Continuing its association with French studio Gaumont, Kino International has released Gaumont Treasures Vol. 2. This three-disc, boxed set features more than 10 hours of content, with work made from 1908 through 1916 by directors Emile Cohl, Jean Durand, Jacques Feyder and more.
The first disc in the set showcases 40 films directed by pioneering animator Cohl. While filmmakers such as J. Stuart Blackton and Emile Reynaud had already been exploring various animation techniques, Cohl pushed these painstaking, frame-by-frame processes — including stop-motion and pen-and-ink animation — to new levels of creativity, frequently incorporating both animation and live action in the same film. The Magic Hoop (1908), for instance, begins with a real girl playing with a hoop that, when hung on a wall, becomes a frame for Cohl’s animation. (The motif of an innocuous object in the live-action world serving as a window into an animated fantasy land recurs in Cohl’s Transfigurations, The Happy Microbes and The Enchanted Spectacles, all from 1909, as well as the 1910 The Smile-O-Scope.)
Pushing his technical limits further still in Spanish Claire de Lune (1909), the director placed a live actor and an animated moon within the same frame by means of optical matte printing. Cohl also played with color, incorporating both hand painting and color tinting to great effect in The Neo-Impressionist Painter, in which the eponymous artist holds up a colored canvas (hand painted frame by frame) before a cut takes the viewer “inside” a color-tinted animation of the painting. As if summing up Cohl’s seemingly endless creative ambition, one of the last films included on the first disc, from 1910, is titled Nothing is Impossible for Man.
The second disc spotlights Durand, who joined Gaumont in 1910 after a brief stint with Pathé. One of his first assignments at Gaumont was the Calino series, which was begun by director Roméo Bosetti and featured actor Clément Mégé. He soon added the Lucien Bataille-starring Zigoto and Ernest Bourbon-starring Onésime series to his list of directorial duties, and by the end of 1914, he had directed more than 160 films for the studio. The 22 films included in this collection reveal the director’s penchant for absurdist comedies that regularly devolve into chaos as crazed crowds run rampant through streets, businesses and homes alike, leaving wide swathes of destruction in their wake, as well as a fascination with the American Western. In both types of films, Durand employed a band of physical actors known as “Les Pouittes,” men and women who threw themselves about with reckless abandon, often in the same frame as lions, panthers and other wild animals.
Durand’s comedies provided ample opportunity for technical experimentation, including fast-motion and reverse-motion effects (the 1912 Onésime, Clockmaker), double exposure (the 1912 Onésime vs. Onésime) and a remarkable optical effect in Calino, Station Master (also from 1912) that composites a shot of a moving locomotive within a window frame in a studio-bound train-station set.
Durand’s American-style Westerns also demonstrate his increasing technical acumen. In The Railway of Death (1912), for example, Durand utilized, on top of a moving train, a camera that freely pans to keep two wrestling actors in frame, and both Burning Heart: An Indian Tale and Under the Claw (also from 1912) feature well executed and clearly motivated lighting.
Abandoning the close study of a single director’s body of work, the third disc presents three films from Feyder, a film each from Bosetti, Georges-André Lacroix, Etienne Arnaud, René Le Somptier, Henri Fescourt and Gaston Ravel, and three anonymous films. Feyder’s popularity would explode in 1921 with the feature L’Atlantide — and in the late ’20s, he would even move to Hollywood for a brief stint under contract to MGM — but the three films presented here (Heads…and Women Who Use Them, Friendly Advice and Biscot on the Wrong Floor, all from 1916) already show a mature understanding of composition, framing and blocking action in depth, even to the point of catching important actions reflected in mirrors. Bucking the trend for proscenium-style tableaux common to many film’s of the era, Heads is composed entirely of medium-close shots, and Biscot on the Wrong Floor deftly mixes wide, medium and close shots to present a magnificently well constructed comedy that further underscores actor Georges Biscot’s confusion with a number of dynamic, high-angle and low-angle shots.
Further exemplifying Gaumont’s pioneering efforts, the third disc also includes three Phonoscènes (which feature an actor lip-synching to a pre-recorded soundtrack that was then played during screenings by way of the Chronomégaphone sound system) and a selection of excerpts of films shot using the Trichromie color process, which worked similarly to Technicolor’s three-strip process, with three images shot simultaneously of the same scene, one each through a red, a green and a blue filter. (However, Technicolor’s process employed a single taking lens, whereas Gaumont’s Trichromie process involved three taking lenses — and, on the back end, three projecting lenses. A number of technical problems, including trouble aligning the lenses, led Gaumont to abandon the process after a few years.)
Also included in the presentation is the featurette “Gaumont in Actualities,” which mixes on-screen text with historical footage shot around the Gaumont studios in Elgé (a town named for the studio’s founder, Léon Gaumont) and the Gaumont Palace in Paris, which was the largest movie theater in the world when it opened in October 1911.
The only other special feature in the set is a brief featurette about Durand; a similar documentary for Cohl would have been a welcomed addition, as would any contextualizing information for the directors included on the third disc, perhaps in the form of an essay booklet that might also have provided space for an explanation of the source material utilized for this collection, how the materials were scanned and what sort of digital cleanup was applied. Across all three discs, there is a total absence of cinematography credits, but this is almost certainly caused by the films’ technical staff not being properly credited at the time of production rather than any oversight on Kino’s part.
As evidenced in the previous volume, as well as in Kino’s Fantômas boxed set, the films here are remarkably well preserved, and the musical scores assembled (by Bernard Lubat on the first disc, Patrick Laviosa on the second and Laviosa, Ben Model and Didier Goret on the third) are more than serviceable. (However, Lubat’s work frequently teeters toward electronica and at times feels rather anachronistic playing over handmade animation from 1910.) Instances of hand painting and color tinting are also well preserved, and even the colors in the Trichromie footage on the third disc remain lush and vibrant. Nevertheless, there are instances of dirt, scratching, density shifts, missing frames and occasional jittery registration, but only in a few brief instances is the image ever in danger of being completely obfuscated. Through most of the collection, one can hardly believe the footage was shot a century ago.
Credit must be given to Pierre Philippe, who curated the selection of films in both this set and the previous volume. Taken together, the three discs that comprise this set provide a strong sense of the experimentation coming out of the Gaumont studio from 1908 to 1916 and reveal a maturing visual language that takes increasing advantage of editing, camera movement and lighting. There is an invigorating sense throughout these films that absolutely anything could happen in the next moment, and the prospect of Kino releasing still more treasures from Gaumont’s archive is, indeed, a thrilling one.