L’Enfant prodigue is a three-act pantomime by Michel-Antoine Carré also known as Michel Carré fils (1865-1945), with music by André Wormser (1851-1926). Carré, the son of a well-known playwright and librettist, Michel Carré (1821-1872), had followed in his father’s footsteps. L’Enfant prodigue, probably his best-known work, was a major success both in France and internationally and was frequently revived with different casts. It premiered in Paris in 1890 starring Félicia Mallet as Pierrot fils and the first filmed version, a three-tableau excerpt, also featuring Mallet, was produced for the “Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre” at the Paris Exposition of 1900. See my article “The First Talkies – Part 1: 1900 ‘Le Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre'” for more about that film and the “Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre”. The following plot description comes from a review of the London production of the play published in The Brisbane Courier, 1 June 1891:
The plot of the piece is simplicity itself, being merely a modernised version of the Prodigal Son, who leaves his father’s comfortable middle-class home to waste his substance in riotous living in Paris, in the equivocal company of a siren appropriately named Phrynette. In due time the nymph abandons him for a wicked but wealthy Baron, and the disgusted and ruined Pierrot returns to his parents’ house, ” lean, rent, and beggar’d.” His mother revives him with a tender pardon; not so his father, who heaps indignant curses on his devoted head. The drums of a passing regiment are heard, and Pierrot . . . declares his intention of enlisting, and thereby saving his honour on the field of battle. On this his father relents, and he departs, blessed by both parents, as the curtain falls. All this is done without a word being spoken, but to the accompaniment of delightful descriptive music.”
L’Enfant prodigue has a rather special place in the history of French and European cinema because it was the subject of one of the first “full-length” (1600m or about 80 minutes) films to have been made there. In 1907 Edmond Benoît-Lévy (1858-1929), friend and legal advisor of Charles Pathé and firm advocate of the “authored” film, in association with the Société des auteurs dramatiques et compositeurs (SACD), filmed Carré’s pantomime in its entirety. Benoît-Lévy’s notion seems to have been to create a firm alliance between the SACD and Pathé, with this full-length production setting a precedent for their future work together. Pathé, who had a horror of the expense and risk involved in the making of long films, had no intention of setting any such precedent, withdrew from the negotiations with the SACD and refused to have anything further to do with the production. The film was eventually shot in the Gaumont studios in May and was shown from 16 June 1907 to warm critical praise, at the théâtre des Variétés in the boulevard Montmartre and rather pointedly not at the luxurious new 250-seater cinema, the Omnia Pathé, which had opened just the year before (14 December), even though it was just next door and managed by Benoît-Lévy himself. The film went on to enjoy a limited run outside Paris and was subsequently copiously publicized by Gaumont in their 1898 catalogue.
The part of Pierrot in the 1907 production was not played by Félicia Mallet but by one of her ex-students at the Conservatoire, Christiane Mendelys (1873-1957), an actress and mime at the height of her popularity in the theatre at this time. According to Annie Fee in her article on the actress in Women Film Pioneers Project (2017), “her success as a performer was such that that year the French Minister of Public Instruction awarded her the title of officier de l’instruction publique in recognition of her services to the arts”.
At the time of the Paris Exposition in 1900, Mendelys had been performing as Columbine opposite her other mentor, and husband, Georges Wague (1874-1965), in a series of Pierrot sketches (Pierrot infidèle, Le Noël de Pierrot etc.) at the salle de la Roulotte at 42, rue de Douai in Pigalle, run by chansonnier and songwriter Georges Charton (died 1929). In an interview in February 1945, just six months before his death, with various pontiffs of the Commission de recherches historiques (CRH) of the recently-formed Cinémathèque française (1936), including Jean Mitry and Georges Sadoul, a very old and sick Michel Carré discussed the cast of the 1907 film. Georges Wague himself played the part of Pierrot père while, according to Michel Carré, the mother was played by the actress Gilberte Sergy (died 1924), who performed in a few further films in 1909, and the playboy baron by someone he refers to simply as Marguerite, presumably one of the brothers Paul and Victor. Paul (1860-1918) was the one known both as a mime and a writer of pantomime but Carré adds that the performer in question was still alive, suggesting it may actually have been Victor (1866-1942), who had only died three years before the interview took place. In a very confused passage in the interview – the transcriber evidently believes Carré is talking about the director Jean Renoir and invents a male part that does not exist in the pantomime – Carré would seem to ascribe the part of Phrynette to the actress Jane Renouardt (1890-1972), later a frequent co-star in Max Linder comedies, who also played the part in a later 1916 film version. If so she was just seventeen and this is her first known film.
