French Silent Cinema
THE GREAT WAR: COLLAPSE AND RECOVERY
The general mobilization orders in early August 1914 brought all activity in the French cinema industry to an abrupt halt. Until recently, it has been customary to use the war to explain the decline of the French-vis-à-vis the American cinema industry. Although there is some truth to that claim, the French position had been weakening before the war began. By 1911, for instance, under pressure from MPPC restrictions and the 'independent' companies' expansion, Pathé's portion of the total film footage released in the USA had dropped to less than 10 per cent. By the end of 1913, in both numbers of film titles and total footage in distribution, the French were losing ground to the Americans on their own home territory. The war simply accelerated a process already well under way, and its most devastating effect, other than cutting off production, was severely to restrict the export market on which the French companies so heavily depended for distributing their films.
Although Pathé, Gaumont, Éclair, and Film d'Art all resumed production in early 1915, wartime restrictions on capital and material forced them to operate at a much reduced level and to rerelease popular pre-war films. Furthermore, they faced an 'invasion' of imported American and Italian films which quickly filled French cinemas, one of the few entertainment venues to reopen and operate on a regular basis. And many of those films were distributed by new companies, some with American backing. First came a wave of Keystone comedies, most of them distributed by Western Imports/ Jacques Haik, which had become a crucial foreign distributor just before the war. By the summer and autumn, through Western Imports and Adam, the films of Charlie Chaplin (nicknamed Charlot) were the rage everywhere. Next came Les Mystères de New York ('The mysteries of New York'), a compilation of Pearl White's ' first two serials, produced by Pathé's American affiliate and distributed by Pathé in France, and its only rival in popularity was the Italian spectacular Cabiria ( 1914). By 1916, through Charles Mary and Monat-Film, it was the turn of Triangle films, especially the Westerns of William S. Hart (nicknamed Rio Jim), and Famous Players adaptations such as Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat ( 1915)), which ran for six months at the Select cinema in Paris.
Despite contributing to the onslaught of American films, as well as losing critical personnel like Capellani and Linder to the USA, Pathé remained a major distributor of French product. Not only did the company support feature-length productions from SCAGL (Leprince, Monca) and Valetta (Morlhon), but it sought out new film-makers, notably the famous theatre director André Antoine. Pathé also provided financial backing to Film d'Art, where Henri Pouctal was joined by young Abel Gance. Gaumont, by contrast, had to cut back its production schedule, especially after Perret left to work in the USA. Yet it maintained a strong presence in the industry, largely through Feuillade's popular, long-running serials as well as its circuit of cinemas (the second largest after Pathé's). Although continuing to produce films, Éclair never fully recovered from the double blow of the war and a fire that destroyed its American studio and laboratories in April 1914. Eventually, the company reorganized into smaller components, the most important devoted to processing film stock and manufacturing camera equipment: Éclair's camera, for instance, competed with Debrie's 'Parvo' and Bell & Howell's for dominance in the world market. Eclipse survived largely on the strength of its new film-making team, Mercanton and René Hervil. In spite of the odds, independent production companies actually increased in number, and some (those of André Hugon, Jacques de Baroncelli, and Germaine Dulac) even flourished. That they could succeed under such conditions was due, in large part, to the relatively widespread distribution their films had in France, through AGC or especially Aubert, whose circuit of cinemas continued to expand.
