Cohl, Émile


Cohl, Émile
(1857-1938)
   Animator, director, and screenwriter. Émile Cohl was born Émile Courtet in Paris to an old, well-established, but not wealthy Parisian family. Unlike many of the pioneers of the cinema, Cohl did not have much interest in either film or photography. He was far more interested in drawing, and sought to make a career of that. In 1878, he obtained an apprenticeship with André Gill, a leading political cartoonist of the day. Under Gill's guidance, Cohl himself became an established cartoonist, and he developed ties to Parisian intellectual groups, notably "les incohérents"
   In 1907, Cohl turned his attention to the cinema. Legend has it that it was rather by accident that he found the film industry, although the truth of the matter remains unclear. The story is that Cohl went to Gaumont in 1907 not to ask for a job, but to threaten to file suit against the company for allegedly stealing one of his cartoon images and using it in a poster. Léon Gaumont supposedly diffused the situation by offering Cohl work at the studio, namely writing screen-plays. Whether or not this is how things occurred, Cohl did go to work for Gaumont, at first writing for the studio, and eventually experimenting with film animation. In 1907, he produced his first film, Un drame chez les fantoches. The film was not fully animated, but its central character, Fantoche, was completely animated. Fantoche was quite a success with audiences, and he appeared in sequels as late as 1921.
   As a result of the success of his first experiment in animation, Cohl was permitted the following year to make La Vie à rebours (1908) and Le Journal animé (1908), both of which he codirected with Louis Feuillade. 1908 was also the year in which Cohl produced Fantasmagorie, the first fully animated feature film, considered one of the masterpieces of animated cinema and of early cinema as a whole. Fantasmagorie, similar to Cohl's earlier films, did not use color animation (although this was a possibility, since all color in film at the time was hand drawn). Rather, the animation was done in a white-on-black style, reminiscent of a film negative. Cohl's films also broke with the realist vein emerging in live action at the time, as his films were much more stylized and fantastic, in some ways anticipating the surrealist movement of later decades.
   Cohl went on to make several other films with Feuillade, including Le Docteur Carnaval (1909) and Les Couronnes (1910). Additionally, Cohl had some other noteworthy collaborations with other Gaumont directors. These included La Course aux potirons (1908), codirected with Etienne Arnaud, and Le Rêve du cheval de fiacre (1909), codirected with Roméo Bosetti. He also continued to write screenplays during his time at Gaumont, as well as to direct animated sequences in live-action films. Some notable examples include Joyeux microbes (1909) and Le Peintre néo impressioniste (1910), both also directed by Cohl. He also pioneered, during his time at Gaumont, puppetry on film. Notable use of puppets as "actors" may be found in Les Allumettes animées (1908) and Le Tout petit Faust (1910).
   Cohl left Gaumont in 1910. He went, for a very brief time, to Pathé, where he made only two animated films. After being forced to make live-action films for the studio, Cohl again left and went to work for Éclipse Studios. While at Pathé, however, he made some important technical advances in animation. The films Cohl made at Éclipse have been lost, so it is not known exactly how long he was there or how many films he may have made. However, it is known that during the time he was working for Éclipse, he also began working for Éclair, and ultimately Éclair sent him to New Jersey to work.
   While at Éclair, Cohl worked most notably on an animated series titled the Newlyweds, which began running in 1913. He also made Les Allumettes ensorcelées. His other films have been lost. It is believed that while he was in France, others may have learned of Cohl's animating techniques and patented them, thereby wrongly taking credit for the development of film animation.
   Cohl remained in the United States and directed films there until 1914, at which point he returned to France. From about 1916 to 1918, he worked independently with another illustrator, Benjamin Rabier, to produce an animated series titled Les Dessins animés de Benjamin Rabier. He also produced independently an animated series titled Les Aventures des Pieds Nickelés. There were four series of these produced, all released between 1917 and 1918. He also managed to produce one more Fantoche film independently in 1921, but the film was largely ignored.
   Cohl was financially devastated and alone (his wife, Suzanne, had died in 1930), when, in 1937, he was severely burned by a gas lamp while drawing in his home. He was using a gas lamp because he could not afford to pay the electric bill. He died penniless in a charity hospital, all but forgotten. Before Cohl's death, Georges Dureau, the editor of the Ciné-Journal, had attempted to draw attention to Cohl's rightful place in film history, citing him as the father of modern animation. Since then, several of Cohl's films have been rediscovered, and today, Dureau's claim is difficult to challenge.

Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. . 2007.

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