Introducing Edmond Barenco: the unexpected story behind a ‘Chaplin imitator’ from Copenhagen

In July 2019 our colleague Aldo van Keulen came upon a curious film; a nitrate print with no title nor any other text, showing a Chaplin imitator in unrecognizable surroundings. The print was part of a big private donation of nitrate reels that had arrived about eight weeks earlier. As Aldo dug further into the material to accession it to our holdings, the collection turned out to contain some astonishingly complete and diverse features from the silent era. Despite the absence of a detailed list or an inventory upon arrival, most of the material was in reasonable shape and not too hard to identify. This odd comedy however, was one of the exceptions.

By Elif Rongen14 September 2020

Upon further inspection, it became clear that the film was drawing upon the routine showing a drunk man interfering with the vaudeville show often performed live by Charlie Chaplin and later made into A Night in the Show (1915), but this film was shot in and around Copenhagen. A car appearing with the text “Brød Fabrik” and a license plate that reads “K1017” reassured us that we should look further into the Danish film history. Thanks to our on-going close relations with the Danish Film Institute, and aware of their commitment to save every bit of lost Danish Silent Cinema, we quickly contacted curator Thomas Christensen to ask for more information. Although at first it seemed impossible to recognize the actors and to identify the film, Thomas kindly offered to have the film preserved and digitized as part of their ambitious website Stumfilm.dk which promises to offer online every single surviving Danish Silent film ever found, within the next few years.

Now, slightly over a year later, not only can the film be watched on their platform (freely available, worldwide), it is also identified thanks to Lisbeth Richter Larsen at the Danish Film Institute, with the help of paper documentation from their collection. Now we know the film was made in 1916 and is called En livlig Drøm (A lively dream). For us, over here at the Eye Filmmuseum in the Netherlands it is really satisfying to be able to improve our catalogue with the correct information and to add new actors to our ever-growing database. This is the moment when we discover Edmond Barenco; a curious figure from the forgotten realms of film history, yet another Chaplin-imitator whose life and career was perhaps more fascinating than what we can see in the only film that seems to have survived of him. Or actually, was this maybe the only film he appeared in? Who knows…

According to the little info that can be found online, Edmond Barenco was a Swiss-born all-round circus artist: acrobat, juggler, line dancer and horseback rider. While working for the Danish Circus Orlando, he met and married around 1907 the famous circus equestrian Miss Zephora (1883-1961, born Henni Gustafsson in Norrköping). Miss Zephora was from the Orlando family, and the Barenco’s joined forces with Zephora’s brother Erland and his German-born wife Adele (1884-1979) and put on a spectacular horse number billed as "Les Orlando-Barenco's", choreographed by Adele and performed by the other three clad in all-white suits, riding white horses. During the early 1910s they were touring Europe until the outbreak of World War I forced them to flee to Copenhagen where they performed for a period at Cirkus Schumann. This is probably the moment when Barenco was recruited by the well-known comedy director Lau Lauritzen Sr. to appear on the silver screen. Soon afterwards, the Barenco’s travelled to Russia where they intended to spend four months, but ended up staying four years as they got trapped within the tangles of the Russian Revolution of 1917.

‘Les Orlandos-Barencos’ re-emerged in 1921 and enjoyed great success on European tours. Probably we will never know if by this time the nitrate print of En livlig Drøm was already circulating in the Netherlands, if it has ever really circulated at all. What we do know for sure from the newspaper announcements is that the Barenco’s and the Orlando’s themselves were in the Netherlands in the summer of 1921, performing for the Circus Carl Hagenbeck in Twente, Nijmegen, and Rotterdam. One brief review of this mostly equestrian circus program with numerous performers singles out the performance by the Orlandos-Barencos as “brilliant with agility and boldness”.

In 1931, Zephora Barenco retired, but their daughter replaced her, performing with Edmond. The couple lived the last years of their lives in the circus farm on Kulladal in Malmö (Sweden), where Edmond passed away in 1961, only one month before Zephora.

Today, apparently Miss Zephora’s white dress from 1915 is on display at the Circus Museum at Hvidovre, Denmark. It is mainly thanks to their website that we can read about the Barenco’s at all. Edmond Barenco’s long forgotten career is yet another proof to the fluid relations between the silent cinema and the stage performers of the circus or vaudeville. His cinematic career was probably not much to speak of, even back then, compared to his circus performances. Isn’t it magical then that in 2019 an incomplete piece of film can still resurface in the Netherlands and with the help of a single-page hand-written document held at the Danish Film Institute we can retrace and reclaim yet another Chaplin impersonator? That paper document by the way, contains the full Danish “dialogue list” amounting to ten intertitles, and also lists the original title of the film translated into seven languages; German (Ein lebhafter Traum / Der verliebte Gummibal [Berlin]), English (A Lively Dream), French (Rêve fantaisiste/Un sacré pépin [Eclair]), Spanish (Sueño Caprichosa), Portuguese, Norwegian and Swedish, clearly suggesting that the producer Nordisk Film Kompagni intended to give the film a wide international distribution. How did the only known print then end up in the Netherlands?

Your guess is as good as mine…

My thanks to Thomas Christensen, Aldo van Keulen and Steve Massa for their expertise and feedback.

It is not clear to me what the correct spelling of the troupe's name should be: so far I've seen variations like Les Orlando's-Barenco's, Les Orlandos-Barencos, Les Orlando-Barenco, Trio Orlando-Barenco, The Orlando-BarencoTroupe...