J’accuse (Pathé, 1919)

Jaccuse screenshot 1J’accuse (Pathé, 1919)
Directed by Abel Gance
Starring Romuald Joubé

This isn’t a review, but I know I haven’t posted much recently (for various reasons neither here nor there) so I thought I’d just comment on something exciting to me.

Around nine years ago, I bought four bobbins of the 9.5mm Pathé Baby version of J’accuse (1919). Since then, I’ve been picking up more when and where ever I could find them. At last, I’ve assembled the entire film. Actually, with the duplicates resulting from buying so many incomplete sets, I’ve got nearly two copies.

At 840 feet, it’s considerably abridged from the theatrical release (which wasn’t even available on video when I started the collection). If it was run straight, 840 feet works out to around 28 minutes, but J’accuse has notched titles so it’s actually a bit longer than that. The original Pathé Baby projector could only handle a 30 foot film bobbin, which is just a minute of footage. Even if a film only Jaccuse screenshot 2has two or three intertitles, text would quickly eat up almost all the runtime. To save film, the Baby had a unique system whereby a little arm feels along the edge of the film as it passes through the projector. When it encounters a notch, it stops advancing the film for a few seconds — holding the picture on the screen. This way, titles could be reduced from several feet down to just a couple frames. Later Babies doubled the max capacity to 60 feet, and at last Pathé ditched bobbins for conventional reels that could handle several hundred feet of film, but J’accuse is an early release. 30 feet with notched titles generally becomes 50 feet with running titles, so it’s probably closer to 45 minutes long.

The whole notch system was a trade-off. With notched titles, the projector by necessity could only use weak lamps that threw small, dim pictures. More powerful lamps burned too hot and would melt the film if it was held in the gate for longer than a fraction of a second. The Baby’s lamphouse is really not much more than a flashlight.

Jaccuse screenshot 3There is an edit of the film that cuts out the whole ghost sequence at the end (before the 2008 DVD was released, I believe it was the most commonly available version on video), but the Baby edition retains it. I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison, but it seems like most of the Baby’s severest abridging is towards the start of the film.

Abel Gance and George Lucas have a bit in common — both being rather notorious for continually revising their films. It’s difficult to say what the “definitive” version of J’accuse would even look like. It’s certainly not the Baby release, but even the DVD is still missing as much as six reels’ worth of footage if by “original” you mean Gance’s earliest cuts of the film. The Baby version at least retains the three-epoch structure of the theatrical release, which the pre-2008 video didn’t.

Of all the Gance films I’ve seen, J’accuse remains my favorite. It may be heresy for me to say so, but Napoleon requires rather more patience than I’m willing to give. It has some spectacular and expertly constructed sequences, Napoleon does, but the road between them is a slog.

 

Jaccuse screenshot 4As for the delay in releasing a new video: the film scanner broke after transferring An Old Man’s Love Story. It was an easy fix, but I had to wait for a replacement part to arrive from Singapore, which took over a month. The primary scanner broke, I should say — I have four. The print I’m scanning now is a bit too shrunken to run through a standard movement, and the machine I’m talking about is one I built myself specifically to handle shrunken and badly damaged film. Here’s a hint for what’s coming out next. It’s an HD remaster of a very old title in the catalogue involving a washerwoman who gets stiffed by one of her customers.

 

Other news that may or may not be of interest: we’re trial-running putting the “now playing” video on YouTube as well on the homepage of our website. If it goes well, we’ll keep doing it. If it goes really well (viz., if the ad revenue matches the sale price), then maybe the now playing videos will cease to be a limited, one-at-a-time thing and the entire now playing catalogue will be made available.

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Posted on May 3, 2016, in Off topic and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I also have J’Accuse but only six 9.5mm cartridges/reels (marked 10.070G, 1-6). Is this the complete set? The films also require restoration.

    • The complete film is 28 V (meaning 30′) bobbins. Each epoch was sold separately, which is why so few sets are complete. The first and second epochs have ten bobbins each, the third has eight.

      I don’t recognize that reference number, though. It’s evidently not from the French lab or else it’s from a later release that I haven’t encountered. Is yours the French language version? I ask, because I know it was also released in Spanish and that version might be numbered differently. The original French release was numbered 2018, 2019, and 2020, for each respective epoch.

