When researching the French silent film star Max Linder I was surprised to discover that the studio in which he made most of his films was still standing. At the earliest opportunity I headed out there to investigate.
The story of the studios goes back to 1904, when Charles Pathé, in competition with Georges Méliès and the Star Film company, decided to add a new facility in Montreuil to those he already owned in neighboring Vincennes. The location he chose was an old race horse stables, with the horse boxes being transformed into dressing rooms!
Far more modern was the glass construction he built alongside for filming. Although it may have been unbearably hot in summer, the idea was that it would let in a maximum amount of natural light, a necessity in a time before sophisticated lighting rigs on sets.
Pathé defined this space as a ‘théâtre de prises de vues‘, literally a theatre where scenes could be captured easily on film. This structure still stands today, but with its crumbling walls and broken glass panels it is difficult to imagine its glittering past. But was it ever a glamorous place? According to actor Charles Vanel, who began his career at the studios, “it was in a flea-riden district, and from the outside it looked more like a factory than a film studio. But inside, it was magical“.
In many ways, the studios were indeed like a factory. Alongside the production of the films, the stage sets were created in adjoining workshops, and even the celluloid film was developed on site. It was a small plot, but it must have been an intensely busy place in its heyday.
After 10 successful years (over 1200 films were made in this period), film production on site was halted in 1914 when war broke out in France, and didn’t begin again until after the conflict. Indeed, it was the revolution in Russia that indirectly give the site a second life as the studios came to provide a home for artists and filmmakers who had fled the country.
The producer Joseph Ermolieff, who had managed Pathé’s operations in Russia, moved to France, and brought his team with him. These included stars such as Yvan Mosjoukine and Nathalie Lissenko as well as filmmaker Alexandre Volkoff. The team created the Société des Films Albatros in 1922, a name that the site retains today.