A Pathé film of uncertain date has long been identified as Les Tulipes (1907). The identification is a shade surprising since one would have imagined that a minimum requirement for a film to be supposed to bear this title would be that it contained at least one little tulip (the film itself supposedly contained myriads of them) while this film in the versions (at least two) that survive does not contain one solitary tulip. That illustrious bulb was the subject in 1637 of a massive speculative bubble. People won and lost fortunes overnight buying tulips that they never saw and which never really existed. Although no one is likely to lose or make a fortune in the matter, here we seem to have a modern-day cinematographic equivalent of seventeenth-century “tulipomania”, a sorry case of speculation over non-existent tulips.
Les Tulipes was a film that most certainly existed. It was probably made for Pathé by the Spanish cinematographer, colourist and director, Segundo Chomón. It came out in May 1907, was 225 metres long, 344 feet in imperial measurement, about five minutes long, and was hand-coloured. Here is the description of the film as it appeared in the Pathé catalogue:
Dans un berceau de tulipes géantes, un garçon et une fille pratiquent la magie des fleurs. Ils provoquent l’éclosion de fleurs à partir de bourgeons et des formes humaines sortent de celles-ci et dans le fond noir de ce magnifique jardin apparaissent des myriades de fleurs et dans le centre de chacune d’elles se trouvent une souriante figure humaine.
It is unnecessary for me to provide a translation because the version that appears in US trade publications when the film was shown there in January 1908 is virtually word for word the same:
In a bower of giant tulips a boy and girl practice flower magic. They cause flowers and birds to open and human forms to issue therefrom, and on the black background of the wonderful garden there appear myriad flowers, in the center of each of which is a smiling feminine head. Tableaux showing pretty girl and flower effects are plentiful and the film winds up with a burst of multi-colored flame, which shoots in fiery splendor from leaves and petals.
Nor does the film match the catalogue description that describes how a boy and girl produced tulips each of which has a human being inside. The longest version available to us is in the custody of the BFI, identified in slightly approximative Czech as Vily a Faun (At the Villa of the Faun) and it runs for just over four minutes, which is about right, but is an entirely standard length for such shorts at this date. There is not really any boy and girl (the wording implies two children); there is a bower of some kind but the flowers that decorate it are quite plainly irises not tulips. The film shows a man in a tricorne hat, seemingly a landlord of some kind, and what is evidently intended to be a young magician of some kind (played in fact by a woman but seemingly intended to be a male) who shows the landlord a vision of a young woman in whom he expresses evident interest. The description of Les Tulipes has none of this.
The magician is evidently showing the landlord her own sweetheart because s/he becomes annoyed at the landlord’s interest and tries to hustle him away. At which point he turns into, or is replaced, by a faun (this is, judging by the Czech title, intended to represent his domain). The magician makes him vanish to the accompaniment of flashes of multicoloured smoke and then bids the girl to reappear and descend into the foreground. S/he now makes the faun reappear in the background (the head in close-up) and he and his (frightened) sweetheart contemplate the vision which is then sprayed with water or fireworks of some kind and disappears. All these apparitions do take place against a black background (perfectly standard in such trick films) but nothing that has happened to this point could even remotely be described as “flower magic”. The faun’s head is replaced by multicoloured fountains of water and then by six pretty girls, presumably nymphs of the wood.
We do then get a display of flowers but they are not tulips and, although there is a pretty dancer in the centre of them, she does not in any sense “issue” from the flowers and buds and there is certainly no sign of “myriad flowers” (presumably all tulips) with a woman’s face at the centre of each. The scene changes to a design resembling an insect’s wings with three women in front of it. Then the couple themselves enter the background and are replaced in the foreground by the six women who perform what is presumably intended to be a nuptial dance. In a curious scene after the dance (the point at which one would normally have expected the film to end), both “tricorne” and faun reappear in the foreground. Possibly they are, as they appear to be, two separate entities, the former being a predatory landlord who thinks he is goat enough to rival the faun; possibly they are intended to be two incarnations of the same entity. They fight with each other, with the faun seemingly getting the better of it.
