100 Years Ago: The Films of 1906

In the passage from 1905 to 1906, one fact remains firmly unalterable: the dominance of Pathé. Its historical rival, Gaumont, follows at a good distance. For a market ever more hungry for novelty, dominance belongs to the one with the distribution capacity to reach the maximum number of projection halls and spectators. A great part of French production is absorbed abroad, with branches rapidly opening around the world, consolidating their dominant position. Thanks to natural advantages the United States is able to enjoy an ample and capillary network of projection halls, and between 1905 and 1907 it triumphantly rides the nickelodeon boom. On this terrain Vitagraph starts its rich flowering, innovating promotion strategies and making use of numerous distribution offices, which permit its European business to flourish.

In the shadow of the colossi, various production firms are born, with financial bases structured according to the regular rhythm and production modes of capitalist industry. All of which translates into adequate technical and organizational structures, systematic production activity, a regular weekly supply of novelties to the market, a general tendency to specialization, effected by small units consisting of director, cameraman, and actors working on the same theme or genre. The year 1906 marks a development of studios and stages, which permits increased production as well as effective control of mise-en-scène.

The year also sees the birth of Nordisk Films Kompagni, Lux, and Eclipse (already the Parisian subsidiary of the Urban Trad- ing Company, the biggest English firm). Italian production flourishes, with the Roman company Cines, heirs to the distinguished Alberini e Santoni, and Ambrosio of Turin. Cinema is part of a singular and fortunate convergence of capital, industry, and technical development, thanks to the intervention of banks and electrical companies, who provide film production with more breathing space. Cinema is seen as a mechanism to be oiled with enormous finance.

Otherwise, it is enough to look at the length of the films to recognize the changes in progress. In 1906, in an exponential increase, half of Pathé productions exceed 100 metres. Narrative also becomes more complex. At the newborn Nordisk, for instance, half of the long films of its first years of production are dramatic subjects. Scripts undergo considerable development; production is submitted to closer supervision. Special effects become a device to be used in a story’s dénouement, and trick films tend to merge into other genres. Reconstructed actualities cede to films “from life”, and are generally made by firms which have sufficient means to send their own cameramen around the world.

Cinema’s vitality draws strength from the circulation of ideas and reciprocal comparison, procedures so exquisitely equivocal and subtle as to risk passing for plagiarism. It is also a story of renegades and adventurers playing for hard cash. Gaston Velle, Pathé’s celebrated metteur en scène, is lured away from the Paris company by Cines, and joins the technical director Filoteo Alberini in the role of artistic director, making almost exact copies of films he made in France. Imperturbably, the following year he makes a volte face, returning to his old company and repeating the same process in reverse, leaving behind a trail of accusations and recriminations. Extraordinary, too, is the case of Charles Lucien Lépine, a director who has taken over his technique at Pathé with Gaston Velle. He too follows in the footsteps of the Italian adventure, joining Carlo Rossi, destined to become in 1908 Itala Film; but the abandoning of the Parisian firm temporarily lands Lépine in jail.

Cinema is in clear expansion, establishing roots. If fairground shows and travelling showmen remain profitable, particularly in the provinces, business in big cities is being consolidated. The first luxury theatre in Paris, the Omnia, at 5 Boulevard Montmartre, opens in December 1906; the flower in its buttonhole is first-run films, with a new programme every Friday. Often theatres are run by ex-fairground showmen, and in this Bologna is no exception. We have only to think of the Cinema Marconi in Via Rizzoli, the city’s first permanent theatre, opened in 1904 by Guglielmo Cattaneo, a former travelling showman. A passage once used as a fishmonger’s shop, it is the pivot between the old world and the new, closed and then reopened after renovation. The 21 November 1906 issue of Avvenire contains an announcement of its second life: “The hall has been divided into two special areas, where the seats of first and second class are designated; an elegant platform has been erected on which every evening during the projection concert selections are played, and decorations have been added which make it more gay. Such innovations contribute to attract an ever bigger public to the theatre.”

From 1906 we get a marvellously vivacious picture, in which different forms of production and fruition co-exist side by side: permanent theatres and seasonal fairs, travelling showmen and artistic directors, story films and actualities “from life”, researched historical reconstructions and little comic divertissements. With the eight programmes which we are presenting this year, making use of suggestions by Mariann Lewinsky, we have tried, even if only partially, to open some treasure chests to resurrect the often unpredictable vitality of this era. Serge Bromberg and Henri Bousquet have selected some of the most significant gems of Pathé; Agnès Bertola concentrates on rival Gaumont; Bryony Dixon sheds light on the little-known production of Great Britain, while Jon Gartenberg retraces the first splendours of Vitagraph. Giovanni Lasi focuses on Italian production, exploring comparisions with the other important new European firms. The activities of two pioneer cinema showmen are brought to life in the programmes of Camille Blot-Wellens, dedicated to Antonino Sagarmínaga, and of Nikolaus Wostry, on the collection of Karl Juhasz.

Luigi Virgolin, Andrea Meneghelli