The film is often said to have been directed by Carré himself but this was probably not really the case; the film was essentially a record of the stage production filmed from one single camera-angle. If anyone might be said to be a director it was Benoît-Lévy himself, although Carré was certainly actively involved, as author of the piece and as a prominent and active member of the SACD, presided at this time by journalist and dramatist Alfred Capus (1859-1922). He and the co-writer André Wormser were both fully credited and remunerated in line with Benoît-Lévy’s notions of copyright (noted by Francis Valleiry in Phono-Ciné-Gazette 54: 15 June 1907 “Droits d’auteurs”), the principles of which Benoît-Lévy would himself expound further in the same journal some months later (Phono-Ciné-Gazette 62: 16 October 1907 “Le Droit d’auteur cinématographique”).
Carré, for his part, did not think much of the result. According to early film historian, Guillaume-Michel Coissac, in his Histoire du cinématographe de ses origines à nos jours (1925), he described it as “un très mauvais film, fait avec toute l’ignorance d’un débutant” (a very bad film, made with all the ignorance of a beginner). In the 1945 interview he blamed its relative failure, at least on general release, not so much on the unaccustomed length of the film but on the fact that it had been shot in such a way as to render the large gestures necessary for pantomime unintelligible. One needs, however, to be a shade cautious about these criticisms since it is possible that the octogenarian’s remarks reveal not so much a displeasure at the cinematography as a distaste for the style of “pantomime moderne” – modern, that is, in 1907 – advocated and practiced by Georges Wague whose rehearsal rooms famously bore the motto: “le minimum de geste correspond au maximum d’expression” (the minimum of gesture corresponds to the maximum of expression).
Wague’s unconventional pantomime style sought to move away from precise codes of gesture and movement (the so-called “alphabet mimique” and “phrases gestuelles”, preferring a style that was more expressive of mood and feeling than intended as a kind of sign language that translated words by gestures (“logocentrisme”). “Nous ne visons pas […] à singer le langage humain” (we do not aim to ape the human language), Wague wrote, “mais à représenter des mouvements de pensée, des luttes de conscience, des sensations secrètes…” (but to represent movements of thought, struggles of conscience, secret sensations). This more expressionistic modern style did not appeal to all. In 1911 the classic Marseillais mime Bighetti, cited in Patricia A. Tilburg’s Collette’s Republic: Work, Gender and Popular Culture in France 1870-1914 (2009), thought it a profanation of the art:
The little pig that sleeps in all men feverishly dishes out [the big money] to this Polaire [Émélie Marie Bouchaud known as Polaire (1874-1938) was a popular caf’conc’ performer known for the energetic physicality of her acts and her breathtakingly tight corseting and wasp-like waist (38cm). Wague had also been her mime coach. – ed.] or to this delightfully feminine Christine Kerf. And then what becomes of M. Wague and his modern pantomime? He fades backstage with the props. [M. Wague], if you feel like it, be the Barnum of a dizzying attraction for those who love strong sensations and excessive realism. Make lovely sums [of money]…That’s fine but do not pose as the innovator of a genre.”
– “Le populaire Bighetti répond à Georges Wague” in Théâtre (Marseille, 4 April 1911)
Another critic, Gabriel Boissy, in “Une classe de pantomime au conservatoire: La pantomime n’est qu’un art secondaire” in the journal Excelsior in November 1910, described Wague’s approach as malsain (unhealthy) because it paid “excessive attention to clowneries that are solely physical”. Wague, in “La Patomime Moderne” in Le Monde Théâtral in 1914, was unapologetic about the modernity of his style (“I prefer Electricity to the Candle”) and about the popular appeal of his pantomimes, regarding mime as a “universal form of expression” which should remain “artistic, human and above all comprehensible to all, in any country and before audiences as diverse as possible”. An admiring critic, Joseph Gravier in his article “Les Idées de Georges Wague, Prince du genre” In the lyonnais journal Presse sportive et littéraire on 31 December 1910, quotes Wague’s comparison of his ideas of “modern pantomime” with Isadora Duncan’s theories of “modern dance”: “Duncan’s art is a sort of ascension towards the imprecise, an escape into dream; my art, on the contrary, is an approximation to life”. As one of Wague’s most celebrated students, the writer Sidonie Gabriel Colette known mononymously as Colette (1873-1954), expressed it in a letter to him in September 1908, “I am suddenly seized by the need no longer to speak but to express what I am trying to say in gestures, physically, and in the rhythm of dance”.
