The Mullens: The Jackasses of Pioneering Dutch Film
Note: This is the thirty-fourth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1905 film, THE MISADVENTURE OF A FRENCH GENTLEMAN WITHOUT PANTS AT THE ZANDVOORT BEACH, directed by Willy and Albert Mullens.
THE MISADVENTURE OF A FRENCH GENTLEMAN WITHOUT PANTS AT THE ZANDVOORT BEACH (1905), besides being an incredibly long title that I will hereafter refer to as “THE MISADVENTURE,” is an incredibly important Dutch film. In fact, its directors, brothers Willy and Albert Mullens, could be credited with the creation of Dutch cinema. And they did it by pulling a JACKASS.
To be clear, I’m referring to the television and film franchise starring Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, and company that portrays said stars performing incredibly dangerous and/or awkward stunts and pranks. The relation between JACKASS and a 112-year-old silent Dutch comedy film may be slight, but the latter’s lasting appeal is somewhat built upon similarly compelling reasons to enjoy JACKASS.
Willy and Albert Mullens founded one of the first film production companies in the Netherlands, taking on the French name Alberts Frères in order to compete in the French-dominated film business. After their mother took them to France and showed them the films of the Lumière brothers, this duo of Dutch brothers gained her financial support to start their own film exhibiting company. Beginning in 1899, the duo traveled the country, showing films they had purchased; eventually, however, they decided to make their own films. THE MISADVENTURE is one of those earlier films.
Of the pair, Willy Mullens mostly directed the films and could be seen as the de facto leader of the two. He would go on to create the Haghefilm studios in 1914, and would make a name for what would become the biggest Dutch studio until World War II with a series of documentaries made during World War I that demonstrated not only the Netherlands’ desire for neutrality, but also its significant might that could be brought into play if necessary. Before this more dire and “important” work, however, Willy and Albert’s predecessor company, Alberts Frères, would make a name for itself with what were essentially stunt and prank films.
THE MISADVENTURE’s directorial credit is solely credited to Willy, who seemingly came up with the scenarios and much of the creative production, more often than it is credited to the pair of brothers, but Albert ended up operating the camera while Willy acted in the film after their actor had to pull out of the performance. Therefore, due to the limited nature of film “directing” at the time, Albert’s involvement with the company’s film production at large, and his actual handling of the camera and its shots, I’d say it’s fair to say the film was co-directed by the Mullens brothers.
But why did the actor have to drop the gig? Well, the extremely “revealing” role was being filmed at Zandvoort Beach, where the actor’s fiancée lived. And she did not want a huge crowd of people to see her husband-to-be running around in his undergarments being chased by a policeman, whether he be fake or real.
You see, THE MISADVENTURE, as its full title might imply, follows a French gentleman who ends up with his pants off at a public beach. While lounging in a beach chair, he fails to realize the tide has come in and pulled his chair into deeper water, so he takes off his trousers in order to avoid getting them wet while he wades back to shore. A policeman spies him, and begins a chase that runs throughout the rest of the film until, after dressing up as and pretending to be a woman, the French gentleman is arrested amid a large crowd of spectators and musical band.
Perhaps it was best that the original actor dropped the role, because the production crew was taken to the local police station by the real policeman patrolling the beach since naked legs were illegal in 1905 Holland. Word spread of the incident, and eventually, national press started to report on the events of the films as if they were real, and cited the Zandvoort incident as an example of the moral degeneration of the country. The Mullens brothers gained incredible free publicity due to their “outrageous” behavior and capitalized on it, making THE MISADVENTURE a huge hit. Sound familiar?
Not only does THE MISADVENTURE carry the DNA that could be later found in JACKASS (and to be fair, other “prank” films before and after it) in the way its controversy generated success and debate, but it also utilized real people in a way that fueled the on-screen spectacle. Much of the crowd in the film is made up of ordinary people visiting the Zandvoort beach resort, and their reactions to the incredible actions of the “French gentleman” are fairly genuine. Unlike JACKASS’ intentionally awkward interactions with “innocent bystanders,” however, THE MISADVENTURE’s unintentional extras most likely saw the massive camera Albert was operating and witnessed multiple takes. Nevertheless, the candid nature of the members of the crowd, many of which glance at the camera in a manner obviously unfamiliar with cameras at a time when film was still so new and novel, lends an authenticity and different energy of humor to the slapstick film.
THE MISADVENTURE is an incredibly important, formative film; it was inducted as one of the sixteen most monumental Dutch films into the Netherlands Film Festival’s Dutch cinema canon as one of the nation’s oldest surviving fiction films. However, its importance and enjoyment exists outside of the context of its country of production, of course. Its novel and humorous blending of the real with the fictional foresaw a world of filmic pranks to come, even those from the Mullens themselves; they would make a film in 1907 involving a donkey, a suckling pig, and a lot of vegetable stands. THE MISADVENTURE OF A FRENCH GENTLEMAN WITHOUT PANTS AT THE ZANDVOORT BEACH, quite simply, was ahead of its time, and its slapstick antics are only augmented by the realization that not everyone on screen is in on the joke, making it my fourth favorite film of 1905.
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