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A new title for an old favorite: the film formerly known as Une partie de tandem

It is with great pleasure that we are sharing this blog post written by a guest author. Robert J. Kiss is one of those amazing silent film experts continuously helping us behind the scenes to correctly identify many mysterious films and fragments in our film collection. Robert is a Rondo Award-winning researcher and writer based in Heidelberg, Germany, who publishes extensively on the release histories of classic horror and science-fiction movies. A familiar face (and presenter) in particular at the Library of Congress's annual 'Mostly Lost' film identification workshop, he has identified many tens of previously vexing early silent films.

By Robert J. Kiss22 January 2020

One of the most consistently popular silent comedy shorts from the Desmet Collection at Eye is a production by French manufacturer Éclipse in which a husband and wife – both played by men – hurtle disastrously through the streets of Paris on a tandem, knocking patrons at a streetside bar flying, smashing to the ground in front of the Eiffel Tower, and surviving a run-in with a horse-drawn tram from which one is amazed to see the performers cycle away without having broken any limbs. This health and safety assessor’s nightmare opens with a Dutch title card calling it Ik fiets met mijn vrouw (I Go Cycling with My Wife), and for many years this has been identified, screened and written about as the November 1909 release Une partie de tandem.

Ik fiets met mijn vrouw title card

However, I had grown to doubt this long-standing identification, which seems to have been arrived at largely on the basis of being the only French title in Éclipse’s catalog to contain the word ‘tandem.’ The short appeared too streamlined, pacily edited and technically proficient for an Éclipse production of that date, and much more in line with the kind of films the company was making in mid-1911, such as the August 1911 release Une lecture absorbante (released in Britain as The Adventures of a Bookworm). The design of the Dutch title card on the copy of the latter short held in the Desmet Collection also happened to be identical to the one used at the opening of the supposedly substantially older tandem comedy. When I mentioned these concerns to Elif Rongen-Kaynakçı at Eye, she responded by expressing a major reservation of her own: Jean Desmet had not yet started acquiring and exhibiting Éclipse productions in the Netherlands in 1909. It was clearly time for a reassessment.

Rewatching the film in January 2021, my attention swiftly fixed on a cluster of theatrical posters that the tandem riders whiz past following their misadventure by the Eiffel Tower. One in particular, advertising a matinée performance at the Palais du Trocadéro, could be seen with sufficient clarity that I believed I could make out a date on it: JEUDI 15 JUIN 1911 (Thursday 15 June 1911). A look at theater listings in the Paris daily press for that date confirmed my suspicion; the bill, titled L’Œuvre de la bouchée de pain, had first played at the venue on Thursday 8 June 1911 and was indeed repeated the following week. And yes, I did experience an involuntary thrill upon finding the names of two notable early screen performers, Stacia Napierkowska and Dranem, buried within the fabric of this Éclipse comedy as, respectively, featured dancer and singer on the bill! The idea that this film might conceivably be 1909’s Une partie de tandem could also be put conclusively to rest.

Although no French titles of Éclipse releases from mid-to-late-1911 immediately stood out as candidates for the short’s true identity, it was impossible to overlook an advert in Düsseldorf-based trade journal Der Kinematograph for the German release on 7 November 1911, of something called Ich radle mit meiner Frau (I Go Cycling with My Wife) – that is to say, identical to the film’s Dutch title – for which the telegram word (allowing exhibitors to make a booking by sending a single word at a time when telegrams were charged by the word) was ‘Tandem.’ A single-sentence capsule review in the same publication was promising, if characteristically imprecise: ‘One shouldn’t go cycling while honeymooning, as young couples only have eyes for each other and wind up experiencing adventures such as this film shows in a downright funny manner.’

Eclipse ik fiets met mijn vrouw

Altogether more productive was Herbert Birett’s entry for the title in his 1991 catalog of motion pictures distributed in Germany prior to 1912, Das Filmangebot in Deutschland 1895-1911, now absorbed within The German Early Cinema Database. According to this, Berlin censor documentation recorded the film as Éclipse production no. 3727; and while titles for the company’s releases frequently changed beyond recognition from nation to nation, production numbers remained the same.

In Britain, Éclipse’s films were released through the Urban Trading Co., and an advert in trade journal The Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly of 3 August 1911, listed production no. 3727 as An Eventful Tandem Ride, described as ‘A Marvellous Cycle Ride depicting the thrilling incidents and hair-breadth escapes of a young couple on a tandem.’ The telegram word for booking the film in Britain was also ‘Tandem.’

