"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.

Listen here:

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Cruel and Unusual Comedy, Part 3: early European comedies

To read detailed film notes on each program, 
click on the links below:

Program 1: "Sexual Misconduct"
Program 2: "Science Fiction"
Program 3: "Mass Destruction"
Program 4: "Tales of Madness"
Program 5: "Domestic Abuse"
Program 6: "Musical Comedy"

Cruel and Unusual Comedy, Part 3: 
Selections from the EYE Film Institute, The Netherlands
March 15 to 30, 2012

The Museum of Modern Art, NY

In the wake of World War I, American film comedy dominated screens around the world. But between 1908 and 1914, before the international stardom of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, there were the European comedies of Zigoto, Bebe, Onesime, Little Moritz, Robinet, and Max. These distinctively named screen characters were part of a phenomenal outpouring of Euro-clown comedies, featured in over 70 different series in France alone. Produced by prestigious companies like Ambrosio in Italy, Messters in Germany, and Gaumont and Pathe in France, this body of work was, on the whole, more psychologically complex, self-consciously surreal, and edgier than American slapstick. The films, organized around themes of sex, violence, madness, musical comedy, and science fiction, are all drawn from the legendary collection of Dutch film distributor Jean Desmet. Archivist Elif Rongen-Kaynakci from the Eye Film Institute introduces selected programs. All films are silent with live accompaniment. All running times are approximate.

Organized by Ron Magliozzi, Associate Curator, Department of Film, accompanist and film historian Ben Model, and film historian Steve Massa. 35mm prints provided by the EYE Film Institute (Netherlands).

EYE Institute Program 1: "Sexual Misconduct"

Program 1: "Sexual Misconduct"
Thu, Mar 15, 7:30 (Introduced by Elif Rongen-Kaynakci); Wed, Mar 21, 1:30.

film notes © 2012 by Steve Massa.

La lune de miel de Zigoto (1912) France. Gaumont. Dir: Jean Durand. Cast: Lucien Bataille, Berthe Dagmar. (6 min)
In the grip of passionate foreplay, Zigoto and his lover are oblivious to an escalating series of interruptions and catastrophes going on around them.

As Zigoto, comic Lucien Bataille is one of the more quietly eccentric denizens of the outrageous European film comedy universe. In some ways his body language and comedic attitude foreshadows Jacques Tati as Zigoto ambles to a decidedly different drummer. Bataille left Gaumont in 1912 and headlined in a new series for Éclair where he was re-dubbed Casimir. He later worked as a character actor in films such as Le Miracle des loup (Miracle of the Wolves 1924) and La Coquille et la clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman 1928).

Signora Robinet (a.k.a. Madamigella Robinet) (1912) Italy. Ambrosio. Dir: Marcel Perez (Fabre). Cast: Marcel Perez (Fabre), Nildi Baracchi, Angelo Vestri. (7 min)
Robinet disguises himself as a woman to get away from his girlfriend’s husband, and discovers the unexpected pleasures of public drag amidst mobs of flirtatious men.

Robinet is Marcel Perez, an ex-circus clown who began appearing in French films in 1900, and was hired by the Ambrosio Company of Turin in 1910 to star in this series. Born in Spain as Manuel Fernandez Perez, he worked under various versions of that name and made five years worth of Robinet misadventures before heading to the United States in 1915. With Max Linder he was one of the few direct links between European and American silent comedy, and continued his prolific output until an on the set accident brought his performing career to a close. Later he directed and wrote films until the late 1920s.

Robinet troppo amato da sua moglie (a.k.a. Robinet wordt te veel bemind) (1912) Italy. Ambrosio. Dir: Marcel Perez (Fabre). Cast: Marcel Perez (Fabre), Gigetta Morano, Nilde Baracchi. (7 min)
Robinet escapes from his wife’s smothering devotion to the adventure of lovemaking outside of marriage.   

