A French camera manufacturer-turned-film studio that was present at the birth of the movies, Gaumont is the oldest extant film company in the world -- and for a few years in the early 20th century, it was also the largest. Kino International’s new three-disc set out Tuesday, “Gaumont Treasures: 1897-1913" ($79.95), a compilation that draws on the company’s prolific pre-World War I period, is an embarrassment of riches that doubles as a superb crash course in the evolution of film language.
To watch these 70-plus films (totaling more than 10 hours) in more or less chronological order is to witness the rapid development of movies from a newfangled means of recording reality into a complex art form with its own narrative rules and codes and an expanding array of camera and editing techniques at its disposal.
Each disc is devoted to a filmmaker who served as artistic director for the studio. Alice Guy, the focus of the first disc, started her career as a secretary; when Gaumont expanded into moving images, she offered to serve as house director.
That she was allowed to do so and went on to a busy career in what became a male-dominated industry is less a sign of enlightened attitudes than an indication of how unseriously movies were taken at the time. (There were proportionally more female directors in the early years of cinema than there are today; for more examples, see another Kino DVD set, last year’s “First Ladies.”)
Early cinema is often divided, a bit simplistically, into opposing camps: the documentary realism of the Lumiere brothers and the magical artifice of Georges Melies. Guy’s films have aspects of both. Many of her early works are minute-long scenes of daily life that, like the Lumieres’ best-known one-reelers, revel in the simple act of showing.
But like Melies, although to a lesser extent, she also used primitive special effects to generate illusions in such shorts as “Disappearing Act” and “At the Hypnotist’s.” Guy was among the first directors to treat film as a narrative form, using ever larger casts and telling ever more involved stories -- by 1906, she was in sufficient command of the medium to mount a half-hour religious spectacle, “The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ.”
Something of an unsung innovator, Guy has lived on in the history books as “the first female filmmaker” -- a designation that tends to minimize her accomplishments, which are up there with the major (male) figures of the period. But there is, in some of the films here, a discernible female point of view as well as an interest in complicating gender roles and identities.
In “Madame’s Cravings,” a heavily pregnant woman goes on a voracious rampage, stealing candy from children and herrings from beggars. “The Consequences of Feminism” imagines a new social order in which women stay out carousing while their husbands are stuck with the kids and the housework.
The film is fascinatingly double-edged: The cautionary title suggests a reactionary bent, but it also takes palpable delight in depicting a topsy-turvy world and perhaps makes a larger political point by portraying traditional women’s work as drudgery.
Louis Feuillade, the subject of the second disc and the best-known of the filmmakers here, took over the creative helm at Gaumont after Guy and her husband, Herbert Blache, moved to the States.
Feuillade is best known for the intrigue-rich, proto-surrealist serials “Fantomas” and “Les Vampires.” What’s remarkable about the body of work assembled here, which spans 1907 to 1913, is the sheer range: battleground epic (“The Agony of Byzance”), romantic tragedy (“The Heart and the Money”), social-issue melodrama (“The Defect”). Best and most Feuilladeian is “The Trust: Or the Battles for Money,” a sly, sinister tale of corporate espionage that hinges on the formula for artificial rubber.
The third filmmaker in the set, Leonce Perret (Feuillade’s protege and successor), is represented by only two films, both notable for their technical complexity and evocative location photography.
“The Child of Paris” (1913) is a two-hour melodrama about the kidnapping of a war hero’s daughter. In “The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador” (1912), a young woman, caught between romantic rivals, loses her fortune and her memory. The magical cure for her condition -- as befits these early, heady days of the medium -- lies in cinema itself.