- Jean Desmet and the Early Dutch Film Trade
Reading about the Desmet Collection at the Nederlands Filmmuseum evokes fond memories for me. In 1990, I spent a week at the archive's preservation and restoration facility, an isolated compound near Overveen. Every morning I was transported there from a small hotel next to the local train stop, the car weaving through the woods for the last half mile on a one-lane track. "Amazing things" was what I remember seeing as a Steenbeck re-animated title after title of Pathé, Gaumont, Éclair, and Eclipse films from the collection, most of them on safety stock but occasionally "bits and pieces" on nitrate. High points were a tinted print of the grand guignol melodrama, Nuit de noel (1908); an audaciously filmed one-reel thriller starring Mistinguett, L'Epouvante (1911); and a host of Gaumont comedies, most notably several deft ones from the Léonce series. Over lunch breaks, I recall sharing observations and questions with Ivo Blom, Paul Mark Paul, Frank van der Madan, and other laboratory personnel and cataloguers. Four years later I returned for more viewings, this time of early 1910s westerns, especially those in Essanay's Broncho Billy series and little known ones made by Vitagraph's western unit. Although I was aware at the time that this cache of films was a unique source for researching early cinema, Ivo Blom's Jean Desmet and the Early Dutch Film Trade reveals that the collection's nearly 900 film titles (1907–1916) also have an invaluable complement: an extensive business archive, plus thousands of posters, still photographs, programs, and other publicity material. [End Page 344]
How Desmet's stock of early films came to the museum as a singular collection is but one of several fascinating stories that Blom tells with consummate skill in this book —a reworking in English of his Utrecht University dissertation (2000). Although he sold or otherwise disposed of some film prints that he bought for the purposes of distribution and exhibition over that ten-year period, Desmet kept most of them partly because he could make enough money renting titles until about 1925. Thereafter, he neglected to insure his stock yet continued (for reasons that remain enigmatic) to house the films in a loft above the Cinema Parisien in Amsterdam, one of the few he still owned into the 1930s. In August 1938, a fire in the loft destroyed a large quantity of paper materials but fortunately did not spread to the cans of nitrate film, which could have exploded and devastated the cinema and surrounding buildings. The fire forced Desmet to inventory his films and other surviving material and arrange to store them in the "little vault" of a small distribution company near Amsterdam. There they remained, through World War II, until shortly after Desmet died in late 1956, when one of his daughters presented the collection to the Nederlands Filmmuseum.
Luck or chance inevitably plays a major role in this kind of story, and it is all the more striking given the reciprocal story that Blom tells of Desmet's own career. The eldest of six children, Jean kept the family together after their parents died (in the mid-1890s) by operating attractions on the circuit of Dutch fairgrounds. In 1907, he began purchasing films (largely French) in order to run a traveling fairground cinema and, by 1909, prospered to the point where he could open a permanent cinema in Rotterdam. By early 1910, he was also distributing films (now Italian, Danish, and German as well) and amassing a small chain of cinemas in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and other cities (as befits a family business, each was managed by a different relative). For a short time, Desmet was one of the Netherlands three largest distributors, especially of short films or short film programs, but the outbreak of war cut off most of his supplies, which constricted his distribution and exhibition operations. Although he stubbornly and unsuccessfully tried to rely on outmoded purchasing practices during the war, he...