It seems that it’s time to remind everyone that I am interested in more than just Japanese animation.
There has been a fair bit of publicity in the last decade for French-language animated features. The Triplets of Belleville. A Town Called Panic. A Cat in Paris. The Rabbi’s Cat. The Illusionist. Ernest and Celestine. And those are just the French features shown theatrically in America. Those not shown theatrically, either not shown at all or released only on DVD, either as fine-art features or as kids’ cartoons, include The Painting. A Monster in Paris. The Suicide Shop. The Day of the Crows. Oggy and the Cockroaches: The Movie. Cinderella: Once Upon a Time in the Old West. All of Michel Ocelot’s features. Raining Cats and Frogs. Mia and the Migoo. Nocturne. That animated feature of Puss in Boots marketed in America in 2012 as a DVD “mockbuster” of DreamWorks Animation’s 2011 Puss in Boots, although it was shown theatrically in 2009 in Europe. (There was also the 2011 U.S.-made 41-minute direct-to-DVD Puss in Boots: A Furry Tail that was a genuine mockbuster.) Santa’s Apprentice and its sequel, Santa’s Apprentice and the Magic Snowflake, although the Weinstein Brothers may be planning today to acquire them for a future American theatrical release.
This is a survey of French-language animation. It includes mostly French and Belgian animation, plus a few Luxumbourgois features, and even one or two made in Quebec for only the French-speaking part of Canada. As far as I know, French-language animation for the former French colonies of Africa and Southeast Asia does not exist – yet.
Looking backward, there have been quite a few French animated features shown in America, and each of them has had a reasonable amount of attention. Despite this, there has been much more French animation than most Americans are aware of. I am unaware of any comprehensive overview in English of Francophone animation. Here is a very brief summary to remedy that omission.
French animation goes back to 1908, although there was cinematic projection of non-animated cartoons in 1892, when Charles-Émile Reynaud (1844-1918) made and showed three productions of slide-projected cartoons at his Théâtre Optique at the Musée Grévin in Paris. Wikipedia says, “On 28 October 1892 he gave the first public performance of a moving picture show at the Musée Grévin in Paris. The show, billed as Pantomimes Lumineuses, included three cartoons, Pauvre Pierrot, Un bon bock, and Le clown et ses chiens, each consisting of 500 to 600 individually painted images and lasting about 15 minutes. Reynaud acted as the projectionist and the show was accompanied by a piano player. Although the films shown by the Lumière Brothers in 1895 eclipsed it, the show stayed at the Musée Grévin until 1900 by which time over 500,000 people had seen it.”
The Lumière Brothers’, and Georges Méliès’ films, were mostly live-action. True cinematic animation began with Fantasmagorie by Émile Cohl (1857-1938) in 1908. Cohl is widely recognized as “The Father of the Animated Cartoon”, although other films had shown animation earlier, notably Humorous Phases of Funny Faces by the American J. Stuart Blackton (April 1906). Cohl was an artist working for the Gaumont Film Company when The Haunted Hotel, a live-action film directed by Blackton with some stop-motion animated objects, played in Paris in April l907. It was a popular success and created a demand for similar films. Cohl made films that were all animated cartoons with simple plots. Fantasmagorie was made from February to May – June 1908, and debuted on August 17, 1908. It is considered the first fully animated film since it had a semblance of a plot, not just moving cartoon drawings, although its “story” heavily featured characters metamorphing into objects or each other. (During the 1880s Cohl had been one of the leaders of the absurdist “Incoherent” art movement. In 1885 it hosted a masked ball to which Cohl went costumed as an artichoke). Cohl made two more animated cartoons during 1908, “Le Cauchemar du fantoche” (The Puppet’s Nightmare) and “Un Drame chez les fantoches” (A Drama Among the Puppets).
Fantasmagorie, only 1 minute and 20 seconds, and Cohl’s other fantastic films were extremely popular, in America and Britain as well as in France. Some believe that it was seeing Fantasmagorie that influenced Winsor McCay into making his Little Nemo in 1911. After Un Drame chez les fantoches, Cohl concentrated on more easily-made live-action films, though not giving up using the camera for special effects, in such films as Monsieur Clown chez les Lilliputiens (1909; “inspired” by Gulliver’s Travels) and Les beaux-arts de Jocko (April 27, 1909, 10 minutes; shown in America as The Automatic Monkey). One of his ten 1911 live-action Jobard films, starring the comedian Jobard (Lucien Cazalis), was the first to use the pixilation technique. In early 1912 he moved to the Éclair company, which had a studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Éclair American, and Cohl was briefly sent there. One of his assignments there was to create the first animated cartoon series, based on George McManus’ newspaper comic strip The Newlyweds (featuring the spoiled brat “Baby Snookums”). Cohl made thirteen Newlyweds cartoons during 1913; the newspaper advertisements for them contained the first appearance of the term “animated cartoons”. In early 1914 Cohl returned to Paris.
