The film strip burst into a jet of bright yellow flame, cutting into the damp riverside air. As photographers snapped furiously, the nitrate exhaled its cloud of potentially toxic heat, sending waves of undulating shadows across the huge inflatable screen.
These pyrotechnics put the literal flamme in Serge Bromberg’s show Retour de Flamme—the play on words also means “backfire” or “flashback”—an anecdotal foray into film history through rare and recently discovered old movies.
When Bromberg lights up some nitrate stock, he’s not just performing a parlor trick. Rather, he’s reminding audiences of what might have happened to many of the precious films that he has spent his life hunting. As the director, producer, and founder of Lobster Films explained, “Classic cinema is an endangered part of our heritage. About half of the movies ever made have been lost.”
However, last night at the Berges de Seine Bromberg gave the crowd hope for the future of film preservation. Movies consigned to oblivion until a few months ago—or even a few weeks ago—saw the light again. And, more important, those movies elicited laughter and gasps of excitement from their spectators. Projected onto an enormous blow-up screen and accompanied on a piano by Bromberg, the strange assortment of once-lost films did what they were intended to, what their makers wanted them to: they entertained.
If movies have souls, and I suspect that they do, a few more just escaped from limbo.
The presentation opened with “Paris sous les eaux,” an actualité documenting conditions in the city following the calamitous 1910 flood. As the footage showed, entire streets were submerged, turning Paris into a temporary Venice, only navigable by boats. Groups of mustachioed municipal workers paddled down the rues, pushing debris aside to clear passage.
Diving into his selections, Bromberg celebrated the centennial of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp by screening Lobster Films’ new restoration of the two-reeler A Night in the Show (1915). The rowdy comedy showcases early Chaplin at his most disruptive, playing a tuxedo-clad drunk bent on upstaging a vaudeville performance with his own antics.
As Bromberg noted, from 1908 to 1913 Chaplin’s performance of an almost identical scenario in Fred Karno’s Mumming Birds sketch, a hit since 1904, gave the young comedian his first taste of fame and paved the way for his cinema debut. After establishing the Tramp as a character in 1914, Chaplin returned to material from his stage career, but altered the sketch enough to avoid being sued by Karno.
Remastered from many elements, including some from the Musée d’Art Moderne and the Cinémathèque Française, the image quality of A Night in the Show was astonishingly sharp. After years of fuzzy, crackly Chaplin viewings on YouTube, I was amazed to see every spangle on Edna Purviance’s headdress! Plus, the pearlescent clarity of the restoration brought out the surprisingly refined feel of the short comedy—making the slapstick bits that much more hilarious.
Next, Bromberg dazzled audiences with a world premiere. About a month ago, he stumbled across a length of film on an online auction site and bought it for 7 euros. Well, actually, with shipping it turned out to be 11 euros, but that’s still a small price to pay for a complete version of Émile Cohl’s Le cauchemar de Fantoche (1908). The second animated cartoon ever made, this groundbreaking work was thought to exist only in damaged fragments before Bromberg’s discovery.
Restored to its trippy glory, Le cauchmar de Fantoche or The Puppet’s Nightmare provokes a mean case of the heebie-jeebies. With a series of simple white figures on a black background, Cohl captured the bizarre logic of bad dreams where clocks turn into boogiemen, hats morph into prisons, and huge lobster claws prowl in search of the unfortunate Fantoche. The imagery is unremittingly morbid; for instance, a butterfly becomes a spider and spins a giant web across the screen. The short cartoon ends not with Fantoche waking up in his bed, as I anticipated, but with a huge knife cutting him in half.
Émile Cohl, father of the animated cartoon and cultivator of fine moustaches.
Fluid transformations explore the potential of animation to show the impossible and foreshadow similar madness in Fleischer and Disney cartoons two decades later. As Bromberg noted, “It’s absolutely stunning to imagine that one man alone could invent the animated cartoon and then create an animation of this quality in a month.”
Cohl’s cartoon seemed like a tough act to follow, but Bromberg then projected a film that even he calls “époustoflant”—in English, we might say mind-boggling.
We know that Chaplin cribbed his basic premise for A Night in the Show from Fred Karno’s vaudeville number Mumming Birds, but he took pains to modify the scenario and avoid legal infringement. By contrast, in 1907 Charles Pathé had no qualms about copying the act more or less exactly for the short film Au Music Hall. Because Pathé did run into legal troubles, the one-reeler had been presumed lost for years.
Until about two weeks ago, when Bromberg’s research led to a print in Mexico among UNAM’s holdings.
A Pathé reproduction of a famous stage act might not sound particularly historic, but this one occupies an unusually sacred place in film history, uniting two great film artists. As Bromberg told the audience, “Frankly, what you’re going to see is a miracle. In fact, it’s probably a film that Charlie Chaplin saw before he started his vaudeville career. It might have inspired him to join Karno’s troupe, take on the famous act, and become Charlie Chaplin.”
And who else could have inspired Chaplin to become Chaplin… but the great French comedian Max Linder?
So, for the first time in probably more than 100 years, an audience watched Max Linder shamble though the Mumming Birds routine, giving a performance that likely lodged itself in Chaplin’s memory.
In Au Music Hall, Linder plays a prototype of the disastrous dandy persona that would make his fortune. Drunken Max falls out of his carriage and stumbles into a vaudeville theater. Proceeds to heckle or hinder every stage act put before him, he squirts a singer with a seltzer bottle, spoils a magician’s trick, and smooches an exotic dancer. Finally, when a strongman wrestler enters the stage with a lifesize doll for demonstration, Max tackles the doll… and loses the fight. Undaunted, the pint-sized fop tears off his jacket and goes fisticuffs with the wrestler, before ultimately being carted away by the theater manager.