The copy of the film in the EYE collection has what may be a contemporary inscription identifying it, in German, as “Die Tulpen” and there is said to be a title-card from a 9.5mm version made for the Pathé-Baby in the 1920s that similarly identifies the film as “Les Tulipes”, this time in French. The dating of the first of these is based on the evidence of hand-writing evidence and such evidence, when the sample is small, is notoriously unreliable but the two things together do clearly suggest that the misidentification (and there is absolutely no doubt that it is a misidentification) took place at a very early stage even if it still haunts us today. The fact that it should be misidentified so early is in itself of interest and gives this evidence some importance, but it does not constitute evidence regarding the identity of the film, simply evidence regarding its misidentification.
Returning to the film itself, it is quite clearly one of at least three films that appeared at this time which dramatise the myth of the faun and the naïads, nymphs or bacchantes, the basic elements of which are instantly recognisable. Its true title is almost certainly something similar to that of the copy currently with the BFI, Vily a Faun (At the Villa of the Faun), but no film of such name is known from any catalogue or from any contemporary description. Although the film has most commonly been misidentified as Les Tulipes, two other misidentifications have also been proffered. The flowers one sees in the film are irises and there has been one attempt to identify it as the later Pathé film by Chomón, L’Iris fantastique (1912), but this film is already known to exist and a copy on the internet (wrongly dated 1908) fits the catalogue description for that film. The BFI misidentifies it as another Pathé film, this time by Gaston Velle, Le Faune (1908), but, while this identification is much more plausible, what we have does not fit the catalogue description of this film either, nor does it resemble in the least a surviving still from that film.
The myth of the faun and the bacchantes is a rather nebulous one and one can only really reconstitute its elements from the four films known to us that dramatise the myth – a Parnaland (future Éclair) film of 1906 called Faune et bacchantes, a (probably) lost film of which we have only a description, an Italian film made for Cines called Il Fauno (1907), perhaps also lost, of which we have a description, the existing film of uncertain date which we know only by the Czech title of the copy currently with the BFI, Vily a Faun (In the Villa of the Faun) and the (probably) lost 1908 film by Gaston Velle, Le Faune of which we possess a description and a still. Elements common to all of them is the fact that the faun is a force of nature (a Pan-like creature), a god of the woods with great energy (when alive) and an evident taste for nymphs and naïads, although his role seems often to be as much protective as menacing. The faun is represented as a creature of stone (a marble or stone statue) that comes periodically to life. Here water seems to play a role, seemingly both in reviving him or turning him back to stone. Jealousy induced by the arrival of a human rival or rivals for the favours of the nymphs seems also to have the power of bringing him to life. The nymphs are also creatures of the woods, sometimes seen as under the protection of the huntress Goddess Diana, sometimes of the Goddess of Love, Venus and her son Cupid. Their relationship with the faun seems largely friendly, even playful, but he evidently needs to be kept from getting out of hand from time to time.
The first in the series of films on the subject (or at least the first known to me) is the Parnaland film of 1906. Called Faune et Bacchantes, it probably appeared towards the end of the year (one sole performance is known in December) and is just 23 metres (one minute long). The catalogue description is as follows (my translation follows):
Cette scène se recommande par le côté artistique de la mise en scène et par les gracieuses évolutions de cinq danseuses de l’Opéra habillées en bacchantes. Au milieu de leurs jeux elles taquinent le buste d’un faune et lui jettent de l’eau qui coule d’une fontaine. Le marbre s’anime, manifeste son contentement pendant que le jour baisse et que les nymphes entourent en une gracieuse apothéose le dieu des bois.
This view recommends itself by the artistic element in its mise en scène and by the gracious steps of five dancers from the Opéra, dressed as bacchantes. In the course of their games, they tease the statue of a faun and throw water from a fountain at it. The marble comes to life and the god of the woods shows its contentment at the setting of the sun, surrounded by the nymphs in a gracious apotheosis.
This is quite obviously not the film that we have; it is in any case a good deal shorter. But it does already have many characteristics in common, rather more than was the case with the film Les Tulipes. There is a faun and bacchantes a fountain and water and a celebratory dance although with five rather than six young women.
The Cines film Il fauno, which appeared sometime the following year (there was a showing in Denmark in October) has a description that come even closer to the film that we have (my translation follows):
Un elegante cavaliere soprende alcune ninfe che danzano intorno all’erma di un fauno: invaghitosi di una di esse vorrebbe abbracciarla, ma il dio silvano, geloso, si anima e ferisce il cavaliere. Lo soccorre Cupido, il quali gli concede in isposa la bella ninfa, tra il gaudio delle altre compagne che intessono in loro onore graziose danze.
