Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Film in France

After visiting England, Germany, and Italy, W. Stephen Bush finished up his 1913 European trip with a stay in Paris. This is his letter from Paris, which deals briefly with exhibition in Paris, especially the Gaumont Palace.
The Film in France
By W. Stephen Bush

Paris, June 11, 1913.

Contentment and prosperity are the dominant notes in the kinematographic world of France, though of course there is no millennium, and at least one great and just cause of complaint. It is an old story that the burdens of the industry fall most heavily upon the exhibitor, and France is no exception to the rule. The government of Paris and of most of the large cities of the country exact a toll of ten per cent. of the daily receipts of the exhibitor “on behalf of the poor.” Every time and exhibitor opens his show the government is right there with its black-coated official, who in a both of his own supervises the cash, counts off ten per cent. “for the poor” and takes the money with him every night. This method of collecting the taxes “for the poor” is not only somewhat despotic toward the exhibitor but likewise decidedly annoying to the public, for after you have bought your ticket at the box-office you have to appear before the seat of the official, generally situated in the centre of the lobby, and you cannot get in until he gives you his approval. The government also tells the exhibitor how many officers he needs for the purpose of keeping proper order, and these officers, and these officers, absolutely useless in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, the exhibitor has to pay out of his own pocket.

United Interests

In spite of these hampering conditions the exhibitor is prosperous because the popularity of the pictures is greater than ever, and the number of theaters is constantly increasing. The day before I left Paris the great organization, which in France embraces manufacturers, exchange men, scenario writers, operators and exhibitors, met at its annual banquet in the Salle des Fetes to discuss things and to celebrate and to be happy and brilliant in the accepted French way. Ah! But there was the eloquence and the great applause every time. Monsieur Millevoy, a member of the Chamber of Deputies and a politician of some note, wagged his silver tongue and said much of the educational value of the motion picture. All the moguls of the French trade were there. M. Charles Pathe, Lumiere Freres, Max Linder, Nadar, Provost, Landry and very many others. A most interesting speaker was M. Benoit-Levy, who regretted the absence of the Minister of Education or some equally prominent statesman, who had sent his secretary instead of attending himself. He said, amid great applause, that the time will come when every government of the world will be anxious to have the moving picture for a friend and an ally, and when an invitation to attend a banquet of the organized motion picture interests will be deemed and honor and a privilege. There is one pleasant feature well worth mentioning in connection with this banquet. For the first time in the history of the French kinetamotograph the daily press of Paris had seen fit to devote considerable attention to the event, giving it in most cases due prominence on the first page. This is belated recognition when one considers how many million francs are invested in this industry in France.

The Three Great Names

Three names dominate the field of kinematography here and I give them in their alphabetical order: Eclair, Gaumont and Pathe. Among them they divide the French and indeed a goodly portion of the Continental market. With the notable exception of the Vitagraph films, which seem to lead American films in Europe almost everywhere, there is comparatively little sale of American-made films in France. It looks as if the motto were: French films for French audiences. Today mighty few films are sold in France, for the simple reason that the biggest firms, Eclair, Gaumont and Pathe, do no longer dispose of their reels through middlemen but deal directly with the exhibitor, to whom the films are not sold but merely rented. Of the foreign films sold, the Americans are well in the lead, with Italy a good second, while Germany looms up a distant third.

How They Show Their Pictures

As to the art of exhibiting pictures I cannot say very much for either Paris or France. There are, of course, some wonderfully fine show places, notably the Gaumont Palace and the Pathe Palace, where perfection is the order of the day. The Gaumont Palace, seating abut 6,000 people, is probably the largest and most successful moving picture theater in the world, with a scale of prices soaring up to somewhere near the dollar mark. The theater was well filled on the warm night in June when I visited there. I have seen some exceptionally fine projection in my day and have known many operators who were past-masters in the science of giving good light and a steady picture, but I never saw anything to surpass the projection in the Gaumont Palace. Even the most critical eye could not help being delighted by this picture—steady, always steady, without even the faintest trace of a tremble or a flicker. The most perfect order prevailed in the audience and what there was of vaudeville was tolerably good.

