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Anyone interested in early film is aware of the Desmet Collection, the nitrate treasure at the Netherlands' Filmmuseum, a treasure that was long ignored by the academic world.
In the 1980s, for instance, I was taught that the first German film that deserved the name was The Student of Prague (1913). Thereafter, World War I was perceived to have brought about a great void in feature production, at least until 1919. Value was measured in terms of length and genre; film had to be serious "art." All other films were considered worthless.
The Desmet Collection, which the Netherlands Filmmuseum bought in 1957, contains not only approximately nine hundred mostly prewar films as well as many posters, programs, and flyers, but also the business archive of Jean Desmet (1875–1956), all representing the stock remaining from Desmet's exhibition and distribution activities; most of this material was not considered "art." Desmet was an early exhibitor and distributor who collected everything. Virtually all of the titles in the collection were previously thought to be lost, so the collection provides both insights into the tastes of early audiences and an inkling of what was available between 1907 and 1916. The collection contains films of all genres and lengths, most of them tinted and/or toned, and most of them foreign, because the Netherlands had nearly no production of its own. The value of the archive is two-fold: as a collection of surviving films and as one of the few comprehensive collections of surviving business material.
Ivo Blom's book, which is based on his doctoral thesis, gives a meticulous account of Jean Desmet's career as an exhibitor and distributor. As Blom's aim is to tell "the story of a business combined with a history of film," he puts his survey in the context of early cinema. On a microscale, Desmet's business activities reflect the road toward standardization and institutionalization of both the film trade and film programming. Blom provides a detailed account for the years 1907–1916, as well as an overview of subsequent years, during which Desmet's activities were concentrated on real estate. The account breaks off in 1938, when a fire destroyed most of the posters, some of the publicity material, and also threatened the film stock. After the fire, Desmet made an inventory of his films and stored them in a safe place. [End Page 159]
Desmet had started his career in 1907 with an itinerant cinema, traveling to fairs in the Netherlands and Belgium. Programs in those days consisted of six or seven shorts of varying genres, in which actualités (early newsreels) held a significant niche. The majority of longer films in the years 1907–1908 were Pathé productions, particularly the dramas, since Pathé dominated the market. Usually, cinema operators stayed at the fairs for a whole week, changing the program two or three times. But most exhibitors had a considerable stock of films at their disposal. The years 1908–1909 witnessed the rise of new national film industries, so that in 1909 the program changed to comprise Italian titles and two films by Vitagraph. On March 13, 1909, Desmet opened his first permanent cinema in Rotterdam, which was the second largest city in the country. This cinema was to become the first of a small movie theater empire. Early in 1910, Desmet started his distribution business and established his base in Amsterdam, which had 574,000 inhabitants at the time.
The story of his distribution business provides an insight into the growth of the Dutch and foreign film culture between 1910 and 1914. Desmet's activities also reflect the important changes within the European film trade. These included the direct purchase of films from the production companies and large international distributors, the purchase of single films, the rise of the "exclusive" film (films sold to only one distributor within a given geographical area), and...