Grahame N's Web Pages


PATHÉ RURAL

OR

THE UPS & DOWNS OF 17.5mm

by Christel Taillibert

translated by Martyn Stevens - January 2003


(This is a free translation and not definitive. If it matters, check the original.)

The Cinematograph and the Countryside

At the beginning of the 1920’s, use of the cinematograph for educational purposes began to develop significantly in France, thanks to the activities of certain political figures particularly interested in this issue. Schools, colleges and various companies took advantage of council cinema facilities or even bought their own equipment to enable them to integrate film into their teaching material.

Apart from the inevitable psychological hesitation of educationalists, the development of the use of film in education ran into practical problems; in particular, only councils in larger towns could afford cine equipment at this time. Too, at the beginning of the 1920’s, France remained predominantly rural: in 1924, 97.3% of communities had less than 5000 inhabitants. In areas where the population was widely dispersed, the financial returns from a cinema were far too uncertain to justify the investment. The cinema-going public was therefore only 6% of the population.

The Ministry of Agriculture adopted various measures to tackle these problems and encourage cinema in the countryside. The Government had a clear understanding of the potential of cinema as an educational tool for the rural population, which was largely unaffected by changes in society. The Minister of Agriculture, Henry Cheron, expressed it in the following terms:-

“Cinema today is one of the most powerful tools for education and the spread of agricultural knowledge. It can bring home, in a particularly lively and persuasive way, to farmers and to their children at school, progress in science and, more generally, facts and discoveries about nature to help them in their work and encourage them to increase production.”

Entertainment films were not excluded, since by offering healthy entertainment at rural level to match that provided in towns, the introduction of the cinema was seen as a way of slowing the mass exodus from the countryside. “Cinema is fun.” In taking it into the countryside, a bit of the town was brought to the village.

These considerations led to the passing of a law on 5th April 1923 establishing an annual levy of 500,000 francs on the Pari mutuel (Tote). These monies were intended to provide grants to help rural councils acquire standard gauge projection equipment. A central Agricultural Cinematheque and various regional equivalents were set up at the same time to distribute films.

The Narrow Gauge Response

The measures put in hand by the Agriculture Ministry obviously involved 35mm projectors, the only gauge in use at the beginning of the 1920’s. To take cinema to the countryside, another approach was put forward, this time by industrialists, which envisaged limiting the expense of investment in cinema by reducing the size of the film.

This wasn’t a new idea. As early as 1900, at the great Paris Exhibition, Gaumont had put forward two such projectors, the Mirographe and the pocket Chrono, of 20mm and 15mm gauge respectively. It was in 1912 that the first narrow gauge apparatus had been launched by Pathé: the KOK 28mm projector.

It was also Pathé who launched the Pathé Baby, at the end of 1922; this 9.5mm machine was primarily intended for the amateur market. It might have been an alternative to the standard gauge for introduction in the countryside, but the poor quality of the projected image didn’t really meet the needs of such an application.

At this time, the Pathé-Cinema Company was seeking to negotiate film rights from Pathé-Consortium-Cinema covering commercial exploitation in villages with fewer than 5000 inhabitants. It was with this audience in mind that Pathé Cinema began work in the summer of 1924 on a narrow gauge project designed to preserve as much as possible of the image quality of the standard gauge.

Pathé chose to adopt a film size of 17.5mm, exactly half standard gauge. The planned projector was initially known as the Pathe-Junior. In 1926 the commercial launch of 17.5 was finally announced under the name Pathé Rural. It was intended for use in small villages and the countryside. The aims declared by Pathé were wholly altruistic:-

“Film is only a tool in the service of an idea; soon, workers on the land, their working day completed, will have their eyes fixed on the screen to be at the same time educated, instructed and entertained”.

Charles Pathé then embarked on a crusade to explain to the world of cinema just how the technical characteristics of his narrow gauge format justified such pretensions.

Technical Aspects of the Pathe Rural

Pathe Rural material and equipment was naturally determined by the chosen gauge of 17.5mm. This gauge was not just plucked out of the air by Pathe-Cinema; in choosing a width exactly half that of standard film, the costs of film production were reduced. In fact, 17.5 film was obtained simply by slitting fresh 35mm stock.