Outside these show palaces, however, the projection in Paris was generally poor and the pauses between the reels about ten times longer than even the most patient of our audiences would endure without plenty of hostile demonstrations. The service of the attendants and the music fall below the English and German standards. An American manager would get nervous prostration over the frequent breaks in the film, but here it does not seem to make any great difference to the public. I am inclined to think that the French exhibitor often cares more about a fine display outside than the show on the inside. I went, for instance, to the “Colisee,” on the Champs Elysees, one of the new and widely advertised theaters, in a very nice section of the city. For a fair seat I paid two francs. There is many a show on the lower East Side in New York with less pretense and far greater merit. The vaudeville shown was of the anthropoid variety which prevailed in many sections of our own country just about four years ago. The cheaper places are correspondingly worse.

Visit to Three Great Studios.

Of the studios I visited in Paris and its vicinity, none is more charmingly situated and better adapted to every need of the kinematograph than the Eclair plant at Epinay sur Seine, just outside the city limits. The grounds and a lovely chateau were purchased from a famous French naturalist, M. Lacepedo, who spent many years there. He had selected the place with a view to a leisurely pursuit of his studies, and what was well chosen for this admirer of nature was not ill chosen for the kinematograph, which is one of the secretaries of nature. The grounds cover about forty acres, of which but a small portion is occupied by the studios and the mechanical departments, while the rest consists of splendid and happily varied natural scenery. The Eclair Company [180] never leave its own premises to produce films—water, fountain, terraces, groves, romantic bits of forest or meadow—in fact, all the charm of outdoor scenery is found at home. The Eclair Company is now working on a new sensational feature in which it used the facilities of its outdoor studio to the uttermost, and I was told it would be better than “Zigomar.”

The Gaumont Company’s studio, like the others, is out of the city, and it is indeed a little community in itself, with a name of its own—Elge City—in honor of the initials of its founder, M. Leon Gaumont. What is most striking about this establishment is the spirit of “camaraderie”—good fellowship, which pervades every branch and characterizes every employee in every branch. This spirit, at once so agreeable and valuable, takes its source in a sense of deep and sincere loyalty to the chief of the great firm, M. Gaumont, who, at the time of my visit to his Parisian studio, was with characteristic energy demonstrating some of his new ideas to the public of New York. He has somehow imbued his staff with an ambition to do things well and to go forward without ceasing. The enormous plant of Gaumont’s now employs on an average of a thousand people, and from the last to the first they are capable, alert and industrious. As in every other establishment, I was fortunate in my guide. Mr. L. R. Aylmer, an Irishman who speaks French like a Frenchman, conducted me through every part of the works. Mr Aylmer, who is the “Chef du Service Cinematographique Societe des Establishments Gaumont,” is an ardent admirer of THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD, and especially of the Projection Department. He told me that he has often acted as official government examiner of French applicants for operators’ licenses, and he says he found Mr. Richardson’s hints full of the most practical value. He wanted me to thank our apostle of projection on behalf of France. A glad hand is waiting for F. H. Richardson at 57 Rue St. Roch, Paris. The Gaumont plant has been described in THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD before, but as this happened some years ago it is necessary to add that it has expanded in every direction and that as quantity has steadily gone forward, quality has never lagged behind. As a piece of Gaumont enterprise I might mention that they had the picture of the banquet of the moving picture men ready for exhibition within a few hours of the event. Manufacturers had it projected for me on the screen, and there surely was enough motion in it to make it suitable for a kinematographic reproduction.