An important part of Ambrosio’s Robinet series was actress Nilde Baracchi who co-starred as Robinette opposite her real-life husband Marcel Perez (as Marcel Fabre). Beautiful and statuesque, the French-born Baracchi had appeared on stage in Italian music hall and dramas, and made a great screen foil for her husband with her charm and good humor. In 1915 the pair came to America where she continued to work with Perez under the names Babette Perez and Nilde Babette in his comedies for Eagle and Jester, before they separated and she returned to Europe in 1919.

Finalmente soli! (1912) Italy. Italia. Director unknown. Cast: Ernesto Vaser. (8 min)
In this early mother-in-law comedy, a bride’s mother insists on managing the private lives of the newly married couple – to the point of sleeping with them.

Ernesto Vaser was a popular clown who is practically forgotten today. Coming from a theatrical family – his father was stage actor Pietro Vasar and brothers Vittorio and Ercole also ended up in the movies – he entered films in 1905 for the Ambrosio Company. Tubby and pop-eyed, Vaser became known as Fricot and often appeared with, and was directed by, Marcel Perez as Robinet. By 1912 he had moved to Italia and continued his misadventures there under the name Fringuelli. Also directing many of his shorts as well, his career lasted until 1920.

Al cinematografo guardate…ma non toccata. (1912) Italy. Italia. Director unknown. Cast: Ernesto Vaser. (6 min)
A cinema become the site of sexual intrigue when a man looking for romance in the dark follows a woman into the movies and finds himself molesting her husband instead.

The Italia Film Co. was based in Turin and founded in 1907 as Carlo Rossi & Co. Managed by Carlo Sclamengo and the director Giovanni Pastrone, it was the third most important Italian film company after Cines and Ambrosio. Their biggest comic star was Andre Deed, whom they had lured away from Pathe and re-named Cretenetti, but they also had the comics Ernesto Vasar (seen in this film) and Emile Vardannes. Thanks to the money made on Andre Deed’s comedies the company went on to specialize in historical epics such as Pastrone’s The Fall of Troy (1911) and the famous Cabiria (1914). By 1919 Italia had merged into the Unione Cinematogratica Italiana.

Cunegonde femme crampon (a.k.a. Cunegonde wil niet dat d’r man alleen uitgaat) (1912). France. Lux. Director and cast unknown. (9 min)
An insanely jealous wife locks up her husband, lassos him on the street from a second story window, and ships herself to him in a trunk when he leaves her home.

From 1911 to 1913 the Lux Company made twenty-five shorts chronicling the misadventures of Cunegonde. While in this entry she plays a bourgeois wife determined to keep her husband from philandering, she was usually an oafish servant such as in Cunegonde de aime son maitre (1912) where the lady of the house wants a maid her husband won’t flirt with so she hires the ugly Cunegonde. She, of course, falls in love with the master and drives him crazy with her unwanted attentions. Despite a number of surviving films, the identity of the actress who played Cunegonde is unknown.

Acque Miracolose (1912) Italy. Ambrosio. Dir: Eleuterio Rodolfi. Cast: Gigetta Morano, Eleuterio Rodolfi. (9 min)
In this sophisticated romantic comedy, healing waters are the cover for an extra-marital affair that “cures” the infertility problems of a childless couple.

This short stars Gigetta Morano, another of the Ambrosio Company’s popular stars. From 1909 to 1920 Morano appeared in over one hundred and forty films for the studio, sometimes with Marcel Perez, but most frequently with her real-life partner Eleuterio Rodolfi. Gigetta was the first lady of Italian comedy films, and Rodolfi directed as well as co-starred. The strength of films such as Mam’selle Nitouche (1912) enabled her to move beyond comedy. Her career ended in 1921, but she occasionally turned up in bit parts, most notably in Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953). Born in 1887, she made it close to her centenary when she died in 1986.

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.

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.

EYE Institute Program 4: "Tales of Madness"

Program 4: "Tales of Madness"
Sun. Mar 18, 5:00; Wed. Mar 28, 1:30
film notes © 2012 by Steve Massa.

