I truly believe that if the First World War had not happened, we would be talking about Paris as the movie capital of the world and Hollywood would have remained in second (or third or fourth) place. The quality, creativity and exuberance of early French cinema was unmatched and many of these films still make charming introductions to the silents.
War sent the French industry reeling. It soon recovered (thanks in part to a talent transfusion from Russia) but many of the stars and directors of the pre-war years were unable to reclaim their places in the movie-going public’s heart. That’s a real tragedy.
The early history of film (pre-1915) often gets covered with a few broad strokes. Melies! Porter! Griffith! Done! Of course, a lot of amazing work gets lost in these whirlwind tours. We’re going to be slowing down a little and taking a closer look at wide variety of creative films that were being made in France before the First World War. Then, we’re going to swing around and examine some of the large-scale filmmaking that was in style during the 1920s, when French cinema was once more on the ascent.
French silent films are widely available and their quality is impressive. Because of this, I am not planning to make this a guide to all things silent and French. I’m not sure one month or even one year would be sufficient for that. Rather, I will just be sharing a few highlights, taking in titles that are obscure but worthy. Enjoy!
As an appetizer, here are a few French titles I have already reviewed, including some co-productions with other nations. All of them come highly recommended.
Cyrano de Bergerac (1925)
The Burning Crucible (1923)
Michael Strogoff (1926)
The House of Mystery (1923)
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Review #1: The Railway of Death (1912)
The old west through a French lens, this is a bloody and dark little western that never stops for breath. A revelation.
There is no doubt that, prior to 1914, French cinema set the pace aesthetically, and led the world in film production. I don’t agree, however, that this would have been sustainable in the long term, particularly in terms of production numbers. The United States was, by 1914, already the leading world market *for* film, and, given the huge untapped pool of talent and capital, it was eventually going to become the leading producer *of* film, no matter what happened in Europe. As a historian, I won’t go so far as to say this was “inevitable” (I can imagine situations that might have changed it, say if in addition to having no world war, the US stock market had crashed ten years earlier than it did), but it was pretty darn likely.
Commercial success doesn’t necessarily equate to artistic ascendance, and one can certainly debate whether Hollywood or Paris (or for that matter Berlin, Moscow, or Tokyo) was the artistic leader of the world by 1929. As a grad student in History, I once made the slightly facetious argument that, when the French realized they could no longer be the acknowledged leaders in world film, they created Surrealist and Dada film in order to permanently destroy film aesthetics as a concept.
All that said, I look forward to the posts you’ll give us in the coming month! France is undeniably one of the most interesting nations involved in film production and has been since the very earliest days of the movies.
We’re just going to have to agree to disagree. The quality of the French output was so consistently superior to comparable American films that there was really no contest. I’m not talking about “art” cinema but the crowd-pleasing serials, melodramas, comedies and, yes, even westerns. Hollywood deserves credit for taking advantage of the wartime chaos but “inevitable” seems a bit much.
I don’t think we disagree by all that much, really. “Inevitable” is too much, as I said. I think the only point I’m making (and we certainly can agree to disagree) is that the reason people think of Hollywood as the “film capital of the world” has less to do with quality, and a lot more to do with quantity. France’s quantity of production had already slipped between 1911 and 1914. In the book _The Cine Goes to Town_ (p.9-10), Richard Abel says that “In less than ten years, [the French film industry],with Pathé in the lead, had achieved a brief, tenuous hegemony throughout the world; and, despite Pathé’s ‘dethronement,’ on the eve of the Great War, the French still remained a close second to the Americans.” I don’t think that trend, already established, could have changed unless something happened in the US to change it, but World War One certainly hastened it.
It’s impossible to prove what-if scenarios but the level of disruption (physical, political, emotional) caused by the Great War had no equivalent in the United States. Yes, the war definitely affected the industry but mostly to its benefit and the United States entered combat late (very, very late) and did not have to deal with the same issues as France. The French film industry did not have the same basic structural problems as, say, the UK (speaking of quantity over quality, the quota quickies didn’t seem to do much for England) and it is significant that their industry was completely disrupted at the start of the feature era.
Sorry. Not buying it. At all.
Wow, heated debates already!
In any case, I look forward to your exploration of French silent cinema. I have seen only about one or two French films from this period.
They’re quite intriguing and– dare I say it? — another nail in the coffin of “Griffith, Father of Film”
Oh and where is your master list for upcoming theme months? I swear there used to be one but I cannot find it!
It’s here. I haven’t added it back to the sidebar yet because the page needs some updating/design TLC.
Have you seen the French silent Cœur fidèle (True Heart) (1923) Dir. Jean Epstein? I’d be interested in your opinion of that film! 🙂
No, not yet
One for the “to watch” list then? 😉
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