An elegant cavalier surprises some nymphs who are dancing around the statue of a faun. Smitten with one of them, he wants to embrace her but the god of the woods, jealous, comes to life and attacks the cavalier. Cupid comes to is rescue, granting him the beautiful nymph as his wife to the delight of the whole company who weave in their honour a gracious dance.
Some elements resemble the Parnaland film. The nymphs are here seen once again dancing around a statue of a faun which comes to life. On the other hand we have a courtship as in the film we have, a fight between the faun and his human rival and a nuptial dance. Of the various descriptions we have this is the closest and it would be tempting to conclude that this is indeed our film, but there are still too many differences. We have no scene of nymphs dancing around the statue and we do not see the faun come to life. We do not have one but two suitors (although one may possibly be the faun disguised). There is no sign of Cupid, whom we would recognize from his bow, and the fight continues after the nuptial dance.
The fourth and last film in the series, Le Faune, was made by Gaston Velle for Pathé in 1908. It came out in September 1908, was 135 metres (so a shade longer than the film we have) and was hand-coloured. The catalogue description was as follows:
Un faune, amoureux de Diane, avance à travers les bois et réveille les nymphes qu’il rencontre sur son chemin. Diane écoute la musique jouée par un jeune dieu assis à son côté et se réjouit. Le faune devient jaloux. Il frappe le jeune dieu en pleine poitrine avec un gros bâton. Mais Cupidon, le dieu de l’amour donne un élixir qui ressuscite le jeune dieu tandis que le vieux faune est lié par les nymphes puis placé dans une fontaine pétrifiante où il est changé en pierre.
I shall not provide a translation because the version in English (it was shown in the US in December), while not identical, is not significantly different:
In this artistically colored picture we see the ugly Faun who is in love with Diana as he appears in the forest and awakens Diana and her nymphs. She spurns him and leaves him sprawling on the ground, and goes to another part, where she is attracted by the sweet music played by an ardent lover. She listens with delight and as he is making love to her, the jealous Faun approaches and strikes down the young lover, and makes his escape, Followed by the enraged nymphs. Cupid, the God of Love, appears and gives Diana a philter which restores the young man to life. The Faun leads the nymphs on long chase, through fiery caves and wild woods, until finally they overtake him in a beautiful grotto, where they bind him with ropes to a tree. Presently Diana appears on the scene and shows the triumph of youth over the ugly Faun, by having her nymphs pour water over him, which petrifies him, and he is turned into a stone image, while Diana and the nymphs joyfully dance around him.
The publicity-still that survives from the film shows “the ardent lover” playing his instrument (a lute of some kind) while the delighted Diana listens. The story remains relatively similar but is a good deal more sophisticated and the differences are so many that it is not worth enumerating them.
Retrace our steps to the most similar version known from the catalogues, Il fauno (1907), and we may have here the key to the mystery surrounding the uncatalogued Vily a fauni. Gaston Velle or Gaston Welles, Professor Velle as he was sometimes called, the director of the 1908 film, was between 1904-1906, one of the most important film-makers at Pathé. In the account-books for 1904 (a year when Ferdinand Zecca was absent), he was one of only three men singled out for mention. He had been a highly successful professional magician (performing on at least one occasion at Georges Méliès’ Théàtre Houdin in 1895), a rather more important performer in fact than Méliès himself who wrote and designed many spectacles for the theatre but rarely if ever performed himself until he started making films. After a stint with the Lumières, for whom he made a series of films very similar to the trick-films of Méliès, he joined Pathé where, in association with the cinematographer André Wenzel, a specialist in trick photography, he became in some sort Pathé’s answer to the success of Méliès’ Star films, a success, extending as it did to the lucrative US market, that Charles Pathé considered a very major irritant.
