Until early 1909 there was not one single hall or theatre in Brighton dedicated to moving pictures. Patrons could see “exhibitions” of animated images as part of a variety performance or as a novelty on the Palace Pier or the Alhambra on Kings Road.
The first “cinema” in Brighton was the Electric Bioscope Theatre in Western Road, just a few yards from the corner of Montpelier Road (where Waitrose stands in 2023). It opened on Saturday 13 February and was immediately successful. The Pathé film of the disastrous 1910 floods in Paris was one of the myriad of French films shown in Brighton before the outbreak of the Great War.
To what extent did patrons realise that the film they were watching was of French origin? Local film historian David Fisher points out that by 1910, 36% of films shown in England were made by Pathé Frères in France. Oh! the joys of the silent movie. French captions could be easily edited out and replaced with English language ones.
By April 1910 the trade journal Kinematograph Weekly was rather dismissive of these Pathé films:
“Even the Pathé subjects are not universally popular here, especially when they hinge on historical subjects. They are not understood. People in this country do not bother themselves with history, especially your history. Again, they do not like too much of the sixth commandment or the sex problem to be publicly discussed. This may explain why French films find it difficult to get on this market.”
Perhaps Brighton is not quite like the rest of England. It would seem that “cinematograph-goers” in Brighton and Hove lapped up French cinema even if it did include French history and murder. There is little evidence of sex in films at this time although romantic intrigue was a staple in many an moving picture show. In January 1909 the Court Theatre, not as yet a fully-fledged cinema, was showing Le comte de Monte Cristo, an American production telling the whole of Alexandre Dumas’ 500-page story in 15 minutes.
In June 1909 the Court Theatre in New Road was offering…
The film “The Assassination of the Duc de Guise” (a rather more sensational title than the original French one – La Mort du duc de Guise) seemed to refute those two main criticisms cited by The Kinematograph: the real duke died in 1558, so some genuine French history … and he was viciously murdered).
This French production marked a turn toward more sophisticated films for part of the French film industry. The duc de Guise was the blockbuster of the day. There was a stunning poster to prove its artistic credentials (in the French market at least) and the principal actors were from the prestigious Paris theatre, la Comédie-française.
There was a score by Camille Saint-Saëns – the first ever specially-written piece of music to accompany a film. Did the orchestra in the pit manage to play Saint-Saëns’ musical accompaniment from sheet music, or did they “make it up as they went along” as was the tradition at early film shows? No contemporary reports in Brighton newspapers clarify this question.
« Source: gallica.bnf.fr / BnF ».
One oddity about the intertitles (captions) is that they seem to tell the audience what is going to happen before the events happen on screen. This caption appears on screen some 30 seconds before the conspirators commit the dastardly deed. A real spoiler.
Source: André Calmettes [The king’s guards (the forty-five) stab Henri de Guise]
The same month, another French literary piece was on the screen: “The Alesienne” (L’Arlésienne). This short film, based on a novella by Alphonse Daudet, received “very hearty applause” according to the Brighton Gazette. High-brow stuff indeed!
To redress the rather high tone of the other films on offer, that same June, the Court showed “The Living Blackbord”, a very early animated film, with the original French titles as Le Cauchemar du fantoche (translated more literally as “The Puppet’s Nightmare” view here) The film lasted just two minutes but was a startling contrast to the rest of the programme. “The Cabin Boy’s Sister” (La sœur du moussaillon) was a drama, and finally came a comedy, “A policeman despite himself” (Policier malgré lui) which ran for about 10 minutes. (Source “The Bioscope” journal 17 June 1909).
On Monday 26 August 1909, at the Court Theatre there was something for everybody: there was a short film of part of “The English Cup Final between Bristol City and Manchester United” which had been shot at the Crystal Palace grounds the previous Saturday (spoiler alert: Man. U. won 1-0). Then, two films for the Francophiles: first came another Pathé production “The Lock Keeper’s Daughter” (La Fille de l’éclusier). This French film seems to have had a running time of just 2 minutes and 33 seconds … and must have been remarkablt concise as the simplest synopsis runs to 100 words.
