Note: “The Ranks of the Auteurs” is a written series that traces notable people, studios, and series throughout film history and ranks their work. This is the fourteenth installment, featuring Louis Feuillade, who was born on February 19, 1873 in Lunel, France and died on February 25, 1925 in Nice, France.
Louis Feuillade, one of the key French film pioneers, directed over 630 films from 1906 to 1924. And I’m here to write about 23 of them, which is indicative of the loss of silent film, sure, but also the relative obscurity that some European filmmakers fall into when it comes to the North American market. Feuillade is ultimately well known, however, for his groundbreaking pulpy crime drama serials, cinematic epics that, as cohesive movies, run for five hours or more. After military service and marriage, Feuillade attempted a literary career around the turn of the 20th century. He began submitting screenplays to one of the first, great French movie studios, Gaumont. Alice Guy-Blaché, herself an important figure in the early days of cinema, hired Feuillade and assigned him to directing his screenplays as well. Very soon after, in 1907, Guy-Blaché left for America and Feuillade, after working at the studio for essentially a year, became Gaumont’s new artistic director. His accessible work was all made there, since his self-produced works after 1918 are quite hard to track down. Feuillade, like many of his peers, was sort of a renaissance man filmmaker, experimenting in every genre and setting the medium encompassed at the time. But his crossover from the trick and comedy films of the early 1900s to the complexities of feature length filmmaking in the middle of the 1910s (although his most famous “features” are technically series of shorts) is unique and commendable.
#23 — BÉBÉ APACHE (1910)
Feuillade, in hindsight, was really interested in creating series, and his Bébé shorts probably represent his first. The installments are little comedy sketches about a little boy up to some kind of mischief, and the enterprise was eventually replaced by the Bout de Zan character (essentially the same concept). This first (?) episode is pretty underwhelming child comedy.
#22 — JIMMIE PULLS THE TRIGGER (1912)
By 1912, however, the child who played Bébé (Clément Mary) was replaced by René Dary. The English translation of the title shows how the Bébé series was marketed overseas. This late period Bébé short is a bit better because it has some more defined comic business involving a rifle!
#21 — THE COLONEL’S ACCOUNT (1907)
A military officer gets a little worked up in talking about his escapades and a fight ensues. Pretty basic, over-the-top comedy that’s nevertheless amusing.
#20 — A VERY FINE LADY (1908)
Listed as a co-directorial effort with Romeo Bosetti, A VERY FINE LADY is a genuinely funny short that follows a beautiful lady through the streets of the town and the mayhem she causes by turning every man’s head. It’s silly slapstick, but it appears to have a bit of a point too? Making fun of dudes is always fun.
#19 — CUSTODY OF THE CHILD (1909)
One of the more serious social dramas that Feuillade started to make heading into the 1910s (as others like Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith were doing over in America), CUSTODY OF THE CHILD is honestly a bit boring, for all that. Nevertheless, it’s a notable transition point in the director’s maturity.
#18 — TRAGIC ERROR (1913)
Feuillade tackles cinematic influence itself, using his art form as a device in a murderous thriller. I love early films’ metatextual acknowledgements of its own power.
#17 — THE FOUR YEAR OLD HEROINE (1907)
Likely more of an Alice Guy-Blaché product (she was the co-director on this short), THE FOUR YEAR OLD HEROINE is nevertheless a cute, empowering comic caper. Amusingly enough, it contains microcosms of some of the thrilling techniques Feuillade would employ in his best-known movies.
#16 — THE DEFECT (1911)
Is THE DEFECT (at just over 40 minutes) Feuillade’s first feature? In any event, this “realistic” drama feels considerably more mature than not only Feuillade’s own work of the time, but also than many of his contemporaries. An expanded form of the still rudimentary socially conscious shorts of the era, THE DEFECT tells a compelling tale of a woman, rising the ranks of a charitable organization, who is blackmailed through her past in night life. Its conclusion isn’t exactly happy, but perhaps that’s the point, and illustrates the character’s greater compassion that isn’t defined by her past.
#15 — THE TRUST (1911)
A very interesting precursor to Feuillade’s pulpy serials, especially the forthcoming FANTÔMAS, THE TRUST involves kidnapping, business conspiracies, private detectives, and dudes in masks. There’s much less “action,” but the short provides great insight into how Feuillade developed what would become his calling cards.
#14 — THE MAGNETIZED MAN (1907)
And yet, I still can’t help but appreciate the comic Méliès-esque fantasies, of which THE MAGNETIZED MAN is one. A man rambles through distinct sets, causing mayhem by attracting metal to his person. Silly, yet entertaining, stuff.
#13 — THE OBSESSION (1912)
The most striking thing about THE OBSESSION is its portrayal of the sinking of the Titanic and then the Eiffel Tower against the nighttime skyline, but then also, yeah, again, the portrayal of the sinking of the Titanic in the very year that it happened! This in itself was not unique to THE OBSESSION, actually, but its acuity when moving outside of the film stages typical of the era and its condemnation of palm reading, of all things, by way of the tragedy? Elevated stuff indeed.
#12 — THE FAIRY OF THE SURF (1909)
And now we’re back to another Méliès emulation, but more so in the land of the féerie. Still, Feuillade’s THE FAIRY OF THE SURF has a lot more realistic depth than even the beautiful backdrops that Méliès’ films can provide. A goofy medieval prince essentially kidnaps the titular water spirit before she returns to the water, bringing the prince with her into a reversal of Feuillade’s fortune. What I mean by this is that his underwater wonderland pales in comparison to something like THE KINGDOM OF THE FAIRIES (1903), for instance. Nevertheless, it’s a Méliès-esque underwater simulation, so I’m on board.
