A RUSSIAN IN PARIS.THE BIRTH OF STOP-MOTION. PART II
A NEW HOME, A NEW COUNTRY, A WHOLE NEW WORLD
Starewitch arrived here, just where I am right now, in 1920. I have tried to imagine the landscape but I can’t. They, probably, understood nothing at all; didn’t speak French, and had no idea about the place; the city and its customs. Not google or Facebook, for sure! I prefer not to think about his first night there being, again in a new country; this time in a post-war situation. Despite this entire circumstance, he didn’t lose hope and he carried on working, went ahead with his personal projects, and found the way to feed his family.
I wonder how it would have been if he was an American, with the only obsession to fight for his puppets and his films, in a land where “war” was a Griffith film. But, he wasn’t. He was a Russian running away from death, literally struggling for survival, in a land where the blood of the fallen was still flowing in the streets.
We prefer to remember “the happy twenty” like a romantic moment full of prosperity and enthusiasm because that is more comfortable than feeling the desperation and pain before the mass killing of the war which produced the reaction so-called “happy twenty”. I can’t blame them, how could we do it? After the war, they had to carry on with their lives among the devastation, walking between millions of dead people. Millions of people had to resurrect from their own ashes. There wasn’t a single human being who had not lost some of his loved ones. So, they had to call the life back with all their strengths, and that was the “folly of the twenties.” It is better to focus in Charleston when you think about that time.
However, for a certain group of Russian people who were into filming, the situation was not the worst. Once in Paris, Ermolieff visited his old Pathé chief. On July 16, 1920, Pathé signed with Ermolieff a lease of Montreuil studio, along with a promise of sale in 52, rue du Sergent Bobillot, known today as “Albatros” cinema school. Ermolieff created Ermolieff-Cinéma, which became Films Albatros in 1922. It was a short, but interesting adventure. For a while, the Russian community made an oriental inspired cinema with splendorous decorations and costumes. Russian was in fashion in Paris for a moment in the middle of twenties’ folly. Starewitch made one animated film for this studio, The Scarecrow.
The first Pathe’s studio today used by “Albatros” school cinema.
Paris danced to Charleston, but it didn’t dance for long. In Joinville-le-Pont, the French cinema industry struggled for waking up again after the war. I am pretty sure that Starewitch knew the relevance of the French film companies at the moment when he arrived there with a mountain of other fellow Russian cinema workers. He was already a successful director, and I imagine that he hoped to have some opportunity in Europa with his work, although he had to learn to speak French and break through a period of adaptation. I suppose he went to Joinville-le-Pont, (sometimes, I ride my bicycle until there), in the first place because he probably knew the fame of the place, at that time known as ‘Little Hollywood’.
He built his own studio at his home, and with the help of his family, he quickly started working; making new puppets and new films while he worked taking pictures for Albatros films company, and also while working as a cameraman for others.
He made Le Mariage de Babylas Midnight Wedding, L’épouvantail, The Scarecrow, 1921, Les Grenouilles qui Demandent un Roi, The Frogs Who Wanted a King 1922, Amour Noir et Blanc, Love in Black and Bhite, 1923, and La Voix du Rossignol,The Voice of the Nightingale, 1923. He was honoured with the Hugo Riesenfiels Medal “as the most novel short subject motion picture in the USA during the year” 1925 for his The Voice of the Nightingale.
In 1924, he made La Petite Chateuse des Rues,The Little Street Singer. In these films, he was assisted first by his daughter Irina (who had changed her name to Irène) who collaborated in all his films and dedicated her life to defend the rights of his father’s work. His wife, Anna Zimermann, made the costumes for the puppets and Jeane Starewitch (Nina Star) was the star for the most of his films (The Little Street Singer, The Queen of the Butterflies, The Voice of the Nightingale,and The Magical Clock etc). This year, Starewitch moved to Fontenay-sous-Bois, where he lived until his death in 1965. I guess he thought it would be easier to be closer to the Russian community in Montreuil. In fact, he was known for his generosity and hospitality, especially with refugees from the Soviet Union.
The rest of his films were made in Fontenay-sous-Bois. Among the most notable are The Eyes of the Dragon 1925, a Chinese tale with complex and wonderful sets and character design in which Starewitch shows his talent as a decoration artist and ingenious trick-filmmaker clearly influenced by the orientalist style that had been adopted by the Russian filmmakers community in Albatros studio. The Town Rat and the Country Rat, 1926, a parody of American slapstick films; The Magical Clock, 1928, a fairy-tale with amazing middle-age puppets and sets, with the music by Paul Dessau; Love in Black and White, 1928, the Hollywood expansion is clear through the presence of a puppet of Charlotte in the short,, and The Little Parade, from Andersen’s tale The Steadfast Tin Soldier.
