Thoughts On: Dream Of The Moon (Rêve à la Lune, 1905)
Today we explore the films of Ferdinand Zecca in relation to the French film company, Pathé.
Whilst we have tried to cast a wide net so far in the series, looking at a vast variety of topics, filmmakers and even focusing on the emergence of cinema in Japan, we have clearly been centred on three countries: Britain, America and France. This, whilst predictable, is for good reason. Cinema emerged, almost simultaneously, from these three countries (we could include Germany into this, too). Whilst some of the earliest innovations came from Britain and America – most notably through figures such as Muybridge, Le Prince, Greene and, of course, all of those working under Edison – today, we find ourselves back in France to look at Pathé. Moreover, this post will be focused on a critical period of cinema’s expansion which can be largely credited to this company alone.
As we have explored previously, the birth of commercialised cinema can be attributed to Edison’s Manufacturing Company. Edison’s company was the first to mass produce films and spread their invention across the world via the Kinetoscope. However, a mere two years after this begun, it was 1895 and the Lumières presented significant competition to Edison – a competition that was so significant and revolutionary that we now attribute the ‘official’ birth of cinema to the Lumières and not Edison–nor the Skladanowskys, Le Prince, Marey, Muybridge, etc. for that matter. So, after Edison’s company pioneered mass produced cinema, the Lumières and Méliès’ Star Film company pretty much took over. So, initially, the world-leading film industries came from France, and America followed them. This remained true all the way up until the WWI era, which saw the rise of Hollywood, which, we must remember, is still humble homes, fields and orange ranches in 1905.
Around the turn of the century, film was of course becoming ever more increasingly a business. The entire industry was expanding with more and more significant studios and companies emerging. This was putting an end to the ‘cottage industry’, and was shutting out new inventors and entrepreneurs due to the specialising market which was ran by, to a significant degree, patents; you had to own and protect your products – everything from film stock to cameras to studios to employees to your final film. Added to this, you needed a lot of financial backing to begin with and then business ties that could give you access to distribution and exhibition. As a result, when we look to the leading companies at this point – Edison’s, the Lumières’ and Méliès’ – we see three figures who not only got an early start in the industry, but had previous businesses that they could utilise to build their company – and this was true of Pathé, too. With a company such as Biograph in America, which didn’t have a pre-existing infrastructure like, for example, Edison did, they secured strong backing with their new invention – which was, for a period, daunting competition for Edison, who had not yet fully moved into projection, rather, was quite reliant on his Kinetoscopes. So, what we see in the late 1890s are companies emerging thanks to their technology and capabilities of financially supporting its advent.
As the years passed, however, the quality of products became ever more essential. For instance, Edison had to improve upon, and move past, his Kinetoscope and compete with the technology of Biograph, Vitagraph and the Lumières. However, with the emergence of Méliès around 1896, the quality of films themselves began to become ever more important. As a result street scenes and simple vaudeville acts were falling out of favour around the 1900s, which saw the initial rise of narrative films and the evolution of trick films – which itself contributed to the complexification of narratives, leading to parallel editing, superimposition and various other techniques that would start to become ‘cinematic language’.
It was in this period of evolution in which cinema began to resemble an art of its own and not a novel trick (cinema becoming an art is still, arguably, quite some time away, however). And in this era of change, Pathé rose to dominance. After all, though France remained a leading force in the international market until WWI as they competed with Denmark, it was not the Lumières and Méliès that represented France after the turn of the century. Rather, it was Gaumont and the iconic rooster of Pathé. (Let us not forget that Lumières withdrew from the film industry in 1905 as they believed that the invention was a mere novelty with no future).
What Gaumont and Pathé did to dominate the international market was, in essence, know their markets better than any other company. In such, they didn’t just make a variety of high quality films that audiences wanted to see, but they marketed themselves world-wide and spread into various international markets to develop deep roots that, for example, considering British Pathé, still last to this day.
