A relic of the Belle époque

Princeton University Library Chronicle 70, no. 2 (2009)

In the summer of 2008 I was traveling around the Nièvre, one of the most isolated regions in France, when a rural brocante—an antique shop specializing in secondhand furniture—caught my eye. Inside, sitting on a table, I discovered an unusual object: a compact machine made of shiny black metal. “It is a Pathé-Baby projector,” the shopkeeper confided, and proceeded to give me a demonstration. He loaded a metal cartridge the size of a pack of matches, plugged the projector into the wall, and began turning the crank. The image of Jean Valjean, protagonist of Victor Hugo’s Les misérables, appeared on the white sheet of paper serving as a screen.

The projector, I thought to myself, would make a good addition to Princeton’s Graphic Arts Collection; it would certainly fit in well with the magic lanterns, vues d’optique, and other optical devices. I wrote to the curator, Julie Mellby, who agreed. When I returned, the shopkeeper told me the projector came with “some films.” He went into the back room and came out with a rather large stack of boxes. “There are more,” he warned me. I began to count but stopped after reaching 900. In all, there are almost 1,000 cartridges, each containing between three and five minutes of film. This treasure trove included French classics from the 1920s and 1930s, such as Les misérables, L’affaire du collier, and Mon oncle Benjamin . There were also dozens of “Pathé magazines,” home versions of the newsreels projected in cinemas, as well as documentaries on subjects as diverse as “The Pollination of Flowers” and “The Colonies.” These films, along with the Pathé-Baby projector, are now at Princeton, where they can be consulted in Firestone Library’s Graphic Arts Collection.

The little projector has a place of honor in the history of French cinema. It was the brainchild of Charles Pathé (1863–1957), a dynamic entrepreneur who in 1896 founded the Société Pathé Frères, a company specializing in phonographs and cinema equipment. His business expanded quickly, and by 1910 he was not only selling projectors, but also producing films, opening theaters around the world, and even supplying film stock to amateur operators. A good capitalist, he knew that the best strategy for maximizing profit is to control the means of production as well as the means of distribution. He built an empire that reached from New York to Moscow and made him a millionaire.

In 1922 Charles Pathé launched the Pathé-Baby, a small projector designed for the home. His company had already marketed a home projector, the Pathe-kok, sold for the first time in 1912, but the 28mm machine was unwieldy and proved too cumbersome for home use. To solve this problem, Pathé invented a new format: the 9.5mm film, the most compact format the world would see until Kodak released the 8mm film in the 1930s. In his memoirs Pathé described this little invention:

[The Pathé-Baby] was born in 1922. It was a great success when it
was released by my nephew Jacques Pathé. In 1924 he left it to my
other nephew, Roger Pathé, so he could focus on a new machine, the
17.5mm “Pathé-Rural.” In 1929, the year I left, the Pathé-Baby division
was making a net profit of 5 million francs a year. It would have
made even more if the European countries had not suffered so much
with the crisis.1

The Pathé-Baby found a niche in progressive bourgeois families. In the nineteenth century, upper-middle-class children played with magic lanterns, using primitive machines to project images taken from fairy tales and popular myths (many of these can be seen in Firestone’s Graphic Arts Collection). After 1922, the Pathé-Baby replaced the magic lantern as the toy of choice, and fanciful slides of princesses and witches gave way to black-and-white films and cartoons.

Marcel Proust (1871–1922) penned one of the most famous descriptions of a bourgeois child playing with a magic lantern in Swann’s Way, the first volume of his Remembrance of Things Past, published in 1913:

Princeton’s Pathé-Baby. Graphic Arts Collection, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.

At Combray ... some one had had the happy idea of giving me, to distract me on evenings when I seemed abnormally wretched, a magic lantern, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come: . . . it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted, as on a shifting and transitory window....2

Proust goes on to describe one of the most popular sets of slides created for magic lanterns: the story of Geneviève de Brabant and the evil Golo.

Riding at a jerky trot, Golo, his mind filled with an infamous design, issued from the little three-cornered forest which dyed dark-green the slope of a convenient hill, and advanced by leaps and bounds towards the castle of poor Geneviève de Brabant. This castle was cut off short by a curved line which was in fact the circumference of one of the transparent ovals in the slides which were pushed into position through a slot in the lantern.3

If children of Proust’s generation grew up watching the static images of Geneviève de Brabant and Golo, boys and girls born in the second and third decades of the twentieth century spent their childhood years watching animated cartoons cranked through a Pathé-Baby. The little projector was released in the same year Proust died.

The Princeton collection includes one little film that amused generations of French children: La sève poilif ère (The Hair-growing Potion), by one of the most popular and successful animators in Europe, Lortac.4 The protagonist is Professor Mecanicas, a character appearing in several short films, including L’aspirateur du Professor Mecanicas (Professor Mecanicas’s Vacuum Cleaner). In La sève poilif ère the good professor, who spends his time concocting new and fantastic inventions, creates a potion that makes hair sprout on any surface. A boy steals a bottle filled with this compound and goes around town wreaking havoc: a sleeping woman wakes up to find herself newly bearded, and balls and other objects become hairy. Finally, the boy uses it on himself to acquire a disguise and avoid being caught by the police.

Manufacturer’s trademark from Princeton’s Pathé-Baby.

In 1994 the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris held an exhibition commemorating one hundred years of Pathé films: "Pathé: Premier empire du cinema." Included were posters, advertisements, and other promotional materials related to the company’s many films and products. The exhibition catalogue has an entire section on the Pathé-Baby, which to this day remains one of the most popular items the firm ever produced. The brochure accompanying the original projector - reproduced in the catalogue - sums up its appeal: "Every decade extends the influence of cinema, enlarges its domain and multiplies its applications. . . . Today, in order to enter our home, it has made itself small, simple, affordable." 5

Even after the Pathé-Baby was replaced by more modern inventions in the 1950s, many young filmmakers, from Alain Resnais to Jacques Demy, took advantage of the vast collection of films produced for it to learn about the history of cinema. For those growing up in the countryside or in provincial cities that lacked a cinemathèque, the Pathé-Baby shorts served as an informal film school. Perhaps the treasure trove of little films now at Princeton once educated one of France’s respected filmmakers!

—Rubén Gallo



1. "[Le Pathé-Baby] vit le jour en 1922. Il fut lancé avec un grand succès par mon neveu Jacques Pathé. En 1924, il le laissa (pour mettre au point l’appareil ‘Pathé-Rural’ de 17.5mm) à mon autre neveu, Roger Pathé. En 1929, au moment de mon départ, ce département du Pathé-Baby rapportait plus de cinq millions net par an. Il eût rapporté bien davantage si les différents pays d’Europe n’avaient autant souffert de la crise à ce moment là." Charles Pathé, quoted in De Pathé Frères à Pathé Cinéma (Lyon: serdoc, 1970), 102.

2. Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, trans. C. K. Scott-Moncrieff (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 15–16.

3. Ibid., 16–17.

4. His real name was Robert Collard (1884–1973). In the 1930s his little films could not withstand the competition from Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. He turned to illustrating comic books and continued working until his death in 1973. Grahame L. Newnham, "Lortac—Animator Extradinaire," http://www.pathefilm.freeserve.co.uk/95flmart/95lortac.htm.

5. “Chaque décade étend l’influence du cinéma, élargit son domaine, multiplie ses applications. . . . Aujourd’hui, pour pénétrer dans notre foyer, il se fait petit, simple, bon marché.” Pathé: Premier empire du cinéma (Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1994), 198–99.