The Pathe studio, which are partly in the ancient town of Vincennes and partly in Joinville, are most difficulat to describe. Everything has been planned and excuted on a gigantic scale, and it would take a giant’s pen to do the subject justice. Going through the various departments of the Pathe works is much like going through some great and world-famous gallery or museum—the human mind is limited in its ability to absorb impressions and properly digest them, and ordinary minds like my own begin to tire after four or five hours of steady exertion in watching and listening. Indeed, I should have given up the attempt of making a complete tour of Pathe works had it not been for the encouraging words and the ability to explain which is possessed in no small degree by M. Schoenmbaum, a young Alsatian who had been in America and who is an accomplished linguist. In the office of the great establishment on the Rue de Vigneros, I had the pleasure of meeting M. Charles Pathe and Mr. J. A. Berst, who happened to be in conference. They expressed in terms of great sincerity their pleasure at the opportunity of giving the readers of THE MOVING PICTURE WORLD some idea of their work here. Here indeed the workings of the kinematographic industry are displayed from Alpha to Omega. The Alpha is represented by huge qualities of sacks containing a white powder-like substance, which is the foundation of all film and which, according to my guide, is scientifically labeled “acetate de cellulose.” This raw material is found in varying qualities in all organic matter, and is therefore obtained easily and cheaply, It is not often that Nature throws out any very distinct hints to our intelligence beyond those we need to exist, but right here it seems is an unmistakable sign of the enduring character of the film; it is common almost as the air, and Nature locks it from none. I followed the white powder through the various stages of its chemical birth as a strip of film. I saw the powerful solvent kept in big iron casks. I saw the acetate and solvent mixed in numerous tanks and I saw the wheel upon which the mixture begins to take on the shape of film with which we are familiar. What infinite care was needed at every step, how difficult it seemed to guard the delicate embryonic substance against the rude intrusion of the light, of which even one strong ray or sudden glow would work decided havoc.

They have a system of tests which makes it, humanly speaking, impossible for one foot of defective film to leave the factory. The vast lengths are sent to every Pathe factory in the world, every inch is carefully marked and checked, and if any complaint comes home it is a matter of five minutes to trace every had which had anything to do with that particular section of film. I remember that even years ago it used to be a common saying among exhibiters that a Pathe film gave most excellent wear and long service. I have ceased to speculate as the reason for all of this, for even half an hour’s visit at Vincennes will make it clear. There is an educational and scientific department in the Pathe studio just as there is in the Eclair and Gaumont plants, and all three are intelligently active, though there seemed to be no effort to follow any definite system which might supply or at least supplement the textbook in the schools. Professor M. J. Comandon, a learned, capable and courteous gentleman, is engaged in interesting biological work in the Pathe kinematographic library. His work is almost entirely microscopic. As I will deal with the status of the educational picture in Europe in the course of another article, I must for the present content myself with this passing reference to one of the most promising aspects of the educational kinematograph.

The whole plant at Vincennes, vast as it is, belongs entirely to the negative production, while all the positive work is done at Joinville. Both at Vincennes and at Joinville one is struck by two things—the exceeding cleanliness of every part of the plants and the fact that so many employees of the company have held their present positions for many years. It is quite common to meet employees who have been with the firm since the very start. A merit system of the fairest possible type is in use. As a result, there are no “clock watchers” in the Pathe employ. Ambition and talent are encouraged at every step. There is a special department of invention and research, and this department is always busy, and in the words of my guide, “it has its ear wide open all the time.” Any workman who offers any practical suggestions for any kind of improvement will find his envelope somewhat bulkier than usual when Saturday comes around.

There is on the premises at Vincennes a large, well-lighted building which is labeled “Societe des Auteurs et Gens de Lettres,” in our idiom a sort of meeting place, where the “littery fellows” assemble on occasion and talk over the question of dramatic kinematography in general and with reference to their scenarios in particular. Authors are present while scenes from their plays are [181] being enacted, and there is no doubt many a friendly discussion which tends to make a better picture. Some of the choicest literary spirits of France belong to this society.

Censorship No Problem in France

There is no censorship in France—voluntary or otherwise. The public censor the pictures, and manufacturers and exhibitors are pretty clever in anticipating the taste and judgment of the public. Of course, the French taste is wholly different than ours, but there are well-defined limits which are observed with commendable consistency. A well-known exhibitor told me that there had been no interference on the part of the police or the legislators except two years ago when some misguided person wanted to show the details of a public execution on the screen. He was quickly stopped, and a law was enacted forbidding the portrayal of public executions in moving pictures. Censorship presents no problem in France. The industry here is about to grow, the picture is immensely popular and theaters are being built constantly. Conditions are likely to continue just as they are now.
Source: W. Stephen Bush, “The Film in France,” Moving Picture World 12 July 1913, 179-81.