In this way, existing machinery could easily be adapted for the new gauge; perforation, printing and development all took place with 35mm stock, with slitting into two identical bands of 17.5 film coming only at the end of the process.

The image size of Pathe Rural film was 9.5mm x13.5mm, giving an area of 126 square millimetres. This was frequently quoted against the 16mm gauge adopted by the Americans, which measured 7.5mm x10.5mm, an area of only 78 square millimetres. For a film barely any wider, Pathé Rural image size was 60% greater than that of 16mm. On projection, this allowed an image of up to 2.5 metres wide, ample for the intended use.

The point of the reduced image size lay in the commensurate reduction in the cost of film production; each copy printed was 75% cheaper than a 35mm print.

According to Pathe-Cinema, the number, shape and size of the perforations had been the subject of much research. The pitch was equal to the picture height, exactly twice the pitch of 35mm perforations; once again, the aim was to simplify the adaptation of existing equipment. There were four square perforations per frame, one at each corner, each half on the film margin and half within the actual image area. During projection, the overlap into the frame was covered by a gate mask with rounded corners, giving the projected image its characteristic shape.

Pathé Rural film had 105 frames per metre. Spools were designed to hold 150 metres of film, projection time being the same as for 300m of 35mm. The saving obtained was far from negligible as exploitation was essentially on a rental basis; transport costs could be proportionately reduced.  The weight of the spools themselves had to be taken into account too; an empty 17.5mm spool weighed about 500 grams, whilst the weight of a 35mm spool could rise to over 2kg.

Thanks to its small size, Pathé Rural film was subject to forces four times less than those acting on 35mm film. The film base, cellulose acetate, could therefore be made thinner, reducing on weight and bulk, while being confident of projecting films as many times as 35mm prints without excess wear and tear. Pathe-Cinema claimed films could be shown around a thousand times without damage.

Finally, Pathé Rural films were only produced on non-inflammable stock; all fire risk during a show was thus eliminated – not a matter of indifference to businesses and users, often wary of the latent menace of fire that was then inherent to film projection.

17.5mm Pathé Rural

The Pathe Rural Projector ran from either AC or DC current. Any necessary transformer was in the base of the machine. Film transport involved two sprockets and a claw, powered by a one 25th HP motor. This also drove a fan intended to protect the film from the heat of the lamp. A fixed 200 watt incandescent lamp, which allowed shows to 200-300 people, was installed in a lamphouse specially designed to promote the flow of air from the fan.

To make transport easier, feed and take-up spool arms were detachable, reducing overall size to 40cm high by 30cm wide, for a weight no more than 15kgs.

The general design of the projector was intended to suit it for rural use. It was heavily and robustly constructed to survive a life of intensive usage. Operation was very simple, so as to be usable by non-professionals; the public purse was rarely able to pay a projectionist’s wages; it was therefore important for operators and teachers working in the countryside to be able to do the job themselves.

“The Pathe Rural Projector is designed for use by people with no cine or engineering knowledge; apart from the threading of the film, a very simple operation, a single switch is all that is needed to operate the machine, the fan and the lamp”.

Finally, notwithstanding its simplicity and small size, the Pathe Rural could deliver shows of high technical quality. As witness a show organised on 23rd March 1929 by Emile Roux-Parassac for students at the Photography and Film Technical College; 17.5mm and 35mm films were shown and despite being warned in advance, none of the spectators could tell the difference.

Promotion and Reception of 17.5

Once the equipment was ready, there remained the task of making a place for 17.5mm in the market. Pathe Cinema publicly announced their new invention at the beginning of 1926.The projector was shown at various events involving people from the world of cinema, and notices were sent to the Press giving details of this new innovation.

The first demonstration was on 10th February 1926 to the Cinematography section of the French Photographic Society. The International Cinematographic Conference from 27th September to 3rd October 1926 at the Palais Royal, in the premises of the International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation was an important occasion for promoting 17.5mm; a paper was presented to the Cine Education and the Country Cinema Committees, then at the plenary session of the Conference. This last was followed by a practical demonstration in the Grand Chamber of the Ministry of Fine Arts; several educational films were shown.

