04 October 2019

Alfred Machin

From 27 September till 5 October, Utrecht is once again the capital of the Dutch cinema while hosting the Netherlands Film Festival (NFF). In the Unofficial Dutch Film Star Postcards Festival, EFSP presents today a special post: our subject is a French film-maker from the early days of the film, who was active in the Netherlands. Alfred Machin (1877-1929) was not only extremely productive, but his work from the 1910s also testifies of a progressive vision. Georges Sadoul called him the 'first European filmmaker'. Among other things, he was known for the wild and other animals that he showed in his films. During shooting, one of his panthers hurt him at the belly badly, causing his health to decline and in 1929 Machin died in Nice.

Alfred Machin and his panther Mimir
Alfred Machin and his panther Mimir. Postcard, editor nor nationality known.

Little Moritz
Little Moritz. French postcard by Edition Pathé Frères. Maurice Schwartz (1890-1960) was an international popular Pathé comedian in 1910-1912, known as Little Moritz. He came from the German music-hall and worked for Pathé's Comica studio in Nice.

Taking hazardous risks for films with wild animals

Alfred Machin was born as Eugène Alfred Jean Baptiste Machin in Blendecques, France, in 1877.

Machin was working as a press photographer for L'Illustration when he was recruited by the Pathé brothers to make films. In 1907, they sent him to Africa, where, in 1907-1908 and again in 1908-1909, he shot various documentaries. Some of these were re-edited in 1910-1911 into a feature-length documentary.

His films with wild animals, for which he took hazardous risks, had great success. Almost immediately after his return from Africa, he was sent to the Netherlands in the fall of 1909 to make documentaries about Dutch life, such as Une journée à l'île de Marken (Alfred Machin, 1909), Coiffures et types de Hollande (Alfred Machin, 1909), and Comment se fait le fromage de Hollande (Alfred Machin, 1909).

For a period he worked at the Pathé branch of Nice, the subdepartments Comica and Nizza, where he made comedies with Little Moritz, Fouinard (Georges Vinter), Babylas (Louis-Jacques Boucot), and others. He also shot a drama in Belgium which was set in Holland, Le Moulin maudit/The Mill (Alfred Machin, 1909). It was a foretelling of his future working territories.

The trip to the low countries was followed by a series of fiction films in 1911-1912 for Pathé's newly founded Hollandsche Film, partly shot at the picturesque village of Volendam. While the first film shot was L'Ame des moulins/The souls of the mills (Alfred Machin, 1912), to please Dutch audiences the first film released in the Netherlands was L'Or qui brûle/Het vervloekte geld/Fire at Sea (Alfred Machin, 1911), starring Dutch stage actor Louis Bouwmeester.

Louis Bouwmeester was almost the only Dutch actor in Machin's Dutch films. The director had brought a group of Pathé actors with him, including Jacques Vandenne, Germaine Dury, Germaine Lecuyer (his future wife), and little Maurice Mathieu.

Louis Bouwmeester
Dutch postcard from 1910 showing Louis Bouwmeester as Shylock.

Jacques Vandenne
Jacques Vandenne. French postcard, no. 13. Photo: Cliché Sartony. In 1911 Vandenne followed Alfred Machin to the Netherlands where he acted in a series of dramatic shorts produced by Pathé's local Dutch company Hollandsche Film and filmed in and around the picturesque village of Volendam, exploiting the local surroundings and clichés.

In L'Or qui brûle/Het vervloekte geld (Alfred Machin, 1911), Vandenne was the crooked shipowner Snijders opposite the 'monstre sacré' of the Dutch stage, Louis Bouwmeester, as the old sailor Verhoff. In Le Calvaire du mousse/Het lijden van den scheepsjongen (Alfred Machin, 1912), he played the drunken skipper who abuses the small cabin boy.

Vandenne also appeared in the historical film La Revolte des gueux/De strijd der geuzen/The Revolt of the Peasants (Alfred Machin, 1912), L'Âme des moulins/De molens die juichen en weenen (Alfred Machin, 1912), and La Vengeance du pêcheur Willink/Visserswraak (Alfred Machin, 1913).

A picturesque drama in the flower fields of the Netherlands

Apart from the rural dramas involving millers and fishermen, shot in Volendam, Marken and other picturesque places, Alfred Machin also staged a few comedies such as La peinture et les cochon/Paint and pigs (Alfred Machin, 1912) and several historical and modern dramas. He made three dramas with the actor Léon Mathot, including La dramatique passion d'Algabert et d'Élisabeth de Rodembourg/Dramatic Passion of Algabert and Elisberth of Rodembourg(Alfred Machin, 1912) and Le secret de l'acier/Joachim Goëthal et le secret de l'acier/Joachim Goethal en het geheim van het staal (Alfred Machin, 1912).

