If you think media manipulation is a recent development in the film industry, have I got a story for you. It involves a pair of crafty filmmakers, some made-up news stories, and best of all: a man with no pants.
|Filmmaker Willy Mullens, sans pants.|
1905 was a year when film was really gaining steam. The first nickelodeons opened for business, Variety began weekly publication, and the invention of mercury lamps allowed filmmakers to shoot indoors without the need for sunlight. In short, there was a lot of money to be made in the biz, and a lot of people ready to make it—and not just in the States.
Dutch brothers Willy and Albert Mullens came from a theatrical family. Their father Albertus was co-founder of the Koninklijk Nederlandsch Cagliostro-Théâtre, which advertised "mysterious and pseudo-scientific spectacles.” Their mother Christina continued running the company after their father’s death, and Willy Mullens himself was a carnival performer, working in The Hague as a human cannonball. He was supposedly fired after being knocked out by a kangaroo, though English-language sources on the incident are hard to come by. (Any Dutch speakers? Look into this kangaroo business!)
It was soon afterward that she took Willy and Albert to Paris, where they saw the films of the Lumière brothers—an event that changed the course of their lives. They purchased several of the Lumière films, formed a traveling cinema under the name Alberts Frères, and began showing them in the Netherlands in 1899. Ultimately, they began shooting their own films, becoming one of the first film production companies in the country.
The Misadventures of a French Gentleman Without Pants at the Zandvoort Beach is typical of the type of practical joke comedies the brothers liked to film, but this one would prove to be their most successful, and is now one of the oldest surviving Dutch films in existence. The story is simple: a man napping in a beach chair gets swept out to sea, then removes his pants to wade back to shore. When a policeman spots him, he flees in panic, with a jeering crowd of onlookers following behind.
Willy both starred in and directed the film (with Albert working the camera) after the actor they hired was forbidden by his fiancée to play the role. She was not keen on having her future husband appear pantsless on camera, so the younger brother went without his trousers, instead.
What happened next was a blessing in disguise for the filmmaking brothers. On July 25th, 1905 the Zandvoortsche Courant ran a story about the entire event—the napping in a beach chair, the pantlessness—as if the events in the film had occurred in real life, and had just happened to be caught on film. Other newspapers picked up the story and decried the moral degeneration at the beach resort.
The brothers ran with the chance to capitalize on the moral outrage, advertising that the truth would be shown in the movie theater. To further attract those who were appalled about the leg nudity, they displayed the film with the alternate title Tragic Scene of a French Gentleman at the Zandvoort Beach, perpetuating the idea that the film was documentary in nature. Thus, the film was shown alternately as either a comedic farce or a tragedy about decaying values, depending on the audience.
The free publicity provided the film with sell-out crowds, with long lines of people waiting all day to get in. Because the brothers used locals as extras, many lined up just for the chance to spot themselves (or their friends) on camera. Don’t forget that film was still new to most viewers, and critical responses spoke highly of the cinematography itself, one writer saying that “the waves rolling in from the sea alone would be worthwhile seeing.”
It's worth seeing now, if not for the view of the sea (we're jaded now), for the close-up look at ordinary people in 1905. The extras include men, women, and children in their ordinary dress, many of them obviously mugging for the camera and even waving. There's also a neat look at a bathing machine, a long-gone eccentricity of a more prudish time.
In 2007, The Misadventure of a French Gentleman Without Pants at the Zandvoort Beach was selected as one of the sixteen canonical Dutch films by the Netherlands Film Festival, making the film one of the earliest examples of the adage that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”
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