The “sensational” aspects of Wague’s pantomime were, however, very much to the fore in 1907 when L’Enfant prodigue was made, since he was also touring at this time, and causing scandal, with the selfsame Colette. Wague and Colette first played together in Pan, described punningly as a “drame satyrique en trois actes”, on 28-30 November 1906 at the Moulin Rouge and on 6 December in Brussels. Written by symbolist poet Charles Van Lerberghe (1861-1907) to music by US décorateur Robert M. Haas (1889-1962), the play also featured the actor/director Aurélein Lugné-Poe, founder of the theatre troupe La Maison de l’Œuvre, which specialized in the works of Ibsen, Strindberg. Hauptmann, Maeterlinck, Gorki, Gogol, D’Annunzio, Jarry, Gide and Wilde and was one of the leading proponents of “naturalist” theatre. The critic Albert de Moulin, in his Paris Lumière that same month, considered Colette “outrageously naked beneath some animal skins”. He shared the view of a spectator who had supposedly cried out ‘It is repugnant’ and regarded the entire show as a “veritable ignominy”.
On December 16 Colette opened at the Moulin Rouge in La Romachelle, a piece by the mime Paul Franck (dates unknown) with music by the actor Édouard Mathé (1838-1934). This pantomime had already been performed at the Olympia in October with the author himself playing opposite Colette and at the Cercle des arts et des sports on 27 November where the male role was taken by one of Collete’s real-life lovers, the openly lesbian Mathilde “Missy” de Morny, Marquise de Belbeuf (1863-1944). Later (6 December 1910) described by Le Figaro as a « conte zignaresque mêlé de danses et de chants » (a gypsy-like tale mixed with dances and songs), it featured Colette in the tile role. According to a leading expert on plaisirs de la bouche of all kinds, Maurice Edmond Sailland known as Curnonsky (1872-1956), as famous as a gastronome as he was as a critic, she appeared “sous la forme charmante, mais inattendue, d’une petite bohémienne capricante et sauvage, à peine vêtue de loques qui laissent voir sa nudité blanche…” (in the charming but unexpected guise of a wild and capricious gypsy, barely covered by the rags that reveal her white nakedness). Colette had pointedly refused to wear the conventional « maillot » (or body-stocking) and, proud of her “arms and legs of steel”, stoutly defended the decision. “I want to dance naked but the maillot hampers me and humiliates my form”, she told a Swiss newspaper, Genève mondain, in July 1911. “My contempt for conventions possibly provokes anger in people who violate them shamefully in the shadows”. As “Cur” pointed out in his Paris qui chante (1906), Colette was adopting the same sensible attitude in this regard as the emerging idol of the “modern dance”, Isadora Duncan. “The bareness of two beautiful, lively legs where the muscles play beneath the splendor of the skin”, he added, “certainly seemed more chaste than the display of padded giblets, an obscene and adulterated sight which has for too long inflicted upon us.”
On 3 January 1907, still at the Moulin Rouge, Colette and Missy appeared in the pantomime Le Rêve d’Égypte, where they shared an onstage kiss which caused such a serious commotion that the Paris préfet, Louis Lépine, decided to intervene and stop the show until “Missy”, disowned in the meantime by her family, was replaced by Wague himself and, since the Egyptian ambassador had also complained, the pantomime was renamed Songe d’Orient. Naturally the crowd now complained, almost as vociferously, at the absence of “Missy”, who, as “Yssim”, was also the author of the piece with music once more by Mathé. The piece was definitively banned in Paris but was shown again, under its original title, at the théâtre des Capucines in Nice in March.
Further scandal, but less dramatic, was caused by the pantomime La Chair, first performed at the Casino de Paris on 15 June 1907. This “mimodrame”, like La Romanichelle, strongly influenced by Carmen, involves an unfaithful peasant-girl called Yulka, played by a mime known only as “la belle Impéria”, who is found by her smuggler lover in the arms of a young soldier. He attacks her furiously, intent on murder, but when her dress is ripped to reveal one of her breasts, he is disarmed by the powerful beauty of her naked body. Instead of killing her, he nails his own hand to a table with a knife, a sight that fills Yulka with terror. The invaluable “Colette sur scène” on the website of the Société des amis de Colette, provides a fuller account:
Yulka vit avec le farouche contrebandier Hokartz qui l’aime de toute la force de son âme sauvage, mais Yulka lui est infidèle de toute la force de sa beauté. Elle reçoit en l’absence d’Hokartz, les visites d’un jeune sous-officier dont elle est amoureuse. Le contrebandier surprend leur rendez-vous, et surgit tout à coup : il désarme et assomme à moitié le séducteur, qu’il jette ensuite dehors. Restés seuls, l’amant exige une explication, il veut savoir. Yulka reste muette ; il la tuerait peut-être si, dans la lutte, son vêtement se déchirant, ne laisse apparaître « la Chair » dont il est sauvagement épris. Yulka fuit, épouvantée, tandis que dans la folie de son désespoir et l’impossibilité de la posséder encore il se tue devant la porte irrévocablement fermée.
