Part One: Being a tale of of the early days of serial cinema and how Louis Feuillade came to be
Night falls, bringing with it a hush as the good people of Paris scurry home to the warmth of family and dinner and an evening spent with a snifter of Cognac and the evening paper. A lone figure – thin, lank, almost a wraith – skulks across a rooftop, a black shadow in a black hood creeping through a black night. A woman undresses, – safe, she assumes, in the sanctum of her bedroom, with the warmth of incandescent light to chase away the night. She does not see the black-gloved hand emerging slowly from behind the curtain, holding a slim dagger poised to be plunged into her exposed back. Two men, their flat caps pulled low, struggle with a heavy load contained inside a rough cloth sack that has been tied shut. It’s about six feet long. As they haul it down a shadow walkway and let it slide with a splash into the Seine, one could almost swear whatever was inside the sack started kicking. A man with his collar turned up to obscure his face nods imperceptibly to a bartender as the man makes his way through a smoke-filled cabaret. On stage, a dancer peels off a glove to the hooted approval of the scattered audience. The man does not stop to admire the view. He heads down a short, narrow hall that dead ends at a wood-paneled wall. Or so it seems, until the man, his hand clenched in a fist, presses the face of a signet ring into a small, almost unnoticeable hole. The wood panel creaks open, revealing a stairway. The scream that tumbles up from the darkness below cannot be heard over the din of the reeling band out front.
Strange things were happening on the streets of Paris in 1913.
In February of that year, trials began for the surviving members of the infamous Bonnot Gang, a group of murderers and anarchists who cut a swathe of criminal terror across France and Belgium during the early months of 1912. Bookending the year in crime, in December of 1913, an Italian by the name of Vincenzo Peruggia was arrested in Florence after trying to sell a painting to Alfredo Geri and Giovanni Poggi, director of the illustrious Uffizi Gallery. The painting, it happened, was the Mona Lisa, which Peruggia has stolen from Paris’ Louvre (where he had been employed) in 1911 in a crime that would be called brazen had he had to do more than stroll in through the workmen’s entrance one early morning, take the painting off the wall, throw his smock over it, and walk back out the same way he came in. Peruggia claimed he was motivated by patriotism and wanted to return the painting to its rightful place in Italy after it had been stolen by Napoleon Bonaparte. He did not know, it would seem, that Leonardo Da Vinci himself had sold the painting to a Frenchman. Other claimed he did it purely for the money he hoped to garner from the sale of the painting, though there’s no reason it couldn’t have been both. One theory, advanced by Saturday Evening Post writer Karl Decker in 1932, claimed that Peruggia was working at the behest of a criminal mastermind named Eduardo de Valfierno, who had commissioned French art forger Yves Chaudron to create six perfect copies of the Mona Lisa. After the heist of the actual Mona Lisa, de Valfierno would then sell the forgeries to six different people around the world, each one thinking they were buying the stolen original. No one, including Peruggia, corroborated the story, which Decker claims was told to him by Eduardo de Valfierno himself, who then swore the reporter to secrecy, extracting from Decker a vow not to tell the story until after de Valfierno had died. No one else ever came forward. None of the supposed forgeries were ever found. Karl Decker’s primary source for this story seems to have been Karl Decker.
But then, a criminal mastermind wouldn’t leave an easy trail to follow, would he?
Sandwiched between these two sensational criminal events, on May 29, audience members at the storied Theatre des Champs Elysee came to blows. Or so it was reported. “Many a gentleman’s shiny top hat or soft fedora was ignominiously pulled down by an opponent over his eyes and ears,” an orchestra member allegedly reported to conductor Pierre Monteux, “and canes were brandished like menacing implements of combat all over the theatre.” The cause of the fisticuffs? The premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring, a discordant, confrontational, modernist score to an equally jarring, convulsive ballet under the direction of the Ballets Russes’ choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. Exactly what happened that night at the ballet remains unclear, as reports of the incident became more fanciful and dramatic with each telling. Suffice it to say that Le Figaro music critic Henri Quittard did not enjoy the evening’s performance, at least the one on stage, dismissing it disgustedly as “puerile barbarity.”
