Emile Cohl, Caricature, and Filmby Donald Crafton
This is the definitive biography of Emile Cohl (1857-1938), one of the most important pioneers of the art of the animated cartoon and an innovative contributor to popular graphic humor at a critical moment when it changed from traditional caricature to the modern comic strip. This profusely illustrated book provides not only a wealth of information on Cohl's life but also an analysis of his contribution to the development of the animation film in both France and the United States and an interpretation of how the new genre fit into the historical shift from a "primitive" to a "classical" cinema. "Beautiful in look and design, with stunning reproductions from films and newspapers, Emile Cohl, Caricature, and Film offers a biography of a figure who virtually created the European art of animation.... In its theory and history, the book is one of the most important contributions to [the field of animated film]. But [it] is central for film study per se, offering a fresh, exciting look at the complicated world of early cinema." --Dana Polan, Film Quarterly
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Emile Cohl, Caricature, and Film
By Donald Crafton
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
A Caricaturist's Life
Emile Cohl claimed to be the oldest Parisian. That impulse by itself indicates something about the person, his perception of his place in a particular culture, and his desire to let others know of it. To substantiate his claim he produced a meticulously researched genealogy showing that, since 1292, his family had been living in the vicinity of what eventually became the Bourse neighborhood. There were some lacunae in the older branches of the family, but the post-revolutionary descendants were easily traced as far back as his paternal grandfather, Jean Eustache François Courtet (1795–1875), and his grandmother, Rosalie Elisabèthe Clotilde Aubert (1798–1830). Their son, Elie Courtet, was born in 1821 and married Emilie Laure Coulon in 1853. Four years later their only child was born on January 4, 1857, and was christened Emile Eugène Jean Louis Courtet. Later he called himself Emile Cohl, and he would grow up to be one of the best-known Parisian caricaturists of his day, one of the pioneers of the comic strip, and, even later in life, the creator of the animated cartoon film. At the time of his birth, the family lived at 20, rue Cadet in the ninth arrondissement (not far from the present site of the Folies-Bergères).
Emile Courtet's birthplace would have telegraphed essential information to his fellow Parisians in the nineteenth century. As inhabitants of the Faubourg Montmartre, his family would have been categorized as bourgeois with upwardly mobile aspirations. Elie Courtet, a stereotypical faubourien, was a salesman representing his great-uncle Alexandre Aubert's rubber-manufacturing plant in Grenelle. Mme. Courtet supplemented the family income as a linen seamstress. Their fortunes were linked, as were those of many others in the Industrial Revolution, to the fortunes of the plant and the fluctuating economy in general. Courtet's rising and falling resources necessitated many moves, first to rue Lamartine, then back to rue Cadet in 1859.
As a baby, Emile was frail and overprotected by his mother. He suffered occasional convulsions and carried a permanent scar from an injury he received during one of them. Later in life, when he set down notes for an autobiography, his earliest memories were vivid images: the swallows departing in autumn, a horse pawing in the courtyard, soldiers marching down boulevard Poissonnière. He recalled attacking his mother's sewing table with a toy saw and could remember his older cousin dressed up as Pierrot. Once someone gave him some paints.
I see myself sitting in a chair before a table, having before me a box of colors and a big glass of water and smearing drawings (?). I must have been desperate because I see vague forms agitating all around me.
He was first sent to school about 1861. There a magician with shiny copper instruments fascinated him on the first day, but the party ended and "I began my battle with the alphabet." At year's end there was a class play:
It was in a little theater inside the elementary school in the rue de la Tour d'Auvergne. We were all over the stage and in the bleachers. The set represented a forest, or at least some foliage. At one point I started to cry. Everyone came at me: "What's the matter?" I peed, and continued to cry. There was wild laughter everywhere. It was the only time I ever provoked laughter in a theater. ... Let's go on.
There were few recollections of his father, except for his Garde Nationale uniform, rifle, and bright buttons. But he had warm memories of his mother. Unfortunately she had never recovered from a fall during her pregnancy, and her condition grew worse. His worried father sent Emile to stay with his maternal grandmother Coulon in Montreuil-sous-Bois, then still a village outside Paris. He had become excessively shy and was teased at school. Once he was punished for falling into the public drinking fountain and again for pinching brussels sprouts belonging to the village constable.
Mme. Courtet died in 1863. Emile's father entrusted the six-year-old to the Parrotte family, tie manufacturers in Les Lilas (Romainville). Their next-door neighbor in this area, near what is now the nineteenth arrondissement, was Paul-Charles de Kock (1794–1871), the author of spicy romantic novels whom the neighbors regarded as a cranky old man, but who would reward Emile's stories of the day at school with two sous and laugh when addressed as "Monsieur Poil de Coq" (Mr. Rooster-Hair). Once he intervened on behalf of the young pupil when he was unjustly punished by a teacher "with a quick hand." De Kock was frequently the butt of caricaturists — Nadar was the most famous — and one naturally wonders whether the youthful Emile was exposed to any of these drawings.