In May 1906, Velle left Pathé and moved to Cines in Italy. Italian companies had for some time been actively targeting disgruntled Pathé personnel and Pathé’s meanness in according his collaborators proper credit (and presumably adequate remuneration) for their work, although it had improved somewhat thanks to the efforts of Zecca, ensured that there were always plenty of disgruntled personnel for the Italian companies to woo. Velle was not the first to take this route and he would not be the last. On 14 March 1906, one of the other two “named” directors of 1904, Charles Lépine signed a contract with the Turin businessman Carlo Rossi by which he was appointed director of the film company that Rossi intended to set up there and he resigned his post at Pathé a week later. Charles Lépine was, unlike Velle, a cinematographer as well as a director of films (“directeur administratif des films” at Pathé 1905-1906) and was close to Charles Pathé himself (Pathé’s wife Marie had been a witness at his daughter’s wedding).
To add insult to injury, Lépine did not depart alone. He took with him at least two other Pathé technicians, Eugène Pianchat and Ernest Zollinger. The three men also took with them – and it was their fatal mistake – the plans of various photographic and cinematographic machines then in development at Pathé. Little imagination is required to imagine the cold fury that all this struck in the flint-like heart of Charles Pathé. Pathé reacted in no uncertain terms and had Lépine arrested on 24 April and when the final verdict was delivered by the courts in July (10 months prison and 3000 francs fine for Lépine, 8 months’ prison and 2000 francs fine for Zollinger, and a further 10, 000 francs in damages awarded against all three men), Pathé had the details of the sentences imposed on “our unfaithful employees” posted up in every Pathé workshop as a terrible warning to any others who might be tempted to try the same thing.
Charles Pathé was a mighty man in the year of 1906-1907 and it must have taken a good deal of courage on Velle’s part to make his move to Cines between Lépine’s arrest in March and his trial in July. He was, however, a bon vivant and a notorious womaniser and had in fact been born in Rome (in 1868), all factors that may have influenced his decision. He did not part unaccompanied either. Describing Velle as “one of the directeurs artistiques of Pathé and “the author of the most interesting and most universally famed of films, most of which will leave their mark on this period in the annals of cinematography”, the Cines bulletin gave a long list of Velle’s films. The term “directeur artistique” has no special significance; it was simply the expression used at this period for what we would now simply call “a director”. It then announced his arrival in Rome in the following terms (my translation follows):
- Gaston Velle, actuellement directeur artistique de la Société Italienne Cines pour la manufacture cinématographique continuera,comme par le passé à créer et mettre en scène de nouvelles oeuvres plus intéressantes encore, ce qui nous assurera une des meilleures places sur le marché européen.
Ajoutons que M. Gaston Velle est venu à Rome avec une pléïade d’artistes, décorateurs et autres auxiliaires techniques choisis parmi l’élite du personnel qu’il dirigeait à Paris, ce qui nous autorise à promettre à nos clients une production parfaite sous tous les rapports : scènes intéressantes, fixité absolue, photographie soignée, coloriage irréprochable, décors et costumes riches et choisis, artistes de premier ordre.
- Gaston Velle, currently directeur artistique with the Italian cinema manufacturer Cines will continue, as in the past, to create and direct new and still more interesting works, which will assure us one of the best places in the European market.
Let us add that M. Gaston Velle has come to Rome with a pléïade of artists, designers, and other technical assistants chosen from amongst the élite of the personnel he directed in Paris, which permits us to promise our customers a perfect production in every respect: interesting views, absolute precision, elegant photography, irreproachable colouring, rich décors and costumes and selected artistes of the first rank.
This bulletin, published in French in July, the same month as the Lépine trial, must have rendered Pathé apoplectic. He had however a solution at hand, one possibly already carefully prepared. For some time the company had already been availing itself of the services of Segundo Chomón, a Spanish colourist based in Barcelona who was also a cinematographer and a potential “artistic director”. No sooner had Velle departed for Rome than Pathé invited Chomón to Paris, an offer the latter accepted with alacrity. The results, if less witty and imaginative than the films of Velle, were everything Pathé could have hoped – extremely elegant and attractive. Les Tulipes was among the early films made by Chomón for Pathé in Velle’s absence. What is more, since the Spaniard was cinematographer, colourist and director all rolled into one, Pathé could scoff at the “artists, designers, and other technical assistants” who had accompanied Velle to Rome of whom three, the cinematographer André Wenzel and two technicians Dumesnil and Vasseur, are known by name.
