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Le Roman de Georges Carpentier (1913)

There is a silent film version of Le Roman de Georges Carpentier, closely based on Edouard de Perrodil’s literary “masterpiece” (according to the little booklet put out to accompany the film, consisting of a summary of the story and pictures from the film to illustrate it).[1]  The film was made in September 1913, by the production company Pathé Frères, with exterior footage—the mines, the strike, the directeur’s house-- shot in Lens and interior scenes shot in a studio in Paris.  No director is listed in any of the available printed materials concerning the film.  In the film, Carpentier plays himself, thereby blurring even further the distinction between fact and fiction: the real Georges Carpentier is the playing the role of “Georges Carpentier” and acting scenes of his own life, some of which are more-or-less factual representations of events he actually lived and some overtly fictional.

His co-stars included Berthe Bovy (in the role of Marguerite Dumay) and Harry Baur (in the role of her father), already well-known stage actors; François Descamps played himself (and was given back his real name for the film role).  When the film came out, it played simultaneously in eight cinemas in Paris and is said to have been a great success.

There are differences not only between the true story of Carpentier’s life and that told by Perrodil but also between Perrodil’s text and the film based on it. (For a complete description of the plot of Perrodil’s novel, see “Carpentier in Literature” on this site.) The film is thus at times a fictionalized version of a fictionalized version.  If anything, Carpentier is even more extravagantly heroic in the film than in the novel.  Rather than saving Marguerite from a car accident, as he does in he book, the film has him literally rushing headlong into the flames of a burning house to save the girl’s life, carrying her limp body out in classic melodramatic fashion.

The reaction of the mob of angry strikers who become single-minded hero worshipers at the very sight of Carpentier is even more dramatic in the film, because it is even more spontaneous.  Perrodil’s version of the scene describes a certain orchestration on the part of Chandos, which makes for a bit of credibility.  As described in the plot summary of the film, the transformation of the strikers takes place without any prodding whatsoever:

He punches out the first striker who advances on him.  Then, with an energetic gesture, he demands that the crowd retreat.

From a thousand chests comes the cry: “Vive Carpentier!,” the minute the hero of so many tournaments appears, standing his ground courageously before them.  Now they carry the champion boxer on their shoulders and, acclaiming him, move through the streets of the city, having forgotten their revolutionary ideas. (11)

It is significant as well that in contrast to Perrodil’s book, which ends on a tragic note, with Carpentier at Marguerite’s graveside, the film ends with the image of a triumphant Carpentier.  The novel ends with Carpentier and M. Dumay in each other’s arms, with the final words being (in reference to M. Dumay): “[…] the acuteness of his regret and all the immensity of his sorrow…” In the film, it would appear, there is an additional scene after the scene at Marguerite’s graveside, in which Carpentier, back in Paris, receives the final letter the dying girl had written him.  The text of the letter is an abridged version of the letter in Perrodil but the timing of its reception has been changed: in the novel, it is the letter that announces her death, after which he goes to Lens to her grave; in the film, after having visited her grave, he returns to Paris and then receives the letter.  This distinction is significant, because in the film, the letter serves as a catalyst for a renaissance in Carpentier, a renewal of hope and energy inspired by the memory of the girl who loved him and will be watching from heaven.  Carpentier is not a broken man but rather a man with a mission, once again a hero:

As of that moment, Georges Carpentier got his courage back.  He had to triumph over all his adversaries.  Yes, he had to be worthy of this valiant lady.

And it was because of Her that, summoning all his courage and all his strength, the young boxer was able to defeat in Ghent a remarkable fighter, a fighter much taller and heavier than he.

And so it is that, champion of Europe at nineteen years old, Georges Carpentier comes home to Paris, to the accolades of a frenzied crowd! (12; these are the last words of the booklet)[2]

In contrast, then, to the reader of Perrodil’s novel, who closes the book wiping away a tear, the French movie-goer walks out of the cinema pumped up with pride in the handsome young champion, his new national hero.

If nothing else, this contrast serves to point out the fact that it was indeed his first victory over Billy “Bombardier” Wells in 1913 and the European heavyweight title he won as a result that made of Carpentier a true national hero.  When Perrodil’s book ends, Carpentier was preparing for his fight against Frank Klaus on June 27, 1912 (it may have been a choice on Perrodil’s part to end the story there, before the Klaus fight, which was Carpentier’s first loss after having achieved “star” status). In the time between the writing of the book (early summer 1912) and the making of the film (September 1913), Carpentier won the European light heavyweight title by defeating “Bandsman” Dick Rice in a second round KO on February 12, 1913); much more important, he beat Wells for the heavyweight belt, in the celebrated David-and-Goliath bout, the single biggest myth-inspiring moment of his pre-war career, on June 1, 1913.  Hence, perhaps, the need to add a coda to the tragic ending of Carpentier in mourning, to end the film with Carpentier triumphant.

