Film History Essentials: Pauvre Pierrot (1892)

(English: Poor Pierrot)

What it’s about:

Harlequin scales a courtyard wall to woo Columbina. When Pierrot knocks at the gate, he quickly hides. Pierrot presents Columbina with a bouquet of flowers. He returns later, seemingly drunk, and begins to serenade Columbina, who is inside the house. Harlequin continuously pops out from his hiding place to work his mischief, distracting Pierrot by poking him with a stick and stealing his bottle of wine. Eventually, Pierrot runs away in fright, and Harlequin triumphantly enters the house to join Columbina.

Why it’s essential:

By the 1890s, Charles-Émile Reynaud had come a long way from the 2-second animated illusions of his praxinoscope in the late 1870s. He had already played a small cameo in Edison and Dickson’s creation of the kinetoscope, as the first person to use perforations to draw a strip of images rapidly through his projection system in order to exhibit a moving picture. That system was a part of his magnificent Théâtre Optique, patented at the end of 1888 and likely seen by Edison during his Paris trip the following year. On October 28, 1892, Reynaud gave the first performance of the “Pantomimes Lumineuses,” a program of multiple animated films projected for an audience by the Théâtre Optique.

I don’t think I can overstate the significance of Reynaud’s work. This October 28 show marks the first-ever theatrical exhibition of a motion picture. It’s significance has been sadly downplayed in film history because Reynaud was an animator rather than a cinematographer, and his films weren’t photographed. But the sophistication of his shows was incredible in contrast with the first live-action films.

The first thing you’ll probably notice is that it’s in color, it has a story and characters, and in a time when motion pictures are at most several seconds long, its 4 minutes feels like a marathon. Reportedly, when originally performed before an 1890s audience, it would have included a specially-composed live score and a song, synchronized sound effects, and even some spoken dialogue (also performed live). It would be years before live-action cinema offered most of these things (including plot and characters!), and decades before it offered all of them.

Reynaud’s initial program included Pierrot alongside 2 other films, each one consisting of 300-700 hand-drawn images. Reynaud performed the show himself, and the way he worked the machine was a performance. Through skill and showmanship, he would work the strips of images not only forwards but backwards, prolonging scenes such that a typical showing of Pierrot could last as long as 15 minutes! It was some 20 years before another animated film came close to matching Reynaud for length.

Unfortunately, this very sophistication was ultimately Reynaud’s greatest weakness as well as his greatest strength. His first program ran for about a year and a half, and then closed for 10 months while Reynaud created new material: two brand-new, hand-drawn shorts. Over the next few years, he incorporated an additional two films, these live-action shorts that Reynaud painstakingly hand-colored and adapted for his projection system.

Adding an average of one short film a year was fine for awhile, but by the time he completed that final short in 1897, some of his competitors were changing their programs weekly, rushing new material to screens at an incredible rate. Reynaud couldn’t hope to keep up with the demand for fresh content, and eventually the novelty of his productions wore off for audiences. His show limped along for a few more years, but by the turn of the century, despite his best efforts to adapt to changing tastes, he was done. During nearly eight years in operation, Reynaud’s Théâtre Optique had projected 12,000 shows for half a million viewers.

Embittered by the fickleness of the public and depressed at his own seeming obsolescence, Reynaud destroyed his Théâtre Optique with a hammer and threw almost all of his wonderful films into the Seine River, where they were lost forever. Only this and one other survived the purge, having been hidden by his son Paul. According to film scholar Glenn Myrent, a few days later, Reynaud was approached by Léon Gaumont (who had worked with Georges Demenÿ before founding the hugely successful Gaumont Film Company, the oldest film company that still exists today). Gaumont wanted to buy the Théâtre Optique and donate it to a museum, but he was too late. Reynaud, meanwhile, spent the next few years pursuing further technological innovations, but none were successful. He died, impoverished and all but forgotten, in 1918.

Why you should see it:

“Pierrot and Columbine (rendezvous)” (Spitzweg, 1875)

Many of the subtleties of Pierrot‘s action and characters may seem opaque to modern viewers, but to a contemporary audience, this was quite familiar. You may have noticed in my description that all the characters have names even though the title names only Pierrot. This is because all three are well-known stock characters from the popular Italian stage tradition commedia dell’arte. These characters are usually identified by standard costumes, and are depicted with established personalities and relationships to each other.

All three are of the character type known as “Zanni,” servants who usually play a comedic role, either through being especially sly or especially dim. The love triangle of Harlequin, Columbina, and Pierrot enjoyed a particular popularity in Parisian theater traditions. Columbina, often portrayed as sneaky and coquettish, was sometimes married to Pierrot, a sad clown type, but mistress to Harlequin, a witty, charismatic trickster. Add to that built-in audience familiarity the fact that a common characteristic of these performances, particularly by the Harlequin character, was pantomime, and you can see why this was a perfect choice of subject for a story that had to be both brief and silent.

“Pierrot and Harlequin” (Cezanne, 1888)

One notable break with tradition here is that Harlequin’s costume (though recognizable thanks to his hat, stick, and mask), is all white rather than covered in a bright, colorful pattern as was typical. Presumably, including this element would have significantly increased the labor required for Reynaud to complete the film. You may also notice that at times, particularly when the characters are in motion, they appear almost ghostlike, not quite transparent but certainly translucent. This likely has something to do with the way the characters are the only animated element of the show, projected via mirror onto a static background that remains fixed throughout. Although I wonder if it has anything to do with the method by which the show was reproduced for our viewing here, and what it might have looked like in-person.

Like his title character, Reynaud’s story ends tragically, as the fickle object of his desire turns her attentions to another. It was an all-too-common story, particularly in the earliest years of film. He deserved better back then, and he deserves to be appreciated now. I think if you give this a chance, you’ll find that isn’t hard to do.


~ by Jared on January 22, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Pauvre Pierrot (1892)”

  1. […] and although it lasts about 2 minutes when played straight through at regular speed, just as with Pauvre Pierrot, Reynaud turned it into a performance, extending the runtime to 10 minutes or […]


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