In 1864 Courtet enrolled his son at the Ecole professionnelle de Pantin, a boarding school more commonly called the Institut Vaudron after its director. At first he was placed in the lower division because of his inability to perform during the initial examination, but soon it was realized that he was simply too timid and frightened, and by the third day he had moved up to the first division. Two days later there was another triumph when it was time for drawing lessons:
They set before me a model taken from the notebooks of Monzocq (all the schoolchildren of my day will recognize it). It was a picture of a thatched roof and I sketched it in five sees flat, before the master returned. "He draws! Go get M. Vaudron." He arrived a few minutes later. "What, what, he knows how to draw?" You could say that I was a phenomenon. "Yes, and he can read and count. ..." "And can he do fractions?" That doused it. "No, Monsieur, not yet." And I put my head down on my desk.
Despite his ignorance of fractions, he was promoted, and the teacher, Vaudron's alcoholic son, let him draw in class as much as he wished.
Emile Courtet's early education at père Vaudron's, which apparently left him to his own devices, helped to channel his compulsive doodling into natural drawing talent. He had even more time to practice in 1865 when he was confined to his father s apartment (now on rue d'Enghien) with a serious cold. Drawing was his only distraction until the housekeeper gave him all the beautiful stamps from the letters of her relatives in Martinique. Little did she know that she was kindling a stamp-collecting passion that would burn all his life. His father encouraged this new interest by contributing stamps from the daily business mail and taking him to visit Arthur Maury's stamp shop, one of the largest, in the heart of Paris's stamp-trading district, across from the Theatre Français.
Cured and returned to school in Pantin, he was allowed to draw caricatures on the walls, a large map of France, and some pictures of locomotives. He easily became first in school in drawing and in 1869 earned the duty of teaching the "dolors of the alphabet" to younger children.
In 1870, still at Vaudron's, there were two candidates for the honor of singing the Marseillaise at the August awards ceremony. Emile won. (The loser, Lédart, later became the director of the Théâtre de Montmartre.) However, the declaration of war against Prussia dispersed the class, and the ceremony never took place. This time M. Courtet sent his son to live with the family of a cousin who owned a greengrocery on the avenue des Ternes.
He returned to live with his father after the fall of the Second Empire on September 4, 1870. One immediate result of the social turmoil following the war was brought home when Uncle Alexandre Aubert was forced to give up his interest in the rubber-manufacturing plant, leaving an uncertain future facing Elie Courtet and his young family.
Caricature: The Image of Opposition
The economic and political upheaval that formed the backdrop of Emile Courtet's youth coincided with the rise of what Richard Terdiman, in his account of journalism in the nineteenth century, has called "newspaper culture." Emile's was in fact the second generation to grow up in the age of lithography — the process that enabled images drawn by the artist's own hand to be reproduced and disseminated by the hundreds or thousands only a few hours after being sketched on the printing stone. While the process had its utilitarian and decorative uses, it also made possible the spread of overtly oppositional political imagery to an extent that would have been inconceivable in the previous century. It was Emile Courtet's fortune to grow up in the midst of an eruption of satirical cartooning. While important in its own right — Cohl would have warranted a biography as a caricaturist even had he not found the cinema — his involvement with caricature, with its connotations of marginality, will become especially pertinent during his later career in film.
As soon as he could afford it, Elie Courtet enrolled Emile in another school, the Ecole Turgot. There the boy quickly excelled in drawing, but he was still too distracted by events in the streets to be interested in anything else. During the Siege he picked up his allotted piece of horse meat and straw bread. His father could not stand the meat, so he gave his share to Emile and instead ate the bread, which had to be soaked in oil, rubbed with garlic, and fried to make it palatable. With no heat, Emile suffered frequently from colds and chilblains. When he was well, he played with his friends in the streets and watched the soldiers at the barricades. Once he saw Rochefort make an inspection of the lines while he was headquartered on rue Cadet. According to a biographical sketch written in 1886, it was during the Commune (March-May 1871) that he was first exposed to political caricatures.
On March 17, the stripes of the Commune officers and the parades of soldiers held a disturbing fascination for him and distracted him from his school work. He took advantage of these troubled times when the teachers had other cats to skin besides their undisciplined pupils. Like a real Paris urchin, he spent his days hanging out in the streets, stopping for a long time in front of the bookstore windows where so many infantile caricatures were shown off during these feverish days.
He was becoming aware, through these anarchic drawings, of an aspect of the visual environment that had been increasingly evident since the first third of the century. Two factors in particular stimulated his interest in the art of caricature.
The first was his physical proximity to rue du Croissant, the "Fleet Street of caricature." The editorial offices of most of the satirical publications were centered around this narrow street, just across boulevard Poissonnière from the Courtets' Faubourg Montmartre. The electric atmosphere of the street on Saturdays when the latest issues of Le Charivari, L'Eclipse, and Le Journal Amusant were hawked was captured in a print by Régamey (fig. 1).
