The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (1908) A Silent Film Review

A historical recreation of an infamous assassination that changed the course of French history, this film also helped steer the course of cinema as it boasts an original score written by none other than Camille Saint-Saëns.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Murder most French

The movies had a problem in the 1900s. They were popular and profitable. In fact, producers couldn’t release motion pictures fast enough to meet demand. But censorship was starting to gain traction and movies were no longer a gimmick but not exactly considered art either.

Different producers took different approaches to this issue. Many Americans turned to religion. Passion Plays, biblical material and religious tales were used to shield movies from charges of immorality. The French, less concerned about being naughty but definitely wanting some respect, turned to the Comédie Française. Vaudeville and music halls, not to mention politicians and crowned heads, had been steadily supplying the movies with content for years but this pedigree was touted as a turning point.

Tapping into prestigious stage troupes was not an exclusively French strategy (“Famous Players in Famous Plays,” as one notable American company put it) but they enjoyed early success. Société Film d’Art was formed to bring tony stage material to the general public and their plan was sound: A famous historical murder, big name stage stars, quality costumes borrowed from their productions, story by Henri Lavedan… And, as if that was not enough, they engaged the services of Camille Saint-Saëns himself to write the score.

The conspiracy begins…

Even if you are not a fan of classical music, you have probably heard his Carnival of the Animals, Sampson and Delilah, or Danse Macabre. Saint-Saëns’ most famous works are also his most playful or high concept but he could be heavier, as he was in his glorious Organ Symphony.

And that was how The Assassination of the Duke of Guise was born.

The events of the story take place during the French Wars of Religion, a decades-long conflict between Catholics and Protestants, each of whom claimed to be the true heirs of Christ’s love and were ready to slaughter anyone who disagreed.

Not a smart move, as it turned out.

King Henry III was very much the spare and had been shipped off to rule Poland but France ran through kings at a shocking rate and he ascended to the throne. King Henry resented the power that the Duke of Guise, head of the powerful Catholic League and Lieutenant-General of France, had over him and decided that a little assassination was the answer. His personal bodyguard murdered the duke in front of the king and Henry followed things up by killing the duke’s brother the following day.

This was a significant event in French history as the assassination of the popular duke did Henry III no favors and he himself was assassinated the following year by a fanatic friar. This paved the way for the house of Bourbon to gain the throne and a string of Louis followed before meeting its own bloody end.

The film sticks pretty close to historical events and closes with the Duke’s body placed on a table. But never fear, the Eclipse company of France released An Eye for an Eye in 1911, which portrayed him receiving his comeuppance.

The Assassination of the Duke of Guise was given a splashy Paris premiere but the aim was also for international success. This proved to be a bit rockier. The trade magazine Moving Picture World praised the quality of the production but stated that it feared it would not be appreciated by American audiences unfamiliar with the French history. This is a pretty fair assessment, in my opinion, as the United States is not a country noted for its external curiosity.

Narrator: She wasn’t his wife.

My instincts proved correct upon comparing the American film credits with the original French. Grabrielle Robinne, seen in the opening of the film, was credited as the Marquise de Noirmoutiers, Charlotte de Sauve of Catherine de Medici’s Flying Squadron, an all-female espionage club. She was the mistress of the very married Duke of Guise and it was she who was his companion the night before his murder. Meanwhile, the film credits and synopses published in the American press primly stated that Robinne played the Duchess of Guise. So, I suppose they accidentally proved their own point.

(I should mention that a reader of Moving Picture World denied that the subject was opaque to Americans and instead stated that they objected to the violence of the story. He noted that the film was received coldly but also seemed to be under the impression that Henry III was meant to be a wholly heroic figure. Point proven again, it seems.)

Still, Pathé advertised the film heavily, even charging extra to book the picture, and released a recording of the Saint-Saëns score performed by the Orchestre Lamoureux on phonograph to sync with the picture. The length of the picture was halved with the American release running about 900 feet. We can assume that the score was somewhat reworked to deal with this fact.

