The Pioneering Pathé Frères

We get a thrill every time we see a contemporary or recent film or tv show bearing the logo of Pathé, for the corny reason that it is one of the oldest continuously operating movie studios in the world, dating back almost to the origins of cinema. The company was founded in 1896, the era of Edison and the Lumière Brothers. Most of the entities that were operating when these studios started out are now long gone. Certainly that is the case in America. The oldest existing U.S. studio is Universal, 1912, though that company was formed as a merger of smaller existing studios, several of which had been founded in 1909.

The titular Pathé Frères were Charles, Émile, Théophile and Jacques. Charles Pathé had tried and failed in a number of businesses before demonstrations of new entertainment technology inspired him to gamble on investing in those, with the backing and involvement of his three brothers. Initially, their focus was phonographs (shades of À nous la liberté), but they also expanded into cinema equipment, production and distribution almost immediately. In 1907 they bought out the Lumière Brothers’ patents. By 1909 their film concern was operating in the U.S. as well, and the familiar crowing rooster logo was just as known to Americans in the silent era as the later MGM lion, Fox’s search lights and Universal’s spinning globe would come to be.

Thus we have had frequent occasion to mention Pathé over the course of our jottings. Louis Gasnier had directed for them; Keystone’s Heny Lehrman had claimed to, hence his nickname “Pathé . Max Linder’s first comedies were for the studio. The American division, Pathé Exchange produced the Pearl White serial The Perils of Pauline, and distributed the comedies of Mack Sennett and Hal Roach, as well as the cartoons of Paul Terry. In 1927 they were acquired by vaudeville chain Keith-Albee-Orpheum, and thus were swept up in the mechanations that resulted in the creation of RKO. For a time (through 1932) it maintained some brand identity as RKO Pathé. Pathé’s U.S. newsreel division continued to operate through 1956.

Since then, Pathé’s U.S. presence has been reduced substantially, although, as we say, the company still goes strong in its home country. Believe it or not, it is not France’s oldest studio. That distinction belongs to the Gaumont Film Company, of which we will be treating in due course.

For more on early film history read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube and for more on Keith-Albee-Orpheum the concern that swallowed up the Pathé Exchange , please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,