The second factor was the sheer quantity of caricatural images that covered the walls and saturated the streets and cafés in defiance of all attempts at control. Many commentators, such as Duranty, mentioned "the innumerable comic papers that abounded in Paris during this epoch." Throughout most of the Second Empire Napoleon III had attempted to suppress all political caricature by enforcing strict censorship. When he was overthrown in 1870, the streets erupted with blistering posters and broadsheets pillorying the regime. During the Franco-Prussian War, the Siege, and peaking during the Commune, there was an enormous outpouring of vicious and hateful imagery directed toward various rapidly changing enemies. These were not the established illustrated papers, all of which had ceased publication during the turmoil, but crudely printed feuilles volantes. These broadsheets, literally "flying leaves," were often illustrated by anonymous hacks who wished to communicate their inflammatory messages directly to the public. Albums of anti-Commune caricatures circulated freely and replaced the bitter anti-Prussian broadsheets. It was this type of imagery that first caught the eye of the street urchin Emile Courtet.
After the boy finished his schoolwork at the Ecole Turgot, presumably around 1872, his father obtained a three-year apprenticeship for him with a jeweler. Emile tried to relieve the monotony of the job by joining a magician's act, but, according to an account apparently written by Cohl himself in 1890, "He only dreamed of drawing, or rather, of caricature, and sketched everything he saw." He continued to caricature passionately after he had finished the dull apprenticeship and enlisted for voluntary service with a Cherbourg regiment.
Then the philatelist Maury hired him to work in his shop and design his albums, a sideline that would continue until 1889 when they argued over wages. His father still hoped that his son would seek a commercial career and found him a fifty-franc-a-month position with a maritime insurance broker. But this, too, was intolerable.
All of a sudden, one fine day, abandoning his appointments, our caricaturist made a clean break with his papa and declared that henceforth he would live off his pencil — an ultimatum that immediately introduced him to la vache enragée.
The final phrase was slang for going hungry. But as Jerrold Seigel has noted, the term was also a contemporary euphemism that indicated to readers that Emile Cohl was venturing into the realm of Bohemia.
The aspiring caricaturist was somehow able to obtain a letter of recommendation from Etienne Carjat, an important photographer who was best known for his portraits of the actor Frédérick Lemaître. But he was also a painter and a caricaturist. Carjat referred him to his close friend and former collaborator, Andre Gill, the best-known caricaturist of the day. Cohl's biographers, writing as "Pierre et Paul," described this momentous day in his life with florid and fanciful prose:
On a beautiful morning in the month of October 1878 — it begins like a novel by Montepin — a solid young blond man strode feverishly up and down the sidewalk of rue d'Enfer, since changed by an administrative pun into Denfert-Rochereau, finally stopping at number 89. The traces of violent interior emotions could be read on his juvenile face upon which long practice at living had not yet imposed the impenetrable mask of impavidity. And under the rule of this emotion that he was trying in vain to master, a little quiver agitated the upper lip of our hero, imprinting an undulating motion to his fine blond moustache, the points of which fluttered, musketeer fashion, while his right hand nervously crumpled the letter that was concealed in the pocket of his jacket.
After a long hesitation which had already been preceded by two or three attempts, the young man plucked up his courage, lifted the heavy door knocker and let it fall back with a dull thud.
"Enter!" responded a heavy voice from inside, which, far from reassuring our timid visitor, made him tremble all the more.
However, in spite of the shivering that this imperative injunction had induced, he resolutely pushed open the door. He found himself at the foot of a steep staircase whose steps, quickly skipped, led to the half-opened door of a big room cluttered with easels on which were displayed canvases containing rough outlines. A drawing board hung from the ceiling and at it sat a man, a kind of Hercules in shirt sleeves, before a table overloaded with scraps and sketches. He was drawing and from time to time he would wipe the point of his pen on his fingertips which he would then run through his leonine hair, the jet black ink mixing with a few streaks of silver, then he would throw his mane back with a brisk movement of his head.
This Hercules was Andre Gill.
The young man displayed some natural talent and was admitted into the Gill atelier. Although the details of Gill's working habits are unknown, it seems certain that the large number of "pupils" who frequented the studio actually worked as Gill's assistants. Life there was a swirl of activity and excitement punctuated by the famous caricaturist's soirees. Emile Courtet was absorbed into the circle, and most of his new acquaintances remained personal friends until their deaths. There was dramatist François Coppée, the actors Daubray and Gil-Naza (David-Antoine Chapoulade), Constant Coquelin cadet and âiné (junior and senior). The poet-politician Gustave Rivet recited there. Sculptor Jean Chapuy, musician Olivier Metra, and painter H. C. Delpy joined some of the best-known caricaturists, including Sapeck (Marie-Félicien Bataille), Paul Hellé, Adolphe Willette, and Georges Lorin. Ernest d'Hervilly, Cattelain ("engraver, furniture mover and pianist"), and the café-concert proprietor Théodore Bullier also attended.
The central attraction was, of course, André Gill (born Louis-Alexandre Gosset de Guines). At this time, in 1878, he was the preeminent caricaturist of France, owing largely to his daring attacks in the illustrated press against the Second Empire, openly defying the censors and earning a reputation for personally revitalizing the underground art of political caricature.
Excerpted from Emile Cohl, Caricature, and Film by Donald Crafton. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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