Little Patouillard is broke, so he decides that he will sell newspapers to earn a bit of cash. Chaos ensues when his stock gets soaked with water and he decides the best way to dry them is to start a fire…
Home Media Availability: Released on YouTube.
We didn’t start the fire
In the years leading up to the First World War, any French studio worth its salt had a regular comedy series in production—or several. Just to list a few, Pathé had Max Linder, the undisputed international king of comedy, Gaumont had Bout-de-Zan and Onésime, and Lux had Cunégonde and Patouillard.
Patouillard was played by Paul Bertho and his comedic persona was a fairly simple one: Patouillard was an enthusiastic fool with thick greasepaint eyebrows. He grinned and leaped about and got himself into predicaments that he might or might not escape through sheer audacity.
While Bertho and his Patouillard character have not enjoyed the longevity of other contemporary acts, the series was internationally popular. Lux bragged that it had offices in Barcelona, Brussels, Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, Genoa, London, Milan, Warsaw Buenos Aires, Moscow, London and New York City. Patouillard was rebranded as “Bill” for English-speaking markets and his adventures were shipped around the world.
Patouillard the Newspaper Hawker is a split-reel comedy that runs about six minutes. Considering Lux’s breakneck pace of weekly releases starring Bertho, the short length was a smart way to deliver content to eager audiences. (For context, feature-length films were a thing in 1911 but the short film was still the dominant release length.)
The short begins with a simple problem: Patouillard (Bertho) is broke. He soon realizes that he can obtain newspapers to sell and earn some quick cash and he sets to work enthusiastically. He shoves papers into the hands (and mouths!) of unsuspecting café patrons and shimmies up a rope to deliver a copy to an upper floor window.
However, he quickly runs into problems. First, his papers are attacked by dogs who leap at him and attempt to rip the pages out of his hands. As the owner of three paper-munching dogs around whom no newspaper, paper plate or Kleenex is safe, I spent the entire scene nodding enthusiastically.
Next, his papers are accidentally doused with water. No problem! There’s a clothesline nearby. Surely, nobody will mind if he drops all the clothes in the dirt to make room for his papers… Oh, the lady of the house most certainly does mind.
Desperate, Patouillard decides that the best way to dry his newspapers is to warm them gently by a fire… Which he sets in a vacant lot on a windy day. When his entire inventory becomes engulfed in flames, he runs to the local fire brigade for help.
The brigade is made up of more comedians and they race to the rescue in a chaotic and humorous manner that we could compare to the Keystone Cops… except this was a year before the Cops debuted at Keystone, so I guess we should start comparing chaotic official response to the Lux Fire Brigade instead.
All ends well when Patouillard manages to sell the firemen copies of the newspaper he kept safe in his clothing. Cash in hand, he wanders off to his next adventure.
I admit that I am not the biggest fan of slapstick but I had a bit of trouble embracing the Patouillard character. Besides his exaggerated eyebrows and checked suit, if you cornered me and asked me to sketch out the personality of the character, I would be hard pressed to come up with any description that didn’t fit a few dozen other funnymen of the era. He leaps, he schemes, he makes funny faces at the camera. His stunts are solid and sometimes spectacular but, again, not particularly unique.
In contrast, Max Linder was a man-about-town whose sophistication would melt into sobbing tantrums when he was not given his way. Bout-de-Zan was a naughty little tyke who would cheerfully steal elephants and befriend crocodiles. Onésime was a deranged and sometimes homicidal maniac who bent the rules of time and space to the breaking point. So, yeah, Patouillard’s greasepaint eyebrows are not going to cut the mustard for me.
I’m not saying that the character or this film are bad. They’re absolutely fine and have their moments. There’s just a generic quality to both. Fortunately, Bertho jumped over to the Éclair film company and started to play the Gavroche character. Gavroche is a bit subtler than Patouillard and the character is more to my taste. (“Subtle” being relative as one film featured Bertho playing around with a very real lion.)
The Gavroche series was renamed Funnicus for export and in a 1913 interview with the British magazine the Cinema News and Property Gazette, Bertho shared that he was somewhat dissatisfied with the movies because he did not receive the immediate audience feedback and plaudits that he was accustomed to getting during his stage appearances. As solution, Éclair had sent its major comedy stars on tour.
According to Richard Abel’s seminal work on early French cinema, The Ciné Goes to Town, Bertho had been a comic opera singer and music hall comedian before trying his hand at the movies. Bertho’s career seems to have ended some time during WWI, which was a time of great upheaval for the French film industry. Having a war on one’s doorstep tends to do that. By that time, the rise of Hollywood had made the American film industry the dominant player.
Patouillard the Newspaper Hawker is not a great film or a particularly memorable one but it is competent, has some bright spots, several of the gags land and it is a typical example of the kind of entertainment pre-WWI viewers would expect as part of their evening at the movies. If you like slapstick, you will probably enjoy this film more than I did. It’s very much a case of “Your mileage may vary.”
Where can I see it?
Available for free viewing courtesy of the EYE YouTube account.
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