The French films available to spectators between 1915 and 1918 were somewhat different from before. Perhaps because it was now difficult for the French to laugh at themselves, at least as they had been accustomed to, the once prolific comic series almost disappeared. Pathé kept up the Rigadin series, but with fewer titles; Gaumont went on making Bout-de-Zan films and then concocted a series with Marcel Levesque. Production of large-scale historical films was also curtailed, unless they were conceived within a serial format, as was Film d'Art's Le Comte de MonteCristo ('The Count of Monte-Cristo', 1917-18), directed by Pouctal and starring Léon Mathot. Given French budget restrictions and the success of Pearl White's films, the serial became a staple of production, especially for Gaumont. There, Feuillade turned out one twelve-episode film per year, returning to the crime serial in Les Vampires ('The Vampires', 1915-16), then shifting to focus on a detective hero (played by René Cresté) in Judex ( 1917) and La Nouvelle Mission de Judex ('Judex's new mission', 1918). Otherwise, patriotic melodramas were de rigueur, at least for the first two years of the war: perhaps the most publicized were Pouctal's Alsace ( 1915), starring Réjane, and Mercanton and Hervil's Mères françaises ('French mothers', 1916), which posed Bernhardt at Joan of Arc's statue before the ruined Rheims cathedral. Soon these gave way, however, to more conventional melodramas and adaptations drawn from the pre-war boulevard theatre of Bataille, Bernstein, and Kistemaeckers. Many of these films were now devoted to women's stories, in acknowledgement of their dominant presence in cinema audiences and of their ideological significance on the 'home front' during the war. Moreover, they gave unusual prominence to female stars: to Mistinguett, for instance, in such Hugon films as Fleur de Paris ('Flower of Paris', 1916), Grandais in Mercanton and Hervil's Suzanne series, and Maryse Dauvray in Morlhon films such as Marise ( 1917). But most prominent of all,. between 1916 and 1918, in more than a dozen films directed by Monca and Leprince for SCAGL, was the boulevard actress Gabrielle Robinne.
Out of such melodramas developed the most advanced strategies of representation and narration in France, particularly in what Gance polemically called 'psychological' films. Some, like Gaumont's one-reel Têtes de femme, femmes de tête ('Women's heads, wise women', 1916), directed by Jacques Feyder exclusively in close shots, nearly passed unnoticed. But others were celebrated by Émile Vuillermoz in Le Temps and by Colette and Louis Delluc in a new weekly trade journal, Le Film. The most important were Gance's own Le Droit à la vie ('The right to life', 1916) and especially Mater Dolorosa ( 1917), both much indebted to The Cheat and starring Emmy Lynn. Through unusual lighting, framing, and editing strategies, Mater Dolorosa seemed to revolutionize the stylistic conventions of the domestic melodrama, perhaps most notably in the way everyday objects, such as a white window curtain or a fallen black veil, took on added significance through singular framing (or magnification) and associational editing. These strategies were shared by a related group of 'realist' melodramas which Delluc saw as influenced by certain Triangle films but which also derived from an indigenous French tradition. Here, Antoine's adaptations of Le Coupable ( 1917) and Les Travailleurs de la mer ('Workers of the sea', 1918) were exemplary, especially in their location shooting (one on the outskirts of Paris, the other on the coast of Brittany). But Delluc also drew attention to the photogénie of the peasant landscapes in Baroncelli's Le Retour aux champs ('Return to the fields', 1918) as well as certain factory scenes in Henri Roussel's L'Âme du bronze ('The bronze soul', 1918), one of Eclair's last films. Both kinds of melodrama would provide the basis for some of the best French films after the war.
'LES ANNÉES FOLLES': FRENCH CINEMA REVIVED
By the end of the war, the French cinema industry confronted a crisis aptly summed up by posters advertising Mundus-Film (distributors for Selig, Goldwyn, and First National): a cannon manned by American infantrymen fired one film title after another into the centre of a French target. According to La Cinématographie française (which soon became the leading trade journal), for every 5,000 metres of French films presented weekly in France there were 25,000 metres of imported films, mostly American. Sometimes French films made up little more than 10 per cent of what was being screened on Paris cinema programmes. As Henri Diamant-Berger, the publisher of Le Film, bluntly put it, France was in danger of becoming a 'cinematographic colony' of the United States. How would the French cinema survive and, if it did, Delluc asked, how would it be French?