Across town, in the lively enclave of artists, bohemians, and prostitutes known as Montmartre, audiences were turning out in record numbers at the massive Gaumont Palace movie theater to marvel at the exploits of a villain who seemed to combine all of the above. Thief, murderer, criminal mastermind, anarchist, and probably a fellow who rather enjoyed the primal assault of The Rites of Spring. Definitely a chap who wasn’t above pulling down your top hat and skewering you with a cane. Opening on May 9, this 54-minute film – the first in a series of five than ran throughout the remainder of 1913 and into 1914 – was a lurid celebration of everything that had been causing the average Parisian anxiety. Around the corner, not more than a few minute’s stroll down the seedy Boulevard de Clichy, the infamous Moulin Rouge was parading flesh across its rickety stage. A few more minutes away from that, down a sinister looking cul-de-sac called Cite Chaptal off the Rue Chaptal, one could revel in the madness and gore of a play at the Theatre Grand-Guignol. Looming over it all, embodying everything they feared and to which they thrilled, was an enigmatic masked man in a tuxedo and top had, brandishing a bloody dagger and seeming to taunt all who beheld him. His name was Fantômas, and a man named Louis Feuillade had unleashed him to wreak havoc across Paris.
Working with the French production company Gaumont, Louis Feuillade made hundreds of films spanning the gamut of genres. But he is best known for his strange serialized pulp thrillers: Fantômas, Les Vampires, and Judex, as well as the sequel La nouvelle mission de Judex and the less often seen Tih Minh and Barrabas. Although not connected by a shared narrative, these films nevertheless form an interesting single body of work, within Feuillade’s greater filmography, that seems to all take place in the same dangerous, seductive world. Through them, Louis Feuillade laid the groundwork for what became French cinema fantastique, that curious blend of horror and wonder, nightmare and dream that makes up the bulk of what gets classified as horror in France (or at least did so until the 2000’s and the emergence of the “New French Extremity,” which focused on grim gore, torture, and other aspects of horror more familiar to modern audiences). Feuillade’s serialized thrillers pioneered images of the grotesque and horrific, mixing them with surrealism born (at times by accident) from his attention to spectacle over coherent narrative. His films, like the bloody plays of the Grand-Guignol theater which rose to prominence around the same time, drew audiences from all strata of society. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to be in the thrall of his murderous fiends and gangs of merciless cutthroats.
Born in 1873 the son of a wine merchant, young Louis Feuillade showcased an early interest in writing. Before the age of twelve he was scripting his own vaudeville shows, submitting poetry to local newspapers, and even had articles about bullfighting published. After a stint at a Catholic seminary and a period of service in the military, Feuillade married and in 1902 moved to Paris to pursue his dream of being a successful writer. That success was slow in coming. It wasn’t until 1905, after submitting screenplays to the Gaumont Film Company, that Feuillade’s career started to get on track. Gaumont is the world’s oldest film production studio. It opened in 1895, a year before the other titan of early French cinema, Pathé Studio, and was founded by the inventor Léon Gaumont in partnership with astronomer Joseph Vallot, engineer Gustave Eiffel, and financier Alfred Besnier. Gaumont worked most of his life as an engineer and had a keen interest in growing field of photography. In 1897, he founded the company’s motion picture division ostensibly as a way to promote their motion picture cameras. Léon named his able and talented secretary Alice Guy as Head of Production at this new Gaumont film studio, a position she filled from 1897 until 1907, working as both a director and overseer of the studio’s other writer and directors. She was employed previously at a still photography company that went out of business. Gaumont bought the defunct company’s remaining stock of film and, finding Alice there, offered her a job. She proved a quick learner with a creative mind.
When she assumed the role of director and then Head of Production at Gaumont in 1897, she became not only the first female director of motion pictures, but can also be considered one of the primary inventors of the narrative movie. These were the early days of feature filmmaking, and Alice Guy was at the forefront alongside pioneering filmmakers like Auguste and Louis Lumière (whose fifty-second-long Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon was projected at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in 1895), stage magician turned special effects film pioneer Georges Méliès (who directed his first motion picture, the minute-long Une partie de cartes, in 1896), and in the United States Thomas Edison, who kicked off everything in 1891 when he debuted his first Kinetoscope. In 1906, Alice made La vie du Christ, a 33-minute long narrative feature with an epic cast of over 300. She was also one of the first directors to experiment with sound, using Gaumont’s “Chronophone” system, which was able to synchronize pre-recorded sound effects with the film during exhibition. It was Alice Guy who, in 1905, received two scripts from struggling writer Louis Feuillade and decided not just to produce them, but invited Feuillade to come to the Gaumont Company and direct them himself. Feuillade, unsure perhaps of the fiscal viability of moviemaking, declined the offer to direct, choosing to remain semi-employed as a struggling journalist. In 1906 though, he’d had enough of that and agreed to join Gaumont as a company writer and director.
