Some lost films are more lost than others. There are very early works that no one now alive has seen, and we have little hope of recovering. While later silent feature films were duplicated and distributed widely, there are hundreds of short experiments by the first film-makers, movies no more than a few seconds long, that no longer exist even as a memory.
It seemed too good to be true, then, that lost films by Georges Méliès could really have been found by chance in a German bookshop in 2013. Yet a dogged research project by an independent scholar from France, Thierry Lecointe, has helped uncover miraculous images from lost films, not just by Méliès, but also by Alice Guy-Blaché.
The frames were preserved as images printed on to the card pages of tiny flipbooks. With digital technology, the flipbooks, known as folioscopes, have now become something like film fragments again. The photographer Onno Petersen shot each page in high-resolution and the motion-picture restoration expert Robert Byrne, from the San Francisco Silent Film festival, produced animations revealing such treats as a long-lost magic trick, dance, comic sketch or a train caught on camera more than a century ago.
The animations premiered at the San Francisco festival in 2019. “We have completed the cycle,” says Byrne. “The images started as film, were recast into miniature booklets, and 100 years later we have reversed the transformation and returned the long-lost images to the screen.”
How were the flipbook images discovered? A computer animation expert, Bernhard Richter, had been shopping for a piece of film ephemera to raffle at a forthcoming conference, when a flipbook labelled “Léon Beaulieu” caught his eye. The images in the flipbook showed a train pulling into a station. On further investigation, Richter and his daughter Sara began to suspect the images were from a lost Méliès film, 1896’s The Arrival of a Train at Vincennes Station, so they uploaded a simple animation of the images to YouTube and contacted several film researchers. In Variety’s coverage of the “discovery”, early film experts were quoted as casting reasonable doubt on their chances of success. One restorer and silent film specialist, Serge Bromberg, cautioned “there’s only a 1% chance of accurately identifying the flipbook’s origin” due to the lack of detail in the image.
However, researchers at Domitor, the international society for the study of early cinema, stayed with the trail – including Lecointe, who deduced that there was potential in the project. Not only did he think that he could identify the film, but he suspected that there could be yet more folioscopes made by Beaulieu from early, lost films. He embarked on painstaking research to name the film, involving visiting train stations, calculating shadows and using old postcards to identify platform furniture. He contacted Pascal Fouché, a collector of early flipbooks, who held several more Beaulieu folioscopes, including a more complete version of Richter’s example.
Lecointe could eventually assert with confidence that the flipbook featured images from another lost Méliès film, The Arrival of a Train at Joinville Station, shot in late July 1896. As Petersen and Byrne turned the flipbooks into animated films, Lecointe began investigating the sources of more than 20 further Beaulieu flipbooks in Fouché’s collection: identifying each flipbook page as a frame from a cinematic source. It was a slow but fascinating process, with Lecointe consulting scholars in other fields as well as Méliès experts and two of his descendants, Jacques Malthête and Pauline Duclaud-Lacoste.
Meanwhile, Fouché furnished details of Beaulieu’s short but colourful and seemingly unhappy life. He was born in Paris in 1857, orphaned by the age of 20 and died alone and unmarried in the same city in 1901. He seems to have moved frequently, as well as completing some stints in the army, and spending time in jail for violent incidents when he was in uniform – including a three-year sentence for insulting and threatening a superior. He was discharged from the military on grounds of health (asthma and obesity), after seeing action overseas, including in Algeria. Just a month before he died, he was fined 100 francs on a charge of indecency. On his death certificate his occupation was registered as bimbelotier, a now-obscure French word meaning a purveyor of bimbelots: small trinkets or playthings for children. These were the flipbooks. The preservation of these scenes from early film history is due to the toys sold by Beaulieu, a somewhat disreputable, sad figure who had what appears to be only tenuous links to the Paris film industry.
The scenes captured in the folioscopes were evidently chosen for their appeal to a broad audience: comic skits whether rowdy or saucy in tone, and scenes of women undressing for bed or bathtime, compete with fencing, wrestling, hypnotic serpentine dances and a quick-change act. More than one comic figure has their sleep disturbed by a fly in the bedroom or under their nightgown. The flipbooks contain scenes of some British performers in action too: the magician David Devant pulls a rabbit out of a hat, and the music hall star Elise de Vère totters through some moves labelled as “an English jig”. And there’s a glimpse of the British countryside, in Gaumont’s Train à corridor, from 1897, featuring a steam train on the London and North Western Railway.
“In these flip books we see not only films that were lost, we are seeing films that we never even knew existed,” says Byrne. “It’s like opening a closet and finding a pile of early Rembrandt canvases that nobody knew he had painted.”
Just as flipbooks are read front to back with a flick of the thumb, Lecointe was able to uncover some surprising glimpses of Victorian-era cinema from these low-tech sources. The resulting animations are not just appealing reproductions of lost moving images, they can tell us a lot about how the original films were made: how fast the cameras were cranked (often recording at just 10 or 12 frames a second), how sets were reused and repurposed, who performed for the lens, and how many films were made in multiple versions.
The Beaulieu project is a triumph of international collaboration, and the intersection of different technologies: early cinema, paper-and-card toys and 21st-century animation. In Byrne’s words, “an entirely new avenue for discovery has emerged”. One person’s bimbelot may indeed be another’s artefact of a lost cinema.
Discovering Lost Films of Georges Méliès in fin-de-siècle Flip Books (1896–1901), by Thierry Lecointe, Pascal Fouché, Robert Byrne and Pamela Hutchinson, is out in December from John Libbey Publishing. There will also be a launch event at the Cinématheque Française on 6 November