Yulka lives with the farouche smuggler Hokartz who loves her with all the power of his savage soul. Yulka is unfaithful to him with all the power of her beauty. In the absence of Hokartz she receives the attentions of a young subaltern with whom she is in love. The smuggler surprises them together. Charging upon them, he disarms and partially knocks out the seducer, whom he then throws out. Alone with his lover, he demands an explanation, to know the truth. Yulka remains silent and he would perhaps kill her if, in the struggle, her clothes were not torn to reveal “the Flesh” of which he is savagely enamored. Yulka flees, terrified, while in the folly of his despair at the impossibility of possessing her again, he kills himself before the door that has irrevocably closed upon him.”
The pantomime was co-written by Wague with Léon Lambert (dates unknown) with music by popular composer Albert Chantrier (1874-1946). The Paris journal Fantasio, previewing the performance emphasized the artistic purpose of the nudity: “In a time when female nudity in the theatre only offers the audience a deplorable spectacle….La Belle Impéria wanted, on the contrary, to give a truly artistic show, proclaiming without false shame the triumph of the female form, the proud poetry of the flesh”. Colette took over the part of Yulka in November when the show reopened at the théâtre de l’Apollo and it became her most famous and successful roles, the “mimodrame” being performed regularly throughout France and the French-speaking world (Belgium and Switzerland) for the next four years. Wague himelf played the part of Hokartz while the soldier-lover was played by a woman, most commonly Christine Kerf. She and Colette even exchanged roles on at least one occasion in Le Havre, giving the audience a view of another “pearly bosom”, praised as “realism” by the reviewer in Petit Havre (30 September 1911) who saw in “her supple body, undulating with harmonious lines” a “touch of truly academic art”.
As Patricia Tilburg has demonstrated both in the work cited earlier and in greater detail in her article “The Triumph of the Flesh: Women, Physical Culture, and the Nude in the French Music Hall, 1904–1914″ in Radical History Review (2007), attitudes to nudity, at least amongst artists and intellectuals, were changing at this period. The foolish blather of the havrais journalist quoted above is really just a rather maladroit provincial version of attitudes widely expressed elsewhere. Snob in Le Rire (7 March 1908) described Colette’s breasts as “veritable goblets of alabaster”. The préfet in Alpes-Maritimes was ridiculed for his prudish suggestion that Colette’s left breast should be veiled in her performance in La Chair when the piece was shown in Monte Carlo and a journalist in Marseille preferred a performance there where (accidentally or deliberately) the entire dress had fallen off on the grounds that the nude was “more artistic and chaster than the semi-clothed body”. One journalist in June 1909 argued that “the truly beautiful nude cannot be indecent” (which seems a little tough on the ill-favored) while another in Lyon mondain (1909) thought La Chair “the glorification of all that is most beautiful, pure, and artistic in the nude”. Tilburg also cites at length the views of more distinguished critics such as Émile Vuillermoz (1878-1960) and Léon Werth (1878-1955) but the opinions of these bourgeois bohèmes of their day, with the honorable exception of the future “prince des gastronomes”, Curnonsky, whose views in such matters were as simple and downright as his taste in food, are frankly a load of pompous twaddle. Full of idiotic hyperbole and the fashionable cant of fin de siècle “political correctness”, with their dutiful genuflections at the shrine of “health and efficiency” (mens sana in corpore sano) and their equally dutiful deference to imaginary “classical” ideals, these wordy apologia for a provocative but harmless exploitation of voyeuristic pleasure are really just the reverse of the coin of the hypocritical protestations of shock and indignation, the two together being typical of the peculiar blend of brio and bluster that characterized the bifurcated French bourgeoisie.