THE FOX, THE FIRST STOP MOTION FEATURE FILM AND THE END OF THE ARTIST FREEDOM
The Romance of Renard or The Tale of the Fox the first stop-motion animation feature film ever and its production has its own amazing history. This point is a very important moment in the history of animation; it started in one era and finished in another. Everything had changed then, the sound, the colour. That Fox is a masterpiece lost in the middle of the fireworks of the new technologies. However, the meaning inside it has not timed, and, ironically, the story inside looks like a mirror of the changes that were happening in the animation world and with the film itself.
Six weeks after the premiere of The Little Parade, the sound was added by Louis Nalpas Company to the film. Starewitch started a collaboration with him, wishing to make a full-length feature film: Le Roman de Renard. It was 1928. That was the same year that Walt Disney released his Steamboat Willy showing a new path for sound cartoons. Nalpas not only wanted to produce a feature film with sound but with a stereoscopic process as well. It must have been a tough moment for Starewitch. Roger Richebé was the Nalpas partner and he had an agreement according to which he, the producer, had the right to the final cut.
I can feel how painful this part would have been for an artist like Starewitch. That historical
moment is not only remarkable for the personal life of Starewitch. It is also an important day in the cinema history because it means the end of the artistic independence, like at the end of Le Roman de Renard the fox loses his freedom to serve the king. Just like that from that day, the artist was not free ever again, not even the owner of his work, not in the business of cinema anymore.
Starewitch thought that “sound had supremacy over picture”. However, he understood that times were changing and there was nothing to do about it, and, overall, he was not able to do it all alone. Thus, despite his reluctance, he shot the film with sound finishing in 1931. Nalpas had chosen the process of post-recording on disc, but that technique was taken over quickly. That mistake put Nalpas in economic problems, and after that, he refused to finance the post recording of Le Roman de Renard . Starewitch brought the dispute to the court and as a result, he obtained the right to the movie, but five years had already passed by then, and he needed another producer.
Meanwhile, in 1930, in EEUU, Disney had given colour to animation with the success experiment of the Flowers and Trees, and an excellent entrepreneur as Disney was, he had the patent on the process for three years. This was an insurance for Disney, ensuring an important business advantage, and killing in one day the possibilities of other processes like hand-painted films. “Since the arrival of the colour, black and white movies are suddenly too old”, the British distributor of Starewitch will say.
Despite the film was finished long away, Starewitch and his fox had to wait until October 3, 1937, when, thanks an agreement with Berlin’s UFA , a German version of the Le Romance de Renard saw the light of day. This same year Disney conquered the world with his version of Snow White, changing the rules of the animation business forever.
On 10 April 1941, with the help of Roger Richebé, the film could be seen on French screens. However, the problems were not finished, not even then. The ending of the Fox was a considerate immoral for Franco and Benito Mussolini who banned the film in Spain and Italy. Starewitch has some problems as well, being criticised and under suspicious for his collaboration with UFA.
Le Romance de Renard was the third animated feature film to have sound, after Quirino Cristiani’s Peludópolis, 1931, and The New Gulliver, 1935 from the Soviet Union.
In 1933, Ladislas and Irene Starewitch produced and directed a long film which was greatly reduced, becoming Fetishe Mascotte, The Mascot, distributed in 1934. Starewitch made a contract with Marc Gelbart from Gelma Films to make a series with this character. It was intended to make 12 episodes, but because of economic reasons, only 5 were made between 1934 and 1937 and were distributed in the entire world. These were Fétiche Prestidigitateur, The Ringsmaster, 1934, Fétiche se marie, The Mascot’s Wedding, 1935, Fétiche en Voyage de Noces, The Navigator, 1936, and Fétiche et Les Sirens ,The Mascot and the Mermaids, 1937. However, these episodes were not released because sound could not be added. There was also an unfinished film, Fétiche père de Famille The Mascot and his Family, 1938. In 1954, L. Starewitch conceived The Hangover, using the images not included in The Mascot.
Léona Béatrice Martin-Starewitch, his granddaughter, and her husband, François Martin started the reconstruction of the original movie from multiple copies of The Mascot distributed in the United Kingdom and the USA, the negative of The Hangover, and material from the personal archives of Starewitch. In 2012, the negative called “LS 18” has found recovering its length and montage from 1933. It was named “Fetish 33-12”.