In 1907, Alice Guy moved to the United States, where she worked as the head of the American outpost of Gaumont before founding her own movie production studio, The Solax Company, in 1910 with her husband Herbert Blaché and partner George A. Magie. It quickly became the largest pre-Hollywood film studio in America. Before she left France, she promoted Feuillade to Artistic Director of Gaumont. In 1910, he had his first mega-hit with the comedic Bébé Apache series about the exploits of a precocious four-year-old child, the success and general formula of which he would repeat with the Bout de Zan series in 1913-14. Both series were built on the sound assumption that people love watching children smoke cigars. There were some ninety films in the Bébé Apache series and sixty-two Bout de Zan films, but Feuillade’s output wasn’t all little kids wearing fake mustaches and smoking. In 1911, prefaced by the release of an artistic manifesto, Feuillade announced the birth of la vie telle qu’elle est – “life as it is.” Under this philosophy of filmmaking, sort of a protean version of neo-realism, Feuillade made fourteen serious, realistic films.
However, something a little more anarchic was bubbling in the back of Feuillade’s brain, though he wouldn’t have liked to think so. He considered himself a moral man, not one given over to the baser temptations of human craving. Inspired by the success of a recent American serial called What Happened to Mary, Feuillade began working on a serial of his own, though the format he eventually arrived at wasn’t a serial by the strictest definition. His work landed somewhere between serials, which were generally shorter and split into many chapters released periodically; and a feature film series, which were longer, self-contained, but connected to one another. The first of these serials introduced the world to one of the first great madmen of the silver screen: Fantômas, a murderous thief and all-around villain who hid his true identity behind a series of elaborate disguises and hid the many corpses he created in whatever woven trunk was handy. But it was his second serial that truly attained the sublime, a phantasmagorical orgy of criminal mischief and boiling sexuality that became a celebration of everything Feuillade hoped it would condemned. But before Feuillade’s madmen (and women) could rampage through Paris, someone had to invent the serial.
That person happened to live in New York.
Those Sinister Silent Serials
The genesis of serialized films can be traced to 1912, when a production from the (Thomas) Edison Studios decided to tell the growing American movie-going audience “What Happened to Mary” (no question mark, despite how it is sometimes referenced). Like all of the early movie studios, Edison was always looking for new ways to exploit motion picture technology and expand the variety of moving picture types. Between 1912 and 1916, the movie industry was a very busy place. Although such things are difficult to pin down, since nothing evolves overnight, those years roughly represent the point at which the “primitive” stage of filmmaking ended and the more technically adept and business savvy “early” period began (the fully realized “modern” era beginning sometime around the turn of the decade). As a result of so many things happening so quickly, timelines can become confused. Teasing out who came first, or who did it next and better, or who got most popular doing it, can be daunting. Most of the studios at the time were within arm’s reach of one another, clustered in Fort Lee, New Jersey, or scattered around concentrated urban centers like New York and Paris. After all, you had to make it easy for your actors to get to and from work, and most of the early stars of the silent era came from the stage. Companies like Gaumont and Pathe rapidly extended their reach across the globe, so that even filmmaking in far away places like Japan can feel like local product. Open up a Japanese movie fan magazine from 1915, and there’s American serial queen Pearl White staring at you. The clustering of movie production studios around major cities makes sense not just because it’s where the engineering was taking place, and not just because it provided a filmmaker with an ample pool of talent; it also made sense because people as a whole were moving toward urban centers and away from rural agrarian sprawl.
A city is a complicated machine, and it takes a lot or manpower to make it work. More manpower than men could provide. It’s not like women hadn’t always been a part of the workforce in one way or another, but as populations gravitated toward cities, women found themselves in a variety of new jobs. Sometimes because of opportunity, often out of necessity. The Industrial Revolution changed almost everything about the developed world, but poverty still ground people down. As they entered the urban workforce, women also began to flex more independent muscle. By 1912, the year that the world’s first adventure serial hit movie screens, women were no longer just wives, mothers, and farmhands. They were integrated into the city, and they were often at the forefront of influential social and political movements of the time. Labor, suffrage, even temperance. As women pushed rightfully for more liberty, more freedom, more independence, they also started to earn more wages (or any wages, really). Filmmakers were keen on courting this new kind of women, and if at all possible, parting her from at least a little bit of the money she was making. At the same time, film studios were experimenting with new forms of motion picture. Longer films. More complex films. Serialized films. Films that starred women in athletic, adventurous, non-traditional roles.
