Two years ago, Kino International offered Gaumont Treasures: 1897-1913, a three-disc set adapted from a superb seven-disc collection, Gaumont: Le Cinema Premier, issued by the French studio that is probably the oldest continuing filmmaking concern in the world. Gaumont struck again with a second volume, and now Kino has imported and adapted that anthology under the title Gaumont Treasures, Vol. 2, 1908-1916. For anyone interested in how the movies came to be what they are, it's essential viewing.
The first volume covered the rise of cinema in France from the first public exhibitions to the position of global dominance French producers had achieved on the eve of World War I (a period covered in glorious detail in Richard Abel's classic history, The Cine Goes to Town). The story of the second volume is less triumphal. With the emergence of D.W. Griffith in the United States and the development of long form, psychologically nuanced narrations that Griffith's innovations helped make possible, the carnivalesque French cinema began to lose its luster and eventually ceded its majority market share to the upstarts of Hollywood.
The French-American rivalry already is apparent in the first disc in this new collection, devoted to the work of the pioneering animator Emile Cohl. He already was 50, with a successful career as a caricaturist and art world provocateur, when Leon Gaumont took him on as a writer in 1908. Tradition has it that Cohl was one of several Gaumont employees set to work to uncover the mysteries of The Haunted Hotel, an American trick film from 1907 that was a current sensation. Cohl discovered that the director, J. Stuart Blackton, had made a dinner seem to prepare itself through the use of stop-motion animation: moving objects in tiny increments and photographing them one frame at a time.
Cohl applied the same idea to line drawings with his 1908 Fantasmagorie, among the earliest hand-drawn animations on film. Cohl's simple, geometric figures are a long way from Fantasia but the illusion of life already is enchanting. The childlike quality of the drawings might not purely be a result of technical limitations: Cohl had been a prominent member of Les Incoherents, a proto-surrealist movement that put on annual exhibitions of art by "people who don't know how to draw," or at least pretended not to. Seen today, Cohl's drawings immediately suggest Keith Haring and other graffiti artists of the 1980s, as a primitivist-populist reproach to the over-refinements of official culture.
Gaumont too had its aspirations to high (or at least, middlebrow) art, as represented by the historical frescoes and realist dramas directed by Louis Feuillade, who was the company's artistic director at the time Cohl came on board. But Gaumont also had its rowdier side, as embodied by Jean Durand, the subject of the second disc in the Kino collection.
Durand, a former journalist with a taste for circuses and music halls, joined the studio in 1911 as a replacement for Romeo Bosetti, Gaumont's first specialist in broad comedies and chase films. (Bosetti's impressively bizarre Long Arm of the Law, about a policeman with an extendable appendage, appears among the miscellany on the third disc in the Kino set.)
Like Mack Sennett at Biograph, Durand supplied the spectacles of mass destruction that were a programming staple of every nickelodeon -- frantic comedies, such as the 1912 Onesime Goes to Hell, in which the title character (played by Ernest Bourbon, a rubber-faced comic who appeared in about 60 short films for Durand), gives his soul to the Devil in return for picking up his bar tab. Durand kept his own troupe of acrobats, Les Pouittes, on staff, ready to supply back flips and pratfalls in chase scenes that almost invariably build to the trashing of an overstocked epicerie, restaurant or hotel lobby, an enthusiastic celebration of disorder for its own sake.
By this point, the winds of influence were definitely blowing from the other side of the Atlantic, and one of Durand's specialties became imitation American-style Westerns, with the marshlands of the Camargue region in southern France standing in for the Great Plains and Les Pouittes dressing up as cowboys or Indians, or both, as the occasion required. Regrettably, the Kino set emphasizes Durand's comedies at the expense of these early Euro Westerns (which occupied a disc in Gaumont's original box), but Le Railway de la Mort from 1912 offers a fine example of Durand's vigorous staging and resourcefulness, with a tiny, narrow-gauge railroad drafted to represent the thundering Iron Horse of American legend.
Even as late as 1913, Durand was working mainly in the one-shot, one-scene "tableau" style of early cinema, a style that was beginning to show its age as American directors developed a more analytic approach to cutting and framing. The third disc in the Kino set includes three 1916 films by Jacques Feyder -- Heads ... and Women Who Use Them, Friendly Advice, and Biscot on the Wrong Floor -- that show the influence of the newer style, if not its complete mastery.
Feyder would become a major director in the '20s and '30s, shuttling between Hollywood (The Kiss, Greta Garbo's last silent film) and Europe (Carnival in Flanders, an anti-war film that became an international hit). But here he is a novice, still feeling his way with intrusively self-conscious close-ups, long shots that flatten the characters into the backgrounds, and editing that muddles the spatial relationships between the characters.
But this was an unsettled period, when everything was possible and experimentation the norm. Feyder had trouble deploying his close shots in 1916, but Gaston Ravel already was toying with the concept in the 1915 Feet and Hands.
In its 17-minute course, Feet and Hands, a complex story of unrequited love and redemptive heroics, is told only through close-ups of, yes, feet and hands, and the actors' faces are not seen until the final shot. Completed by Feyder when Ravel fell ill, this fascinating little film that seems quintessentially French in the way it poses a perfectly arbitrary formal challenge, and answers it with elegance and ease. (Kino International, $79.95, not rated)