French Comedians at Pordenone

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Brent Walker
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French Comedians at Pordenone

Postby Brent Walker » Wed Oct 13, 2010 2:58 pm

I just returned from attending my first Pordenone Silent Film Festival (great to see and hang out again with you, Uli!), which provided a great program of early French comedies in beautiful 35mm prints.

My observations: probably stating the obvious, but Max Linder (represented by only 2-3 comedies that weren't even among his best) was far and away the most talented comedian of the era.

Yet, I'd actually say Andre "Boireau" Deed may actually be the more influential in terms of the average American two-reel comedy of the 1910's and 1920's. As early as 1912, he was making one-reelers that had the elements that became standard for the middle of the road independent American comedies of the later eras, involving the following ingredients: 1) a not particularly expressive but very acrobatic, funny-looking, pint-sized comedian hero going through escapades that also featured, 2) "the girl", and 3) a large imposing guy who either played the girl's father or the heavy. His earlier films of 1908-09 era, like a lot of the French comedies, and the Essanay comedies Ben Turpin was then making, involved the more familiar format of a crazy guy running around the streets, being chased and knocking people over. Deed had a certain way of walking that, despite his very different body type, reminded me a little of Leon Errol.

The best of his comedies shown at Pordenone, though, were the ones featuring his comedienne wife Valentina Frascaroli, who I found more engaging with the camera, and still able to keep up with Andre's physicality most of the time. They didn't show any of her own solo comedies of 1914-15, where she played Gribouillette, but I would love to see some. She was definitely a worthy counterpart of the Alice Howell, Dot Farley brand of female comedy of the time. IMDB has her birth year as 1855, which can't be right, as she appeared to be no older than her 30's, maybe 20's.

The most revelatory Deeds comedy shown, however, was one without Frascaroli. It was 1912's BOIREAU EN MISSION SCIENTIFIQUE, in which he is an explorer who sets out on an aquatic mission, that involves him donning a full diving suit with helmet, and battling an animated paper mache shark. At one point he slowly walks out of the water and up a beach in the diving suit, scaring off a bunch of ferocious natives. Sound familiar? All the more familiar, because two days earlier (in an apparently accidental programming), Buster Keaton's THE NAVIGATOR was shown which of course has the same gag, done the same way (Deeds, like Keaton, walking to accent his otherworldliness).

I know Deed's Italian Cretinetti films showed in the US (under the name Foolshead), and I assume these French Pathe Boireau comedies did as well. It seems like that Keaton, then in vaudeville with the Three Keatons, saw this somewhere in 1912-13.

Lucien Bataille, as Zigoto, sometimes wore a walrus mustache that predated Chester Conklin, and he was a bit more expressive than Deeds. These were the two comedians that had the most similarity to later American comics. I really didn't think much of Charles "Rigadin" Prince, in the selections that were shown, nor "Calino" (played by both Romeo Bosetti and Clement Mege). The one Little Moritz comedy (LITTLE MORITZ CHASSE LES GRAND FAUVES) was interesting for the trained leopard in the film, which was frighteningly trained to attack full on, which it did several times in the film (I'm wondering if it was declawed and defanged).

We also got a real heavy dose of French kid comedies, featuring Bebe, Bout-De-San and Willy. Anyone who knows Phil Carli should ask him about playing the hour program that included 9 consecutive Bebe comedies! Bebe was a particularly annoying Little Lord Fauntleroy type. The French kid comedies weren't very good, but they were definitely "cruel and unusual" compared to the later American kid comedies. In one, Bebe is given a real rifle for a present, and he ends up shooting the posterior of the cook (through circumstances she has a target affixed to her rear)--this was the funniest gag in any of them. In another one, he feigns suicide with a pistol. He also smokes cigarettes, and one of the other kid comedians (I think Willy) pours himself an absinthe drink at one point.

THE THIEF CATCHER got the usual oohs and applause when Chaplin appeared. An Elsa Lanchester British two reel comedy (THE TONIC from 1928) with Charles Laughton in support was shown. Also shown were two 1910 Essanay Chicago comedies (restored by Eastman House/Selznick school graduate student Karin Carlson), MULCAHY'S RAID (featuring Harry Todd in the lead, and Augustus Carney as an extra) and A COLLEGE CHICKEN.

It was great to see a few folks I already knew, meet a lot of new ones from around the globe, and to finally get to hang out with Bo Berglund after years of only corresponding.

Paul F Etcheverry
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Re: French Comedians at Pordenone

Postby Paul F Etcheverry » Thu Oct 14, 2010 3:28 am

Wow - this sounds like a fantastic screening.

I loved the two Max Linder Essanay comedies that were shown at the Niles Broncho Billy Festival a few years back. They were Monty Python-esque in their blend of sheer mayhem with dry humor.

Uli Ruedel
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Re: French Comedians at Pordenone

Postby Uli Ruedel » Sat Nov 27, 2010 12:59 pm

Enjoyed reconnecting in Pordenone too, Brent!

The special issue of 1895 which provided the occasion for the French comedy retrospective can be ordered online, by the way:
http://www.lcdpu.fr/livre/?GCOI=27000100003900&fa=sommaire. It contains a DVD of 20 selected French comedies. No soundtracks, alas, but still an essential release, it seems (I'm only a few shorts in, so far). Wish my French was better so I could enjoy all the scholarly articles!

Uli


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