During a meeting between Charles Dwyer, editor of a magazine called The Ladies’ World, and Horace G. Plimpton, manager of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope Company, the duo struck upon an idea. Serialized stories – that is, long stories published in shorter monthly installments – had been a staple of magazines since at least the penny dreadful days. So why not mimic the format on film? In fact, why not adapt a serial story for the film and release it to theaters concurrent with the publication of each new installment in the magazine? Plimpton and Dwyer figured it would benefit them both by bringing readers into theaters and convince theatergoers to buy the magazine. For Plimpton, it would he hoped expand the pool of regular moviegoers to include the new class of working women who, for the first time, found themselves with a bit of cash and a need for somewhere to spend it. Plimpton was interested in a soon to be published serial called What Happened to Mary, about the adventures and experiences of a young woman from a small town when she comes to New York City.
It only took a couple days for Plimpton and Edison Studios to wrap up the rights to the story and hash out the release and promotion schedule with Dwyer and Ladies’ World. In short order, What Happened to Mary became one of the world’s first serials or “chapter plays.” Edison Studios made twelve one-reel episodes, released every month beginning on July 26, 1912. The first chapter established the premise: Mary, an abandoned baby, is discovered a doorstep of a small town shopkeeper. In the basket alongside the the foundling is $500 and a note promising the shopkeep $1,000 more for raising the child and seeing that she marries a good guy when the time comes. The story then skips ahead eighteen years, with Mary grown up and growing increasingly bored with her small town life and increasingly irritated at her adoptive father’s efforts to push her into marriage. When she discovers the note explaining her situation, she decides enough is enough and heads for New York where, if content can be divined from the titles of chapters, she spends a lot of time escaping from kidnappers as she seeks to uncover the mystery of her real parents.
Most of the chapters were directed by actor-director Charles Brabin, who joined the Edison Manufacturing Company sometime around 1908. Unlike what would become the case with many subsequent serials, these were not “cliffhangers” that left the fate of the heroine dangling in some precipitous situation demanding you come back next month to discover her fate. Although there was an emphasis on action and thrills, each chapter of What Happened to Mary was self-contained, wrapping up its story by the end of each reel. It proved a huge success, bringing in not just the working class women targeted through The Ladies’ World, but a large cross-section of urban cinephiles. The August 1912 issue of movie fan periodical Moving Picture World described the crowd at a screening of the second chapter as “a mixed audience of Chinese, Italians, Greeks and Syrians.” Knowing they had a bona fide sensation on their hands, Edison wasted no time in exploiting What Happened to Mary‘s overnight popularity. In one of the earliest examples of cross-media promotion, a play based on the films was produced by Leigh Morrison, with actress Olive Wyndham assuming the role of Mary. It played to packed houses beginning in February of 1913. Edison created tie-in products like hats and jigsaw puzzles. Edison also hired lyricist Earl Carroll and composer Lee Orean Smith to write a pop tune (“Mm, What happened to Mary? Mm, What happened to Mary?” with lyrics like “Mary had a dainty little fad, Of making boys feel very kindly t’ward her, Ruby lips, That Cupid created, Baby eyes, But so educated, Mary was a very wary fairy, So nothing ever happened to her.”) The Ladies’ World ran a contest challenging its readers to guess “what happens to Mary,” the winner of which received a $100 prize.
At the time, there was no clear-cut definition of what was or was not a serial versus, say, a series of films. It’s hard for the first of something to follow all of the rules that emerge in its wake. What Happened to Mary doesn’t have the cliffhanger endings that would become the norm for most serials. It does, however, establish a number of conventions that would be followed by many serials of the 1910s. It’s action oriented, or at least contains some action and stunt set pieces. It focuses on a woman. And perhaps its most pervasive contribution of all to the medium, it presents marriage and the threat of marriage as an impending death sentence for a woman’s free-spirited days of adventure, though it also presents marriage as ultimately desirable. This was true both for the character and the woman playing her. In the 1920s, stars were often portrayed as living glamorous lives in glamorous clothing, but in the 1910s, almost every studio sold almost every star as much more down to earth. They may battle evil swamis and escaped lions by day, but by night they enjoyed reading The Bible, gardening, and being married.
What Happened to Mary was such a huge success that a sequel series, Who Will Marry Mary?, was released the following year. Alas both it and What Happened to Mary are currently classified as lost (though apparently some 8mm and 16mm reels of some What Happened to Mary chapters reportedly still exist). Also lost, for a very long time, was the serial’s star.