In 1946, Starewitch tried to make The Midsummer Night’s Dream but abandoned the project due to financial problems. Next year, he made Zanzabelle a Paris adapted from a story by Sonika Bo. In 1949, he met Alexandre Kamnka, Alkam Films, an old Russian friend, who produced Starewitch’s first colour film, Fleur de Fougère, Fern Flower. It won the first prize as an animated film in the 11th International Children Film Festival in Venice Biennale.
After the success, he started a collaboration with Sonika Bo to adapt another of her stories, like Gazouilly petit oiseau , Gazouilly the Small Bird, and Un Dimanche de Gazouillis, Gazouillis’s Sunday Picnic. Still working with Alkam films, Starewitch made Nose to Wind. That year, his wife Anna died. Due to the success of the previous film, Winter Carrousel was made, starring the bear Patapouf, the protagonist, and the rabbit going through seasons. This was his last completed film. All his family collaborated on it, as remembers his granddaughter Léona Béatrice, whose hands could be seen in animation tests from Like Dog and Cat, Starewitch’s unfinished film.
Ladislas Starewitch died on 26 February, 1965 while working on Comme Chien et Chat, Like Dog and Cat. He was one of the few European animators to be known by his name in America before the 1960s, largely on account of La Voix du Rossignol and Fétiche Mascotte because The Tale of the Fox was not widely distributed in the US. Filmmaker Terry Gilliam ranks The Mascot among the ten best-animated movies of all time.
A WORK MADE OF LOVE
He held all his puppets during all his life. A lot of them, after being starred in a film became secondary characters in others. For instance, in Fétiche Mascotte, 1933 there are puppets from The Scarecrow, The Little Parade, and The Magical Clock. And that is the reason because it is still possible to watch his work today. I cannot avoid wondering how he did it to come here from Russia with them in those circumstances. They are just the same that stand in front of my camera today, still playing his song, smiling like the forgotten Norma Desmon in Sunset Boulevard only for me. I cannot believe these puppets are watching me today just in front of my very eyes!
In 1923, The Voice of the Nightingale had a remarkable answer from the USA audiences. It was so successful that Starewitch received an offer to work there for the film industry. But Americans asked him to produce 1500 metres of film every month. While he was making 120 metres max on his own. If he accepted he would have had to give up his working system, adopting a new one following the modern Taylor philosophy. That meant loose the personal control over every part of the production, and of course, forget to work together with the rest of the family members. He could have won millions becoming a famous and rich Hollywood producer. He could have written a different history of animation. But he did not. That condition was impossible for him to accept. He could not renounce to make every puppet by himself; every shoot and every cut. Nina star could have been a rival for Shirley Temple, and maybe Starewitch thought about that, not like a dream, but a nightmare. Films will be not a game anymore for them, and he preferred to have a life than to have a place in the big Hollywood. And for that, I feel a deep admiration for you, Mr Starewitch.
People like Starewitch loved what they did, and I really believe that they did it because that was what they were, and they were not able not to be. They were consistent and loyal with themselves. They had to do it. That was an answer to them; that is the sense of the artist’s lives. It was personal and for his honesty with themselves, they became valued for the rest of us.
Nowadays we teach our youngest that there is only one, absolute and unique goal in the life and it is the same for all of us; be famous and rich. It is for this that we teach names, dates, and numbers. “He was famous, he was the first, he was the best” because that is what you have to be. We don’t teach to love life itself, the act of creation itself; we are not helping the youngest to understand themselves or how to discover their own, personal, private and unique path making creations through which share their personal world.
We are telling only the half part of the history, and with that, we are stealing from the new generations the opportunity to know about the reality of life and about themselves. For this, they think that all, out of a computer program, is already done. But it is not.
Ladislas Starewitch is buried in the beautiful Fontenay sous Bois cemetery with his wife Anna and his two beloved daughters. Just a ten-minute walk from my house. He lies under his Russian name, Wladyslaw Starewicz.
When the sun shines, I like to walk to visit them. I put some water in their plants while I imagine all of them still making puppets with the clouds. To arrive at them you have to pass before close to the World War deaths. It is impossible do not wonder how the human being can be at once as amazing as cruel and stupid. I do not know.
Léona Béatrice Martin-Starewitch, his granddaughter, and her husband, François Martin works still today to hold fresh the important and beautiful heritage of him. Here you can see their official website.
Rest in peace Mr Starewitch and family, you deserve it. Very thanks for your amazing work and his “never give up” heritage.
Only Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam know how much they owe to Starewitch work without which works like Nightmare before Christmas did not exist.
I have read a lot about the surrealism in Starewitch’s work. But if you ask me I tell you that his work is full of symbolic meanings and deep sense. If you want to know about it, let me explain in the next post,