For all of its fame, The Assassination of the Duke of Guise is not a particularly popular film. (Ironically, a great many modern online reviews seem to be written by Americans complaining about the obscurity of the topic. Plus ça change… However, the general modern consensus is that the production is dry and stagey.

Don’t even bother with this era if you don’t have shapely calves.

The Assassination of the Duke of Guise is indeed a stagey production and this was by design. The Comédie Française was ordered and the Comédie Française was delivered. The direction catches the action as it plays out on the stage and does not include then-common practices such as closeups or pans. That being said, I must agree with critics of 1908 that the acting is quite fine and I enjoyed the restraint of the French troupe in apples-to-apples comparison with other performances of the time. Modern viewers might still find the film overenthusiastic in its gestures, particularly Charles Le Bargy, who goes full Richard III as Henry III. Albert Lambert fils fills his tights nicely as the doomed duke.

All in all, stuffy but the production is generally done rather well and I enjoyed myself. However, it is the music, rather than any of the film’s visual elements, that has kept the picture in the public eye for over a century.

Infamy, infamy, they all have it in for me!

Special music for and about projected entertainment pre-dated the movies as we know them. Gaston Paulin wrote custom scores for Émile Reynaud’s 1892 Théâtre Optique animated gel plate presentation. The Magic Lantern Society has traced music written about projected slides all the way back to the eighteenth century and an 1853 issue of The Musical World and Times describes a slideshow presented to the Austrian royal family decades before with a commissioned score by Ferdinand Paer. The show presented Napoleon and company as demons and was apparently met with much enthusiasm. Whether or not the description is accurate, it at least shows that the concept of a prestige score was known.

For years, the Saint-Saëns score for The Assassination of the Duke of Guise was listed as the earliest original film score. At some point, and I am not certain about the source, L. Frank Baum’s touring production, The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays, became the internet’s go-to choice for that particular first. In fact, the current Wikipedia entry for The Assassination of the Duke of Guise has this line: “The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays contains the earliest documented original score in all of cinema.”

A few issues with this…

All fine and good but here’s my problem: The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays is not cinema.

It was a multimedia presentation with readings by Baum, costumed dancing and musical numbers. There were film sequences that could not be separated from the main production and they had music composed for them because it would have been weird if the performance had suddenly fallen silent. If there had been no film sequences in The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays, it still would have had a bespoke score. (You can read about this production in the excellent Oz Before the Rainbow by Michael Evan Swartz.)

The Assassination of the Duke of Guise, on the other hand, was a standalone film with a score written for it and it alone. Creative intent matters, in my opinion, and writing music for some film clips that happen to be included does not equal a bespoke film score. (It’s also worth noting that the Georges Méliès epic, The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903) allegedly sported a tailor-made score but I have found no word as to whether it was original music or arrangements of existing pieces.)

The color photography referred to was applied color.

That was the state of things until I read a brief passage in Film Music: A History by James Wierzbicki. Wierzbicki makes the fascinating claim that the earliest custom film score was actually an anonymous composition that accompanied the Australian Salvation Army film Soldiers of the Cross in 1900.

Needless to say, he had my attention.

The source for the claim is The Presentation of Silent Films, or, Music as Anaesthesia by Gillian B. Anderson in the Spring 1987 issue of The Journal of Musicology, which itself cites the Australian National Library in Canberra. The library was presented with a copy of the score, the composer of which is unknown.

Music everywhere! It’s a conspiracy!

Trinity College Dublin has published a brief description of Soldiers of the Cross and, in a shocking plot twist, it was also a two-hour multimedia presentation. In this case, no singing, no dancing, no L. Frank Baum live but ten religious films and magic lantern slides. However, if we want to head into these weeds again, I would point out that multifilm religious presentations were sometimes released as solo standalone films. The Lubin multimedia Passion Play of 1898, which ran close to two hours in its complete form, could be purchased as individual films a la carte or as a collection of films and a slideshow with a narration script.

