Marseille On Screen: Early Days

Barrabas

Louis Feuillade’s Barrabas

Marseille started its onscreen career discreetly through newsy footage documenting the city’s life. Thanks to the Geographical Society of Marseille showcasing some of these shorts at the Eden theater, local spectators were able to learn more about their city’s behind the scenes, from olive oil manufacturing to preparing the fish market, or working on the docks.

Marseille made its scripted debut in adaptations of literary works such as Bouclette (1918 – based on L’Ange de Minuit ), Fabienne (1920 – based on a play) and L’Homme du Large (1920 – based on a Balzac book). Contrary to a common belief that assumes that action cinema came to Marseille with Luc Besson-style productions such as The Transporter, the first chase sequence involved a tramway and a car and dates back to 1919 with Làszlò Moholy-Nagy’s action comedy L’insaisissable Montenlair.

Marseille also quickly became a setting for period adventure films such as Louis Feuillade’s Barrabas (1920), Parisette (1921) and Le fils du flibustier (1922). But it’s of course The Count of Monte Cristo which is without a doubt the most memorable period piece associated with the city. The popular Alexandre Dumas novel was brought to the screen many times since 1908, raising awareness about Marseille and its Chateau d’If (the prison on an island) around the world (see our special feature about the Count of Monte Cristo).

The second Colonial Exhibition in Marseille (1922) was another great opportunity for filmmaking. While the Éclair company covered the event prominently, the Gaumont and Phocéa production companies used the exhibition as a setting for their pictures, most particularly Gaston Revel’s Tao which starred Joe Hammon. A year later, Louis De Carbonnat used the port in Tour de la France de deux enfants, the adaptation of a popular kids novel, while Epstein’s melodrama Cœur Fidèle featured two men competing for a local girl’s love. At the same time, the newspaper Le Radical launched a series of films which covered local events and were shown in theaters before the main feature – the most memorable sequence was the explosion of the British freighter Otterburn in the harbor, in November 1923.

THE ADVENT OF TALKIES

back to Provence Movies featureCreated in 1926 at the Warner studios, talking pictures made their humble beginnings in Alan Crosland’s Jazz Singer (1927) before becoming fully operational three years later, reaching France and Marseille with the world premiere of Robert Florey’s musical La route est Belle at the Capitole theater on La Canebière street. Starring the tenor André Baugé, the movie became a hit, drawing crowds from all around Provence.

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Fred Thom

Fred Thom

Editor-in-Chief/Founder/Film Critic at Plume Noire
The founder and editor-in-chief of Plume Noire, Fred Thom covers film festivals and writes movie reviews. He was born in Marseilles, France and is now living in Los Angeles, California.