During all the four years of the tour, Wague and Colette never ceased to add spice to their art. The chansonnier Georges Auguste Charles Guibourg known as Georgius (1891-1970), then a young beginner, recalled later how in L’Oiseau de nuit at the Gaîté-Montparnasse in November 1911, Colette performed without underwear, giving the front rows of the audience and the delighted waiters who served them, a most unusually intimate view of her charms. This was another piece written by Wague (with a certain J. Alène) with music by Chantrier and danses by choreographer Mme Cernusco, set in the pays Basque, in which Colette played a mysterious stranger who troubles the life of a happy peasant household (father and mother and son and his wife) and Wague played the son who is driven wild by the temptress and Christine Kerf the wife who finally drives her from the house. Here too the provocative distraction was defended on grounds of realism:
Pour jouer ce personnage, Colette portait une grande robe de volants. Elle virevoltait, tournait tour à tour dans les bras du rustre qu’elle voulait séduire, ou dans ceux de la femme qui désirait la chasser. Colette, pour faire plus vrai, jouait les pieds nus et, ce qui était plus audacieux, ne portait ni culotte ni cache-sexe, si bien que les spectateurs des premiers rangs plongeaient avec curiosité sur son intimité.
To play this character, Colette wore a billowing dress. She sprang about, now in the arms of the countryman she wished to seduce, now in those of the wife who wanted to get rid of her. Colette, to be more life-like, played the part in bare feet and, more audaciously without any underwear, so that the spectators in the front row were absorbed in the curious display of her intimacy.”
L’Enfant prodigue was Wague’s first known film but he went on to perform in some forty films altogether 1907-1922, including Pathé’s 1916 version of L’Enfant prodigue. He regarded cinema as a medium that promoted “natural expression” in much the same way as he advocated in his own theories concerning pantomime. In 1916 in “Beaucoup de mimique ! Pas de gestes !”, published in the journal Le Film on 22 April 1916, Wague wrote:
Cinema allowed me to observe and, in a way, find a material justification of ideas I was advancing on pantomime…The first manifestations of cinema were a record of the movements and vibrations of nature (the wind in the trees, flowers, streams, the movement of the sea, the flight of birds, etc.). In the face of that how can anything that moves away from natural expression not seem like nonsense!”
Since we have no copy, we cannot in truth know to what extent the 1907 film of L’Enfant prodigue was successful artistically, although this has not prevented many critics from writing as though we could. It is perfectly possible, as Carré maintains, that it was a poorly filmed and that the 1900 production by Marguerite Vrignault for the “Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre”, filmed by the very experienced Clément-Maurice, of which Carré does not appear to have known, was better in that respect. One should bear in mind that the Vrignault film is already long by the standards of the time – nearly ten minutes if one puts all three films end-to-end and is shot, as was the 1907 film, from one single camera angle. Yet it works perfectly well as a film. It is in fact not very much shorter than the surviving (Pathé-Baby) version of the full-length film made by Pathé in 1916. The latter is as one would expect, shot much closer and in more “realistic” style, corresponding to simplistic modern notion of what is “cinematic”, but I should be hard put personally to describe it as a better film than the one of 1900, which has a great deal of charm and more of a feel of commedia dell’arte to it than the 1916 film. There is no reason to believe that the lost 1907 film, for all Wague’s “modern” notions, would not have been reasonably similar in style.
The enthusiasm with which the 1907 production was greeted gives some reason to doubt Carré’s judgement. The hyperactive Benoît-Lévy was founder in 1894 of the Société populaire des beaux arts, which had been responsible in May 1906 for holding a “fête cinématographique” at the Trocadéro in Paris, a three-hour programme of seventeen Pathé films on the 13th, attended by 4,000 people, followed by a further programme of another dozen Pathé films a week later. Benoît-Lévy was also founder of France’s first cinema journal Phono-Ciné-Gazette (1905-1909), which, on 15 April, announced the formation of a “Ciné-Club” and on 11 May 1907, organized another grande fête at l’Élysée-Montmartre (original home of the can-can) and adjoining Trianon-concert, where 2,000 attended and at which films by a variety of companies (including Gaumont, Méliès and Raleigh et Robert as well as Pathé) were shown. These events were all duly recorded in the journal during May-June 1906 and in May 1907 by François Valleiry, Francis Mair (a pseudonym used by Benoît-Lévy himself), and Algerian-born critic Chaloum ben Delak known as Charles Delac (1885-1965), later (1911) director of Le Film d’art.
Naturally, with the production of L’Enfant prodigue the following month, the journal, mainly through the purple pen of journalist François Valleiry, enthused about the film in a whole series of articles (May to July). François Valleiry – sometimes also said, but I think improbably, to be a pseudonym used by Benoît-Lévy – built an entire journalistic campaign around the production, predicting grandly as early as February that a miraculous birth could be expected:
Today the cinema is on the eve of being born . I repeat: THE CINEMATOGRAPH HAS NOT YET BEEN BORN. IT IS ON THE EVE OF BEING BORN.