Mr. Smith fait l’ouverture (1914) France. Gaumont. Dir: Jean Durand. (6 min)
Anarchy and madness result when a plague of rabbits overrun the country home of an unpreentant hunter, in the “day of the lepus” farce.

Jean Durand, along with Romeo Bossetti, was one of the top and most prolific comedy creators of European silent comedy. In addition to the popular Onesime and Zigoto series, starting in 1907 he directed all kinds of comedies with performers on the order of Maurice Chevalier, Gaston Modot, and Clement Mige, not to mention numerous early western shorts. His later work included series with Marcel Levesque as “Serpentin” and Berthe Dagmar as “Marie”, before he finished his twenty-two year career with the 1929 feature The Ideal Woman.

Onesime contre Onesime (a.k.a. Simple Simon Leads a Double Life) (1912) France. Gaumont. Dir: Jean Durand. Cast: Ernest Bourbon, Edouard Grisollet, Gaston Modot. (9 min)
When Onesime “doubles” on screen, the battle between his good and evil selves begins.

Our second selection from the popular Onesime series has our hero shadowed by his evil double in a comic Student of Prague scenario. It’s easy to see why this series was the favorite of the Surrealists with its dream-like imagery of malevolent twins, animals in fancy drawing rooms, and the wild acceleration of time. The Onesime’s were really a combination of personality comedy and trick films, as our comic bumbler always found himself in impossible situations that were made possible by sleight of hand with the camera. The series ran from 1912 to 1914. Star Ernest Bourbon appeared in films until 1918, and later had a school for acrobats in Belleville.

La vengeance des spirits (a.k.a. Die rache der geister) (1911) France. Pathe. Dir: Emil Cohl. (5 min)
Grotesque animated spirits punish a disbeliever who scorns his wife’s interest in the occult.

La vengeance des spirits is the work of the celebrated Emil Cohl, regarded as the father of film animation for groundbreaking shorts such as Fantasmagorie (1908) and Les joyeux microbes (1909). He entered films at age 51, after a background in newspaper cartoons, political caricature, painting and poetry, initially to complain to the Gaumont Studio about a film that stole its main idea from one of his strips. Louis Feuillade hired him to write scenarios, and he was soon animating and directing combination live-action and animation trick films. Eventually moving to Pathe, where this title was made, Cohl even spent time in the U.S. turning out “The Newlyweds and their Baby” cartoon series. World War I and its aftermath made it impossible to release his films, and he died in poverty in 1938 the day before George Melies.

Calino sourcier (1913) France. Gaumont. Dir: Jean Durand. Cast: Clement Mige. (4 min)
With a stolen divining rod, Calino sets out to “liquefy” the world, one water spout at a time, in this riff on Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Calino was Clement Mige, yet another veteran of circus and music hall, who started working for Jean Durand as part of the stock company “Les Pouics” (bedbugs) for Gaumont around 1910. As such he was in the ensemble of shorts such as La police de l’an 2000, and eventually headlined in this series as the cheerful title buffoon. (Paul Bertho, better known as Patouillard and Gavroche is said to have filled in for some 1911 entries) Romeo Bosetti created the character, but Jean Durand wrote and directed the bulk of the shorts which always ended in some kind of orgy of destruction. Mige disappears after the end of this series in 1913, except for one isolated appearance in Paris la nuit (1924).

Kri Kri fuma l’oppio (a.k.a. Patachon als opiumschuirer) (1913) Italy. Societa Italiana Cines. Cast: Raymond Frau. (6 min)
A series of trick film hallucinations and scary doubling effects result when Patachon smokes an opium cigarette.

Kri Kri was the Senegal-born Raymond Frau, a circus clown and acrobat who began his career in French vaudeville and cafes. Like Ferdinand Guillaume, Frau settled in at the Cines studio in 1912 and headlined in this series where he was known as “Bloomer” in England and Patachon in Holland and France. Using special effects to create a surreal universe, Kri Kri regularly did acts such as removing his head, or spinning like a mad top and passing it along to the rest of the world when he attempts a pirouette in Kri Kri balla (1915). This film contains some bizarre mirror imagery that predates Jean Cocteau’s Orphee (1950) and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933). After Kri Kri, Frau returned to France and later played the character of “Dandy” for Éclair.