Segundo Chomón (known sometimes in France, with a phoney French particule added, as Segundo de Chomón) seems to have been brought at least one film with him from Barcelona and this has something of the air of being made to measure for the situation. On 11 February 1905, three months before the departure of Velle for Rome, the Catalan filmmaker with whom Chomón was then associated, Adrià Gual, had brought out a film called Les duros que ne pasan (The coins that do not pass) or Les duros sevilians, a reference to false coinage then circulating in Spain. This film, handsomely colourised by Chomón would appear now to have been re-issued or remade for Pathé, in collaboration with Ferdinand Zecca, as Les Roi des dollars, a trick film showing a man vomiting coins, described in the press as showing “unique feats of ‘palming’”. It was also a magic act associated particularly with Gaston Velle, who had, for instance, performed it on stage at the Nouveau Cirque d’Orléans in March 1903 where it was described as « un des ses plus merveilleux tours » (one of his most marvelous acts). It may all have been pure coincidence but the film, first shown in France and Britain in April, just a month before Velle’s departure would have served Pathé’s turn very neatly as a message to his potential “unfaithful employee”. Another Gual/Chomón film, La gallina de los huevos de oro, was also remade for Pathé by Velle himself as La Poule aux oeufs d’or, with Chomón’s compagne Juliette Mathieu appears in the French version of the film. So the two men were not antagonistic and Pathé’s interest may have been more in ensuring that the highly experienced Velle teach the still very inexperienced Spaniard how to direct a film.
Even if these films were intended as a warning, Velle ignored it but, in the event, he only stayed a very short time in his place of birth. By September 1907 – we do not know why or on what terms – he was back with Pathé. Perhaps the Italian women and wine had proved a disappointment. If Pathé took Velle back, it was not so much that he needed him – the kind of trick films in which he specialised were in any case a fashion that was beginning to wane – it was probably more to ensure that his rivals at Cines did not have the benefit of his services and did not use it, as they hoped, to assure themselves “one of the best places in the European market.” Pathé had doubtless been angry in 1906 but in the autumn of 1907 it was Filoteo Albertini’s turn at Cines to feel aggrieved.
We know that there were recriminations (very probably mutual) but seem to lack the details. It is commonly asserted – but I have not found any reliable source for the information – that Cines threatened to sue Pathé for plagiarism. This would have been rather a case of the pot calling the kettle black. We know the names of several films made by Velle while he was in Italy and several were simply versions of films he had previously made for Pathé. Nozze tragique, the first film made by Velle in Rome, was a remake of Hymenée tragique made for Pathé earlier the same year and shown in Italy under the selfsame title; Triplice convegno was simply Triple rendez-vous and La pila elettrica Le Courant électrique; Ratto di une sposa in bicicletta was a remake of Une bicycette préenté en toute liberté while Viaggo une estrella was a remake of one of Velle’s most successful film of the year for Pathé, Voyage autour d’une étoile. It was even advertised in French by Cines with the tile only very slightly changed (Voyage dans une étoile) as the work of their new « directeur artistique ». Velle had made a lot of films during his stay in Italy and they cover a very broad range. He worked with some of the most important actors and actresses of the period (Fernanda Pouget-Negri, Maria Gasparini, Ubaldo Maria Del Colle, Mario Caserini) and was even responsible (with Mario Caserini) for a production of Shakespeare’s Othello. The films also enjoyed considerable success in the United States and in other European countries, in Germany, Spain and in France. Perhaps Albertini simply worked him too hard. Or perhaps Pathé made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
It seems possible that the uncatalogued film In the Villa of the Faun was made at Pathé during Velle’s absence in Italy, probably in the belief that the Cines film Il fauno was by the renegade Velle, although there is in fact no reason to believe it was, in which case it would almost certainly have been made by his “replacement”, Segundo Chomón, whose style it certainly does resemble. If so Pathé might, a little later, have had very good reason to try and hide the film away to avoid investigation for plagiarism and breach of copyright. Pathé was already at this time involved in several such suits but was on the point of himself making an important pronouncement on the whole question of copyright, which he did in 1907, through his legal mouthpiece Edmond Benôit-Lévy, at the same time as the company was switching, dramatically and importantly, to a rental system for its films. He could ill afford at that moment to be caught doing the same thing he was in the process of denouncing. The “misidentification” of the film as Les Tulipes may therefore have been a quite deliberate subterfuge, explaining why that same misidentification seems to appear so early in the archives and is still confusing scholars to this day.
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”.