Legendary beer king Gambrinus is showcased in this charming sound short from Gaumont. Stencil color adds that touch of class. If you’re not reaching for a beer (real or root) after seeing this, there is something wrong with you.
Sound, Color, Beer
When we last discussed early sound, it was 1900 and the technology was still in a fairly primitive state. Performers lip-synced to pre-recorded cylinders and the sound quality was, frankly, dreadful. Singers did not sing so much as squawk and the dramatic scenes were undone by the honking tone of the performers. They received attention, certainly, but while sound movies were a fun diversion, they were not the commercial success they needed to be in order to gain a foothold in the silent era.
One of the great pioneers of technically and commercially successful synchronized sound was Leon Gaumont, an engineer who just happened to run the studio bearing his name. Fascinated by all things mechanical, Gaumont built on the work of earlier sound pioneers and finally cracked to code for creating short sound films. Best of all, thanks to microphone technology, the sound was recorded live with the action, no lip-syncing necessary and no visible phonograph horns to worry about! Legende du roi Gambrinus was one of many short musicals (proto-music video, really) released by Gaumont until 1917.
By the way, because I know someone is going to bring this up, Gaumont was not the only company releasing sound films during this period but the company’s technology was among the most impressive. Other filmmakers with smaller operating budgets and less interest in technology were content to stick with the lip-sync-to-a-phonograph technique. They even found some success, especially if they lied and pretended that the person singing on the record was also the person appearing on the screen. (Heck, some of these old films can be found on YouTube with breathless claims that this, THIS is real footage of, say, Caruso.)
Okay, enough with the detours, let’s talk about Legende du roi Gambrinus.
Gambrinus, legend has it, was both a king and the inventor of beer. While that claim is suspect to say the least, King Gambrinus continues to be a popular figure in beer drinking country with bars, brands and breweries named in his honor. While some versions of his legend claim that he actually learned his brewing chops from Osiris (as in the ancient Egyptian), Gambrinus is generally portrayed in the puff and slash attire of the late Middle Ages. And that is what the folks in Hollywood would call telescoping.
Legende du roi Gambrinus takes a traditional approach to its main character. Gambrinus is bearded, portly, jolly and drunk. (Not to mention puffed and slashed.) The unnamed performers throw themselves into their roles (well, as much as one can in the space of a short song) and are suitably merry.
It’s a simple presentation but done quite well. The sound is clear, the actors are enthusiastic and the color (applied by stencil by the look of it) is subtle and crisp. It’s easy to see why these presentations were so popular with audiences. Songs, merriment and color? Sounds like a fun night at the movies to me!
Now we’re heading into nerd territory! Let’s discuss the technological breakthroughs that helped make these films a success. (For the technical portion of this review, I am highly indebted to the Learning to Talk documentary released on the Discovering Cinema set from Flicker Alley.)
Gaumont patented the chronophone in 1902 and with the development of sound amplification via air compressors, the problem of playing the films for large audiences was solved. In 1910, he introduced the microphone to his recording system (previous commercial technologies relied on the horn of a phonograph, though early innovators had played around with microphones), which made it possible to record sound and movement simultaneously. Playback was synced electronically.
In order to show off the new development, Gaumont presented the synchronization system to the French Academy of Sciences in December of 1910 and for their demonstration, the Gaumont team recorded a rooster. This was done because a chicken could not possibly lip-sync its crowing and because arch-rival Pathé’s logo looked like this:
I see what you did there, Gaumont.
So, electronic synchronization, new microphone technology, air compressor amplification… Pretty sophisticated stuff, right? Well the results show that all of that hard work had paid off. The difference between Gaumont’s chronophone recordings and those of the early sound experimenters is striking. While clearly an older recording, the cast of Legende du roi Gambrinus sounds excellent, none of that weird honking quality of the earlier cylinder recordings.
By the way, the final title card is tinted green, which was a common practice at French studios. Cards were colored a distinct shade in order to mark the product as authentic and not a pirated version. Thieves could dupe a print but it was more challenging to match tints. Just a little tidbit I thought you would enjoy.
So, if Gaumont cracked the talkie code, why did we not have a talkie revolution to coincide with the film industry’s conversion to feature films? The interest in sound films, like so many other things, was upended by the First World War and the French film industry in general was hit hard by the global chaos. Gaumont released its last sound film in 1917. Sound was not dead, of course, merely stunned and it would make a triumphant comeback in the next decade.
Legende du roi Gambrinus is a splendid example of how far cinematic sound and color had come in just ten years. While definitely short on plot, it is packed with historical and cultural significance.
Where can I see it?
Legende du roi Gambrinus is available on DVD as part of the Discovering Cinema set from Flicker Alley. It contains documentaries and numerous early examples of sound and color. Highly recommended.