Rigadin n’aime pas vendredi 13 (a.k.a. Rigadin n aime pas le renched) (1911) France. Pathe. Dir: Georges Monca. Cast: Charles Prince. (6 min)
Rigadin has nothing but trouble on Friday the 13th.

Today Charles Prince is alongside Max Linder and Andre Deed as one of the best remembered of the early Euro-clowns. Already popular on stage in legitimate comedy and vaudeville, Pathe snared him for films in 1908. Launched as Rigadin the next year, the petit-bourgeois goof was an immediate success, and the series lasted for almost ten years. Thanks to his upturned nose he had the look of perpetually smelling something unpleasant as he navigated his way around toothaches, fickle fiancées, gout, nightmares, and, of course, domineering mother-in-laws. Due to Pathe’s strong distribution chain he was popular all over the world, and known as “Whiffles” in the U.K. and America. Although his career wound down after 1920, he continued to make appearances up to his death in 1933.

L’abito bianco di Robinet (1911) Italy. Ambrosio. Dir: Marcel Perez (as Marcel Fabre). Cast: Fabre. (4 min)
In this play on the symmetry of black and white, Robinet leaves home in his bright new suit for a stroll through a blackening industrial landscape.

The Societa Anonima Ambrosio was, with Italia and Cines, one of the premier film studios of Italy. Originally founded in 1902 by Arturo Ambrosio as photographic shop, Ambrosio caught the movie bug and spent time in France, England and Germany familiarizing himself with filmmaking. By 1907 a large and modern studio had been built on 30,000 square feet of land. Their first big hit was 1908’s The Last Days of Pompeii, directed by Luigi Maggi, who piloted many of the company’s most prestigious films. Besides historical epics, costume dramas, and literary adaptations of the work of Gabriele D’Annunzio, the studio’s comedy creators included Gigetta Morano (and her director and co-star Eleuterio Rodolfi), Ernesto Vasar as Fricot, and Perez as Robinet. Morano and Perez moved into feature length comedies for the company – Morano in works such as La meridana del convent (The Convent’s Sundial 1916) and Perez with the four episodes of Le avventure straoridnarissne di Saturnino Farandola (The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola 1914). As with the other studios, World War I disrupted film production and killed international distribution. Ambrosio continued some producing during the war, but Arturo Ambrosio left the company in 1917, and the studio ended production in 1922.

EYE Institute Program 5: "Domestic Abuse"

Program 5: "Domestic Abuse"
Sun. Mar 18, 7:00; Thu. Mar 29, 1:30. 
film notes © 2012 by Steve Massa.

Le torchon brule ou une querlle de ménage (1911) France. Pathe. Dir: Romeo Bossetti. Cast: Sarah Duhamel. (5 min)
A couple’s fight over dinner, leads to a spiraling domestic abuse that spreads all over town.

Pathe Freres, with its famous rooster logo, is the largest and best known of the French film studios. Charles Pathe’s initial experience with the cinema came with selling counterfeit Edison Kinetoscopes to fairground exhibitors. That was in 1895, and by 1900 his company was set up and Ferdinand Zecca had been hired to oversee film production. Their output soon surpassed that of George Melies, with a glass studio constructed in 1902, soon followed by two more. Pathe continued to turn out film stock, equipment, and movies, and was perhaps the first film factory with more than 1,200 employees, many of whom worked on a kind of assembly-line splicing and coloring.

The product consisted of actualities, historical reconstructions, and trick films, often handled by Zecca. Its comedy output was prodigious, with major players such as Max Linder, Andre Deed, Charles Prince, and director Romeo Bosetti. They even had a comedy arm, Comica, which was headed by Bosetti and put out the misadventures of Little Moritz, Rosalie, Calino, Bigorno, and many more.