#11 — LA MAISON DES LIONS (1912)
I wonder if Feuillade just got a real good deal on the lions for THE ROMAN ORGY and decided to make a whole ‘nother film about them. Double dip, as it were. Anyways, some rich assholes put on a party and a disgruntled servant lets them loose. Worth seeing for the movement of powerful felines on early, beautifully tinted/hand-stenciled color film.
#10 — THE DWARF (1912)
THE DWARF is perhaps the most touching of Feuillade’s films and the strongest indicator of the man’s socially progressive tendencies (unlike the potentially faux sympathies of, say, the aforementioned Porter or Griffith). In it, a little man attempts to court a beautiful woman. She’s on board on the phone before she sees the man in person and laughs at him heartily. Besides the foretelling of catfishing (although the man did it through no ill intent, let me be clear), THE DWARF is predicated on the moral that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. It’s a cliche for a reason, people.
#9 — THE HEART AND THE MONEY (1912)
Co-directed by that other great Gaumont-incubated French giant somewhat marginalized in the annals of Americanized film history, Léonce Perret, THE HEART AND THE MONEY is simply beautiful. And I do mean that in as shallow a way as possible. The riverside scenes are plentiful and meditative, in spite of the overwhelming romantic drama unfolding in parallel scenes. But THE HEART AND THE MONEY also has an incredible editing structure for the time, driven home by superimpositions and a tragic ending.
#8 — THE ROMAN ORGY (1911)
THE ROMAN ORGY’s hand coloring make a number of scenes almost frieze-like, etched into film stock with incredible sharpness. The concept is almost the same as LA MAISON DES LIONS, just couched in antiquity and an approximation of a historical figure. Much more rowdy too.
#7 — SPRING (1909)
It really was a struggle to not put this whimsical short higher on this list, although in the end SPRING is here because of the greater scope (or cuteness, in the case of #6) of the following films. In any event, Feuillade’s romp through a meadow with female fairies and spirits is just encouraging fantasy, even without a whole lot of fantastical imagery to truly define it as such. It might literally be because of its naming convention, spirit of the season, and place in “pagan” whimsy, but I can’t help but bring to mind Disney’s Silly Symphony shorts like SPRINGTIME (1929) and THE GODDESS OF SPRING (1934), or even FLOWERS AND TREES (1932). And those are good comparisons to make.
#6 — TINY TIM AND THE ADVENTURES OF HIS ELEPHANT (1913)
In spite of the English name, this comedy short is one of the early installments of the Bout de Zan series. I shudder to think what the incredibly cute elephant may or may not have had to go through for the making of TINY TIM and beyond, but ultimately, the film is just too dang cute.
#5 — THE AGONY OF BYZANCE (1913)
THE AGONY OF BYZANCE is a medieval costume drama set in “the east,” a popular exotic setting of the day. Well, I guess for all the days to come too. Anyways. Its scale, even shy of feature length qualification as it is, is quite impressive, with numerous extras on screen and battle scenes commanding your attention.
#4 — JUDEX (1916)
Ah, and now we’re to the serials. And by that logic, JUDEX must therefore by the lesser of them. First, let me say it’s somewhat difficult to evaluate Feuillade’s serials like any kind of normal film. I mean, really, there’s going to be some down time across 300 minutes. But across the fourteen episodes of JUDEX, Feuillade creates a heroic vigilante that was an answer to the director’s portrayal of a villainous rogue, Fantômas. Judex could be said to be an inspiration for characters like Zorro and The Shadow, themselves inspirations for Batman, but the pulp dynasty of the serial is clear without those distinctions. Judex, in spite of the twists and turns throughout the film’s five hour run time, is basically attempting to seek revenge on a banker that ruined the family of his real identity. Seriously, all the pulpy tropes are here, but before they were quite the “tropes” we now know. And although Feuillade did not single-handedly invent them, he certainly popularized them.
#3 — FANTÔMAS (1913)
Speaking of pulp popularization, FANTÔMAS was Feuillade’s first crime serial, and so it kind of set the template for those to follow. The five episodes, comprising more than 300 minutes of run time, are ostensibly about stopping the machinations of the titular villain, but like Fritz Lang’s DR. MABUSE THE GAMBLER (1922) to come, Feuillade’s crime drama is much more interested in the criminal.
#2 — TIH MINH (1918)
A surprising upset by a serial I knew little about! Some strange orientalism gives way to an involved story (aren’t all of these at this point) and an eccentric cast of characters gallivanting about opulent sets and beautifully realized outdoor action.
#1 — LES VAMPIRES (1915)
But of course, all Feuillade returns to Irma Vep. Look, I know I’ve made clear it’s hard to write about these serials because of their incredible scope, which could be seen as a cop out, but for real: LES VAMPIRES is about 7 hours long, stretched out across ten episodes. What is clear about it is that it continues the interest in the degenerates, with much of the serial’s energy focused on the titular group of criminals (who are not supernatural in any form). Although LES VAMPIRES is not overtly showy with its techniques, close ups (especially the famous one of Vep snarling) are compelling novelties. The vamp archetype the film brought to light is a large part of the film’s attractiveness, its descent into violence and sexuality something that few films of the time truly embraced. The seediness of LES VAMPIRES is its lasting legacy to the darker side of pulp fiction, threaded through filmmakers like Fritz Lang and aforementioned heroes like The Shadow. Treat the film like a TV show and enjoy.