The industry's response to this crisis was decidedly mixed over the course of the next decade. The production sector underwent a paradoxical series of metamorphoses. The established companies, for instance, either chose or were forced to beat a retreat. In 1918 Pathé-Frères reorganized as Pathé-Cinéma, which soon shut down SCAGL and sold off its foreign exchanges, including the American affiliate. Two years later, another reorganization made Pathé-Cinéma responsible for making and marketing apparatuses and film stock and set up a new company, Pathé-Consortium (over which Charles Pathé lost control), which rashly began investing in big-budget 'superproductions' that soon resulted in staggering financial losses. After briefly underwriting 'Séries Pax' films, Gaumont gradually withdrew from production, a move that accelerated with Feuillade's death in 1925. Film d'Art also reduced its production schedule as its chief producers and directors left to set up their own companies. Only the emergence of a 'cottage industry' of small production companies during the early 1920s provided a significant counter to this trend. Joining those film-makers already having quasi-independent companies of their own, for instance, were Perret (returning from the USA), DiamantBerger, Gance, Feyder, Delluc, Léon Poirier, Julien Duvivier, René Clair, and Jean Renoir. Even larger companies were established by Louis Nalpas, who left Film d'Art to construct a studio at Victorine (near Nice), by Marcel L'Herbier, who left Gaumont to found Cinégraphic as an alternative atelier for himself and other independents, and by a Russian émigré film colony which took over Pathé's Montreuil studio, first as Films Ermolieffand then as Films Albatros. The two other principal producers were the veteran Aubert and a newcomer, Jean Sapène. Based on an alliance with Film d'Art, Aubert built up a consortium which, by 1923-4, included half a dozen quasi-independent film-makers. Sapène, the publicity editor at Le Matin, took over a small company named Cinéromans, hired Nalpas as his excutive producer, and set up an efficient production schedule of historical serials to be distributed by Pathé-Consortium. So successful were those serials that Sapène was able to assume control of and revitalize Pathé-Consortium, with Cinéromans as its new production base.
Although French production increased to 130 feature films by 1922, that figure was far below the number produced by either the American or German cinema industries, and French films still comprised a small percentage of cinema programmes. To improve its position, the industry embarked on a strategy of co-producing 'international' films, especially through alliances with Germany. This came after earlier repeated failures to create alliances with the American cinema industry or to exploit American stars such as Sessue Hayakawa and Fanny Ward; it was also impelled by Paramount's bold move to launch its own production schedule in Paris, resulting in such box-office hits as Perret's 'Americanized' version of Madame Sans-Gêne ( 1925), starring Gloria Swanson. Pathé, for instance, joined a new European consortium financed by the German Hugo Stinnes and the Russian émigré Vladimir Wengeroff (Vengerov), which initially backed Gance's proposed six-part film of NapoLéon and, through Ciné-France, managed by Noé Bloch (formerly of Albatros), underwrote Fescourt's four-part adaptation of Les Misérables ( 1925) and Victor Tourjansky's Michel Strogoff ( 1926). That consortium collapsed, however, when Stinnes's sudden death exposed an incredible level of debt. Further French-German alliances were then curtailed by heavy American investment, through the Dawes Plan, in the German cinema industry. The results of this co-production strategy were mixed. Although generally profitable, such films required huge budgets which, coupled with a high rate of inflation in France, reduced the French level of production to just fifty-five films in 1925 -- drying up funds for small production companies and driving most independent film-makers into contract work with the dominant French producers.
