A Life in Movies

Source: Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography (London: William Heinemann, 1986), pp. 90-91

Text: There was a cinema at Chantilly. There were local cinemas everywhere in those days. Chantilly was not a large town, but I think it had two. The one near us was down a side street and advertised that it was open for business by an electric buzzer which rang until the show started. I can hear that remorseless bell shattering the calm under the plane trees whenever I think of Chantilly. It is curious how the French, most sensitive of nations, are insensitive to noise, particularly if it is a new and splendid noise that stands for Progress.

The films were mostly serials, like the French films I had seen at the Palais de Luxe in Canterbury. One of my earliest movie images is of Fantomas, the Master Crook of Paris. When he wasn’t wearing white tie and tails, a can, a top hat, and an opera-cloak, he was in black tights with a black mask, performing incredible feats of hide-and-seek with the police. The image that stays with me is of an open cistern of water in the attic of some house. The police dash in, in pursuit of Fantomas, and find nobody. Baffled, they withdraw, but the Chief takes one last look at the cistern, sees a straw floating on the surface of the water, gives it an idle flush. Aha! we all think. And sure enough! As the last policeman goes, the water stirs and bubbles and the black form of Fantomas appears from the depths, between his lips the straw through which he has been breathing! I can see now his black figure, glistening like a seal’s, smiling triumphantly at the camera. For, in silent films, one learnt to “register” to the camera.

Candy and the movies have always gone together, and in the intervals at Chantilly girls moved up and down the aisle chanting “pochettes surprises!esqimaubriques!” There were frequent intervals. In 1919 most films were short comedies. In addition they were playing an interminable serial in fifteen episodes of The Three Musketeers, and there was another serial staring the famous French boxer Georges Carpentier. I believe that d’Artagnan was Aimé Simon-Girard, and as a movie historian I ought to check it with the dates, but I really don’t think it matters. Aimé Simon-Girard was in practically every romantic French costume film of that decade and the Musketeers serial may have been a year later. The Carpentier film I remember well. He was not an actor of any kind, but he was charming, and his flattened nose on his pretty face gave him a different look. The film was full of stunts, of course. All serials had to be full of stunts: jumping on and off moving trains. onto moving automobiles, flights on the edge of high buildings, all the tricks of the trade, from Georges Méliès to Superman. Carpentier moved obligingly (he had a pleasant smile) through the scenes, and we all thought he was splendid. Films were tinted then: the predominant colour of the Carpentier serial seemed to be green. The Musketeers did their stuff in a sort of Old Master yellowish-brown, suitable for cloak and rapier adventures. Night scenes, of course, were blue.

Comment: Michael Powell (1905-1990) was a British film director. His family stayed for a time immediately after the First World War at Chantilly in France, where his father had a share in a hotel. Les Trois Mosquetaires with Aimé Simon-Girard was made in 1921; the Georges Carpentier serial is probably Le trésor de Kériolet (France 1920).

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