Police in the Year 2000

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(4/10) In the year 2000 police officers will be catching criminals with giant grapplers from the deck of their airship, according to this 1910 short from Gaumont. Notable for starring two comedy legends of early cinema. 

Police in the Year 2000 (La police en l’an 2000). 1910, France. Starring: Eugène Bréon, Clément Mégé, Marcel Perez. Produced for Gaumont. IMDb score: 5.8. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

1910_police_in_the_year_2000_012The first few years of cinema was basically a free-for-all fight between eight large film companies: in the US: Edison, Vitagraph, Selig Polyscope and Mutoscope/Biograph, and in France: Lumière, Pathé, Star Film and Gaumont, all founded between 1891 and 1897. Seeing as France was the leading producer of sci-fi films, it is a bit surprising that it wasn’t until 1910 that Gaumont made what could be called a science fiction movie, and the movie that finally got the ball rolling was pretty much an anachronism before it had even been published.

Police in the Year 2000, or La police en l’an 2000, is a five minute short depicting a future police force patrolling a city in the year 2000 in an airship/dirigible with a propeller and a rudder. The laughing, good-natured police officers use telescopes to find thieves and trouble-makers in the city, and then swoop down on them. The officers use long wooden poles with giant clamps on one end to capture the perpetrators and hoist them aboard the airship, where they are then put inside a cage. First the police capture a couple of purse-snatchers harassing two upper-class ladies taking a stroll, and then apprehend two cat-burglars through a window, as they are trying to rob a safe. Lastly they spot a dog munching on a length of sausage outside a butcher’s shop, and fish up the cheeky little mutt for good measure, The airship is then navigated to the police station, where the criminals are thrown into a big funnel on the roof, whereafter they emerge from a tube inside the station, where another group of officers take them in custody. The End.

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Leon Gaumont.

As stated, this was the first, and one of the very few science fiction films released by Gaumont, and unfortunately the company has no record of who directed or filmed the movie – as directors were still rather anonymous at the time. To put the film into perspective: by 1910 Pathé and Georges Méliès’ company Star Films had between them released around 20 quite elaborate science fiction movies of substantial length (6-20 minutes). In fact they had been at it for so long that filmmakers had now been to the moon, the sun, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars, they had built rocket ships, submarines, airships, flying torpedoes, flying cars, robots and electric hotels. They had made themselves invisible, built televisions that showed a person’s soul, made incubators that aged infants with decades in an hour and invaded other countries with bomb-dropping Zeppelins. In short, they had achieved so much that the whole genre and style of filmmaking made so popular by Georges Méliès was becoming old hat.

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Crooks getting thrown into the roof funnel at the police station.

Huge advances had been made in trick film techniques such as double exposures, mattes, split-screen, stop tricks, stop-motion and black screen photography. However, none of these special effects are on display in Police in the Year 2000, instead the film uses only practical effects, and these are also limited to sets and props. The only exception is the binocular vignette laid atop the image when the police officers are scouting for wrong-doers. Interestingly enough, it is a binocular vignette, even though the police uses monocular telescopes.

On the other hand: the movie is aptly filmed, uses rather modern continuity editing and is professionally designed. It feels roomy although it is almost completely studio-bound. The grapplers are cool, and it isn’t perfectly obvious how the criminals are actually lifted off the ground, even if one suspects some kind of wirework is involved. Most of the lifting is, however, done partially off-screen and we seldom (ever?) see entire people flying in the air, supported only by the grapplers. In fact in one scene it is clear that the two purse-snatchers climb up some sort of ladder or construction just out of frame. But the effect is neat, nonetheless. The airships (that we never see in full) are also fairly well designed. They certainly look a lot sturdier than the flimsy little things that did such a good job of invading England in Walter R. Booth’s 1909 movie The Airship Destroyer (review). They also move past the frame even when there are visible actors in them, as opposed to Booth’s ditto. And at no point is the dirigible replaced by a cardboard cutout (hello again, Booth).

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Police officers with miniature dirigible propeller hats.

If the director of the film is anonymous, its cast is certainly not. In fact, the film contains a comedy powerhouse. Three of the actors have been identified. Of these, two are particularly interesting, as they were well on their way to becoming two of Europe’s most celebrated comedians. Short slapstick and situation comedy films in the vein of the later Charlie Chaplin or Laurel & Hardy were becoming increasingly popular, although at this time the two biggest stars of the field were Pathé’s Andre Deed (who soon moved to Itala Films and created the Cretinetti series) and Max Linder, who would become the world’s perhaps biggest male film star before Chaplin became king of comedy. During a trip to the US in 1908, Leon Gaumont wrote home to the studio’s head of production, legendary Louis Feuillade, about how well rivaling Pathé’s comedy shorts were being received by the American audience. In particular those starring former acrobat Andre Deed were immensely popular. In Leon Gaumont’s view, Gaumont also needed “artists” of this kind to star in their comedy shorts.

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Clément Mégé as Calino (right).

