Louis Feuillade didn’t just make serials and this short is a showcase for child comedian Bout de Zan. The plot is very much what it says on the tin. Boy meets elephant, boy steals elephant, boy and elephant terrorize streets of Paris, as one does.
A Boy and His Pachyderm
If I had to pick the longest running family comedy trope, the “cute kid steals or hides animal” plot would surely be in the competition. Whether a collie, pit pony or a killer whale, sticky fingered kids have been rescuing, running away with or being reunited with animals since the beginning of film.
Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant is an early example of this. If you are a fan of French silent films, you will recognize Bout de Zan (René Poyen) and director Louis Feuillade’s names from such crime serial classics as Les Vampires and Judex. In fact, though, Feuillade worked in both comedy and drama before making his signature crime serials and this film is an example of the sort of output he was creating in pre-war France.
Cute kids indulging in bratty antics have always delighted film audiences and France had several favorites running at the time. Feuillade had been making the Bébé series with child actor René Dary (who would later enjoy a career in the talkies) but Dary’s parents insisted on more and more money for their son’s services and so a younger René was engaged, our Bout de Zan. (The two boys actually resembled one another quite a bit, though the Bébé character seems to have been generally more posh than Bout de Zan.)
Just four years old when this picture was made, Poyen displays poise and confidence, plus the mischief that we all know and expect. The plot of the film is pretty much given away entirely by the title: Bout de Zan steals into an encampment and makes off with a baby elephant. The two rascals have a grand time overturning fruit carts and generally painting the town red until they are taken in by a philanthropic lady (Renée Carl, everyone is René or Renée, which must have been quite confusing).
Bout de Zan and his elephant then display their table manners at the lavish luncheon that their benefactress offers them. The elephant wins the contest of manners, proving that it can eat with silverware. And with that, the film ends.
As you can probably tell, this is a lightweight short designed to showcase both the charms of its tiny star and the impeccable training of the little elephant. It succeeds brilliantly on both counts with Bout de Zan never simpering or wearing out his welcome with saccharine behavior, nor does he come off as homicidal or sociopathic, which was sometimes the case with Bébé (and Jackie Coogan). He’s a rascal and he’s proud of it and he will likely continue to be a rascal for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, he and his elephant are taken in by Mommy Warbucks and she seems to find their antics appealing so a happy ending all around.
The film was released in the United States just a few months after its French debut, as was common practice before the First World War made such importation challenging. It was renamed Tiny Tim and the Adventures of His Elephant and apparently expands the story somewhat with the use of title cards. (Getting this out of the way now: Tiptoe Through the Tulips.)
In a contemporary review, we are told that the elephant is named “John Willy” and that he was stolen in the night, which would indicate blue tinting for the day-for-night shots. Whether or not this was employed in the French release, I cannot say but it does show that the scenes were likely blue in the American edition. There are also several phrases in quotations in the review, though whether they are quotes of the American title cards or simply a way of indicating slang usage (which was common at the time) cannot be confirmed.
This retitling and expanding a story to appeal to local audiences showcases the versatility of silent films. Minor details like character names could be changed but some distributors went even further and completely reworked the thing with a whole new plot and perhaps the original ending snipped off. In the case of Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant, the main changes seem to be jokey title cards added in but the general structure of the film remained intact.
At one point in the film, Bout de Zan and his elephant startle a “blind” beggar and reveal that he can actually see. The exposing of a fake blind man was a reasonably common joke that crossed international borders. It was the main plot point of the 1913 Edison Kinetophone short The Deaf Mute and it was a throwaway gag in the Russian comedy Chess Fever.
The concept is also uniquely French as Paris, if you will recall if you saw The Beloved Rogue, was once home to the so-called Court of Miracles. This district was given the name because the blind could see, the disabled could walk, etc. In other words, it was a low income area of the city where beggars dropped their pretenses of disability, sarcastically dubbed a miracle. The old Court of Miracles was cleared from Paris years before this film was made but its spirit lived on in blind man gags.
Bout de Zan Steals an Elephant is light and silly and short. It isn’t a lost comedy masterpiece but it is anarchic, quirky fun, exactly what we have come to expect from pre-war French comedies. This picture will be of particular interest to Feuillade fans who have perhaps only seen his serials but want to enjoy some of his other genre work. It’s less than ten minutes so it’s easy enough to fit into the viewing schedule.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD as part of the first volume of Gaumont Treasures, a perfectly smashing box set that also collects the works of Alice Guy and Léonce Perret.
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