(1871 - 1949)
"You had to have lived those moments of collective exaltation, have attended those thrilling screenings in order to understand just how far the excitement of the crowd could go. With a flick of a switch, I plunge several thousand spectators into darkness. Each scene passes, accompanied by tempestuous applause; after the sixth scene I return the hall to light. The audience is shaking."
Felix Mesguich was born in Algeria on 16th September 1871. After serving as a Zouave in the French Army, he moved to France. Mesguich visited the Lumiere brothers’ studio one day in search of work and was interviewed by Louis Lumiere himself. Although Mesguich had no formal photographic experience, something about him clearly impressed Lumiere, who offered him a job with, according to Mesguich in his memoirs, the following caveat: “You know, Mesguich, we’re not offering a job with much in the way of prospects, it’s more of a ‘fairground’ job; it may last six months, a year, perhaps more, probably less.”
Mesguich served as assistant to Marius Perrigot at the debut provincial screening of the Lumieres' cinematographe in Lyon on 25th January 1896. The following June he was then despatched with other operators to launch the Cinematographe in the United States. After his first projection at the B. F. Keith Music Hall in New York on 29th June 1896, Mesguich was terrified by crowds hammering on his the door of his makeshift booth, but his fear turned to astonishment when the crowd carried him to the stage amid loud cheers and applause as the orchestra played The Marseillaise. Unfortunately for the Lumieres', the success of the Cinematographe was short-lived. In order to get the equipment into the country, they had instructed their men to claim it was personal possessions, a tactic that backfired when, according to Mesguich, they were faced with a succession of lawsuits claiming they had violated customs regulations.
Mesguich left America in September or October 1896, returning to France via Canada where he filmed Niagara Falls. His next assignment was to Russia, where he worked for Lumière concessionary Arthur Grünewald and exhibited moving pictures for Tsar Nicholas II at Yalta. In September 1898, Mesguich left the Lumières upon his return to France and began producing some of the world’s first advertising movies, starting with an ‘animated poster’ for ‘Ripolin’ in October 1898 which was projected onto a billboard attached to the third floor of a Montmartre building in Paris. He also made ‘phantom rides’ - films shot from the front of a train - sponsored by Compagnie des Wagons-Lits. He then moved to England, where he worked for the Charles Urban Trading Company in London.
At the beginning of the 20th Century, Mesguich was touring France exhibiting a variety of films, including those of Sarah Bernhardt and Coquelin originally filmed by Clément-Maurice for the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre at the 1900 Paris Exposition. In 1901, he presented the films for the Isola brothers at the Olympia. He then travelled the world as a news cameraman, working for a number of companies. His work during this period included the filming of Queen Victoria’s funeral, Edward VII’s coronation in 1902, the Bloody Sunday massacre in St. Petersburg, and the Athens Olympic Games of 1906.
In November 1905 he returned to Algeria, his homeland, at the request of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique for the Warwick Trading Company. The journey proved to be a nostalgic one for Mesguich, who recorded in his memoirs: "Luminous with its amphitheatre-shaped terraces, Algiers shines under the midday sun. The Mosque, the Casbah, the lacing of narrow and climbing streets, the small Arabian houses, I film my youth and its décor." Less enjoyable was an incident in which the car he was travelling in was shot at by natives. And things were to get worse when Mesguich requested a number of Algerian soldiers to fire their rifles while participating in a race. During the filming, two of the riders were unseated by their horses and dies from their injuries. Upon receiving a request from a representative of the Governor of Biskra for two thousand francs to be paid to the wives of each of the deceased, Mesguich promptly left the country, fearing that his employers would refuse to pay the compensation. Eventually, the company paid five thousand francs to the widows.
August 1907 found Mesguich travelling to Morocco with the French Colonial Army led by Maréchal Lyautey, which was on a mission to quell an insurrection in Casablanca. During the uprising, in which a number of Europeans were murdered, Mesguich was forced to hurriedly retreat from his position to avoid being caught up in the fighting. He also claimed to have filmed the interrogation of a Moroccan prisoner.
In 1909, Mesguich signed a two-year contract with Eclipse which saw him travel the world once more with 40,000 metres of film.
During the First World War, Mesguich fought with his Zouave regiment. He died in Paris, France in 1949.
Felix Mesguich’s memoirs Tours de Manivelle - the facts of which need to be taken with a pinch of salt - were published in 1933.
Sources: Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film by Erik Barnouw p9; Global Financial Markets - Issues And Perspectives By Anantha Nageswaran; Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film by Erik Barnouw p15; Nonfiction Film: A Critical History By Richard Meran Barsam p24; Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film by Erik Barnouw p20; Embattled Shadows: A History of Canadian Cinema, 1895-1939 By Peter Morris P29; Beyond Casablanca: M.A. Tazi and the Adventure of Moroccan Cinema By Mohamed Abderrahman Tazi, Kevin Dwyer p122; The History of Documentary in Africa: The Colonial Era by Aboubakar Sidiki Sanogo; Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema; Encyclopedia of Early Cinema, edited by Richard Abel.
Felix Mesguich - Filmography (incomplete)
1907: Ali Bouf a l’huile
1906: La prière du muezzin
1905: The Attack Against the Czar
1896: Bataille de femmes
Les chutes du Niagara
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