Once the first childlike enthusiasm of the early days was forgotten, when the discovery of the new toy had swept the pioneers at one stroke into a world of miracles and poetry, the cinema had suffered from the perishable character of its celluloid foundation and from the disdain in which photography was held as being unworthy of an artist. It needed a good deal of disinterested courage to leave the imprint of personal genius on what was doomed to an ephemeral success of only a few months, a solely popular success moreover, and one that posterity would not even be able to rescue from oblivion, so soon would the films shrink, dry up and crumble away.
The men who had had sufficient courage or naïlveté were already half-forgotten. No more than a few score of people remembered that Méliès, Edwin Porter, Griffith, had invented, one after another, fading, dissolving, masking, superimpositions, slow motion, quick motion, parallel action, close-ups and trackingshots. From about 1905 the French cinema had made up its mind to be no more than a second-rate poor man's theatre, photographed and bereft of speech. What was the use of anything better when it brought in money as it was? There had been Forfaiture in 1916, it is true, shown in France in 1917. Cecil B. de Mille's film had made a sensation. It was only later ( Intolerance came to Paris about 1921 and The Birth of a Nation about 1923) that the influence of Ince and Griffith's previous work could be recognized in it. There were Sennett and Chaplin too, and all these encouraging signs raised the hopes of the more stubborn. But the cinema's economic sinews, which had always and everywhere conditioned both its progress and its periods of stagnation, still seemed inflexible in France.
It was only towards the end of the war that French production allowed a breath of fresh air to penetrate, most probably for financial and economic reasons. The French film industry, a power on the world market, and until the war of 1914 enthroned as queen on American territory, had been obliged, because of its enforced idleness, to abdicate. It had to do something to try and reconquer lost ground, and this time decided to open the door to a few newcomers, or rather (for we must not exaggerate) cautiously to set it ajar, and shut it again as quickly as possible.
But let us proceed in an orderly manner: before assuming a positive guise, avant-garde, that was to play the same part in the film world as an opposition in the world of politics, took on, like any opposition, a negative or rather a negating attitude, a negation that first arose from criticism.
Before the World War I it cannot be said that any real criticism of the cinema had existed in France. When Guillaume Apollinaire in his review, Les Soirées de Paris ( 1913), took the trouble to treat some forgotten Western seriously, and to discover in it a new form of poetic feeling, he was merely considered eccentric. There were only the publicity agents, of whom many, disguised as critics, remained firmly entrenched in the Press until the following World War II. One of these gentlemen, who wrote for a most important Parisian daily, perpetrated a long article on the film adapted from Somerset Maugham, a work written by that well-known and gifted English author, Mr. Human Bondage.