Erreur Tragique (1913)

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Noirish’s humble contribution to the Allan Fish Online Film Festival!
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vt Tragic Error
France / 25 minutes / bw silent / Gaumont Dir & Scr: Louis Feuillade Cine: uncredited Cast: Suzanne Grandais, René Navarre, Marie Dorly, Ernest Bourbon, Paul Manson.

According to the opening intertitle, René, Marquis de Romiguières (Navarre), and his wife Suzanne (Grandais) are “In their chateau, built atop the battlements of the Cévennes,” where they “enjoy a wonderful honeymoon.” The atmosphere doesn’t seem terribly honeymoonish, to be honest: the couple seem to be a staid and settled pair, content to be waited upon by their elderly housekeeper (Dorly).

One day a note arrives for René from his lawyer, Panonceaux. René’s properties in Paris require some personal attention, and as soon as possible.

Stuck for a couple of days in Paris, far from the arms of his wife, René takes himself to the cinema to see Onésime, Vagabond.

Although, as far as I can establish, Onésime, Vagabond never existed outside the bounds of Erreur Tragique, it’s clearly meant to be one of the (genuine) long-running Onésime series of perhaps nearly eighty silent comedy shorts (authorities differ on the exact number) released between 1910 (Le Rembrandt de la Rue Lepic) and 1918 (Onésime et le Billet de Mille). In the English-language incarnations of these movies the character of Onésime, who was played throughout by Ernest Bourbon (1886–1954), was renamed Simple Simon, which gives you about as much as you need to know of Onésime’s personality: he’s an Innocent Abroad figure whose presence sparks off humor, sometimes quite sharp, sometimes involving social commentary, sometimes of a fantasticated nature. You can watch one of these movies, Onésime Horloger (1912), which falls into the latter category and was written by Feuillade, here (with English intertitles).

While watching Onésime, Vagabond in the Parisian cinema, René is aghast to see none other than his wife Suzanne playing a role. Worse still, the man whose arm she’s on, and who joins her in ribbing the tramp Onésime, is clearly on affectionate terms with her.

Onésime (Ernest Bourbon) clowns on a park bench in front of Suzanne (Suzanne Grandais) and the mystery man (Paul Manson).

You or I might dismiss this as a nothing—who cares if Suzanne was an actress before her marriage, and screen affection is something that actors are paid to mimic—but René falls instantly into the embrace of obsessive jealousy. He buys a copy of Onésime, Vagabond to examine frame-by-frame at his leisure and, once home at the château in the Cévennes, he searches everywhere for evidence of his wife’s infidelity.

The evidence of the film.

One day Suzanne receives an effusively loving letter from a certain Roger, begging her to meet him off his train at the station and not to spurn the true love that once they shared—all that sort of gush.

The housekeeper (Marie Dorly) gives Suzanne (Suzanne Grandais) . . .

. . . the fatal billet.

Naturally Suzanne accidentally leaves this billet lying around for René to find and read, and naturally he sticks a fuse behind the ear of one of the horses on her waiting carriage so that the beast will panic and bolt en route to the station and Suzanne will be killed in the consequent stramash.

Rene (René Navarre) finds the billet, which seems to confirm his worst suspicions.

Naturally, too, we’ll eventually find out that Roger (Manson) is not Suzanne’s lover but her temporarily estranged brother. Further, Roger was the mystery man seen with her in Onésime, Vagabond!

Sure enough, the carriage runs off the road, there’s a terrible crash, and we’re left to reflect upon the destruction that baseless jealousy wreaks.

Suzanne’s carriage is out of control!

There’s no sign of life in the wreckage.

As a moral fable, Erreur Tragique, made in 1912 and released in January 1913, funtions surprisingly effectively. I’m sure some viewers will chuckle or sneer at the quaint inhibitions of our ancestors, as displayed here, but, if you take the movie on its own terms, it communicates its homespun wisdom quite well. The particular copy of it that I watched had a rather decorous, reserved music track that worked well for the most part but undermined the suspense of the movie’s later stages: when a horse is bolting and the heroine is within seconds of a violent demise, the last thing you want is for the pianist to be tinkling the ivories daintily.

The French writer and director Louis Feuillade (1897–1925) was a significant figure in the early history of cinema. He began as a poet, journalist, essayist and polemicist, then in 1905 sold some screenplays to Alice Guy-Blaché at Gaumont. She wanted him to direct his own scripts but he, worried about the financial future of this new medium, declined. A couple of years later, after Guy-Blaché’s departure from Gaumont, at her suggestion he was appointed in her place as the company’s Artistic Director. Overall he made as many as eight hundred movies, the vast majority of them shorts—by the standard of most of them, Erreur Tragique was, at 25 minutes, an epic.

His most important movies were, however, his serials, of which the crime saga Fantômas (5 episodes, 1913–14) is perhaps the best remembered; I plan to cover it on Noirish at some point. Also of considerable note were Les Vampires (10 episodes, 1915; vt The Vampires) and Judex (12 episodes, 1916), whose central character seems to have served as inspiration for the comics figure The Shadow and thereby for Batman.

Mike Grost has a useful page on Feuillade and his movies—including this one—here. In particular, Grost points out the parallel with the Thanhouser movie The Evidence of the Film (1913), a parallel that I’d almost certainly have missed—so my sincere thanks to him!

And my sincere thanks also to the blogger Old Boy, on whose excellent site Movies from the Silent Era I first came across Erreur Tragique . . . although, for the purposes of this account, I watched the more complete restored version here.

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