On the note of British Pathé, one of the most influential and important products that Pathé produced were their newsreels. (And these days, British Pathé mostly serve to be a huge archive of this news material containing 85,000 clips stretching between 1910 and 1970). Whilst this is a significant part of Pathé’s history as they did ‘invent’ the newsreel (of course, street scenes and snapshots of life pre-exist the newsreel, which Pathé began to make between 1908 and 1911, but it was Pathé who coined the term and exhibited documentary shorts under such a name) we will not be delving into them today. This is because the newsreels rose after 1910 and so didn’t play a part in Pathé initially becoming the first global film infrastructure. What we will instead be focusing on today is one of the most significant narrative filmmakers who worked for Pathé around the mid-1900s: Ferdinand Zecca.
Zecca was raised in a family with connections to the entertainment world of Paris in the later decades of the 1900s. Different sources will suggest variations on Zecca’s father’s connection to the entertainment industry – some sources suggest he was a concierge, some a stage director and others a mere caretaker, later a stagehand chief, of the Théâtre de l’Ambigu. Nonetheless, following his father into the entertainment business, Zecca would become a café entertainer. It was in this period of his life that he came into contact with Gamount through its founder, Léon.
Pathé, originally Société Pathé Frères (Pathé Brothers Company), was founded in 1896. The brothers of Pathé Frères were Charles, Émile, Théophile and Jacques. However, Jacques is not considered to have played a significant part of the company. Rather, it was Charles and Émile who were central to operations whilst Théophile, the youngest, worked on the periphery and wasn’t really trusted by Charles and Émile. So, unlike the Lumières, who shared all of their patents, married two sisters and even lived in a symmetrical mansion built by their father, the Pathé brothers weren’t so unified. Nonetheless, though the company was founded in 1896, the focus was phonographs for the early years. It was Edison’s phonograph that in fact inspired Charles, who had struggled in various other businesses for many years, to begin Pathé. He would have also seen Edison’s Kinetoscope (which he would, in 1895, sell counterfeit versions of) and, in 1897, the company would be re-structured to begin producing and distributing films. It is around this time (1898) that Zecca would then be entering the film industry through their competitor, Gaumont, which was established in 1895 and would soon see – as we explored before in the series – Alice Guy-Blaché, Léon Gaumont’s secretary, begin making films.
As the Société Pathé Frères was growing, not just producing phonograph material (which Émile managed), but also film and film equipment (which Charles managed), they changed their name to Compagnie Générale des Établissements Pathé Frères Phonographes & Cinématographes (CGPC). The year after this, Zecca would make his first film for Pathé, seemingly leaving Gaumont where he was an actor. This first film is said to have been an experiment in sound. (Little coherent detail of Zecca’s start in the business seems available). However, at this point, Pathé was far from a successful company – especially its cinematic branch. Around the turn of the century, the company was expanding and beginning to produce a flow of titles, which were predominantly imitations of other peoples’ work. Zecca played his hand in this, re-creating British films after having gained the trust of Charles and become a key player in the company.
With Zecca coming aboard the developing company, Charles could turn away from the actual production of film and focus his attention on marketing. Meanwhile, we can imagine that Zecca was taking care of the creative side of production. In such, he would contribute to the development of the various series, or genre films, that the company would begin to produce.
Pathé produced various kinds of films; the basic street scenes, dances and acrobatic acts; the expected comedic scenes, trick films and fairy tales; the hush-hush stag films (soft-porn); added to this were dramatic, religious and historical scenes as well as further experiments with sound and more. Zecca would have made films of all kinds. There seems to be no clear figures, but he is estimated to have made and supervised the production of 100s, if not 1000s, of pictures. Unfortunately, and we should all be more than used to this now, few of his films survive to this day. Of the 100s that he would have made, under 100 are listed in his filmography and only 2 dozen (at best) are readily available online. It is then hard to get a true picture of Zecca’s abilities, but we can nonetheless find many impressive films of his between 1901 and 1909. And before we begin, it should be noted that Zecca would go on to make a few feature-length films after 1910. We won’t stray too far beyond our time bubble, however, and so won’t be getting into these.
