"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 3: "Mass Destruction"

Program 3: "Mass Destruction"
Sat. Mar 17, 7:30 (Introduced by Elif Rongen-Kaynakci); Fri. Mar 23, 1:30. 
film notes © 2012 by Steve Massa.

Le bateau de leontine (1911) France. Comica. Dir: Romeo Bosetti. Cast: Sarah Duhamel. (5 min)
Left alone, a little girl determined to play with her father’s toy yacht floods an apartment building.

Comica was a subsidiary of Pathe, a unit located in Nice that was headed by the prolific Romeo Bosetti, which turned out Maurice Schwartz’s “Little Moritz” comedies (1910-1912) as well as the “Rosalies” that starred Sarah Duhamel (1911-1913) and “Bigorno” with Rene Lantini (1912-1914). Another Comica series was “Leontine” - built around a bratty and destructive moppet. Lasting from 1909 to 1912, the series encompassed 21 titles, but the identity of who played little Leontine is unknown today. Although forgotten she left her mark on film comedy, as well as on the skulls of some of her co-stars

Polycarpe commis d’architect (1913) France. Eclipse. Dir: Ernest Servaes. Cast: Edouard Pinto. (6 min)
Accident prone Polycarpe wrecks havoc on a construction site – a popular location for so many early film comedies.

This is the first of two films in this series that chronicle the misadventures of Polycarpe. Here we have the original incarnation of the character in the person of the little known Edouard Pinto. The series was written and directed for Eclipse by Ernest Servaes, and after a few shorts his brother Charles took over the role. More earnest as the character than the completely lunatic Charles Servaes, Pinto was still a source of destruction with his well-meaning but totally inept actions. Polycarpe commis d’architect is a definite blueprint for construction site American comedies that would follow such as Stan Laurel’s Smithy (1924), Heavy Love (1926) with a Ton of Fun, and Laurel & Hardy’s entry The Finishing Touch (1928). While the U.S. versions are more methodical about their destruction, Polycarpe brings it about with his overly enthusiastic manner. Besides his stint as Polycarpe, Edouard Pinto also appeared in the Éclair made Balaoo (1913), about an ape made nearly human by a mad scientist (and played by Zigoto and Casimir comic Lucien Bataille), and Protea (1913).

Singe de Petronille (a.k.a. De aarp van petronella) (1913) France. Éclair. Dir: Romeo Bosetti. Cast: Sarah Duhamel. (7 min)
Losing control over her new pet monkey, a robust housemaid trashes her middle-class employer’s home.

The circus roots of these films appear in their free use of animals, which would play a regular and important part in their later American counterparts. In this outing Petronille gets a destructive monkey as a gift, but in other films Gavroche and Polidor bring home lions, plus little Bout-de-Zan and Polidor get chummy with errant elephants. A number of the films also detail the comical effects of eating certain animals. Having lobster makes Patouillard walk backwards in Patouillard mange du homard (1911), and Polidor becomes aggressive and forceful after dining on bull meat in Polidor mangia de toro (1913). The one thing the European comedy makers didn’t do was star animals in their own series. That would be left to the Americans and would lead to surreal delights such as the Snooky the human-zee comedies and the Hal Roach Dippy-Doo-Dad series.

Zigoto et la locomotive (1912) France. Gaumont. Dir: Jean Durand. Cast: Lucien Bataille, Ernest Bourbon, Alphonse Foucher, Gaston Modot. (6 min)
When the train men go on strike, Zigoto terrorizes the town in a hijacked locomotive.

The oldest continuously operating film organization in the world is the Gaumont Film Company which was founded by Leon Gaumont in 1895. The young Gaumont went to work for the photographic outfit the Comptoir general de photographie in 1893 and two years later bought them out. By 1897 he had begun producing his own films to promote his equipment, with the first narrative films made under the direction of Alice Guy (Gaumont’s secretary). From 1905 to 1914 its studio “Cite Elge” at La Villette, France, was one of the largest in the world. Their comedy output included series with Bebe, Zigoto, Bout-de-Zan, Calino, and Onesime, in addition to Louis Feuillade serials such as Fantomas (1913) and Judex (1916), plus the newsreel “Gaumont Actualities.” The company managed to hang on during the difficulties of World War I, and later merged with Franco-Film Aubert and opened foreign offices such as Gaumont British. Today it’s one of the biggest producers and distributors in France.

Wily roi des concierges (1912) France. Éclair. Cast: Willy Sanders. (5 min)
A little boy, left in charge of a Parisian apartment building, goes on a murderous rampage.

Willy Sanders was a prodigy from the English music hall, who at age six was brought to France by the Éclair Company to headline in this series. Having already appeared on film in England boxing with and besting an adult opponent in The Man to Beat Jack Johnson (1910), little Willy was a force to be reckoned with, as all the denizens of his apartment building find out the hard way in this short. The series lasted a long time – five years from 1911 to 1916 – and afterward Willy retired from the screen at age ten.

Gavroch e et casimir’s entrainment (1913) France. Éclair. Dir: Romeo Bossetti. Cast: Paul Bertho, Lucien Bataille. (7 min)
Over-stimulated by boxing lessons, Gavroch brings a lion home to spar with, triggering an all-out assault on public order.

Paul Bertho had been a comic opera singer and music hall comedian before signing with Pathe to briefly substitute for Andre Deed in a continuation of the “Boireau” series. In 1910 Lux hired him to create a weekly comedy series and Patouillard was born. A year later he settled in as Gavroche for Éclair, and spent the next two seasons as an ambitious and inept goof in a trademark loud plaid coat and a bowler hat. Also on hand as his snooty neighbor is Lucien Bataille, who had been Zigoto for Gaumont but is now Casimir, in addition to the lion Gavroche brings home to spare with. Bertho frequently worked with lions, and continued his Gavroche adventures until 1914.

Eugenie redressi toi (1911) France. Gaumont. Dir: Jean Durand. (4 min)
A large man in drag performs as an awkward young girl whose parent’s attempts to make her more ladylike lead to violent resistance and the acquisition of a suitor half her size whom she carries away under her arm.

Eugenie redressi toi is a good opportunity to talk about the rampant use of drag in the early European comedies, since the ungainly and awkward Eugenie is played by a very tall man in drag. Always popular on the stage for comic effect, the early slapstick cinema adopted it right away and found it ideal to portray domineering mother-in-laws and hideous prospective brides. It’s also often used when a female character is going to end up taking a lot of physical punishment during the ensuing knockabout action. Not just the province of men, many of the female Euro-clowns appeared in drag such as Sarah Duhamel in Patouillard a une femme jalouse (1911), where Petronella disguises herself as a man to spy on her philandering husband, or Kri Kri e lea militari (1913) in which Lea disguises as a soldier to visit Kri Kri in the army.

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