One of the main strengths of the company was its distribution which included Central Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa. In the teens the Linder and Prince comedies were very popular in America, and the company also distributed American-made product. It was a distribution deal with Pathe that gave the fledgling Hal Roach Studio its first toehold in the industry, and by the early 1920s they were releasing Roach and Mack Sennett’s comedy output. Over the years Pathe has withstood many restructurings and economic up-and-downs. The company is still distributing films such as Slumdog Millionaire (2008) today. 

Le pendu (1906) France. Pathe. Dir: Louis Gasner. Cast: Max Linder. (7 min)
Suffering from unrequited love, Max hangs himself from a tree, and ends up hanging for hours while local townspeople squabble over whose responsibility it is to rescue him.

In addition to being the best known comic in this series, Max Linder was the first international comedy movie star. The most sophisticated screen comic before the arrival of Charlie Chaplin, Linder’s popularity led to two production forays to the United States, neither of which was particularly successful or satisfying for the comedian. As in this short, despair and suicide were frequent motifs in Linder’s films, and is a chilling reminder that he took his own life in 1925.

Polycarpe veut faire un carton (a.k.a. Polycarpe is aan het schijifschieten) (1913) France. Éclipse. Dir: Ernest Servaes. Cast: Charles Servaes. (4 min)
The homeless Polycarpe steals a rifle from some careless society sportsmen and goes on a mindless shooting spree.

The unknown Charles Servaes, brother of Ernest Servares the writer and director of this series, played Polycarpe from 1913 to 1917. Originally embodied by Edouard Pinto, Servaes soon took over the role and was one of the most extreme of the early Euro-clowns. His Polycarpe is like an escaped lunatic, doing his best to disrupt any semblance of sanity or order with a squatting walk, too large jacket and derby, and a jutting jaw. A very striking clown, unfortunately the only other info on Charles Servaes is that he also played a character named Seraphin for Eclipse.

Bebe soigné son pere (a.k.a. De vader van Bebe geroelt zich reruland ziek) (1912) France. Gaumont. Dir: Louis Feuillade. Cast: Rene Dary. (9 min)
A mischievous child feeds his father a laxative leading to disruptive bouts of intestinal disorder and an unexpected reward.

Beginning in 1910, this series showcased Louis Feuillade’s five year-old discovery Clement Mary, with the precocious imp tormenting his bourgeois parents in seventy-four entries made through 1913. Problems with the boy’s real-life show business parents led to his being replaced by the younger Bout de Zan. Later re-appearing as an adult under the name Rene Dary, he was busy until his death in 1974.

Gratitude obsedante (1912) France. Lux. Cast: Paul Bertho. (7 min)
The clown Flippie’s gratitude to a passing stranger goes too far, driving his benefactor to distraction and dismemberment.

Societe Lux was formed in 1907, and its principal director-screenwriter was Gerard Bourgeois. He was assisted by the young caricaturist and journalist Jean Durand, who became one of the most prolific comedy creators of the period before ending his career in 1929. During its heyday the studio’s foreign distribution stretched from North and South America to the extremes of Russia. Its most popular titles were comedies, such as the “Cunegondes” and “Patouillards” which starred Paul Bertho (who plays the annoying Flippie in this film), but they also turned out contemporary melodramas and westerns with a character named Arizona Bill. Sadly, today there are few surviving examples of the Lux product.

Artheme promene son oncle (1913) France. Eclipse. Dir: Ernest Servaes. Cast: Ernest Servaes. (6 min)
Artheme takes his elderly uncle for a walk in his wheelchair, but abandons the invalid in the woods overnight when he spots a pretty girl.

The Societe generale des cinematographs Eclipse came about in 1906 as a French offshoot of the giant British company Urban Trading. After absorbing a smaller company, Radios, and acquiring its “glass house” studio, Eclipse got a solid footing in the U.S. through distributor George Kleine. This and Charles Urban’s strength made Eclipse the fourth largest producer of French films. Today few of their productions survive, with writer, director and comic Ernest Servaes particularly overlooked. From 1911 to 1917 he helmed the Polycarpe comedies, as well as his own starring Artheme series. As Artheme, Servaes spends a lot of time confiding to the camera as he pursues women and neglects the duties assigned to him. Artheme promene son oncle is the prototype for all the American comedies where lame or gouty-footed elders are abused, and is the blueprint for Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone comedy His New Profession (1914). Not much information has survived on Servaes, and his last known credit is for writing and directing the short Mireille in 1922.

