French Studio Lauds a Century of Moviemaking

By David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, February 2, 1994 | Go to article overview

French Studio Lauds a Century of Moviemaking


David Sterritt, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


CINEMA is the youngest of the arts, still a little shy of its 100th anniversary - if ones dates it, as most scholars do, from the day in 1895 when Louis and August Lumiere hung a screen in a Paris cafe and projected a few brief documentaries for the first movie audience in history.

Gaumont is the oldest of the studios, also approaching the end of its first century - which began when French entrepreneur Leon Gaumont, inspired by the Lumiere brothers and Thomas Edison, turned his newly purchased photography-supply company to the making and marketing of motion pictures.

The company he started is still going strong. Fittingly, it is celebrating its 100-year mark with a wide-ranging retrospective set to tour the United States and Canada throughout 1994 before returning to France in 1995.

Like any first-rate retrospective, "Gaumont Presents: A Century of French Cinema" has surprises as well as favorites and standbys. Perhaps the most refreshing surprise is the rediscovery of Alice Guy-Blache, the first woman to work as a movie producer and director.

Her filmmaking activities started in 1896, when the medium had only been invented for about a year. Just a decade later - more than 20 years before "The Jazz Singer" made talkies a commercial reality - she boldly attempted to integrate sound and cinema, filming dozens of short musical pictures with popular singers and orchestras.

By featuring her innovative career in its centennial series, Gaumont honors not only Guy-Blache, but also all the women - most of them overlooked and undervalued - who have contributed to the growth of cinema despite its longtime status as a male-dominated endeavor.

Since the history of Gaumont has been almost as varied as the history of French cinema in general, its 100-year celebration is less a unified event than a potpourri of highlights, some linked by common elements and others noteworthy for their differences.

Its silent offerings are grouped into 16 categories, ranging from "Early Realism" and "Emile Cohl: The Animated Screen" to "Comedy of the Absurd" and "After the Great War: New Talents." Sound pictures include major works by cineastes as diverse as the innovative Jean Vigo, the philosophical Robert Bresson, the literary Eric Rohmer, and the irrepressible Jean-Luc Godard, plus such non-French filmmakers as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Ettore Scola, who drew support from Gaumont for ambitious projects.

Amid such variety, is it possible to characterize Gaumont filmmaking in a single statement?

"It's not as possible as with American studios during certain periods," says Laurence Kardish of the Museum of Modern Art, who served on the selection committee. …

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