, exhibited and distributed films, and built one of the first indoor studios. Producing all kinds of films – comedies, thrillers, historical epics, and serials – he also experimented with sound films (“Tonbilder”) in 1903 which used a synchronized gramophone. In the Teens he continued to expand his empire, but sold his interests to UFA in 1918. Never really retiring, Messter continued inventing and even co-founded Tobis sound film company in 1928, before his death in 1943.

Amour et Science (1911) France. Éclair. Dir: Gaston Leprieur. Cast: Yvette Andreyor, Gabriel Signoret, Renee Sylvaire, Emile Dehelly. (15 min)
A work-obssessed inventor uses a video-telephone to spy on his girlfriend who in turn uses film to teach him a lesson.

La Societe francaise des films et cinematographies Éclair, or just plain Éclair, was founded in 1907 by two Paris lawyers to compete with the powerhouses Pathe and Gaumont. Their product was one-reelers, with comedy series such as “Willy” and “Gontran” (a bourgeois character a bit too similar to Max Linder), in addition to their “Nick Carter” detective thrillers and “Rifle Bill” westerns. 1911 saw an expansion, which resulted in multiple reel films such as the “Zigomar” crime serials. They also acquired a number of proven screen clowns from other companies – Sarah Duhamel from Comica for “Petronille,” Paul Bertho from Lux to do “Gavroche”, and Lucien Bataille from Gaumont as “Casimir.” Besides supplementing the release schedule with scientific and educational shorts, Éclair opened an American production arm in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Sadly, the outbreak of World War I in 1914 forced the company to drastically curtail its activities, and by 1918 the studio had fragmented into separate small production companies.

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