Primitive though Au Music Hall seems on the surface, and it’s basically two shots, Linder’s surprisingly graceful drunk routine and well-timed pratfalls elevate the short and hint at the future of screen comedy. Whereas vaudeville sketches and early films often relied on interchangeable stock characters, Linder conveys the impression, even in long shot, of somebody we want to get to know better. His little bits of business, like repeatedly conking his head on a tassel in his theater box or flipping a mass of unruly black hair out of his face, cry out for a close-up or two.
Chaplin called Linder his “professor” for a reason. In 1907, this little Englishman may well have watched this little Frenchman and seen a glimmer of personality, of photogénie to which he could aspire.
Bromberg’s following selection was the only part of the program announced ahead of time: Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith with recently rediscovered footage.
If you’ve seen The Blacksmith as it’s been circulating for years, you might have noticed a flaw in the comic structure. After squirting oil all over an immaculate white horse, Buster pulls almost the same routine on an immaculate car. I love Buster Keaton for his refreshing versatility of gags, so this repetition always fatigues me a little.
The rediscovered footage really creates an alternate version of the film—and a superior one, in my estimate, complete with an action sequence, some risqué humor, and a very Keaton proposal scene. Although the endings of the two versions vary slightly, the main difference occurs in the early middle of the film.
In the cut I saw last night, Buster leaves the confines of the blacksmith shop and takes his burly, surly boss’s beloved car for a joyride. Alas, Buster runs into Mr. Surly himself who futilely gives pursuit. They only pause to sit down and admire the silhouette of a nubile young lady disrobing in front of her window. When she prematurely turns out the light, the chase is on again, until Buster locks Mr. Surly into a shed.
Not only does this sequence inject more movement into the film, but it also strengthens Buster’s relationship with the snooty equestrienne he ends up marrying. In all previous versions, Virginia Fox’s character interacts with Buster only towards the beginning and then at the end of the film. Gorgeous though Buster is, I don’t quite buy that Miss Snooty would elope with him on the basis of two meetings. Well, in the rediscovered footage, while fleeing Mr. Surly and running around a house, Buster bumps into Miss Snooty, drops to bended knee, and proposes… before running around the house again to elude Mr. Burly… and then he proposes again. And so forth. This charming vignette lends just enough credibility to the romantic subplot without wasting a second of screen time.
Bromberg recounted how this extraordinary footage, instead of hiding out in an attic or a basement all these years, was waiting in plain sight—in a film archive, no less. After receiving a phone call from Fernando Pena, who also found the full cut of Lang’s Metropolis, describing the alternate Blacksmith, Bromberg asked him to bring the footage to France so that he could examine it.
Pena, however, suggested that wouldn’t be necessary: the alternate version was probably the print of The Blacksmith that was generally distributed through Europe in 9.5mm, a home viewing format. Bromberg checked the 9.5mm version at the Centre National de la Cinématographie and there, sure enough, was the alternate cut—as well as a 35mm version with yet more unseen footage. It had been there for years. Moral of the story: never take anything for granted.
I get the feeling that somewhere Buster is laughing at us.
To wrap up the program, Bromberg played two wacky trifles that I won’t soon forget: Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912) and Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969). The former, a short British crime thriller, lives up to the promise of its title with a hyperactive Jack Russell terrier who thwarts a group of bank robbers. This manipulative little pooch even gains entry into the bad guys’ lair by curling up in the middle of the road and pretending to have been run over. Could anyone—even a hardened criminal—resist the desire to nurse little Spot the Dog back to health?
In the latter film, animator Marv Newland makes good on his title when Bambi, after grazing in a field of flowers for the duration of the credits, is smashed by a reptilian foot from above. “We gratefully acknowledge the city of Tokyo for their help obtaining Godzilla in this film.” The End.
The end of Bromberg’s spectacle arrived just as abruptly for this spectator, who could have stayed at the Berges watching classic film snippets until dawn.
Sitting scrunched up in a beach chair by the Seine as the night breeze floated off the water, I witnessed film and life mingling mysteriously. Boats passed, sirens warbled in the distance, cooing couples walked on the quai above. At one point, a gaggle of inebriated young ladies started singing and calling out to the screen. They didn’t realize that they were echoing Chaplin via Linder via Karno, but they added another layer Mumming Birds-esque commentary to the show.
As the sights and sounds of the world now gently (or not so gently) filtered into the world then as projected in front of me, I pondered the strange lives of the films themselves.
Not unlike a human life, a film destroyed forever unravels the fabric of time in a way that cannot be repaired or even entirely understood. A work of art is never lost alone; it wipes out a network of influences, preparations, moments, dreams, footnotes, and possibilities.
Conversely, a lost film found might knit together the threads of innumerable lives. Charlie Chaplin watched Max Linder, so now when I watch Max Linder, I’m watching Chaplin through Linder. When I watch Chaplin, I watch Linder through Chaplin. The next time I watch Godzilla, I’ll think of Bambi. And the next time I watch Sherlock, I’ll think of Spot the Dog. Even the curiosities, the baubles, the trinkets of film history affect our brains—and sometimes our culture as a whole—in powerful and unpredictable ways.
As a film event, Bromberg’s Retour de Flamme resonates so profoundly, I believe, because it alerts audiences to the mystical dialogue between movies themselves and between movies and lives.
May the yet-undiscovered nitrate reels remain stable, but may the cinephile flame keep on burning. Amen.