And I ask the typesetter to compose the underlined sentence above in very bold characters so that every reader of the Phono-Ciné-Gazette will have it burnished in their minds.”
– (Phono-Ciné-Gazette 46: 15 February 1907 “La Nouvelle pelicule”)
This proposition by Benoît-Lévy’s self-proclaimed John the Baptist (if he were not the man himself), was seemingly intended to support the massive increase in production engaged by Pathé in these years as well as arguing strongly for the making of longer films and was repeated in another article in July:
It is miserable to think that the largest factory in the world delivers two hundred and ten Cinématographe cameras per month and 60,000 metres of animated pictures per day when the need is exactly a thousand times greater.”
– (Phono-Ciné-Gazette 55: 1 July 1907 “Le Cinématographe n’est pas encore né”)
Charles Pathé himself did not entirely share the view that the one process (engaged for strictly business reasons) necessarily implied the other (an artistic ambition of which he was highly skeptical) as his refusal to back L’Enfant prodigue clearly indicated. The Phono-Ciné-Gazette did its best to compensate. In May there were two articles reporting the grand fête in Montmartre, the second being by Charles Delac (Phono-Ciné-Gazette 51: 1 May 1907 and 52: 15 May 1907 “Grand fête du Phono-Ciné”). With regard to L’Enfant prodigue, an unsigned article announced that “un homme a osé le premier faire cinématographier toute une pièce de théâtre” (a man has dared for the first time to film an entire play) (Phono-Ciné-Gazette 53: 1st June 1907 “Ciné-Nouvelles”) while the indefatigable Valleiry on the 5th July declared the production to represent “une nouvelle conception de l’art cinématographique”. (Phono-Ciné-Gazette 56: 15 July 1907 “Théâtre des Variétés”). He too emphasized that for the first time an entire theatre piece had been entirely “cinématographiée”, opening the way, in his view, for cinema to replace the theatre and emerge, as he put it in a later article, as the representative art-form of “le siècle de la démocratie” (the century of democracy) (Phono-Ciné-Gazette 61: 1st October 1907 “Ceci tuera des cela”). Valleiry also made much of the importance given both to the authors (royalties duly paid) and to the actors who were drawn from the “legitimate” theatre. A later article reported the production’s rather less distinguished progress in the provinces (Phono-Ciné-Gazette 59: 1st September 1907 “Ciné-Nouvelles”). The Gaumont catalogue of January 1908 also sang its praises, emphasizing its closeness to the original theatre pantomime, just “remaniée un peu” (minimally edited), accompanied by music that was “étonnamment appropriée” (remarkably appropriate) and “jouée par des acteurs du premier ordre” (played by the finest actors).
The production long remained an important landmark. In discussing Max Reinhardt’s Sumerun in 1910, a performance of which the German Kaiser was expected to grace with his presence, one critic in Ciné-Journal (H. Altmann) evokes the memory of the 1907 production of L’Enfant prodigue:
Sumurun est désigné, en Allemagne, sous la dénomination de « Film record » ; qu’il me soit permis de faire observer à mes. confrères, il y a quelque trois ans, un événement similaire surprit très agréablement les spectateurs du théâtre des Variétés avec L‘Enfant prodigue. La supériorité de Sumurun consistera peut-être en cela, qu’un souverain s’y intéressa, le président de la République n’en fit pas autant, les tours de force à faire pour L’Enfant prodigue, furent cependant appréciables.
Sumurun, in Germany, is designated as a “Film record” (“landmark film”); allow me to remind colleagues that, some three years ago, a similar event pleasantly surprised the audience at the théâtre des Variétés in the form of L‘Enfant prodigue. The superiority of Sumurun will consist perhaps only of the fact that a sovereign has shown an interest in it, while the President of the Republic showed none, but the achievement involved with respect to L‘Enfant prodigue was nevertheless appreciable.”
« Il fallait pour que parut l’Inferno » , wrote the editor, of Ciné-Journal, Georges Dureau, in a review of the pioneering Italian epic in 1911, « que l’Enfant prodigue ait été fait » (for The Inferno to have appeared, it was necessary that L’Enfant prodigue be made). « M Benôit-Lévy nous avait déjà donné L’Enfant prodigue, » (Mr. Benôit-Lévy had already given us L’Enfant prodigue) wrote another critic in Ciné-Journal in 1913 in discussing a later production, « qui marque une date dans notre histoire » (which marks a date in our history). « L’audace est bonne » (Audacity is good), the critic concluded. « Paris l’applaudissent toujours. » (Paris always applauds it).