The kinematograph and lantern weekly

A detailed synopsis that appeared in the publication, as well as in the nation’s other major trade journal The Bioscope, provided conclusive confirmation that this film – released in Britain on 16 August 1911 – matched Ik fiets met mijn vrouw, even if that synopsis followed the familiar practice of the day to make such imports sound ‘less foreign’ by bestowing Anglophone names on characters and neglecting to mention the famed Parisian landmark attested on-screen (with the location where the theatrical posters are displayed furthermore rather dubiously termed ‘an aerodrome’):

Supplement to The Bioscope

One crucial question remained: what was the original French title of this release? Through a process of matching up Éclipse productions dating from May to December 1911 across the French, German and British trade press, I was actually left with only a single candidate: Promenade sentimentale, released in France on 28 July 1911, with a length of 106 meters. (German trades gave the length of Ich radle mit meiner Frau as 107 meters, British trades listed An Eventful Tandem Ride at 345 feet (105.16 meters), and the Desmet Collection copy of Ik fiets met mijn vrouw measures 98 meters.)

It was easy to see why I had overlooked this title previously, which it is all too tempting to dismiss as meaning ‘Sentimental Stroll,’ although ‘A Pleasant Trip Out’ might fit rather better in this instance. In the vernacular of the day, sentimental(e) further implied something that was good for refreshing or restoring the senses, with promenade sentimentale frequently equating to what used to be known in English as ‘going for a promenade’ or ‘taking a constitutional.’ The matter is further complexified by the unproblematic acceptance in French that one can undertake a promenade à bicyclette or promenade à tandem, neither of which activities might readily be described as a ‘promenade’ in English. A search of digitized French publications turns up several songs and variety numbers involving both successful and mishap-laden promenades sentimentales in the years prior to this Éclipse short, and in 1911 the expression seems to have been particularly in vogue, with the rival Éclair company likewise putting out its own comedy farce one week later titled Une promenade sentimentale (which, to add to the confusion, concerned a trip out by car).

Promenade Sentimentale on the front page of Éclipse

While confident about the reidentification of this film, I am still eager to turn up a synopsis of Éclipse’s Promenade sentimentale in a contemporary French source, and welcome any leads or assistance in this regard. (Meanwhile, for those willing to indulge my smugness, the title I originally put forward as stylistically closest to this film, Lecture absorbante, was released in France the week after Promenade sentimentale, bearing the Éclipse production no. 3724).

But what about the film we just ‘lost’ from November 1909, Une partie de tandem? In the course of this research, I was able to pinpoint it as Éclipse production no. 3521, released in Germany as All Heil! (a then-popular salutation among cyclists), subtitled ‘Die unangenehmen Folgen einer Radtour’ (‘The Unpleasant Consequences of a Cycling Trip.’) This in turn led to an ad with an accompanying synopsis in The Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly for the British release under the title A Cycling Excursion:

A cycling excursion

This 1909 tale of picnickers having their tandem nabbed by mischief-makers, who then proceed to unleash mayhem with it, possesses an additional layer of slightly cumbersome complexity that typifies many earlier Éclipse comedies. However, its final sequence, involving the ne’er-do-wells’ plunge into a river, was evidently a key set-piece – on account of which the telegram word for ordering the film was ‘Moist’ – that can not help but put one in mind of the final lengthy section of Promenade sentimentale, in which the tandem riders are fished from a canal. It may even be justified to consider the 1911 film as Éclipse’s potentially conscious revisiting of the 1909 subject matter, ‘updated’ by way of a streamlined narrative that no longer gets bogged down in setting up a situation in which tandem-based stunts can be enacted, but instead simply allows these stunts to play out without further rationalization, while headed toward the identical ‘moist’ conclusion.

Revisions of so-called ‘legacy data’ – in the form of past assertions about preserved materials and their presumed identities – are ongoing constantly, as part of archivists’ and researchers’ quest to showcase films more meaningfully, and to better understand them within the context of their makers’ output, the development of individual genres and tendencies, and broader cinema history. As such, the example of Éclipse’s Promenade sentimentale is merely the latest and most prominent in a series of reidentifications of films in the Desmet Collection that Elif Rongen and I have discussed in recent months, facilitated in no small measure by the ongoing digitization and accessibility of an ever greater number of contemporary trade sources.