During the last half of the decade, every major French production company went through changes in management and orientation. After losing its Russian émigré base, Albatros secured the services of Feyder and Clair to direct films (especially comedies) that were more specifically French in character. Although Aubert himself began to take a less active role, his company's production level remained strong, especially through contracts with Film d'Art, Duvivier, and a new film-making team, Jean BenoîtLévy and Marie Epstein. Cinéromans launched a series of 'Films de France' features (by Dulac and Pierre Colombier, among others) to complement its serials; but when Sapène himself took over Nalpas's position as executive producer, the company's output generally began to suffer. Joining these companies were four others, all either financed by Russian émigré money or associated with Paramount. In 1923 Jacques Grinieff provided an enormous sum to the Société des Films Historiques, whose grandiose scheme was 'to render visually the whole history of France'. Its first production, Raymond Bernard's Le Miracle des loups ('The miracle of the wolves'), premièred at the Paris Opéra and went on to become the most popular film of 1924. In 1926-7 Bernard Natan, director of a film-processing company and publicity agency with connections to Paramount, purchased an Éclair studio at Épinay and constructed another in Montmartre in order to produce films by Perret, Colombier, Marco de Gastyne, and others. At the same time, Robert Hurel, a French producer for Paramount, founded Franco-Film, wooing Perret away from Natan after La Femme hue ('The naked woman', 1926) to deliver a string of hits starring Louise Lagrange, the new 'Princess of the French Cinema'. Finally, out of the ashes of Ciné-France arose the Société Générale des Films, which drew on Grinieff's immense fortune to complete Gance's NapoLéon ( 1927) and finance Alexandre Volkoff's Casanova ( 1927) and Carl Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc ('The Passion of Joan of Arc', 1928). Against this tide of consolidation, a few lone figures maintained a tenacious, but marginal, independence, among them Jean Epstein and especially Pierre Braunberger (the former publicity director for Paramount), whose Néo-Film offered a 'laboratory' for young film-makers.
During the 1920s the distribution sector of the industry faced an even more severe challenge. One after another, the major American companies either set up their own offices in Paris or strengthened their alliances with French distributors. In 1920 came Paramount and Fox-Film; in 1921 it was the turn of United Artists and First National; in 1922 they were joined by Universal, Metro, and Goldwyn, the latter two signing exclusive distribution contracts, respectively, with Aubert and Gaumont. That this could happen so easily was due not only to the Americans' economic power but also to the French government's inability either to impose substantial import duties on American films or to legislate a quota system restricting their numbers vis-à-vis French films. The American success stood in stark contrast to the French film industry's failure to rebuild its own export markets lost in the war. In the United States, for instance, no more than a dozen French films were exhibited annually from 1920 to 1925, and few reached cinemas outside New York. By the end of the decade, the number had increased only slightly. The situation was different in Germany, where a good percentage of French production was distributed between 1923 and 1926, in contrast to the far fewer German films imported into France. That too changed, however, when ACE began distributing German films in Paris, bypassing French firms altogether. By 1927 the number of German titles released in France surpassed the total production of the French cinema industry.
That the French distribution market did not capitulate completely to the Americans and Germans was due in large part to Pathé-Consortium. Whatever its internal problems and shifts in production, Pathé served, much as it did before and during the war, as the major outlet not only for its own product but also for that of smaller companies and independent producers. Cinéromans serials played a decisive role precisely at the moment when, in 1922-3, fresh from their conquest of the British cinema market and just before their intervention in Germany, American companies seemed ready to impose a block-booking system of film distribution within France. According to Fescourt, the serials functioned as a counter system of block booking in that, for at least nine months, they guaranteed exhibitors 'a long series of weeks of huge returns from a faithful public hooked on the formula'. Having taken over the contracts of AGC and negotiated others with Film d'Art and independents such as Feyder and Baroncelli, by 1924-5 Aubert complemented Pathé efforts as the second largest French distributor. Yet, even though other companies emerged, such as Armor (to distribute Albatros films), there were never enough independent French distributors, nor was there a consortium or network which could distribute the great number of independent French films. As the decade wore on, the French resistance to foreign domination began to weaken: Gaumont came under the control of MGM, while Aubert and Armor gradually moved within the orbit of ACE. However successful Pathé, Aubert, and others had been, the Americans and Germans secured a foothold within the French cinema industry at the crucial moment of the transition to sound films.
