On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. A few days later, this comedy was released spoofing the theft and the less-than-competent investigation. The jokes were torn from 1911 headlines, will they yield modern laughs?
Something to smile about
When Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait was swiped from the Louvre, what is most remarkable was that the theft was not discovered for over a day. The guards simply assumed that the painting had been moved by authorized personnel. When the crime finally came to light, it caused a media sensation and the empty spot where Mona Lisa had once been displayed became the top attraction at the Louvre.
The painting was finally recovered in December of 1913 and all sorts of conspiracy theories have cropped up around which mysterious figures might have been responsible. (Pablo Picasso was a prime suspect for a time.) You know that I have little patience for conspiracies and the simplest explanation suffices for me: Italian worker Vincenzo Peruggia took advantage of lax security and made off with the painting, later claiming that his motive was to repatriate an Italian work of art in order to make up for the priceless items appropriated by Napoleon Bonaparte. (In fact, the Mona Lisa was brought to France by… Leonardo da Vinci.)
In 1911, the French film industry was in full swing and it was natural that the biggest story in art world would be fodder for the cinema. Comedian Georges Vinter had created the bumbling detective Nick Winter the year before and what better way to make use of the character than to have him stumble into the ultimate criminal investigation?
The film opens with museum director Croumolle (a play on real-life director Théophile Homolle) being awoken with a telegram: the Mona Lisa has been stolen. The flustered Croumolle loosens a shoe button as he dresses and walks out with his suspenders unfastened. Once in the gallery, he tosses his suspenders away and does not notice that his loose shoe button has fallen off.
Detective Nick Winter (Georges Vinter) spots both the button and the braces and assumes that they were left by the thief. He sets off to discover the owner of these items and recover the painting. The sad part is that by all accounts, this is kind of how the actual investigation into the theft was handled as well. I think we can all see where this is going.
Spoiler: The punchline of the comedy is that while Croumolle is being arrested by Winter, the real thief shows up with the Mona Lisa, replaces it on the wall and steals another painting. Apparently, he was nearsighted and wanted the other picture all along, the Mona Lisa simply was not his taste.
(Writer Max Brod states that the newly-stolen painting is a portrait of a princess by Velázquez but this clearly does not match the painting shown on the screen—the Infanta portraits held by the Louvre are more full-length affairs to showcase coiffures and gowns. It is possible that Brod simply remembered the Velázquez from his own visit to the Louvre and filled in the details. In any case, the paintings on either side of the missing Mona Lisa in the film are landscapes but photographs show that the portrait was actually flanked by other portraits in the real Louvre. The filmmakers likely spent cash on a Mona Lisa copy and then filled out their gallery set with whatever other paintings were on hand.)
While Croumolle was presumably cleared of all charges, the real Théophile Homolle was forced to relinquish his post as director of national museums following the theft. The whole affair was deeply embarrassing to the French government but it did wonders for the tourism industry.
Among the sightseers and gawkers who went to see the blank wall space were Franz Kafka and Max Brod. The young writers followed up their invisible sightseeing with a screening of Nick Winter and the theft of the Mona Lisa the next evening, September 10, 1911. (I note the date specially because it shows just how quickly Georges Vinter and company were able to churn out the spoof.)
Brod documented the evening and particularly noted that the Louvre gallery was closely replicated on the screen. While he writes of “the usual” chases and falls, Brod also states that he laughed his head off at the antics of the comedians, particularly the actor playing Croumolle.
(You can read Brod’s essay in Kafka Goes to the Movies by Hanns Zischler, though I think Max Brod Goes to the Movies would have been a more apt title since his film writings seem to be more extensive than those of his famous friend. This isn’t a complaint, merely an observation. Brod wrote of his dream of being a film extra just as a lark, you know, one of those people in the far background gawping at the camera. Kafka was often disappointed by the cinema as it did not match the images he created in his mind and while he did attend film screenings he would also satisfy himself by looking at lobby cards and posters and asking his sisters for plot recaps.)
Nick Winter and the Theft of the Mona Lisa was not the only tie-in available. Brod writes about the image of the Mona Lisa being found on postcards, advertisements and candy boxes throughout Paris. However, the film probably has the most fun with its subject, tweaking the noses of officials and concluding with a “Here we go again!” punchline.
I had never heard of Nick Winter before stumbling across this comedy in a box set and I have to say that I am impressed. Georges Vinter even collaborated with French superstar Max Linder in Max contre Nick Winter (1912). Marvel and Disney can keep their Avengers, THIS is the greatest crossover in cinema history and I am completely obsessed with seeing it. (If you know anything about its survival status, please share.)
In fact, I enjoyed this short so much that I plan to keep my eyes peeled for more Nick Winter films in general. I will also add that films like these are why I have remained fascinated by the silent era for all these years: there is always something new to discover.
The comedy is handled with a relatively light touch, less mugging and fewer pratfalls than, say, a Mack Sennett picture, and the concept of a bumbling detective is a pretty sure way into my heart. Vinter didn’t invent the concept, of course, but it is great fun to see an example of the character, especially tied to a real crime. While I have to agree that the actor playing Croumolle walks away with the picture, Nick Winter is an amusing character.
This film is pretty far off the beaten path even for geeks but I enjoyed it as a one-reel bundle of fun and factoids. Definitely worth a watch as it is a movie nerd, art nerd AND history nerd’s delight.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of the Kafka Goes to the Movies box set with a fine piano score by Richard Siedhoff. It includes French intertitles with optional English subtitles.
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