One of Zecca’s most iconic films, which we have in fact picked up on before, is one of his most devilish: What Is Seen Through A Keyhole.
As impressive as this film is due to its manipulation of perspective, Zecca stole this film – much like he plagiarised many others in his first few years of production. The original film, which was from 1897, was made by American Mutoscope and was so influential that it lead to the coining of the term “What the Butler Saw”. This described a variety of erotic films that, like this, featured someone spying on a woman getting dressed. However, the original film, Peeping Tom, and the varieties of it that Mutoscope made seem to be lost. What stands in their place is then Zecca’s rip-off, which is often confused for the original film.
Despite the clear ethical issues that we would perceive when watching this film, plagiarism of this sort was, of course, incredibly common around the turn of the century. What this is then a signal of is Zecca learning from his contemporaries – granted, he shouldn’t be profiting from this, but we’re in the industrial wild west in certain respects when we look back to this era.
With Zecca ‘learning’ from his contemporaries, his skill as a filmmaker developed quickly. Moreover, much like Segundo de Chomón – who Zecca worked with on many occasions – he was apart of a community of filmmakers that were developing amongst one another. Added to this, however, Zecca would be developing in respect to market demands. This is what Méliès, especially as he got deeper into his career, neglected. As a result, we will see Zecca commit to creating a variety of films that constantly take new steps forward. An impressive step of this kind would come when Zecca made his most famous film, Histoire d’un crime, History of a Crime:
Whilst this wouldn’t be the first graphic and realistic film depicting violence (we could refer to Méliès’ Dreyfus Affair serial), Zecca certainly comes to define the realist social drama around the early to mid 1900s. After all, there is genuine drama and character in this short. Whilst the characterisation is certainly far from deep, there is complexity given to this narrative with the flash back. And though this is reminiscent of G.A Smith’s Santa Clause from 1898 with its use of superimposition and distant mise en scène which is utilised to create that thought bubble…
… because of the clear motivation given to the bandit, this is one of the earliest examples of a genuinely dramatic film that you can find. So, when we come to the execution – and, apparently, this film would have been stopped so that children could leave the screening at this point when this was released – the verisimilitude and drama that has thus far been built up contribute to an affecting moment. This in turn introduces an implication of artistry that would so far seem ironic to attribute to Zecca. But, nonetheless, the social drama was certainly where Zecca excelled.
We see another example of surprisingly strong drama in an early narrative film with Les Victimes de L’Alcoolisme, Alcohol and Its Victims.
As in History of a Crime, Zecca brings about drama and complex characterisation through his depiction of real social issues treated with some degree of nuance (just as the criminal in History of a Crime is given a positive side, so is the alcoholic of this film). This is, in fact, the most striking film that Zecca made in my view. With the opening we see an uncharacteristically subdued and realist scene. With the alive and moving mise en scène in the kitchen, the static and distant framing works wonders; we get to watch a scene unfold as if Zecca had considered utilising close-ups, but chose not to as to capture a genuine atmosphere in the house. (We can’t, however, assume this to be true). Nonetheless, the opening scene of this film is immersive and a critically true moment that paints the family with empathetic hues which, as we see drama and conflict flourish in the somewhat melodramatic later scenes, gives the film weight and clout to drive home the clear social commentary on the effects alcoholism.
With Alcohol and Its Victims marking a height in his social drama filmography, when we look to a few other dramas of Zecca’s, they do pale in comparison. Look, for example, to Un Horrible Cauchemar, A Horrible Nightmare…
In this film we see a guy smoking opium and then dreaming that he wakes up in prison. At first this seems to be a short in the same vein as Alcohol and Its Victims with Zecca possibly condemning or warning his audience about smoking opium, but, instead, he follows the route of a basic trick film reminiscent of earlier work of his that utilises dreams – such as Dream and Reality. In such, there seems to be comedic relief with the man waking up and continuing to smoke. Maybe there is a message here, one that comments on the fact that the smoker won’t change and will end up in prison. But, with the title of the film and the brevity of the ending, Zecca certainly fails in constructing a cohesive narrative here as he does in his stronger social dramas.
