French Film before 1923


Pelicans in Flight (1882)

Even before the invention of film, there were many Frenchmen who contributed to inventions that led to it’s birth;

In the early 19th century, Joseph Nicephore Niépce and Louis Daguerre the first to make pictures in a camera through exposure of sensitive chemicals to light.

In 1888, Étienne-Jules Marey presented the chronophotographe, which presented 12 images a second, and all images appeared within the same photograph. An important precursor to cinematography.

Three months later Charles-Émile Reynaud was granted a patent for his invention, a machine called a Théâtre Optique. A primitive projector, it worked as a tool of early animated films. On October 28, 1892 he projected the first animated film, Pauvre Pierrot, at the Musée Grévin in Paris

The birth of cinema is popularly acknowledged as having taken place, December 28th, 1895, when Auguste and Louis Lumière presented the first program of projected films. It took place in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris on the Boulevard des Capucines. The brothers first film was La Sortie des usines Lumières, but the most shocking to early audiences was L’Arrivée d’un train en gare, which showed a train entering a station, where many audience members fled in fear that they‘d be run over by the incoming train. The brothers are also credited with the first comedy, and the first narrative film.

While The Lumières specialized in vérités and reality based films, it was Georges Méliès, a magicien, who really pioneered fiction and effects oriented cinema.* He is most famous for his film Le Voyage dans la lune.

The first big movie studio was also French, founded by the Pathé brothers in 1901 (a different company was founded in 1894, but their repertoire also included paid shows of phonograph recordings, which were later dropped when they decided to focus on the budding medium. They hired Ferdinand Zecca, who grew a reputation as plagiarist stealing from Méliès, Edison and the British pioneers, as their creative manager. By 1908, Pathé was by far the largest movie producer, making twice as many films than all of the American companies combined.

In 1908, Film D’art was founded, which was something of a step back for cinema. It was little more than staging and creating a repertoire of famous actors of the time giving silent performances of their greatest roles. They were very theatrical, usually one shot… often Shakespeare.

1908 up to WW1 was a low point in French cinema, as filmmakers and producers were more focused on the commercial potential of the medium rather than the artistic. Two notable exceptions would be actor, Max Linder, who brought subtle and sophisticated slapstick comedy to the screen ( and was apparently a big influence on Charlie Chaplin, among others), and Louis Feuillade who made serial films like Les Vampires and Fantômas .

The outbreak of WW1 had predictably dire effects on the French Film Industry, and it’s during this period that the American industry grew in prominence, crushing the power of Pathé, among others. Even after the Armistice, the industry suffered, but out of this stagnancy blossomed a movement that would raise film to an art.

It was Ricciotto Canudo who spur the movement when he referred to cinema as the seventh art and in 1920 founded The Club des amis du 7è art. Among the members of* The Club des amis du 7e art, were filmmakers Louis Delluc and Germaine Dulac.

I’ve collected a few shorts by Cohl/Melies and Lumieres, here is a link where you can find them all;


(I won’t be watching any pre-1923 films for the purpose of the thread, however, I am pointing out five I would like to see at some point. For every year I will be choosing three films from which I will be choosing one as the “Film of the Year”, to watch and review. I’m pointing out the others for interest, as well as a sort of extended “to see list” for myself. Hopefully it might also inspire a few to look up or see a film you hadn’t heard of already.)


J’accuse! (Abel Gance, 1919)

L’Hirondelle et la mésange (André Antoine, 1920)

L’Atlantide (Jacques Feyder, 1921)

Les Vampires(Louis Feuillade, 1915)

The shepherdess from Ivry (Maurice Tourneur, 1913 )

10 responses to “French Film before 1923

  1. I thought you had already seen Les Vampires?

    Anyway, I see you’ve borrowed my Weekly structure for another forum. It made me remember how spread out you are on the internet and how unimportant I am in your life online. 😦

  2. I’ve seen the first three chapters.

    What can I say, it’s a good idea. It won’t be updated like yours though, I just want the updates. Is that selfish? It’s selfish. I’m also encouraging discourse and discussion of cinema. It’s important and stuff.

    I’m sorry Mango 😦 I loves you 😦 Any early French films you can recommend while you’re at it?

  3. I’m all for the borrowing of the weekly idea. I think somebody should start one for the IMDb boards (or just something like FG), but that might become too crowded.

    After seeing how much of a forum slut you are, you are going to have to prove your love. A grand gesture! It had better be heartfelt and sincere–I hope to be wowed.

    But probably abandoned. 😐

    No early French films to recommend. I personally don’t get much satisfaction out of anything before 1920 or so, except for historical interest (this is aside from slapstick comedy, I should say).

    Is there any way to make these blog snowflakes go away once they’ve fallen?

  4. Someone that isn’t me should :p I doubt it woould be TOO crowded, how many there would be motivated to make a blog? I do not know.

    Any suggestions? I’m forced to prove my love on a daily basis, everyone always asks me to. I am a forum polygamist 😦 I am in need of constant stimulation! I will think about something, grand and do-able.

    I actually feel very much the same, which is why I started this in the 1920s. Any 1920s recs?

    I don’t really know 😦

  5. I think a romantic ride through Paris will patch up our problem. But think still grander!

    As for 1920s French cinema, you seem to know where to look for suggestions and stuff, so I won’t give any unless I see you are missing something worthwhile from a year. I doubt you will be able to keep up this project for very long anyway (although this first bit of vigor is surprising). You should just pay your dues at the library and grab some books on French cinema; or, if it’s cheaper, buy a book on the subject. Unless you have no money…?

  6. How about, a romantic ride through Europe, like in Letter from an Unknown Woman?

    I’ve actually prepared myself ahead of time on this one, there is still a lot of room for failure, but I’ve minimized it as best possible. I’ve already written all my “history” up to 1960, it’s all a matter of me watching the films. It’s still possible!!!

    I have no money 😦 I can always go to the library and read them there, but not borrow them. I can do that.

  7. I know of some more pioneering French:
    Joseph Plateau, who wrote in 1829 about persistence of vision and who determined that 16 fps would produce the illusion of continuous movement;
    Louis Le Prince, who early in 1888 invented a multi-lensed camera/projector which used paper film AND two years later the first celluloid film projector.
    Vive le cinema.

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