At the time of these demonstrations, 17.5mm was not unanimously welcomed by the organisers and educationalists who would be chiefly concerned. . There was considerable debate and many objections were raised to the very idea of a format different from 35mm. The arguments against a reduced format were; it was contrary to international standards hitherto universally adopted; the standard gauge gave a bigger and brighter picture, indispensable to proper educational work; it would cause confusion because many different reduced formats would be created; it would lead to chaos in existing film libraries; it would prevent the rapid development of the regional organisation.

The regional offices of educational cinema referred to in the last of these arguments were populist lay educational movements operating throughout France. They set themselves up as defenders of the standard gauge and rejected out of hand even the idea of a reduced format and maintained this stance right up to the war.

Others, however, were immediately convinced of the benefits of narrow gauge cinema. G. Michel Coissac, one of the leading figures in documentary and educational cinema of the inter-war period, vigorously defended 17.5mm, saying in 1926:-

  “How can one not bow to the evidence? Should we forget that all progress is one more step towards an ideal? Pathe Rural uses a reduced film size (…) it therefore allows considerable economies, thanks to which the cinematograph may, in future, no longer be a privilege restricted to wealthy schools but be extended into small village schools; it would be ill-advised for anyone, for partisan reasons, to declare war on this development. Time will tell.

Some educationalists moreover had a much broader view of the possibilities offered by 17.5mm; far from restricting its use to rural areas, they saw this cheaper equipment as a way to broaden the use of cinema in education at all levels; they saw each classroom equipped with its own projector. At the annual meeting of the Committee on Cinema in Professional Education on 17th May 1927, Mr. Rebillon expressed himself on the subject in these terms:-

  “We consider each classroom should have a projector. But we know that the cost of 35mm equipment is prohibitive; no school, no educational society has been able hitherto regularly to use film, because they did not have the financial resources.. Anyone can work out the reduction on costs from the use of a reduced format, whether in terms of projectors or films”.

Commercial Launch

Despite various announcements about Pathe Rural, the actual launch took some time to happen. The delay was due to the need to produce equipment and purchase film rights for the 17.5mm catalogue. Pathe-Cinema also had to sort out with Pathe-Consortium-Cinema and Pathe-Baby some demarcation issues relating to exploitation of the new format.

In the end, it was not until the end of 1927, 15th November to be precise, that the commercial launch of 17.5mm took place. Jacques Pathe – nephew of Charles - was appointed Director of Pathe Rural; publicity in France and abroad was entrusted to Mr. Marette, the engineer responsible for developing the equipment, to Mr. Marin, Marette’s son-in-law and lastly Theophile Pathe. After some time spent setting up the organisation, actual trading began in January 1928.

Intended solely for non-commercial use, Pathe Rural material was available for purchase or rental. In the latter case, a deposit of 1,250 francs was required, with a weekly rental of 12.5 francs. This covered a projector, a rewinder with splicer, an empty spool, a three-metre mains lead and a special case for transporting the projector.

Each projector rental contract involved a commitment to a minimum of 12 complete film programmes. Each of these cost 100 francs and comprised 9 reels, with a total running time of 2.5 hours. The programmes comprised a feature, newsreels, a documentary, a comedy short and finally advertising footage. 17.5mm didn’t rely entirely on the Pathé catalogue for its material; rights were purchased from various other French and foreign producers. With each programme, a free illustrated poster was provided detailing the contents.

In France, the success of the new projector was immediate, and it rapidly gained a not insignificant place in the market. Nevertheless, the criticisms raised at the launch of 17.5mm continued to hold sway with certain educationalists and politicians. Charles Pathe himself did not hesitate to defend his invention, as witness his ”open letter” of 13th November 1927 to Mr Brenier, Senator for Isere, in response to one of the latter’s speeches in which he had condemned narrow gauge cinema.

In parallel, promotion of 17.5mm equipment continued. For example, it was presented – and attracted considerable attention by all accounts – at the second Educational Film Convention in La Haye, in May 1928.

Within ten months of the launch, some one thousand projectors had already been sold. The one thousandth Pathe Rural rental contract was formally celebrated on 29th October 1928; a demonstration was held for the benefit of the cinema press. Charles Pathe spoke in these terms on the occasion:-

  “Believe me, it took considerable industrial and financial effort to get to the figure of 1000 installations, which we see as payback for our work and sacrifices”.