Little Moritz demande Rosalie en marriage (1911) France. Pathe. Dir: Romeo Bosetti. Cast: Maurice Schwartz, Sarah Duhamel. (6 min)
Wimpy Little Moritz needs to toughen up to win Rosalie, but ends up smashing everyone and everything in sight when boxing lessons turn him into a mindless fighting machine.

Romeo Bossetti was the renaissance man of the early Euro-comedies. Not only did he write and direct an amazing output of shorts for other people, but also had his own “Romeo” series for Pathe. He had come from the music hall and circus, as had his two stars for this series, Sarah Duhamel and Moritz Schwartz. Having joined Pathe in 1906, Bosetti soon moved over to Gaumont, but eventually returned to Pathe to work with Little Moritz, Rosale, and Leontine. Other comedy series he helmed include Bobino, Zoe, Toto, Moustache, Purtin, Bigorneau, and Calino. He even found the time to produce some of the Fantomas films for Louis Feuillade, and although his film career ended in 1916, he lived to 1948.

EYE Institute Program 6: "Musical Comedy"

Program 6: Musical Comedy
Mon. Mar 19, 7:30; Fri. Mar 30, 1:30.
film notes © 2012 by Steve Massa

Amour et musique (a.k.a. Met muzieken en hindernissen) (1911) France. Pathe/Nizza. (4 min)
Working apart, a pair of off-key male and female street performers are assaulted by unappreciative music lovers. When an arrest brings them together, they discover their power to make beautiful music.

This short is an example of the many creators of these comedies – directors, writers and performers – who are unknown and overlooked. Most came from music halls and circuses, and after a short jaunt in films returned there. Since movies weren’t particularly highly regarded many weren’t anxious to advertise that they were working in them and didn’t give them a second thought. Even some performers who had their own starring series, such as the actress who plays the stupid servant Cunegonde and the child who was the bratty Leontine, are a source of mystery today.

Rosalie et son phonographie (a.k.a. Rosalie en haar phonograph) (1911) France. Pathe. Dir: Romeo Bossetti. Cast: Sarah Duhamel. (4 min)
A jolly housekeeper brings new meaning to the notion of “home entertainment” with a handsome new portable phonograph that causes people, furniture, and buildings to rock and roll through the magic of stop-motion animation.

Roly-poly Sarah Duhamel is a particularly overlooked comedienne who had been a child actress on stage from the age of three. Extremely prolific, besides starring in this series she was frequently partnered with Little Moritz and Casimir (Lucien Bataille), and also starred in her own “Petronille” comedies for Éclair. Large and excitable, Duhamel took a lot of punishment in the line of slapstick duty. After marrying actor Edouard Louis Schmit she retired in 1916, but made one final appearance in Les mysteres of Paris (1924).

Grammofono di Polidor (a.k.a. Polidor and his gramofono) (1912) Italy. Pasquali. Cast: Ferdinand Guillame, Matilde Guillame. (9 min)
In a scheme that’s all the more convincing on silent film, Polidor attempts to fool a high-society mob with a no-talent singer who lip-synchs recordings from a hidden gramophone.

Ferdinand Guillame was a clown and acrobat from a circus family who made his film debut as Tontolini for Cines in 1909. By 1912 he moved to Pasquali Films of Turin with his popular character of the bungler Polidor. Also directing many of the shorts, the plot for this one would be passed down to later comic generations, with its best incarnation probably being the Three Stooges classic Micro-Phonies (1945). Continuing as Polidor until 1918, Guillame later turned up in Federico Fellini films such as Nights of Cabiria (1957), La dolce vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963).

