Armand Numès (Émile Chautard?) (FR 1910)
Shortly after the release of Les Arrivistes, Louis Daquin’s 1960 adaptation of Balzac’s La Rabouilleuse, the screenwriter spoke about the difficulties of transferring the novelist’s works to the screen: “A film has a limited running time, and each Balzac novel is so colorful and so rich that one has to make a choice and eliminate many things.” Three decades later, Eric de Kuyper echoed the same thought, using Éclair’s 1910 version of Eugénie Grandet as an example of how early literary adaptations adopted a form of “extreme narrative elasticity” when distilling major novels into one reel. Of course the same can be said for other densely written works, but perhaps it was Balzac’s celebrated way of building characterization that made him such a tempting author to tackle on film.
Éclair made several Balzac adaptations under the umbrella of their Association Cinématographique des Auteurs Dramatiques (A.C.A.D.) division, of which the earliest is Eugénie Grandet. Its direction is usually attributed to Émile Chautard, but an article in Ciné-Journal, 19 November 1910, credits Armand Numès, an actor/director formerly with the Théâtre des Variétés who also worked for Pathé. Given that Chautard was the supervisor for the early A.C.A.D. films (and went on to direct Balzac’s César Birotteau, 1911, not to mention his role as Papa Goriot in Paris at Midnight), it’s likely that he had some hand in the production.
Naturally the novel’s plot has been telescoped considerably, jettisoning a number of characters who give the story the breadth of an entire society. It also significantly changes the latter half, although something of the essence remains: kind-hearted Eugénie Grandet (Germaine Dermoz) lives with her avaricious father (Karlmos) in a state of eternal penny-pinching. When his spendthrift nephew Charles (Jacques Guilhène) arrives hoping his uncle will save his father from financial ruin, his supplications are rejected, but Eugénie secretly gains access to her dowry and gives it to her cousin. In the novel, Charles’s father commits suicide, whereas the film shows the event as merely a dream: part of the wall dissolves to reveal the son’s vision of his father shooting himself. Balzac purists will understandably object to the finale, in which Charles and Eugénie live on in wedded bliss, when in the novel his callowness destroys any hope of a union.
The most famous silent cinema adaptation of Eugénie Grandet is Rex Ingram’s The Conquering Power (1921), which inspired Howard T. Dick, in his 1922 book Modern Photoplay Writing – Its Craftsmanship, to use the novel’s plot as an exercise for budding scenarists: “Take the plot of ‘Eugenie Grandet’ and explain the creative process of thought which led to the choice of characters and events.” Later in the 1920s, Alice Guy Blaché worked on an adaptation that was never realized. An Italian version directed by Roberto Roberti and starring Francesca Bertini, La figlia dell’avaro (1913), appears to be lost.
regia/dir: Armand Numès (Émile Chautard?).
scen: ?, dal romanzo di/based on the novel by Honoré de Balzac (1833).
photog: [Auguste?] Agnel.
scg/des: G. Personne.
cast: Germaine Dermoz (Eugénie Grandet), Jacques Guilhène (Charles Grandet, suo cugino/her cousin), Karlmos (suo padre/her father), Suzanne Révonne, Charles Krauss.
prod: Éclair (série A.C.A.D.).
copia/copy: 35mm, 240 m. (orig. 295 m.), 10’ (20 fps); did./titles: FRA.
fonte/source: CNC – Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée, Bois d’Arcy (Collections Conseil Départemental de la Charente).