Unfortunately, as the history of France has so often demonstrated, whatever Paris does, the provinces do the reverse. When the production was shown at Nîmes, a journalist in Le Cri de Nîmes on 21 December 1907 did not at all feel inclined to echo the Paris plaudits:
Cinémato ! Il l’a fait donc, son entrée au théâtre, le cinémato des familles ! […], il veut les grands triomphes devant une salle comble, et voici qu’il se hausse jusqu’à nous donner une pi ce toute entière, en trois actes, s’il vous plaît, sans coupures, sans autre arrêt que les entractes. La pellicule est la veine du moment ! Le titre de cette œuvre qui sera, ô, savoureux euphémismes des communiqués, « présentée pour la première fois sous la forme cinématographique », c’est : L’Enfant Prodigue. La parabole est touchante : en l’espèce, ce sera la rentrée au bercail… du cinématographe !
Cinémato! The family cinema has then made its entry in the theatre…Hoping for a grand triumph before a packed audience, it has gone to the length of providing a complete play in three acts, if you please, without cuts or any pause except the entractes. Film is all the things at the moment! The title of this work which, in the savoury euphemisms of publicity material, will be “presented for the first time in cinematic form”: L’Enfant prodigue. The parable is touching: in the event a return to the cradle for the cinematograph!”
This acerbic critic seems to be thoroughly au fait with the fashionable Paris talk; his sarcastic « La pellicule est la veine du moment » seems to reflect on the Phono-Ciné-Gazette journalists’ « nouvelle pellicule » and his description of the event as « un retour au bercail » would equally seem to be a deliberate reversal of Valleiry’s concept of a cinema reborn. His criticisms, however, do not really match either those expressed by Carré himself or those generally voiced by modern critics. If he is not impressed by the length of the performance, he is not especially daunted by it either, seeing it more as a gimmick than anything else and he certainly does not complain at the fact of its being a filmed play. It is rather the material itself he finds disappointing – a pantomime, nearly twenty years old, more suitable for family entertainment than for a more demanding modern cinema audience. Most of all he seems irritated – and who can blame him? – by the grandiose and rather pretentious claims of the production’s Parisian promoters.
The relative failure of L’Enfant prodigue in the provinces, the rather sour criticism of Carré, the even sourer sarcasms of the journalist in Nîmes and an essentially modern prejudice against anything thought to be “a filmed play”, should not let us forget the production’s very real success, both financial and artistic as well as symbolic. According to one Fulgus, in “Les Cinématographes” in Comoedia on 7 November 1907, it was a considerable success both artistically and financially. « Rappelez-vous L’Enfant prodigue, aux Variétés » (Remember L’Enfant prodigue) says a commentator in the same journal in 1914 when discussing a play that has not succeeded and giving examples of the opposite. In the same year, the important, if not always reliable, cinema critic for Comoedia, Jean-Louis Croze, self-professed champion of the « cause de cinéma » (January 1914), considered the 1907 production as a crucial factor in the « régénération » of cinema promoted by Benoît-Lévy (10 March 1914).
Pathé may not have wished to take part in the « régénération » of 1907, but he was quick to recuperate it to his advantage and on his own rather less ambitious terms. He supervised, in association with the Comédie française, the creation by Paul Laffitte (1864-1949), financier as well as novelist and critic, on 14 February 1908 of la société du Film d’Art and on 17 July 1908, by dramatists Pierre Decourcelle (1856-1926) and Eugène Guggenheim (1857-1921), of the Société cinématographique des auteurs et gens de lettres (S.C.A.G.L.). Le Film d’Art enjoyed a much greater degree of independence, and could indulge in the production of longer and more elaborate films. The first « soirée » at the salle Charras in Paris, where a programme of films that included L’Assassinat du duc de Guise, was another of those “landmark” occasions so eagerly sought by the “art film” lobby and indeed achieved considerable international renown. L’Assassinat du duc de Guise, written by dramatist and academician Henri Lavedan (1859-1940) and directed by the actors André Calmettes (1861-1942) and Charles Le Bargy (1858-1936) with an original score by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), was still of very modest length compared with Benoît-Lévy’s 1907 L’Enfant prodigue (just 310 metres although the surviving version is even shorter) but, even though it appears to have enjoyed little success in the US, the film would still be described, years later, by D. W. Griffith, talking to Robert Florey for Cinemagazine in July 1923, as “a complete revelation” and his “best memory of early cinema”. The Pathé contract, however, was the perfect expression of the businessman’s skepticism and left ample margin for Pathé to disown the company if he felt it was becoming an expensive luxury. The association was further loosened by a second contract in 1909 and abandoned by Pathé altogether in 1910.