Pik Nik ha il do di petto (1911) Italy. Aquila. Cast: Armando Fineschi. (5 min)
Singer Pik Nik tests the power of song with a earth-shattering voice that causes people to pass out, walls to collapse, cars to go backwards – and eventually lands him in jail.

Pik Nik was played by character actor Armando Fineschi, who after this series appeared in all types of Italian films until 1941. Aquila Films was founded in Turin in 1907, and early on specialized in sensational crime films and melodramas. In addition to villains and spies in exotic locales, their comedies series consisted of Pik Nik and another character named Jolicoeur. In 1912 Aquila moved into feature productions, and continued with the crime and melodrama themes in pictures such as Fedora (1913), La peccatrice (The Sinful Woman 1916), and Tenebre (Darkness 1916). Much of the company’s strength came from its alliance with international distributors, which imported their films to Britain, France, Spain, Russia, and South America. The outbreak of World War I cut off Aquila’s access to these markets, and the company folded in 1917.

Robinet inamorato di una chanteuse (1911) Italy. Ambrosio. Dir: Marcel Perez (as Marcel Fabre). Cast: Fabre, Gigetta Morano. (7 min)
Robinet brings down the house when he unleashes himself on an attractive opera singer during a music hall performance.

Many of Marcel Perez’s surviving Robinet comedies center around the main character’s single-minded obsessions which lead to absurd extremes. In this film Robinet’s passion for the titled singer causes him to disrupt an entire variety performance, and even stalk her at home. Robinet Boxeur (1913) is about him becoming crazy about boxing, and after challenging the champ to a bout he trains and becomes a boxing machine. He knocks his punching bag into orbit, and when he runs amok on the street he makes fat men explode, innocent pedestrians back flip down the street, and trolleys fly in reverse with the power of his mighty punch. Mistaken obsession is the whole theme of Robinet e geloso (1914) where his suspicion that Robinette is cheating on him causes him to follow her to an apartment building to catch her in the act. Unfortunately for him he keeps bursting into the wrong apartments, and is continually beaten and pummeled until he finds that his wife had only commissioned an artist to sculpt a bust of him. Robinet never learns, and his obsessive quests always lead him to wrack and ruin.

La vengeance du sergent de ville (1913) France. Gaumont. Dir & Sc: Louis Feuillade. Cast: Renee Carl, Suzanne Grandais, Louis Leubas, Yvette Andreyor, Andre Luguet, Paul Manson. (13 min)
A policeman’s late night horn playing dismays neighbors in his apartment house, leading to marital discord, hysteria and a bizarre form of psycho-therapy involving a body double.

Director and writer Louis Feuillade is best remembered today for his surrealism-laced serials such as Fantomas (1913) and Les Vampires (1915), but turned out all types of films in the twenty years he worked for the Gaumont Studio. When he started in 1905 it was solely as a writer, but was soon directing as well, and by 1907 was named artistic director of the company. His serials benefitted from the antic spirit of his early comedy shorts, and he worked non-stop in all genres right up to his death in 1925.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Cruel and Unusual Comedy Reprised March 1–16, 2012

Cruel and Unusual Comedy Reprised
March 1–16, 2012

When our upcoming "Euroclowns" series – Cruel and Unusual Comedy, Part 3: Selections from the Eye Film Institute, The Netherlands programs – were all set in the MoMA screening calendar, we were asked by Rajendra Roy, senior curator at MoMA Department of Film, if we could choose a few programs from our 2009 and 2010 series to fill out the beginning of March in the Bartos Theatre.  What a great idea – a full one-month run of Cruel and Unusual Comedy!

Click below on the links to read Steve Massa's film notes from for the revprised programs running March 1-16:

February 29 - March 2:
Gender Benders: Masculine Women/Feminine Men

March 7 - 9:
The Surreal Life: Dalliance with the Absurd

March 14 - 16:
Animals and Children: No Harm Done

See you March 15-28 for the "Euroclowns" series, all rare 35mm prints from the EYE Institute (formerly known as the Nederlands Filmmuseum).

Ben Model