Compared to the rest of the industry, the exhibition sector remained relatively secure throughout the 1920s. The number of cinemas rose from 1,444 at the end of the war to 2,400 just two years later and nearly doubled again to 4,200 by 1929. At the same time, box-office receipts increased exponentially, even taking into account a short period of high inflation, going from 85 million francs in 1923 to 230 million in 1929. This occurred despite the fact that the vast majority of French cinemas were independently, even individually, owned (the figure was perhaps as high as 80 per cent), few of those had a capacity of 750 seats or more, and less than half operated on a daily basis. That the exhibition sector did so well was due partly to the enormous popularity of American films, from Robin Hood (with Douglas Fairbanks) to Ben-Hur. Yet French films, and not only the serials, also contributed: Feyder's costly L'Atlatitide ( 1921), for instance, played at the prestigious Madeleine cinema for a whole year. Equally important, however, the luxury cinemas or palaces, most of them constructed or renovated by Aubert, Gaumont, and Pathé as 'flagships' for their circuits, generated an unusually high volume of receipts. There were Aubert-Palaces in nearly every major French city as well as the 2,000-seat Tivoli in Paris. As its interests shifted to distribution and exhibition, Gaumont acquired control of the Madeleine, which, with the Gaumont-Palace, served to anchor its Paris circuit. Pathé renovated the Pathé-Palace into the Caméo, constructed the Empire and Impérial, and formed an alliance with a new circuit in the capital, Lutetia-Fournier. Only a few Paris palaces remained independent: the Salle Marivaux, constructed in 1919 by Edmond Benoît-Lévy, and the Ciné Max-Linder. Yet even the exhibition sector was not safe from American intervention. In 1925 Paramount began buying or building luxury cinemas in half a dozen major cities, culminating in the 2,000-seat Paramount-Palace, which opened in Paris for the 1927 Christmas season. By that time, the major French cinemas had long established a programme schedule which featured a single film en exclusivité along with a serial episode and/or a newsreel or short documentary. The Paramount-Palace introduced the concept of the double-bill programme. Furthermore, it was prepared to spend lavishly on advertising; within less than a year it was taking in nearly 10 per cent of the total cinema receipts in Paris.
Although Delluc abhorred them, serials were a distinctive component of the French cinema, remaining popular well into the late 1920s. Initially, they followed the pattern established by Feuillade during the war. In TihMinh ( 1919) and Barrabas ( 1920), Feuillade himself returned to criminal gangs operating with almost metaphysical power in a world described by Francis Lacassin as a 'tourist's nightmare of exotic locales'. Volkoff's adaptation of Jules Mary's La Maison du mystère ('The house of mystery', 1922) focused instead on a textile industrialist (Ivan Mosjoukine) falsely imprisoned for a crime and forced to exonerate himself in a series of deadly combats with a devilish rival. Another pattern began to develop out of films like Diamant-Berger's Les Trois Mousquetaires ('The three musketeers', 1921) and Fescourt's Mathias Sandorf ( 1921): the costume or historical adventure story which Sapène and Nalpas seized on as the basis for the Cinéromans serials. War heroes and adventurer-brigands from the period either before or after the French Revolution were especially popular. Fescourt's Mandrin ( 1924), for instance, depicted the exploits of a Robin Hood figure (Mathot) against the landowners and tax collectors of the Dauphiné region, while Leprince's Fanfan la Tulipe ( 1925) staged one threat after another to an orphan hero (nearly executed in the Bastille) who finally discovered he was of 'noble blood'. By resurrecting a largely aristocratic society and celebrating a valiant, oppositional hero, who both belonged to a supposedly glorious past and figured the transition to a bourgeois era, the Cinéromans serials also played a significant role, after the war, in addressing a collective ideological demand to restore and redefine France.
That ideological project also partly determined the industry's heavy investment in historical films. Here, too, the often nostalgic resurrection of past moments of French glory -- and tragedy -- contributed to the process of national restoration. Le Miracle des loups, for instance, returned to the late fifteenth century, when a sense of national unity was first being forged. Here, the bitter conflict between Louis XI (Charles Dullin) and his brother Charles the Bold was mediated and resolved, according to legend, by Jeanne Hachette -- and ultimately by a code of suffering and sacrifice. Espousing a similar code, Roussel's Violettes impériales ('Imperial violets', 1924) transformed the singer, Raquel Meller, from a simple flower-seller into a Paris Opéra star and a confidante of Empress Eugénie, all within the luxurious splendour of the Second Empire.
