My next novel (The Last Days of Leda Grey, which is due to be published later this year) is based on Edwardian silent films, and with that in mind I'd like to share some posts that relate to my research - starting off with a French series of films that went under the banner of Fantomas.
First created in 1911 by the writer Marcel Allain, Fantomas was featured in 32 volumes of French graphic novels in which the phantom - also known as the creeping assassin in black - was both a master of disguise, and also a sociopath who committed many sadistic crimes.
The first novel opened with these lines...
“What did you say?”
“I said: Fantômas.”
“And what does that mean?”
“Nothing. . . . Everything!”
“But what is it?”
“Nobody. . . . And yet, yes, it is somebody!”
“And what does the somebody do?”
From there a cult of dread was born, with Pathe offering 2,000 francs in order to buy the movie rights. But only when Gaumont offered more were the stories adapted for the screen. Directed by Louis Feuillade (who also made Les Vampires), a five part serial was launched. (Serial as a term being loosely used. The films were related in theme and style, but were not a progressive story line.)
Becoming wildly popular the films drew their plots from the comic books and were then expanded even more, using many special effects. The craze soon spread through Europe and on to Latin America, from there across the United States, until, in 1921, Fox created some US versions too.
Sadly, the Fox films have been lost. But Gaumont Classic recently relaunched the earliest Fantomas films - with those cult adventures leading the way for other serials to come: films such as Tarzan, and Fu Manchu - the features that would pave the way for the comic superheroes that were later found in the Marvel books.
The following is an extract from Michael Powell's, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography (William Heinemann, 1986), in which he talks about being a boy and seeing a French Fantomas film.
"There was a cinema at Chantilly. There were local cinemas everywhere in those days. Chantilly was not a large town, but I think it had two. The one near us was down a side street and advertised that it was open for business by an electric buzzer which rang until the show started. I can hear that remorseless bell shattering the calm under the plane trees whenever I think of Chantilly. It is curious how the French, most sensitive of nations, are insensitive to noise, particularly if it is a new and splendid noise that stands for Progress.
The films were mostly serials, like the French films I had seen at the Palais de Luxe in Canterbury. One of my earliest movie images is of Fantomas, the Master Crook of Paris. When he wasn’t wearing white tie and tails, a cane, a top hat, and an opera-cloak, he was in black tights with a black mask, performing incredible feats of hide-and-seek with the police. The image that stays with me is of an open cistern of water in the attic of some house. The police dash in, in pursuit of Fantomas, and find nobody. Baffled, they withdraw, but the Chief takes one last look at the cistern, sees a straw floating on the surface of the water, gives it an idle flush. Aha! we all think. And sure enough! As the last policeman goes, the water stirs and bubbles and the black form of Fantomas appears from the depths, between his lips the straw through which he has been breathing! I can see now his black figure, glistening like a seal’s, smiling triumphantly at the camera. For, in silent films, one learnt to “register” to the camera."