The other main feature was an American production, but with a very strong French slant. The film was “The Flower Girl of Paris”. The “Moving Picture World” synopsis starts:
“In a thieves’ den in a low quarter of Paris, Jean Bambard, a desperado, and Pigord, one of his gang, are apparently quarrelling. … The door opens and Mimi, a very pretty girl, thin and pale, enters, carrying a basket of flowers on her arm… .”
and so the drama (or melodrama) begins – and the whole story is told within 7½ minutes. The other films programmed for the same day are listed simply as “&c. &c.”. Clearly it was not worth wasting expensive advertising space on the minor films.
Child stars were not an invention of the Hollywood system. Nine-year old Marie Fromet appeared at the Palladium (formerly Cinema de Luxe) in “The Doll” [La poupée brisée, Pathé 1911] “the touching family drama in two parts” which must have tugged at the audience’s heartstrings. Later she was to appear to Brighton audiences at the Palladium when she took the role of Cosette in Les Misérables. By then she had reached the ripe age of thirteen.
“Sir Percy and the Punchers” is a prime example of a period when the boundaries between French and American films were becoming very blurred. “Sir Percy …” was a western. It was filmed in California. It was directed by an American. It was produced by Gaston Méliès, brother to one of the key French founders of cinematography. The production company was the American branch of the Méliès Star-Film company founded in France in 1896. So if you had been in the Theatre de Luxe in North Street in late May 1911, you would have seen not only “Sir Percy and the Punchers” but also “A most instructive film [which] is that portraying the manufacture of French almonds.” That must have had all the local lads and lasses on the edges of the seats with excitement.
Following “Sir Percy and the Punchers” on that May 1911 programme came two American films and the programme concluded with the four minutes of “Betty and Jane at the Theatre” (Rosalie et Léontine vont au théâtre, Pathé Frères 1911), described in the Brighton Gazette as “another good humorous film”. The humour does not seem to have passed down the ages: two grotesque women in a music hall annoy their fellow audience members with their outrageously ham behaviour. Watch the film here.
And then there was the other Sarah. Sarah Barnhardt
On 17 April 1912 the Grand Cinema de Luxe proudly presented a Pathé film. The publicity announced that “Madame Sarah Bernhardt does not appear in person, but in animated pictures, and silent though she be, she casts a spell over the audience as they watch her love and hatred in Camille”. This was the 1912 version of La Dame aux Camélias.
The Academy Picture Palace in West Street (Academy House in 2023) showed the same film in September whilst the Grand Concert Hall, just on the other side of West Street, countered in the same week (and again in November) with Bernhardt’s “Queen Bess” (les Amours de la reine Elizabeth, 1912).
Not all was high art. Contemporary mayhem and murder were also filmed. The Grand Cinema de Luxe cashed in on the notoriety of la bande à Bonnot [the Bonnot gang] which had been robbing and murdering its way through Paris since December of the previous year. Jules Bonnot, the leader of the gang, was killed in a police shoot-out on 28 April 1912. Within three days, footage of the “live action” final moment of the gang could be seen by audiences in Brighton. The Brighton Gazette sounds quite excited about the new film:
One film particularly will draw audiences to the Grand Cinema de Luxe today – the one dealing with the demon chauffeur whose exploits have aroused such interest, Bonnot. Here are actual pictures of those scenes about which so much has been heard, and here also is seen Bonnot in his last hiding place, the police attacking the garage and the infuriated mob trying to lynch the dying bandit. Other films are “Papa’s Sweetheart” …
Clearly a journalist who delighted in bathos.
By early 1914, cinema audiences had become much more sophisticated. Many cinemas not only named the films there were presenting but noted the name of the production company. There seemed to be no resistance to things-French on the part of the Brighton cinema patrons, but the trend was clearly toward American made films. And then came the Great War.
To be continued / À suivre