 In fact 17.5mm had not brought a single franc of profit to the company at this stage; on the contrary, the operation was still well in the red, the company having lost about 200% on each rental contract signed so far for 17.5. But they weren’t about to give up, and built their hopes on the 10,000 projectors then under construction.

By October 1928, 60 weeks of complete programmes had been rolled out and a choice of 200 such programmes was available to users. The distribution network now comprised some 400 outlets across the country. Figures showed that in November 1928, 1200 small 17.5mm cinemas were operating in communities with less than 5000 inhabitants.

Promotion of 17.5mm was maintained by regular publicity campaigns in the cinema trade press. Advertising emphasised the value of the advantages of the new format as well as the extraordinary speed with which it was spreading.

Aside from publicity, Pathe decided to drop prices to encourage sales; projector rental cost was unchanged but the deposit was reduced to 1000 francs (from 1200), and the cost of film programmes was fixed by reference to the population of the community in question; 50 francs for less than 500 inhabitants, 70 francs between 500 and 1200 and 80 francs for populations over 1200..

At the end of three years of commercial exploitation, 3000 17.5mm installations were reckoned to be in operation. This figure rose to 4000 in 1930. It was only from 1931 that 17.5mm began to deliver profits; according to Charles Pathe, 17.5mm operations brought in more than 15 million francs in net profits.

Pathe Rural Publications

During these years, various publications were prepared for 17.5mm users. So from July 1928, a manual covering the operation and maintenance of the projection equipment could be had; it was entitled To Pathe Rural Users, some practical advice. This booklet of some 50 pages contained little in the way of text, to allow space for numerous illustrations designed to explain as clearly as possible the handling of the apparatus. Also to be found was advice on the care of films and how to repair them.

A catalogue of films available on 17.5mm was issued regularly to help users in the choice of programmes. This initially comprised Pathé productions, either educational films from the Pathé Educational Library or fiction films intended for general release. The catalogue was however enriched by some well-known feature films from other French companies. (?)

Pathé also negotiated rights with American film companies and UFA in Berlin. In a 1991 article, Claude Baylie reported on a special showing of Pathé Rural material with a number of 17.5mm films. Among the foreign films, he reported a Disney cartoon and The Sea Beast (Jim le harponneur was the French title) by Millard Webb, produced by Warner Bros.

In 1931, a monthly magazine was launched for Pathe Rural users, called Cinema Everywhere for Everyone. (Le Cinéma Partout et Pour Tous). It contained advertising for various Pathe products, details of new 17.5mm programmes as they were launched, but also advice to projector users. This might be advice on the use and maintenance of the projector, the organisation of shows or perhaps on completion of returns to the tax authorities.

17.5mm Pathé cine camera

This magazine was used to support advertising of the 17.5mm camera introduced by Pathé. Up to that time, users had not been able to film on 17.5mm themselves; amateur cinema remained the province of Pathé-Baby. The Motocamera was intended for the professional user rather than the general public; it was promoted as a means of making local news films for incorporation into rented film programmes.

The Scope of 17.5 Use

The Pathé Rural launch had focussed on what were called “minor sites”; that is to say shows run at irregular intervals, either in a special room or perhaps in the largest café in the village or even a room in the Town Hall. Increasingly, some cinema proprietors had also set themselves up as promoters of such minor sites; by doing this themselves in the villages close to their established cinema, they hoped to avert the risk of competition from others doing it instead. The proprietor of the cinema in Coulommiers wrote in French Cinematography at the end of 1928, encouraging his fellow proprietors to follow his example:-

  “In the face of this threat, I myself set up the Pathé Rural unit in the village, preferring to be my own competitor. Since then, I have set up a 17.5mm unit in each village within a 15 kilometre radius.  (…) I want to warn you of the risk you run if you don’t follow my example and set up Pathé Rural units in centres of population surrounding your main site. At some time or another, and much sooner than you think, you will see an upsurge of such units which will become your direct competitors and will easily attract audiences who would otherwise have to travel 8-10 kilometres to get to your cinema”.

