Archive for Pathe

Big in Japan

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2021 by dcairns

More on YOSHIWARA — Shadowplayer Phoebe Green has kindly translated the relevant section from Max Ophuls’ memoir, edited by his son Marcel, a book still infuriatingly unavailable in English. Thanks, Phoebe!

Of all my films, the most international was no doubt Yoshiwara, adapted from a Maurice Dekobra novel by English and German screenwriters, directed by me, shot in Paris with two French-speaking Japanese stars. The producer had cast Sessue Hayakawa in the lead.

“Does he speak French?” I asked warily.

“Good question – the subject never came up.”

That very day a telegram went to Tokyo. The answer came back forty-eight hours later. It was in three words: “À la perfection.”

Disembarking at Le Havre, Hayakawa had to face the usual pack of newspaper men and photographers. I myself confidently awaited him in Paris. To start off, we were going to lunch at Le Fouquet’s.

“You can speak French with him,” the producer whispered to me as he gave the actor a hearty handshake. “Go on …”

“Did you have a nice trip, Mr. Hayakawa?” I asked.

“Grrrrr …”

A strange growl emerged from the Japanese actor’s impassive mask. It was like ventriloquism. Alarmed, I turned to the producer who, under the table, nudged me encouragingly with his knee.

“I’d like to read you the script,” I began again. “Shall I come to your hotel?”

“Grrrrr …”

This time I understood: our leading man hadn’t the slightest notion of the language he was supposed to speak “perfectly.” In a week’s time, we would have to rewrite the script completely to reduce his speaking part to a minimum. Since we couldn’t in all decency condemn him to total silence, we found him a French teacher who made him learn and repeat, from morning to evening, his few remaining lines.

Pathé then had at its Francoeur studios a set decorator, a tiny Polish Jew, kept on despite his biblical age and advanced diabetes. Papa Fisch was our mascot: hired when the studios were first opened, he had painted backdrops back when old Natan himself was still performing.[1] On the first day of shooting, as Hayakawa gritted his way through his first line, Papa Fisch whispered to an electrician: “Fancy that! They say Japanese is a difficult language, but I understand practically everything!”

After this experience, I approached our female star, Michiko Tanaka, with great linguistic circumspection.

“I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t know any Japanese.  Shall we speak English, or French, or …”

“German, for heaven’s sake!” she exclaimed in the most authentic Viennese dialect. “I lived on the banks of the blue Danube for three years …”

I was to take a great deal of trouble to teach her at least the rudiments of French.[2]  Wasted effort: while we were shooting she discovered she was Japanese at heart and above all.  When the film was finished she married Hayakawa and left with him for Berlin.


[1] This shows how prevalent the (basically false) rumours about Bernard Natan were. —DC

[2] This couldn’t have been easy. At the time, M.O. still had a German accent you could cut with a knife. —Marcel Ophuls

The Sunday Intertitle: Babylas Zoo, AKA Menagerie a Deux

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 9, 2020 by dcairns

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MADAME BABYLAS LOVES ANIMALS is from the age when intertitles were optional (1911), it seems, or maybe they got lost. But it does have an attractive main title card, which has been removed from the porno English-language version, MRS PUSSY LOVES ANIMALS ~

I sought it out because I was impressed by LE MANOIR DE LA PEUR (1924) and wanted to see more from its two directors, Alfred Machin & Henry Wulschleger, but there’s not much available. Wulschleger is only represented by CAPITAINE FRACASSE, which I’d seen but only because his co-director was the great Alberto Cavalcanti. I rather ignored HW.

This one is a very short Machin comedy with a childishly simple premise: Madame Babylas loves animals so much she adopts everything she sees. Since she lives in the country with her exasperated husband, her household is soon exploding with livestock.

A panther chases a pig out of the house in one striking (and concerning) moment.

Madame Babylas ends the film consoling her poor porker, bandaging it and kissing its ear. Pig looks very chill.

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It’s a very, very simple plot but the movie manages to make it quite incoherent. Maybe there’s an hour of lost footage. There was apparently a whole series of shorts about M. Babylas (Louis-Jacques Boucot) but Madame (uncredited, identity unknown) and her dumb chums have taken over this one entirely.

Machin was a hot-shot young producer who set up Pathé’s production base in Belgium, then in Holland. But prior to that he’d been their man in Africa, and he was fond of placing animals in his movies thereafter, particularly the panther Mimir. (The IMDb says, “Mimir is an actress…”)

LE MANSION also has a displaced African beast, but I’ll tell you about that next week…

Slippery Jim

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on May 5, 2015 by dcairns

Watch this! Reputedly inspired  by Harry Houdini’s recent Parisian dates, this 1910 trick-film by Fernand Zecca, made for Pathe Freres, uses inventive special effects and animation to depict impossible feats of escapology and indeed resurrection. Christ popping out of his cave-grave has nothing on Slippery Jim, who disassembles his own body, cycles through the skies like Elliot and ET, and bisects a policeman with the wheel of his magic bike. Even if you’re very familiar with Meliés and all the subsequent developments in effects artistry, I think there are likely to be some tricks in here you haven’t seen done quite like this…

There’s no real way to end a film like this, since all the characters are indestructible and there’s no real logic beyond the generally accepted (but often unreal) antipathy between cops and crooks. So, like one of the simpler cartoons, the film just rings changes on a basic situation and then stops arbitrarily. I was kind of glad to see the forces of anarchism triumph, though — it would seem hypocritical to spend ten minutes celebrating the violation of every law of man and nature and then impose some kind of moral ending.

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