In The Opera Singer and the Silent Film, author Paul Fryer names Herman Finck as the earliest identifiable film composer. Finck was the musical director of the Palace Theatre in London and composed a score for the 1904 French production of Marie Antoinette. This was a custom score for a standalone film but, if this distinction matters, it seems to have been an exclusive for the Palace Theatre and was not sanctioned by the original producer. (This would be common practice throughout the silent era, sometimes even when the film was released with a full sheet music score.)

Kalem touting its special score.

Anderson’s article, meanwhile, states that the earliest American film score was likely Arrah-Na-Pogue (1911), one of the many Irish films produced by the Kalem (or, O’Kalem, as it was playfully known) film company on location. Walter Cleveland Simon wrote the music for the motion picture, which received enthusiastic praise in the United States and, presumably, stony silence in England, which surely would not have approved of its pro-revolution message. Like all Kalem films of this era, it would have been a standalone short film that required no live performance to enhance its narrative.

(Incidentally, none of this information is new and the existence of the score for Soldiers of the Cross has been public knowledge since at least 1960. I am not sure why The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays became the internet’s go-to answer for earliest film score sometime in the mid-2010s— one presumes the enduring popularity of the Oz series contributed to it. Swapping out one Oz for another does amuse me, though.)

The duke well and truly assassinated.

So, Australia and the USA are in a Mexican standoff over multimedia presentations and whether they count as movies and England has a standalone film with a wildcat score. Let’s head back to France and discuss Saint-Saëns’ work and the presentation of his music.

The composer was in his twilight years and as popular as ever when he was approached to provide a score for The Assassination of the Duke of Guise. And while there are certainly strong claims of earlier film compositions being released earlier, Saint-Saëns was undeniably the biggest name to be associated with original film music.

Off to visit the king, what could go wrong?

In fact, it was an entire evening of music. While The Assassination of the Duke of Guise and its score was the centerpiece, Société Film d’Art presented two other films with original music: Le secret de Myrto with music by Gaston Bérardi and L’Empreinte with music by Fernand Le Borne. While they lacked the name recognition of Saint-Saëns, all three scores were released to the public as piano reductions.

Original scores for every single cinematic release did not become standard for decades—cue sheets and stock music still had a major place in the accompaniment of the silent era— but the Saint-Saëns score had an impact. Russian producer Alexander Drankov immediately commissioned Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (whose own Caucasian Sketches are something of a silent film scoring staple) to write music for the epic Stenka Razin (1908), which apparently inspired lusty audience signalongs. The parsimonious Edison film company started releasing cue sheets for its films soon after, though we cannot be certain if they were directly influenced by this foreign rival. (Edison was actively working on synchronized sound technology at the time.) Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre would inspire a vibrant, experimental musical fantasy from the innovative Dudley Murphy.

Why does everyone seem to have a dagger?

Ultimately, the question of absolute firsties is moot. Securing the artistic services of such a notable name in classical music as Saint-Saëns enhanced the prestige of motion pictures at a time when they needed it most. Further, both film and score exist, which is significant as Baum’s estate purged the film footage for The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays in the 1960s and, to my knowledge, only the score for Soldiers of the Cross survives.

While The Assassination of the Duke of Guise is a somewhat stagey view of history, the performances are most effective and the sets and costumes, while undeniably revealing their stage roots, set the mood very well. Saint-Saëns’ score supports the picture brilliantly, synchronizing without mickey mousing.

All in all, this is a picture that has earned its place in the canon, especially since it is likely the earliest silent film available to the public with its score intact.

Where can I see it?

Other than a famous clip in Cinema Europe, official releases have been thin on the ground. The only one I have seen on the English-speaking web has been a bonus DVD included with the album Saint Saens: Transcriptions by pianist Cyprien Katsaris. I will not be linking to any of the numerous videos available due to the instability of unofficial online releases but search engines are your friend here.


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