Later French films tended to focus either on one of two periods of French history or else on subjects involving tsarist Russia. Some took up the same era favoured by the Cinéromans serials, as in Les Misérables or Fescourt's remake of Monte Cristo ( 1929). Others followed the example of Le Miracle des loups, as in Gastyne's La Merveilleuse Vie de Jeanne d'Arc ('The marvellous life of Joan of Arc', 1928), starring Simone Genevois, or Renoir's Le Tournoi ('The tournament', 1928). The most impressive of the French subjects were Napoléon and La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc. In Napoléon, Gance conceived young Bonaparte ( Albert Dieudonné) as the legendary fulfilment of the Revolution, a kind of Romantic artist in apotheosis, which others like Léon Moussinac read as proto-Fascist. Everyone agreed, however, on the audacity of Gance's technical innovations-the experiments with camera movement and multiple screen formats, most notably in the famous triptych finale. La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, by contrast, deviated radically from the genre's conventions. Dreyer focused neither on medieval pageantry nor on Joan's military exploits, showcased in La Merveilleuse Vie de Jeanne d'Arc, but on the spiritual and political conflicts marking her last day of life. Based on records of the Rouen trial, Dreyer's film simultaneously documented Falconetti's ordeal playing Jeanne and created a symbolic progression of close-up faces, all within an unusually disjunctive spacetime continuum.
Several of the most successful historical productions, however, permitted the Russian émigrés to celebrate-and sometimes criticize -- the country from which they had fled. Michel Strogoff, the Impérial cinema's inaugural film, adapted Jules Verne's adventure novel about a tsarist courier who successfully carries out a dangerous mission in Siberia. By contrast, Bernard's Le Joueur d'échecs ('The chess player', 1926), which set box-office records at the Salle Marivaux, represented the triumph of Polish independence from the Russian monarchy, just prior to the French Revolution. More fantastical in style than either was Casanova, one of whose episodic series of adventures had Casanova meet and befriend Catherine the Great. All three of these films showcased magnificent set décors and costumes (by either Ivan Lochakoff and Boris Bilinsky or Robert Mallet-Stevens and Jean Perrier) as well as marvellous location shooting (by L.-H. Burel, J.-P. Mundviller, and others), whether in Latvia, Poland, or Venice.
The boulevard melodrama continued to serve as an important asset to the industry for several years after the war. Tristan Bernard's plays, for instance, helped to secure his son Raymond's initial reputation as a film-maker. The more 'artistically' inclined film-makers also continued to work within the bourgeois milieu of the domestic melodrama, extending the advances made during the war, often by means of original scenarios, in what Dulac was the first to call 'impressionist films'. In J'accuse ('I accuse', 1919) and La Roue ('The wheel', 1921), Gance experimented further with elliptical point-of-view shot sequences, different forms of rhythmic montage (including rapid montage), and patterns of rhetorical figuring through associational editing. Dulac did likewise in a series of films which focused predominantly on women, from La Cigarette ( 1919) to La Mort du soleil ('The death of the sun', 1922) and especially La Souriante Madame Beudet ('Smiling Madame Beudet', 1923), whose central character was inescapably trapped in a provincial bourgeois marriage. Perhaps the high point of this experimentation came in L'Herbier's 'exotic' El Dorado ( 1921), which deployed a remarkable range of framing and editing strategies (along with a specially composed score) to evoke the subjective life of a Spanish cabaret dancer, Sybilla (Eve Francis), and culminated backstage in a stunning 'dance of death'.