Without wanting to put Zecca into one box, he also made many adaptations that capture the spectacle and grandeur of the early Pathé colour films. We see this with his One Thousand and One Nights adaptation, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, as well as an adaptation of Faust, The Seven Castles of the Devil. However, it is certainly Zecca’s 45 minute religious epic (epic in regards to 1903), that trumps these adaptations.
Though this is over 40 minutes, The Life and Passion of Christ isn’t generally considered a feature-length film as it was sold to exhibitors in sections. Moreover, this isn’t a completely unique endeavour as, in the same year, an American company, Lubin, created a 60 minute biblical epic. And later on, Alice Guy-Blaché, for Gaumont, would also create a very similar film that pushed the 30 minute mark. However, whilst Guy made her film three years after Zecca, this film is, in many ways, a greater technological triumph. Whilst there is a chance that her film was coloured, there are no available prints of Guy’s film that are, the partial colouration plays a significant part in this film. And whilst Guy’s mise en scéne certainly rivals Zecca’s, his camera work and special effects are mightily impressive. If we look to the controlled, smooth pans alone which progress the narrative and open up the environment, we see Zecca making technological improvements on even Porter – whose pans in The Great Train Robbery are, whilst more audacious, clunky. Added to this, Zecca’s expressive close-up that features the phrase “Ecce Homo” (meaning “behold the man”) is particularly striking – maybe as much as the final shot of The Great Train Robbery.
Ultimately, though The Life and Passion of Christ is certainly very antiquated and slow, this remains a hugely impressive example of a grand adaptation.
It is these adapted films that we can imagine Pathé producing for markets sales. Adaptations have always meant big business and the fact that Pathé and Zecca worked together to produce high quality and very lucrative narratives speaks a lot to the company’s growing success. After all, by 1903, Pathé had acquired the Lumières’ patents for the cinematographe, and were improving the designs of their studio cameras. Simultaneous to this, Pathé, from 1902, began expanding into the international market, setting up branches and cinemas in London, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, New York, Moscow and even in Japan and Australia. It was then in this period, especially around the mid 1900s, that Pathé became the world’s first world-wide film industry. And though they didn’t have the largest studios in the world (at this point Gaumont did), they would be producing, after 1905, the most films per year in the whole world – by 1908, Pathé was making almost 4 times as many films as Biograph and twice as many as Selig, who, in the beginning of the decade would be making 100s more films than Pathé. So, whilst we, of course, cannot contribute this only to Zecca, we can understand that his involvement in Pathé’s expansion was significant – especially after 1905 when he would stand as the Managing Director for the company and so oversee the production of, as mentioned, 100s, if not 1000s, of films.
To come back to Zecca’s filmography, over his years, he had been developing his ability to work with special effects. We can see this with what is often referred to as the first ever aviation film, The Conquest of the Air, in which Zecca himself flies over a city on a strange contraption. Added to this, by 1904, Zecca was expanding his cinematic language. As we saw in The Life and Passion Of Christ, he was beginning to insert medium close-ups into his narratives, and this would continue with a comedic film shot fully in a medium shot, Le Mitron. This all leads us up to our subject for today, Rêve à la Lune, Dream of the Moon (a.k.a. L’amant de la Lune, Moon Lover).
Within this short, we see a return to the theme of alcoholism. However, inebriated subjects were often the source of comedy and spectacle in these early shorts, and would set a tradition that figures such as Chaplin would capitalise on in around a decade from now. Zecca doesn’t just find comedy through his drunk protagonist here (which he plays himself), but also fantasy that is, of course, reminiscent of the most famous film of this age, A Trip To The Moon. And its the blending fantasy, comedy and the dream that gives this narrative a memorable edge. (It should be noted that Pathé and Méliès are indeed in competition with one another; Pathé would even make Excursion to the Moon in 1908 before, a few years later, bankrupting and, eventually, taking the studio of the cine-magician).