The S.C.A.G.L., devoted to the production of films for the Série d’Art Pathé Frères (S.A.P.F.), was accorded its own new studio but granted distinctly less independence. It employed known authors and, as is clear from the 1945 interview, it is for S.C.A.G.L. that Michel Carré began to involve himself seriously in the cinema and gained his first real experience as both scenarist and director of several films between 1909 and 1914. He also makes it very clear in the interview that these were all short films. The results were very much Charles Pathé’s rather than Edmond Benoit-Lévy’s or Francis Valleiry’s conception of the “art film”.
Pierre Henry: En somme vous avez commencé de vous intéresser au cinéma avec la S.C.A.G.L. ?
Michel Carré: Oui, la Société cinématographique des auteurs et gens de lettres m’a demandé d’être metteur en scène des mes oeuvres, et m’a fait un traité d’après lequel je lui fournissais 400 m. de négatif par mois (qui était payés, je crois, quelque chose comme 0 frc. 05). Vous savez que l’on faisait, à cette époque, des films de trés petit métrage : le maximum était 400 m.
Pierre Henry: In short you began to interest yourself in the cinema with the S.C.A.G.L.?
Michel Carré: Yes, the Société cinématographique des auteurs et gens de lettres asked me to be director of my works, and gave me a contract by which I furnished them 400 metres of negatives per month (paid at something, I think, like five centimes per metre). You know that at that time one made films of very short length: the maximum was 400 metres.”
The first full-length film on which Carré worked as writer and assistant director was in 1912 when he was invited to work in Vienna as one of many collaborators on the English-language film version of Austrian director Max Reinhardt’s hugely successful 1911 stage production of Karl Gustav Vollmoeller’s Das Mirakel, produced and directed by the US entrepreneur Joseph L. Menchen (1878-1940), a film of about 2000 metres which originally ran for nearly two hours. During the 1945 interview The Miracle was the one film Carré expressed a desire to see again. Neither interviewee nor interviewers knew it at the time but it does survive in a somewhat abbreviated version (about an hour):
According to Carré an English version of L’Enfant prodigue was made at around this time, a version he considered better than that made in 1907. This I have not been able to trace with any certainty but may possibly be the film The Prodigal Son made in 1913 by the Dutch director Theo Frenkel, then working in England, for the Gerrard Film Company. Pathé, or strictly speaking an ephemeral Pathé affiliate called Le Flambeau, finally made a full-length version of the pantomime (5000 metres) in 1916. This too is frequently said to have been directed by Carré but it is quite clear from the 1945 interview, despite considerable bullying by Georges Sadoul to try and get the poor old fellow to say the opposite, that, beyond being the original writer, Carré had nothing whatever to do with the film and seems not even to have known it existed. In his own words he had definitely (« définitivement ») left Pathé by this time and was working in Marseille. The film, which survives at least in an abbreviated fifteen-minute version made for the 9.5mm Pathé-Baby home-viewer, starred fashionable Pathé actress Cécile Guyon as Pierrot fils. Georges Wague again played the part of Pierrot père and Marie-Laure Pierot mère. Jane Renouardt played Phrynette and Georges Tréville (one of the earliest actors to play Sherlock Holmes in a 1912 series for Éclair) appeared as the Baron.
Carré continued to work for a time with Menchen at a studio the latter had had built in Épinay in France (formerly the site of the Éclair studio) but any films made there appear to have been carried off by the businessman when he absconded sometime in 1914, failing to pay Carré what he owed him. Carré himself went to work in 1914 for Phocéa Film in Marseille, making four films there 1914-1916. Subsequently he made only one further film, re-writing with composer Adrien Chabot (died 1940) and co-directing with René Le Somptier (1884-1950) a full-length version of a short he had made for S.C.A.G.L. in 1910, La Bête traquée. He made two or three further contributions to scenarios in 1936 but was a very sick man by the time of his interview in 1945. He declared at the end of it that the experience had rejuvenated him. Six months later he was dead.
Author David Bond is a historian who specializes in the study of cultural history. Subjects of interest, past and present, include late seventeenth-century English drama, early English paperback publishing, the French graphic novel (bande dessinnée), Jamaican popular music (not just the “r” word) and cinema – of all periods and all traditions but with a special interest in the period prior to the (mitigated) disaster of what is popularly known as “sound”.