By the middle of the decade, the bases for film melodrama had shifted from the theatre to fiction, and across several genres. Some followed the path of L'Atlantide, drawn from a popular Pierre Benoit novel, by adapting either 'exotic' Arabian Nights tales or stories of romance and adventure in the French colonies, usually in North Africa. The latter were especially popular in films as diverse as Gastyne's La Châtelaine du Liban ('The chatelaine of the Lebanon', 1926) and Renoir's Le Bled ('The wasteland', 1929). Others exploited the French taste for fantasy, particularly after the success of 'Séries Pax' films such as Poirier's Le Penseur ('The thinker', 1920). These ranged from Mosjoukine's satirical fable Le Brasier ardent) ('The burning brazier', 1923) or L'Herbier's modernist fantasy Feu Mathias Pascal ('The late Mathias Pascal', 1925), to refurbished féeries, Clair's Le Fantôme du Moulin Rouge ('The ghost of the Moulin Rouge', 1925), or tales of horror, Epstein's La Chute de la maison Usher ('The Fall of the House of Usher', 1928).
The major development in the melodrama genre, however, was the modern studio spectacular, a product of the cultural internationalism which now characterized the urban nouveau riche in much of Europe and a new target of French investment in international co-productions. According to Gérard Talon, these films represented the 'good life' of a new generation and helped establish what was modern or à la mode in fashion, sport, dancing, and manners. Perfectly congruent with the ideology of consumer capitalism, this 'good life' was played out in milieux which tended to erase the specificity of French culture. Elements of the modern studio spectacular can be seen as early as Perret's Koenigsmark ( 1923), but the defining moment came in 1926 with a return to theatrical adaptations in L'Herbier's Le Vertige ('Vertigo') and Perret's La Femme nue, with their fashionable resorts and chic Paris restaurants. Thereafter, the modern studio spectacular came close to dominating French production. Yet some films cut against the grain of its pleasures, from L'Herbier's deliberately 'avant-garde' extravaganza, L'Inhumaine ('The inhuman one', 1924) to his updated adaptation of Zola, L'Argent ('Money', 1928), whose highly original strategies of camera movement and editing helped to critique its wealthy characters and milieux. A similar critique marked Epstein's 6½ x 11 ( 1927) and especially his small-budget film La Glace à trois faces ('The three-sided mirror', 1927), which intricately embedded four interrelated stories within just three reels.
The 'realist' melodrama, by contrast, sustained its development throughout the decade and remained decidedly'French'. Two things in particular distinguished these films. First, they usually celebrated specific landscapes or milieux, as spatial co-ordinates delineating the 'inner life' of one or more characters and, simultaneously, as cultural fields for tourists. Second, those landscapes or milieux were divided between Paris and the provinces, privileging the picturesque of certain geographical areas and cultures, often tinged with nostalgia. The Brittany coast provided the subject for films from L'Herbier's L'Homme du large ('The man of the high seas', 1920) and Baroncelli's Pêcheur d'Islande ('Iceland Fisherman', 1924) to Epstein's exquisite 'documentary' Finis terrae ( 1929), and Jean Grémillon's extraordinarily harrowing Gardiens du phare ('Lighthouse keepers', 1929). The French Alps dominated Feyder's exceptional Visages d'enfants ('Children's faces', 1924), while the Morvan provided a less imposing backdrop for Duvivier's Poil de carotte ('Ginger', 1926). Barge life on French canals and rivers was lovingly detailed in Epstein's La Belle Nivernaise ('The beautiful Nivernaise', 1924), Renoir's La Fille de l'eau ('Water girl', 1925), and Grémillon's Maldone ( 1928). The agricultural areas of western, central, and southern France were the subject of Feuillade's Vendémiaire ( 1919), Antoine's La Terre ('The land', 1920), Robert Boudrioz's L'Âtre ('The hearth', 1922), Delluc's L'Inondation ('The flood', 1924), and Poirier's La Brière ( 1924).
