Pathé, Charles Morand


Pathé, Charles Morand
(1863-1957)
   Film pioneer, producer, and studio director. Charles Pathé was born in Paris in 1863, the youngest of four sons. His family owned a butcher's shop in which he worked as a child. As a young man, Pathé became determined to do whatever he had to get rich. He served in the military, went abroad to South America in search of business opportunities, and tried his hand at selling wine. None of these efforts amounted to much of anything. What changed the course of Pathé's life was a chance discovery, that of the phonograph. In 1894, while visiting a fair in Vincennes near Paris, Pathé witnessed a demonstration of the Edison Talking Machine phonograph. Immediately struck with the commercial potential of such a device, Pathé bought one himself. He put it to use right away, becoming an itinerant performer of sorts, traveling with fairs and circuses, demonstrating the phonograph to audiences who paid an entry fee to hear it.
   Pathé decided that demonstrating phonographs would never make him rich so he decided to sell them. In 1895, he had copies made of the Edison model, without any real second thought about the ethical implications of such a thing, and opened a shop to sell phonographs. The following year, Pathé was taken by another of Edison's ideas — the kinetoscope, a precursor to the movie camera. Pathé made an agreement with inventor Henry Joly to copy and "improve" the kinetoscope into a film camera the two called the Photozootrope. And in 1896, in partnership with his three brothers, Émile, Jacques, and Théophile, he established the Société Pathé Frères, a company dedicated to making and marketing film cameras, film stock, and phonographs and making films.
   A studio was built in Vincennes, where Pathé had discovered the phonograph, to house the filmmaking part of the business. In 1897, backed by electric equipment manufacturer Claude Grivolas, the company became the Compagnie Générale de Cinématographes, Phonographes et Pellicules (Anciens Établissements Pathé Frères), and in 1898 the phonograph division and the film division were split, with Émile in charge of phonographs and Charles in charge of film. In the same year, Pathé hired on Ferdinand Zecca as head of film production for the company, allowing him to attend to what he knew best, commercialization. His legacy would be best expressed in an expression he often used himself: "I did not invent cinema, but I industrialized it." With Zecca firmly at the creative helm, that is precisely what Pathé set about doing.
   The Pathé model was aggressive, formulaic, efficient, and highly successful. Under Zecca, Pathé hired numerous other screenwriters and directors including Louis Gasnier, Gaston Velle, and André Heuzé. It was the job of these directors and writers to quickly develop and film formulaic but effective films (often copied from Gaumont or British cinemas) designed to conform to audience demands. The studios produced many farces and chase films, for example, which were very easy to write and produce in a short period of time. The model was so successful that in 1902 a new much larger film studio was built at Vincennes and two new factories were built to process and film stock.
   In 1906, Pathé began to move toward permanent cinemas for film exhibition, and in 1907 the company began renting film prints instead of selling them, melting down and reusing film stock when films were no longer wanted. Pathé's films, therefore, were produced faster and more cheaply than any of their competitors, which quickly positioned them as the giant of the film industry. In 1908 Pathé also began to open international offices, most with full production and distribution capacity in places like the United States, Spain, Italy, and Great Britain. This gave Pathé prominence in both the French and global markets. In 1912 mechanical colorization of films was perfected at the Pathé plants, which again gave the studio a great cost advantage over its competitors. Industrialization was indeed the key to the Pathé vision.
   During the years Pathé was head of the studio and Zecca was head of production, Pathé was one of the dominant production companies in the world. It produced films by such directors as Roméo Bossetti, Albert Capellani, Segundo de Chomon, Henri Diamant-Berger, Jean Epstein, André Hugon, Max Linder, Alfred Machin, Camille de Morlhon, Georges Monca, Lucien Nonguet, and Henri Pouctal. The studio also represented such early film stars as Bossetti, André Deed, Charles Dullin, Henri Étiévant, Jean Garat, Louis Lagrange, Linder, Léontine Massart, Léon Mathot, Mistinguett, Stacia Napierkowska, Charles Prince, Gabrielle Robinne, and Gabriel Signoret. It pioneered narrative film during the silent era and specialized in genres like the historical epic, the comedy, including the burlesque and the chase film, and the melodrama. It was also a driving force in the creation of film d'art. It dominated, at one time, in the newsreel area with its actualités. And it had locked in distribution deals with major distributors.
   Pathé might have remained a dominant force in world cinema but for the combination of several forces. First of all, film production and sales ground to a halt in the last years of World War I. This had catastrophic consequences for the French film industry as a whole and for the European film industry as well. Secondly, the arrival of sound cinema required a huge up-front expense in order to convert production equipment and standing cinemas so that they would accommodate talking pictures. Finally, the collaboration and collusion of American studios to dominate world production was beginning to take effect, and it became extremely difficult for any studio outside of the Hollywood cartel to maintain a foothold in the global cinema marketplace. To add insult to injury, Kodak film, with which Pathé had an agreement to market blank film in Europe, gave up production of that film, and Pathé saw what had been a sizeable investment simply disappear. With the exception of the Pathé news bulletin, the Pathé News (an English-language version of Pathé's Journal), Pathé was forced to pull out of nearly all of its foreign markets in order to concentrate on keeping the French parent company solvent.
   In 1929, in the midst of a financial crisis and possible fraud, Charles Pathé was forced to sell his shares in the company. Pathé claimed he found the new owner, Bernard Natan, overbearing and egomaniacal and he withdrew from the business shortly thereafter. The truth, however, is much more complex. Pathé, it seems, was guilty of mismanagement and probably fraud and he was forced out of the studio.
   The new Pathé-Natan lasted ten years, and became the most significant studio, production company, and film distributor in France. However, Pathé, seeking to shift blame for his own misdeeds and trying to wrest control of the studio away from Natan, began a vicious propaganda campaign, and the result was that Natan was forced out of the studio, arrested, and sent to Auschwitz, where he died in 1942.
   The studio was put in receivership and reformed in 1944 under the name Société des établissements Pathé-Cinema. Since that time, largely as a result of the changes Natan made and through an investment in quality film productions, in well-conceived coproductions, and particularly through an investment in cinemas, the company flourished. It remained in its reorganized form until it was bought out in 1992. All charges against Pathé were ultimately dropped, although a review of the facts and finances of the company suggest that he was guilty of fraud and mismanagement and that Natan was guilty only of being an easy target. Pathé himself escaped all charges. He lived quietly until his death.

Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. . 2007.

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