Sunday 13 January 2013

L'Albatros: a Skeleton of Silent Film

When researching my recent post on French silent film star Max Linder I was surprised to discover that the studio in which he made most of his films was still standing. At the earliest opportunity I headed out there - camera in hand - to investigate.

The story of the studios goes back to 1904, when Charles Pathé, in competition with Georges Méliès and the Star Film company, decided to add a new facility in Montreuil to those he already owned in neighbouring Vincennes. The location he chose was an old race horse stables, with the horse boxes being transformed into dressing rooms!

Far more modern was the glass construction he built alongside for filming. Although it may have been unbearably hot in summer, the idea was that it would let in a maximum amount of natural light, a necessity in a time before sophisticated lighting rigs on sets.

Pathé defined this space as a 'théâtre de prises de vues', literally a theatre where scenes could be captured easily on film. This structure still stands today, but with its crumbling walls and broken glass panels it is difficult to imagine its glittering past. But was it ever a glamorous place? According to actor Charles Vanel, who began his career at the studios, "it was in a flea-riden district, and from the outside it looked more like a factory than a film studio. But inside, it was magical"*

In many ways, the studios were indeed like a factory. Alongside the production of the films, the stage sets were created in adjoining workshops, and even the celluloid film was developed on site. It was a small plot, but it must have been an intensely busy place in its heyday.

After 10 successful years (over 1200 films were made in this period), film production on site was halted in 1914 when war broke out in France, and didn't begin again until after the conflict. Indeed, it was the revolution in Russia that indirectly give the site a second life as the studios came to provide a home for artists and film-makers who had fled the country.

The producer Joseph Ermolieff, who had managed Pathé's operations in Russia, moved to France, and brought his team with him. These included stars such as  Yvan Mosjoukine and Nathalie Lissenko as well as film-maker Alexandre Volkoff. The team created the Société des Films Albatros in 1922, a name that the site retains today.

Despite the initial success of the Russian adventure, the Studio Albatros did not manage to adapt to the end of the silent film era, and closed its doors at the very end of the 1920s. It was transformed into metalworks factory, before being abandoned again 70 years later with the decline of industrialisation in the Paris region. It was saved from demolition though in 1997 after the site was given listed status.

It was to experience another rebirth in 2001 when Lucien et Lily Chemla, a couple who had bought the site in honour of their actor and director son Michael, reopened the studios with the aim of supporting artists, dancers, musicians and film-makers.

A bold blue and white mural welcomes you to the site today, but it is unlikely that it will ever rediscover a place at the heart of French cinema. The buildings are scarred by their industrial years, and the ensemble looks more like a deserted factory than a historic film studio.

Nevertheless, the site undoubtedly retains a certain magic. Although tours of the site are quite regular organised (a visit seems to be scheduled for June 14th this year) you are seemingly free to walk in off the street whenever you like - although you are unlikely to have access to the original film studio.

If you do get inside (I got lucky!), you will discover two incredible spaces where it seems anything could happen. Many of Paris's leading street artists have clearly passed through here, and other creations are stacked up waiting for an audience. Light still floods in through the glass panels that remain, and if you squint a little, you can almost imagine Max Linder in front of the cameras up on the stage.

Studio Albatros,
52 Rue du Sergent Bobillot
93100 Montreuil-sous-Bois   

*Dictionnaire du cinéma français des années vingt, 2001


Thérèse said...

Superb reportage!

Tim said...

A most excellent find - pure Invisible Paris material!

gee said...

great blog, do something on racing club paris football team

Gavin said...

Fascinating stuff! It is amazing the building has survived all these years and has sort of open access. It seems kind of sad though.

Adam said...

Superchick: I've already done something on their old Stade Yves de Manoir and the 1924 Olympics.

I plan to do something on the Red Star football club soon though!

Brendan said...

Hi Adam, this is a great post. I was doing some research for our company's (Flicker Alley) new release of French Masterworks which is some great classics from Films Albatros.

Thanks for showing us what the studio looks like now! Hoping to visit it myself some day.

Adam said...

Brendan: thanks for the message. Will you be distributing any Max Linder films?

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