The most impressive shot of Dream of the Moon, however, (beyond the iconic lamp swinging) has to be the ascending tracking shot that follows Zecca as he climbs up a building. It was not too rare, especially in the later films of Zecca and Chomón, to see a camera placed looking down on subjects to give the illusion that they, for instance, climb up buildings or on one another. However, in this short, it is clear that Zecca is actually climbing the building as the flower pot falls down and there’s an obvious gravitational pull that suggests he’s climbing a vertical face. How exactly this shot was managed, I cannot find any information on, but, it is nonetheless incredibly striking to see this emerge from 1905 as yet another marker of Zecca’s evolution as he works in collaboration with another Pathé auteur, Gaston Velle.
Moving ahead in his career, Zecca would continue to produce impressive and highly influential films. If we look to another later fantasy film of his, The Pearl Fisherman from 1907, we can see more tracking shots incorporated into the landscape of the narrative and used to progress the story and see spectacle unfold. This is a significant piece of cinematic language and a progression in technological ability.
Still working in close collaboration with his contemporaries at Pathé, Zecca teams up with Chomón again to work on a striking trick film:
Capturing the tone and feel of the famous Fantômas serial films with its devious main character, The Invisible Thief manages to outclass the later films in certain respects thanks to its technological innovation. As with many other of Zecca’s films there’s not much information on the production. However, we could imagine that Chomón and Zecca would use a similar process to that which the special effects team of the 30s film, The Invisible Man, would use. In such, they’d likely have had their actor dressed in a black suite and shot against a black background (which was a very well established trick by now). When this shot was superimposed into the scene we see, our main character would, of course, appear to be invisible. To see this combined with stop-motion in a film 20 years older than The Invisible Man says enough in and of itself.
The final film we will touch on represents something somewhat ironic for Zecca. Whilst he would have started his career ripping off other filmmakers, and to a degree that his films would sometimes overshadow the originals, the same thing would be done to him later in his career. To anyone aware of early Hollywood films, The Policemen’s Little Run, should then seem very familiar.
Considered the first slapstick chase film, The Policemen’s Little Run is the film that Mack Sennett would have stolen from to create his incredibly famous and iconic Keystone Cop films. As the documentary series, ‘Hollywood’, narrated by James Mason, suggests, Sennett was supposedly embarrassed by all the acclaim that he gathered from his early comedy films. He would then admit that he stole his first ideas from Pathé, which clearly implies this film by Zecca. But, the Americans stealing from the French around the 1910s is not very surprising. As we have touched upon many times already, Pathé was a leading force in this period. Not only were they able to market and distribute their films world-wide, but their filmmakers were ingenious and, in many respects, far ahead of what other filmmakers were doing.
It is then incredibly important to see how influential the French filmmakers were in this early period. Studios like Pathé would play a clear role in inspiring and shaping pre-WWI Hollywood just like the Lumières and Méliès shaped early French cinema. In understanding aspects of American cinema in this way, you can easily grow to see that, though American cinema remained one of the most influential forces after WWI, they themselves were greatly influenced by, in particular, European cinema. So, not only would they steal from French films (and let us not disregard the fact that French films would also be distributed throughout the country), but, it was highly common to see European filmmakers make their way over to Hollywood. We only have to consider monolithic figures such as Charlie Chaplin, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, F.W Murnau, Eric von Stroheim and Ernst Lubitsch who all worked in silent era Hollywood during their careers, but originated from Europe.
Seeing cinema as this international network that would continually expand as the decades passed is precisely what gives you a greater picture of film history and cinema itself. We cannot forget, however that the initial internationalisation of cinema comes all the way back to this early 1902-1905 era in which Pathé became the first world-wide film company with figures such as Velle, Chomón and Zecca leading the creative charge.
Before I let you go, I’ll note that sections of the book Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking by Al Williams were incredibly helpful in writing this post. Also, the essay by John Silver, “The first global entertainment company: Explaining Pathé’s dominance in the pre-Hollywood film industry“, was the inspiration for this essay. So, for more information, certainly check out those sources if you can.
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