So Feuillade got to work, and in a short while had rounded up two clowns by the names of Clément Mégé (sometimes as Migé) and Marcel Perez (also known as Marcel Fabre, Robinet, Tweedle-Dan, etc), the latter of whom was Spanish. Feuillade placed Mégé in the role of Calino in a series initially directed by Romeo Bosetti, and later Jean Durand. In the book The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914, Richard Abel writes that “Mige plays Calino as a cheerful, conscientious buffoon whose single-minded enthusiasm or careful attention to warnings – and masterful pratfalls – inadvertently lead to an escalating series of gags and, eventually, an orgy of destruction. And because quite often Calino is a newly recruited civil servant of one sort or another – for instance, Calino bureautrate (1909), Calino agent (1910) – the story situations in the series seem to be mapped according to an increasing degree of specialization or fragmented division of labor, especially within the strata of ‘little people’ in French society. Indeed, one might say that Calino’s destructive antics, in contrast to Nick Carter’s professional restorative powers, result in a carnivalesque vision of French state bureaucracy wildly run amuck.” Calino became one of Gaumont’s most popular acts, along with Onesimo, played by Ernest Bourboun, into whom Calino would bump in some films, with double the chaos. With the emergence of the feature film as the dominant form of movie, short comedy lost much of its attraction, and ended the career of many a former movie star, including that of Clément Mégé, who left the movie business in 1913.

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The airship.

Marcel Perez acted in a few films for Pathé and Eclair in France, but soon after Police in the Year 2000, he was snatched up by Italian film company Ambrosio Film, as studio head Arturo Ambrosio was looking for someone to rival the genius of Andre Deed over at Itala Film, who was now continuing his international success with the Cretinetti series. Under the name Marcel Farbe, Perez started directing and starring in a series of short films featuring the character Robinet, which became an instant success. Richard Abel writes in Encyclopedia of Early Cinema that Perez, along with comedians Ernesto Vaser and Gigetta Morano “formed a virtual school of film comedy that enabled directors to experiment with film language, special effects, and editing, and with marketing and branding.” Perez made over 150 Robinet films, and became synonymous with his creation, adopting Robinet for his stage name. While at Ambrosio, he also starred in and directed the feature-length film The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola (1913), which has been described as Italy’s first science fiction feature film.

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Nilda Baracchi and Marcel Perez in the American 1918 film Oh! What a Day!

At the outbreak of WWI, Perez moved to Hollywood, where four of his first films were comedy shorts called the Bungles films, which he co-directed and co-starred in alongside a young Oliver Hardy. He repeated his Robinet success with a new series about Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, many of which co-starred his wife (uncomfirmed) Nilde Baracchi. After having leg surgery for cancer he more or less quit acting and focused on writing, directing and on creating gags for other comedians. He kept on working up until his death in 1929.

Police in the Year 2000 came at a time when aviation was very much on the mode. Both the French, the German, the Brits, and the Americans had perfected their own designs of airships and Zeppelins in the years leading up to 1910, and in 1909 count Ferdinand von Zeppelin founded the world’s first commercial aviation company. Heavier-than-air crafts were also being developed, and in 1909 Louis Blériot became the first person to cross the English channel in an airplane.

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Coté’s vision of the aviation police in the year 2000.

However, the film was probably also influenced by the artwork of illustrator Jean-Marc Côté and other artists, commissioned in 1899, 1900, 1901 and 1910, depicting what they imagined life in France to be like in the year 2000. The pictures were originally distributed as paper prints in cigarette and cigar boxes leading up to the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, but some where later distributed as post cards. In fact, the most famous, Côté’s, never actually became post cards due to financial problems. Only one prototype set of Côté post cards is known to exist, and it was discovered by science fiction author Isaac Asimov, and published in one of his books in 1987.

It’s always fascinating to see how people in the past have envisioned the future, seeing as they tend to be at the same time unable to view past their own period’s technological and social standards, but on the other hand impossibly optimistic about the magical properties of future technology and society. Some developments, like the video call, the scuba gear, the dictaphone and the general automation of society were eerily spot-on. Future warfare is surprisingly well predicted – for say about 1915. In general, it’s interesting how most of the predictions made were reality, if not in the thirties, then at latest in the sixties. At the same time architecture, fashion and social norms aren’t predicted to have changed one bit in 100 years. The only things that really go far off base are the predictions of the general availability of personal strap-on wings and flying cars, as well as the odd notion that we would be spending considerable parts of our leisure time underwater. Plus some predictions that are probably meant as tongue-in-cheek comedy, such as the whale bus and the fish-riding races. But the cards also contained a number of depictions of flying police and other authorities, which would most certainly have inspired the filmmakers.

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Self-propelled customs officers.

In a sense, there’r really not much science fiction about this: the technology use in the film was already available in 1910, the only problem being that it would naturally have been completely unpractical. A dirigible with enough lift to carry three police officers, a handful of crooks and a dog filled with sausages would have been impossibly large for maneuvering through the streets of Paris, and those grapplers would be great if they were automated and machine-operated. But there’s probably a reason as to why police don’t normally use long tongs to catch criminals.

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Grappling with criminals.

This film is really nothing more than a humorous post card from a not so seriously imagined future, and doesn’t really have any narrative nor point other than general amusement. Certainly some resources and effort has gone into making it, but no more than Gaumont’s art department could have whipped together in a couple of days’ work.

Janne Wass 

Police in the Year 2000 (La police en l’an 2000). 1910, France. Starring: Eugène Bréon, Clément Mégé, Marcel Perez. Produced for Gaumont.

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