      The G denotes that it’s one of the larger 60′ bobbins and that it has notched titles, so a complete set of your version would be 14 bobbins. So, no, six isn’t the whole set, although it probably is a complete set of one of the epochs.

  2. Yes it is the French language version or at least it has titles in French. I am working on a project on trying to restore these films if possible. I guess what I have is incomplete. Here is my site on this: http://pathe1.weebly.com/
    If you like you can send me a message on my contact form with your email so we can have a more comprehensive chat or I am happy to carry on with this post…

    • From the 10000 reference number, I would guess it was printed in 1926 — that isn’t certain, by any means, but most 10000s were.

      From the pictures, your film doesn’t look too bad. I see some sprocket hole damage, which is to be expected from center-perf film. Where it’s been creased, the film may break in the projector; be prepared to splice it. You might try treating it with a slow-drying lubricant like FilmGuard to minimize the breakage risk. If it’s too brittle, you can try soaking it in Filmrenew (or any other light petroleum mix) to plasticize the base.

      The curl is intentional. 9.5mm was heat-treated to give it a permanent curl, as the Baby’s very simplistic mechanism depends on it. It makes it a bit difficult to scan nowadays (it’s hard to get the film to lie flat in the gate and it tends to flutter), but on the plus side, the treatment made 9.5mm all but immune to vinegar syndrome. Some 9.5mm has started to decompose, but it’s rare and certainly nowhere near the level of similarly-aged 16mm.

    • Also, I see in some of the pictures that you’ve got the film in a bag. That’s okay, but don’t seal it. It’s important to let film breathe. As it ages, cellulose (di/tri)acetate off-gasses acetic acid. If the gas isn’t allowed to escape, it will hasten the film’s breakdown. Never keep film in an air-tight container. It’s a pretty good idea to also store it with a molecular sieve to absorb the acetic acid. Beyond that, the other two keys to film storage are to keep it cold and dry.

  3. Many thanks for your advice on the bags. I wasn’t too sure about whether this was right but only put the cartridges in them a month ago. The films were previously kept in a wooden box. To compound the problem I moved from London to Cairo last year so dry weather isn’t a problem but it isn’t cold now….

    The films actually originated in Cairo but spent many years in the UK. So many of them went missing years ago as well as the original projector. This projector which was bought in the UK needs repairs. I am trying to get as much information as possible before making a decision. I have a long post on the 8mm forum but I think you were the only person who has come close to answering the circa of the date in relation to the films.

    The other question I need to ask myself is that if I am eventually to attempt a projection I will need a complete set of a film unless I do a part original part digital show. In addition most of the expertise in the field of film restoration is likely to be in western Europe and the US although there may be someone here who can help me but I have yet to find them.

    I guess this project could be interesting in itself as it shows how far and wide Pathe films were shown. I imagine the projectionist would have had a very busy time changing cartridges while showing J’Accuse!

    • Bear in mind, cold, dry, and ventilated are just the ideal conditions. It’s not uncommon to find film in sealed cans that have been in wet basements or hot attics for decades that’s still perfectly fine. And the converse is true — sometimes film that’s stored with the utmost care rots away regardless.

      For Baby projectors, the combined flywheel and shutter is the usual failure point. It was made of pot metal that was never very sturdy to begin with, but now after 80 or 90 years they’ve almost all crumbled to bits. A few years ago a man named Ron Ashton used to sell modern replacements. I don’t know if he still does, but it’s possible. The big knurled bolt holds the top on. If you unscrew it and lift the top off, you can see the inner workings and assess what needs to be repaired or replaced.

      Grahame Newnham’s website http://www.pathefilm.uk/ has a great deal of information about 9.5mm film and equipment. If you haven’t already, you should check it out.

      And yes, watching a long 9.5mm film on the Baby is a lot like watching a video on LaserDisc, except instead of getting up to flip the disc once, you’ve got to change reels dozens of times.

      • Many thanks for your reply and advice. This looks like it’s going to be a really interesting project but I will pace myself on it as it may take some time to bring it all together. Hopefully once all the problems are resolved that great feeling of actually hearing the projector tick over and watching the images on the screen will happen again.

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