In Belgium, Machin then took the management over of the early film studio that Pathé had started there in 1908. Machin established his Belge Cinéma Films on the Karreveld domain in Sint-Jans-Molenbeek. The equipment included a mini zoo with exotic animals, including his own leopard Mimir. Mimir starred e.g. in Saïda a enlevé Manneken-Pis/Saïda has kidnapped the Manneken Pis (Alfred Machin, 1913), also with a young Fernand Gravey (then still Fernand Mertens).

During short stays in France, Machin made films with famous comedians such as Little Moritz, Fouinard and Babylas. He shot vaudeville with Belgian actors such as Arthur Devère and Fernand Crommelynck. His two major Belgian productions were Le Diamant noir/De zwarte diamant/The Black Diamond (Alfred Machin, 1913) and La fille de Delft/La Tulipe d'or/Het geheim van Delft/Loyalty (Alfred Machin, 1914).

The plot of Le secret de Delft starts in the flower fields of the Netherlands, and deals with a boy and girl separated when she leaves for the city of Brussels. She becomes a famous dancer and shuns him when he visits her. When her balloon drops and she becomes blind, her then-fiancé drops her too, but her childhood love takes her in once more. The first part of the film starred two then-child actors, Fernand Gravey and Blanche Montel, who eventually would become film stars.

Le Diamant noir stars a young Albert Dieudonné, the star of Abel Gance's Napoléon (1927), as a baron's secretary unjustly accused of theft. The culprit is an animal, a pet magpie, while Mimir had a small part as the panther who attacks Albert in the jungle.

Léon Mathot
Léon Mathot. French postcard in the Les Vedettes de l'Ecran series by Editions Filma, no. 55. Photo: Pathé Consortium Cinéma.

Blanche Montel
French postcard in the Les Vedettes de Cinéma series by A.N., Paris, no. 56. When she was only 11, Blanche Montel was already engaged by Machin to play a young Dutch girl in La fille de Delft (1913-1914), shot at the Belgium Pathé studio of Chateau Karreveld at Molenbeek-Saint-Jean near Brussels.

A marvelously stencil-colored production about a fictitious air war

On the eve of the First World War, Alfred Machin shot the premonitory Maudite soit la guerre, a marvelously stencil-colored production about a fictitious air war. It was a prestigious production, with collapsing balloons spitting fire, while on the ground a windmill was blown up during an assault.

When the violence of arms also broke out in reality, Machin started working for the Service cinématographique des Armées, a new service of the French army in which the four major film houses participated. More than 60 films from this period can certainly be attributed to him.

After the war, he returned to the Nice area. He became director of the Pathé studio and took it over in 1921. Les Studios Machin was a family business in which his wife Germaine Lécuyer and his son Claude (Clo-Clo) also participated. He again focused on animal comedies, a time-intensive niche in which he excelled. Three of his films, including Bêtes ... comme les homme/sAnimals As Stupid As Men (Alfred Machin, Henry Wulschleger, 1922), had only animals as actors. The French public was not entirely enthusiastic, but it earned him the necessary attention in America.

In 1996, when preparing his dissertation on Jean Desmet and the early Dutch film distribution and cinema exhibition, Ivo Blom met Mme Lili Debs-Justet, daughter of Louis Justet, the owner of the Dutch branch of Pathé and the Theater Pathé cinema in Amsterdam. While she was about 90 when Ivo met her, she recalled how as a young girl she had been photographed with Machin, his leopard and a young lion in an Amsterdam park. That may well have caused a stir.

Mme Lili Debs-Justet also remarked how Machin was a documentary-maker in the first place and cherished his African adventures most. Indeed, when in the Netherlands in Fall 1911, he gave a glaring interview about his daredevil adventures to Dutch journalist Jan Feith. Then again, to the average non-Dutch filmgoer, the quaint Volendam scenery may have looked just as exotic as any African scene.

Alfred Machin passed away in 1929 in Nice, France. He was 52. With Germaine Lecuyer, he had three children: Freddy Machin (1913-1974), Ginette Machin (1918-1951), and Claude Machin (1921-1978).

Chasse à la panthère (Alfred Machin, 1909). Source: CINEMATEKfilms (YouTube).

Le diamant noir (Alfred Machin, 1913). Source: CINEMATEKfilms (YouTube).

Trailer Maudite soit la guerre (Alfred Machin, 1914). Source: CINEMATEKfilms (YouTube).

Sources: Eric de Kuyper (Alfred Machin Cinéaste/ Film-maker, 1995). Jan Feith (Algemeen Handelsblad, 16-11-1911 - Dutch), Wikipedia (Dutch) and IMDb.

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