The Pathé studio still stands in Paris, at 6 rue Francoeur in the eighteenth arrondissement, although now it’s the home of La Fémis, one of the great film schools in Europe. The Pathé film company began practically with the cinema itself, in 1896, when four brothers–Émile, Théophile, Jacques, and particularly Charles–decided to move from making phonographs to producing films. For a while, it would be among the largest such firm in the world, a global, vertically integrated company that made films, distributed them, and owned some of the most important cinemas on the continent, with about three-dozen exhibition sites in Paris by the early 1930s.
Of course, urban centers like Paris were the most important locations in the Pathé empire. But the film company looked to expand everywhere, to places where cinema hadn’t been before, at least in France and in French colonial locations. In the mid-1920s, Pathé developed a small-gauge system for making movies and then projecting them. The 17.5mm Pathé-Baby (half the size of standard, 35mm movie film), similar to the 16mm film being developed in the United States and other parts of Europe, made cinema more compact and more mobile, and meant that Pathé could show movies anywhere there was an available electrical current. The world—or, at least, Europe, North Africa, and Indochina—became Pathé’s exhibition site.
The French press took notice, and not just the film press. In 1928, the Catholic journal Bulletin du Diocèse de Reims extolled the value of what became known as Pathé-Rural, as a means of using “the cinema in teaching and social education,” and Charles Pathé himself told the Bulletin that soon, “this rural format would prevail in all poor countries.” Moreover, Pathé would supply those remote, rural locations with entire films programs for only 100 francs. A few years later, in 1931, Pathé told the film tabloid Ciné pour tous that “the cinematic spectacle should not remain limited to cities…but must penetrate everywhere, like the newspaper,” and the smaller, simpler, cheaper system his company had developed was perfect for that. Pathé then explained all of the technical details—fewer images per meter and less strain on the film as it moved through the projector—and then claimed that, as a result, a single film might be shown as many as a thousand times before it showed any signs of wear and tear.
Within a few years, the films that Pathé-Rural took out to the hinterlands were not just those useful in “teaching and social education.” In 1937, La Revue de l’Écran ran regular lists of films offered by Pathé-Rural, and they were mostly feature-length commercial movies, already a few years old, from France, Hollywood, and elsewhere, films like Gregory La Cava’s Mon Mari le Patron (She Married Her Boss ), Aimez-Moi toujours (Love Me Forever, from 1935, with Grace Moore), John Ford’s Toute la ville en parle (The Whole Town’s Talking [1935), Julien Duvivier’s Golgotha (1935), and the 1936 Napoleon biopic from Italy, Les Cent jours.
Whatever the film, the aim of Pathé-Rural was always bringing cinema to those places that, even in the late-1930s, might not have been fully exposed to it. In fact, the Ministry of Agriculture emphasized the usefulness of Pathé-Rural, and highlighted it in their display space at the 1937 world’s fair, the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris. The exposition was nothing short of gigantic, taking up about 250 acres around the Champ de Mars near the Palais de Chaillot in the elegant sixteenth arrondissement. There were pavilions from the Soviet Union, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere. The list included Spain, and that country featured the first display of Picasso’s Guernica, which had been commissioned specifically for the exposition. Anything else might seem modest in comparison, but still, the Ministry of Agriculture built a three-room pavilion and devoted one of the rooms to a screening space for Pathé-Rural, with the film company providing movies from its “rural cinémathèque” for screenings throughout the exposition.
The Ministry was concerned with bringing Pathé-Rural and other benefits of French technological modernity to those parts of France far away from urban centers. Pathé-Rural functioned not just in national projects, however, but also in extending France’s colonial reach. In 1932, just a few years after the introduction of Pathé-Baby small gauge film and the Pathé-Rural system, the French film journal Hebdo covered the International Congress of Educational Cinema in Berlin. There was a demonstration of Pathé-Rural there, and Hebdo extolled this “admirable invention,” and especially its effectiveness in North Africa, where it could bring motion pictures to “the remotest villages in the desert,” where people there would now “be able to enjoy all the instructive and spectacular benefits that the cinema brings with it.” Pathé-Rural had already achieved “considerable success” in Algeria, and soon, according to Hebdo, would move into Morocco and Tunisia.
A week later, Comoedia, a daily Parisian review of cultural events, ran the same report as did Hebdo. Appropriately enough, Comoedia headlined the story on the conference, “Pathé-Rural Conquers Algeria.” North African sources also applauded the promise of Pathé-Rural. In April, 1933, L’Afrique du Nord Illustrée, a journal devoted to the region’s culture and politics, wrote that, thanks to this “small, marvelous instrument,” the northernmost sections of Algeria would become one with those of the interior. Pathé-Rural would bring all of Algeria together and use the French cinema to do it, with Pathé’s empire assisting in the consolidation of France’s colonial power.
This celebration of Pathé’s importance coinciding with France’s hid some significant problems. Pathé would go bankrupt in 1935 (Charles had had the good sense to sell his shares a few years earlier), and there were long struggles over the control and dissolution of the company, including one of the owners, Jewish impresario Bernard Natan, being convicted of fraud and then sent to Auschwitz. After the splashy display at the Ministry of Agriculture’s pavilion at the Paris Exposition in 1937, Pathé-Rural falls out of the available historical record. I have found only one other reference to Pathé-Rural, in 1970 in Media, a French journal of “techniques and methods of education” that ran for a decade in the late-1960s through the ‘70s. In an article on “the cinema and education in France,” in a section labelled “small formats” (petits formats), Media mentioned the 22mm film developed by the Société Gallus, and lamented that, if it didn’t enjoy the success it certainly merited, that was probably because of Pathé’s invention of 17.5mm film stock and accompanying projection system, conceived in 1924 and launched in 1927 under the name Pathé-Rural and designed “to bring film education to the countryside.” As happened with so much else in Paris and the rest of France, that experiment ended when the Germans invaded the country and occupied the capital. Media reports rather clinically that Pathé-Rural lasted until 1940, when “German occupation authorities decided to suppress 17.5mm film and transform all remaining projectors to 16mm.” This technological shift was, perhaps, one of the least of the effects of the German takeover of French cinema, but it certainly served to indicate the end of one media empire, however weakened it already may have been, and the beginning of another that would last until 1944, when the Allies joined with French resistance forces to liberate Paris and the rest of France. By that time, of course, 16mm film had become the global standard, with Pathé-Baby, Pathé-Rural, and Pathé itself very much the signs of an earlier, outdated film history.