Viewed as an ensemble, the novel and the film Le Roman de Georges Carpentier are significant building blocks in the construction of the Carpentier myth, at the very moment when he achieved true success in the ring and true celebrity outside it. Both are at once representations and examples of the hyperbolic, almost surreal hero worship of which Carpentier would be the object for the next decade.

The film version of Le Roman de Georges Carpentier was Carpentier’s first appearance on screen as an actor.  His performance was well received, according to at least one contemporary review.  The front page of the November 14, 1913 edition of Le Cinéma et l’echo du cinéma réunis features a photo-portrait of  an elegantly posed Carpentier in white tie and tails, above an article (signed “O. Redl”) singing his praises in often hyperbolic tones. His fame itself is pointed out (“[…] it can be  […] stated without fear that his name is known throughout the world”), as are his boxing skills (“the most remarkable type of modern boxer […] graceful, supple, strong, elegant. He attacks and defends himself with the same energy. He punches hard and can take a punch, too […]”).  Next comes a summary of Carpentier’s ring career to date.

But all of this is but a setup for the real thrust of the article, which is to talk about Carpentier’s performance in the very recently released Roman de Georges Carpentier.  The praise, not surprisingly, is lavish:

Yes, Georges Carpentier the renowned boxer, the champion of Europe, is acting and it must be said that he gives a remarkably good account of himself.  

[…] Georges Carpentier seemed to us to be a perfect thespian, worthy of comparison with our best actors.  

Georges Carpentier charmed us; his interpretation of the role is perfect.

Carpentier is indeed, according this critic at least, both a highly appealing screen presence and a truly gifted dramatic actor:

Georges Carpentier is above all simple and sincere, two qualities that are so rare in our actors today.  I was often deeply moved by Georges Carpentier’s performance.  He played certain very emotional scenes with much feeling.  He himself is sincerely moved and the spectator cannot remain insensitive to his pain.

This performance does the greatest honor to Georges Carpentier.  It places him immediately in the uppermost echelon of our cinematographic actors.

Taking the hyperbole to an extreme degree, as was so often the case when Carpentier was the subject matter, the critic goes so far as to cite Corneille’s Le Cid in his attempt to shower praise on the young boxer-actor, “on whom fortune and glory have smiled, each in turn.”

The critic is explicit about the fact that the film will unite boxing fans, movie fans and all-purpose Carpentier fans:

Le Roman de Georges Carpentier will be of interest to the fans, the enthusiastic admirers of the young champion, as well to the usual cinema-goers.

It is indeed a touching and charming story, a love story; and if, from time to time, we see the champion in training, struggling against his toughest opponents, that is because boxing was always the goal he sought to achieve.

The film will owe its success, the critic opines, to its mélange of sport and drama and, more to the point, to the extremely charismatic young man who incarnates them both:

There is no doubt that this film will make its way around the world.  It will attract spectators by its dramatic and athletic qualities and it will make known everywhere one of the finest and most handsome athletes on whom we can pride ourselves: the champion of Europe, Georges Carpentier.

The idea here is clearly that the film will attract spectators because of Carpentier’s fame and will also in turn spread and increase that fame. This was no doubt actually the case: the critic’s prediction about the film’s making its way around the world appears to have been accurate. Just a week later, the same publication ran a large ad announcing that the film would receive world-wide distribution, citing Belgium, “England and the Colonies,” Russia, Serbia, Brazil and Argentina among the many countries where the film would be released. Many of the movie-goers in many of these countries, particularly those without a thriving subculture of boxing, no doubt saw and even heard of Georges Carpentier for the first time with the release of this film. It was thus with the release of this first film, it seems, that the young champion’s celebrity became truly world-wide.


[1] The booklet was published in what is presumably a collection of similar booklets describing films, “Les Grands Films Populaires,” by Georges Lordier (Paris).  It appears to have been on sale at concession stands in the movie theaters.  All the information here concerning the film comes from this booklet; all the information concerning the making, distribution, and reception of it comes from Haÿ, 71-74.  Oddly, Carpentier makes no specific mention of this movie, his first job as a film actor and surely a fairly important step in the rise of his celebrity, in either of his autobiographies. Return to text

[2] Given that there is no extant copy of this film, and thus no way to verify, one is left to surmise that this last page of so of the booklet is the description of an actual scene in the film. Return to text