Another group of 'realist' films focused on the 'popular' in the socio-economic margins of modern urban life in Paris, Marseilles, or elsewhere. Here, for flâneurs of the cinema, were the iron mills and working-class slums of Pouctal's Travail ('Work', 1919), the claustrophobic sailor's bar of Delluc's Fièvre ('Fever', 1921), the street markets of Feyder's Crainquebille ( 1922), and the bistros and cheap amusement parks of Epstein's Cōur fidèle ('Faithful heart', 1923). Although their numbers decreased during the latter half of the decade, several achieved a remarkable sense of verisimilitude, notably Duvivier's Le Mariage de Mlle Beulemans ('The marriage of Mlle Beulemans', 1927), shot in Brussels, and the Benoît-Lévy/Epstein production of Peau de pêche ('Peach-skin', 1928), which juxtaposed the dank, dirty streets of Montmartre to the healthy air of a Charmont-sur-Barbuise farm. Perhaps the most 'avantgarde' of these later films were Dmitri Kirsanoff 's brutally poetic Ménilmontant ( 1925), with Nadia Sibirskaia, and Alberto Cavalcanti's documentary-like stories of disillusionment and despair, Rien que les heures ('Only the hours', 1926) and En rade ('Sea fever', 1927).
One last genre, the comedy, also remained solidly grounded in French society. The 1920s at first seemed no less inauspicious for French film comedy than had the war years. Le Petit Café ('The little café, 1919), Bernard's adaptation of his father's popular boulevard comedy, starring Max Linder (recently returned from the USA), was a big success, yet failed to generate further films. There was Robert Saidreau's series of vaudeville comedies, of course, and Feuillade's charming adaptation Le Gamin de Paris ('The Parisian boy', 1923), but not until 1924 did a significant renewal of French film comedy get under way, ironically from the Russian émigré company Albatros. The initial model of comedy construction was to update the figure of the naïve provincial come to the sophisticated capital, as in Volkoff's Les Ombres qui passent ('Passing shadows', 1924). Another was to transpose American gags and even characters into an atmosphere of French gaiety, as in the Albatros series starring Nicholas Rimsky, or in Cinéromans's Amour et carburateur ('Love and carburettor', 1926), directed by Colombier and starring Albert Préjean. The real accolades, however, went to Clair for his brilliant Albatros adaptations of Eugène Labiche, Un chapeau de paille d'Italie (The Italian Straw Hat, 1927) and Les Deux Timides ('The timid ones', 1928), with ensemble casts featuring Préjean, Pierre Batcheff, and Jim Gerald. Accentuating the original's comedy of situations, Clair's first film thoroughly mixed up a wedding couple and an adulterous one to produce an unrelenting attack on the belle ipoque bourgeoisie through a delightful pattern of acute visual observations. Almost as successful was Feyder's Les Nouveaux Messieurs ('The new gentlemen', 1928), which provoked the ire of the French government, not for its satire of a labour union official (played by Präjean), but for its so-called disrespectful depiction of the National Chamber nto an exuberant social satire, pitting a blithely assured but ineffectual bourgeois master against his bighearted, bumbling servant, played with grotesque audacity by Michel Simon.
By the end of the decade, the French cinema industry seemed to evidence less and less interest in producing what Delluc would have called specifically French films. Whereas the historical film was frequently reconstructing past eras elsewhere, the modern studio spectacular was constructing an international no man's land of conspicuous consumption for the nouveau riche. Only the 'realist' film and the comedy presented the French somewhat tels qu'ils sont -- if not as they might have wanted to see themselves -- the one by focusing on the marginal, the other by invoking mockery. With the development of the sound film, both genres would contribute even more to restoring a sense of 'Frenchness' to the French cinema. Yet would that 'Frenchness'be any less imbued with nostalgia than was the charming repertoire of signs, gestures, and songs that Maurice Chevalier was about to make so popular in the USA?
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en: The Oxford History of World Cinema, EDITED BY GEOFFREY NOWELL-SMITH
Hay traducción castellana de este texto en: PALACIOS, Manuel y Julio PÉREZ PERUCHA coords., Europa y Asia (1918-1930) (Historia General del Cine Vol. 5), Madrid, Cátedra, 1997.