An early fascination with photographic equipment led Léon Gaumont deep into the Victorian passion for photography and the advent of moving pictures. He experimented with sound-syncing and color-tinting, expanded throughout Europe, and built grand palaces for the distribution of his films. Gaumont's passion, focus and myriad interests built one of the most successful French film studios that still exists today. He died in France in 1946.
Perhaps it's fitting that one of the major early pioneers of today's film industry was, as his core, a tech geek. Léon Gaumont was born into a family of modest means on May 10, 1864, in Semblancay, in the Loire valley region of France. Photography captured his imagination at an early age. At the age of 17, Gaumont had notebooks stuffed with ideas about filming and successive projection. After a stint in the military, he got a job managing an incandescent lamp factory.
By 1881, Gaumont was in Paris, France, at the workshops of Jules Carpentier, a leading manufacturer of precision instruments, electrical and optical machines. Carpentier would later construct the cinématographe—a major breakthrough in the development of moving pictures—for the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis.
Two lucky breaks paved the way for Gaumont's future success: In 1888, he married Camille Maillard, whose dowry included a substantial stretch of land in Paris that would eventually become the site of Gaumont studios, and in 1893, he got a job with Félix Richard, a manufacturer of photographic and optical equipment at the Comptoir géneral de photographie. By 1895, Richard had become enmeshed in a bitter lawsuit with his brother, and subsquently proposed that Léon Gaumont buy him out.
Gaumont jumped at the chance—due in large part to the financial backing of well-known astronomer and naturalist Joseph Vallot, financier Alfred Besnier, and, most notably, famed engineer Gustave Eiffel.
The new Gaumont Company planned to sell camera equipment and film, including the Demeny Bioscope, which was invented by Georges Demeny and had a "beater mechanism" to transfer the film. Though the device itself was soon eclipsed by other models, Gaumont was still able to market the beater mechanism concept after Demeny's retirement.
The almost-imperceptible but indelible change came when Gaumont's secretary, Alice Guy (later Guy-Blaché), asked if she could make narrative films with the equipment to help promote their sales.
Gaumont had been venturing beyond the selling of equipment to arcade films initially popularized and run by the Lumière brothers, but Alice Guy's films were a game-changer. Gaumont made her head of his production company, where she made hundreds of short films that included color-tinting, location shoots and sound-syncing with another Gaumont device, the chronophone.
Ambitious and anxious to expand, Gaumont went on to open offices in London and Germany, and sent Alice Guy-Blaché and her new husband off to New York to represent his equipment there. He replaced Guy-Blaché as head of production with director Louis Feuillade, who became renowned for his serial thriller films.
Gaumont was a hard worker and expected the same from his employees: He let them know if they hadn't done well, and is said to have stood sentry at the doors of his studio, clocking the arrival of every member of his staff.
Expanding the production and distribution side of the company, Cite Elge (pronounced "L - G" for his initials), Gaumont provided his own distribution channel: In 1900, he converted the Hippodrome into the Gaumont Palace—one of the first studios to have its own movie theaters. Gaumont films included vaudeville, comedies and morality tales, as well as, often, rip-offs of others' successful films, but he went on to add documentaries; newsreels called the Gaumont Graphic, which appeared among British newsreels; and educational films.
Gaumont took the opportunity to quickly expand the retail side of the business, too, offering cinematographic equipment for amateurs, and ultimately paving the way for the "home" movie and citizen journalism.
Though the American filmmaking industry began to grow quickly, the only serious rival of Gaumont's on the continent was Pathé (or the Pathé brothers), who had invented the newsreel.
Death and Legacy
Léon Gaumont retired from movies in 1930. He had bolstered his financial position through a deal made with MGM, but the French film industry had been seriously curbed by World War I. Still, Gaumont championed independent European filmmakers against Edison Trust controls, and despite his sadness at how the American movie industry had eclipsed the French one, he avidly followed American cinema, becoming close friends with George Eastman, who manufactured raw film.
Gaumont was awarded the Exhibition Prize of France for "having contributed in greatest measure to the progress of photography." He died in Sainte-Maxime, in the Provence region of France, on August 9, 1946.
Remarkably, despite financial turmoil over the decades, the Gaumont Film Company has survived into the 21st century, standing as the first and oldest continuously operating film company in the world.
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