This week we leave the Edison experiments behind and return to European filmmaking. While American inventors were tinkering with grainy shorts, an amateur French filmmaker had ambitions of his own. His name was Charles-Émile Reynaud, and in 1892 his innovations would drag cinema from the stagnation of experimentation, and cement its legacy as a burgeoning artform.
Reynaud was born in a Parisian suburb in 1844, the son of a medal engraver and watercolour artist. He was a bright child, and soon took on an interest in science and literature. At fourteen, Reynaud took on an apprenticeship with an engineer, where he developed a fascination with newfound projection technologies. In 1877, ten years before Louis Le Prince’s first film, Reynaud had developed a proto-projection mechanism called the Praxinoscope. The device was more of an amusement, but the developments of other filmmaking breakthroughs pressured Reynaud to perfect the technology for commercial use. Experimenting with glass plates and hand-painted cards, Reynaud’s improved invention displayed moving images by superimposing characters onto background scenes. Reynaud had created the world’s first animated cartoon, and as if this wasn’t incredible enough, he later displayed these shorts at the first motion picture exhibition show in history, the Théâtre Optique of 1892.
Of the three films displayed at the Théâtre Optique, only one survives today. Pauvre Pierrot (“Poor Pete” in English) tells the story of a young woman and her two suitors. At least, that’s what I think is going on here. Only 5 minutes of the original runtime remain today, and the lack of dialogue make the narrative difficult to discern. In any event, the movie is an ambitious effort to produce genuine drama on film. Le Prince and Dickson were clearly innovators, but they’re movies never reached the level of storytelling nuance that Reynaud found. Again, this would open up movie-making to new potentials, and alter the trajectory of the artform for the better.
Unfortunately, this will be the last Reynaud film we look at, because this innovator’s life was subject to the same level of drama he attempted to portray. By the 20th century, Reynaud was broke and largely forgotten. He had been thrown into obscurity because of more efficient projectors, and he was subject to bouts with depression. During one of these episodes, Reynaud destroyed his life’s work and tossed the remains into the river Seine. Only a Pauvre Pierrot and another short reel were left behind, and reconstructions of the former movie ensure that modern audiences can appreciate the genius of the world’s first animator.