World War I was fatal for the early French film industry. Virtually every movie studio in France shut down for the war effort. Éclair remained open, but with only a skeleton staff. Cohl, too old for the army, worked on newsreels. American films, including animated cartoons, poured into France after 1916, and after the war it was easier and cheaper to distribute American films than to re-start French production. There were French films during the 1920s and 1930s, but more from a sense of national pride than for commercial reasons. These were virtually all live-action films, not animation.
Le Roman de Renard (The Story of the Fox), directed by Ladislas Starevich. 65 minutes. April 10, 1941.
The next French animation that gained attention was Ladislas Starevich’s (Wladyslaw Starewicz’s) stop-motion Le Roman de Renard (The Story of the Fox). This was a dubious “French” film. Starewicz began making stop-motion films in Russia in 1911; he was even commended by Tsar Nicholas II for them. He emigrated to escape the Russian Revolution, first to Italy and then to France. He only happened to be in Paris during 1929 and 1930 when he and his wife Irene animated Le Roman de Renard. The animation turned out to be easier than the sound track, which was finally funded by Nazi Germany and premiered in Berlin as Reinicke Fuchs on April 10, 1937. The French edit, which is the best-known today, was released exactly four years later on April 10, 1941. Starewicz (1882-1965) made other, shorter stop-motion films in France after World War II, but they were considered personal fine-art films, not commercial cinema. See my August 4, 2013 column on “Reynard the Fox” in Animation for a plot synopsis.
Le Crabe aux Pinces d’Or (The Crab With the Golden Claws), directed by Claude Misonne. 58 minutes. January 11, 1947.
This probably counts even less as a French feature, because (1) it was really Belgian, and (2) it was shown exactly twice, on January 11 (a private screening) and December 21, 1947 (to the public), and never in France, before being seized by the police. Presumably only one print was made. The Crab With the Golden Claws is one of the most popular comic-book albums in “Les Aventures de Tintin” by Hergé, It was serialized from October 17, 1940 to October 18, 1941, published in album form in 1941, and heavily edited and colorized as a 1943 album. This was what the stop-motion film was very closely based upon.
The film was produced in black-&-white by Wilfried Bouchery for Films Claude Misonne. Bouchery went bankrupt and fled to Argentina, and all of his studio’s assets were seized. The print of Le Crabe aux Pinces d’Or was sent to Belgium’s Cinémathèque Royale, where it was often shown over the years by arrangement to Tintin fans. It was finally released on DVD in May 2008, and today everyone can see it. Hergé’s cartoon-art album is famous around the world today, though in a further-revised edition, and it has been animated many times.
The detectives Dupond and Dupont tell young newspaper reporter Tintin that a murdered sailor had a piece of a label from a can of crab meat with the word “Karaboudjan” written on it. He goes with his fox terrier Milou to the waterfront to look for a story, and finds an old merchant ship named the Karaboudjan. Investigating, Tintin discovers that the ship is smuggling opium in cans of crab meat; and that the smugglers are led by Allan, the first mate, who keeps the ship’s Captain Haddock drunk and unaware of it. Tintin is captured but escapes, taking the sobered-up Haddock with him. After adventures in the Sahara Desert and with the French Foreign Legion, made more risky by Haddock’s getting drunken again and calling attention to themselves, Tintin and Captain Haddock finally reach French Morocco, where Tintin discovers (after more adventures) that Allan and his crooked sailors are really led by a wealthy merchant, Omar ben Salaad (a French pun on ‘lobster salad’). Allan tries to escape in a motorboat, but Tintin pursues and captures him.
This was the story that introduced Captain Haddock to the Tintin series. He was later given the first name Archibald. Allan was originally named Allan Thompson, but after the English editions of the albums in 1958 renamed the twin detectives Thomson and Thompson, Allan’s last name was dropped to avoid confusion.
Les Casse-Pieds, directed by Jean Dréville. 71 minutes. November 26, 1948.
A series of live-action vignettes, with comedian Noël-Noël (Lucien Noël, 1897-1989) narrating and commenting on nonstop-talking bores at parties, drunks, practical jokers, noisy neighbors, people who always telephone at mealtimes or after midnight, and similar casse-pieds (pests); like the American live-action comedy shorts of Pete Smith or Robert Benchley of the 1940s. IMDb says, “Much use of trick photography, montages, puppets and animation along with some adult Gallic wit and gentle satire.”
Next Week: Part 2 of my survey of French Animation.