Numerous contemporary accounts by rural 17.5mm operators and audience members help us to understand today how shows were organised and how they were received in the countryside. Here by way of example are some extracts from a statement by a cinema proprietor from a small village, reported in the magazine Le Cineopse in June 1929:-

  “I have had one point in my favour, I have dared to do what many around me thought mad. As you know, in the countryside, new initiatives are always regarded with suspicion. The cinema, I was told, is fine in towns but it won’t catch on where you are and you’ll end up out of pocket. (…) I put on two shows a week, Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. (…) You should have seen those good people and how grateful they were. (…) In any event, one thing is for sure, now they have had a taste of the cinema thanks to 17.5mm, people round here won’t be able to do without it. They’d feel too cut off and bored”.

17.5 and Religion

Always eager to increase their market, Pathé made an early bid for the religious (Catholic) film market. They undertook the preparation of expurgated versions of the films in their catalogue, from which all elements likely to offend Catholic morality would be eliminated. This exercise was in response to the strict requirements of the Catholic hierarchy. Here by way of example is the response of Abbé Leclerc to proposals from Pathé:-

  “Your films may be shown in our halls (with the exception of those which are contrary to religious doctrine) on one condition. You must remove, so far as the picture is concerned, all nudity, all low-cut dresses and all bold gestures; so far as the sound is concerned, all swear words, expressions and conversations that are saucy, immoral or overly impassioned”.

Pathé therefore set up teams of priests to carry out systematic censorship of all the films likely to be viewed by Catholic groups. Canon Reymond, Director of the Catholic Cinema Committee was associated with this operation, in which he was a prime mover. The committee undertook the publication, in Cinema Files, of lists of film programmes approved by the censors.

The Challenge of the Economic Crisis
and Talking Pictures

Altough Pathé Rural experienced considerable growth, 17.5mm met some significant problems. The economic crisis, which affected France from 1931, hit hardest precisely those small enterprises that constituted the Pathé Rural client base; those which, even at the start, had had very limited resources to develop their cinema activities. During the thirties, therefore, Pathe faced numerous bad debts.

Moreover, by the end of the twenties, Pathé Rural had to face the arrival of the Talkies; the public were agog to see this new dimension to the spectacle of the cinema, and the silent film rapidly came to seem out-moded. To keep any sort of market for narrow gauge cinema, companies would have to find a way to introduce sound.

The arrival of a 17.5mm talkie projector was announced in January 1931 in the pages of Cineopse. A little premature because, despite the optimism expressed in this report was running ahead of actual technical achievement. It was not until mid-1932 that a prototype 17.5mm talkie projector was finalised, but still before the Yanks had got there with 16mm.

In this machine, a sound reader was added after the film gate and the amplifier formed the base. A single 12 volt lamp served as both projection and exciter lamp. The projector sat on a stand 88cm high. Total weight was about 36 kgs.

As to the film itself, the biggest problem, apart from the limited space available for a sound track, was the slow linear speed of the film past the sound head, risking the loss of the higher frequencies. The solution adopted was to keep the sound track the same width as the standard 35mm track. The quality of sound would thus be the same as with 35mm. (?) The sound track replaced one row of perforations, which involved a slight reduction in picture width to 11.3mm (from 13.5mm is not that slight – translator). To prevent the unequal pull on the film causing rapid deterioration of prints, an appropriate film transport mechanism was added to the projector. (???) The machine could be used for either sound or silent film.

The Pathé Natan company engaged in large scale production of projectors and sound programmes. Educationalists once more expressed their hopes for the new possibilities now offered by 17.5mm:-

  “Thanks to the sound films which Pathé Rural will henceforth to a standard equal to the most expensive equipment, people in the countryside and pupils in our rural schools will be able to benefit from the full spectacle of picture united with sound. Let us give thanks to Mr Natan for having brought to the countryside the gift of such an instrument of social renewal”.

The new projector was displayed at an exhibition organised on the occasion of the Educational Film Congress in Berlin, in October 1932 and made a great impression on all who saw it.

  “The success of this machine, which is well known to our readers, was so considerable that the distinguished representative of Pathé Natan, Mr. Alberg, was asked to mount a special demonstration for UFA in the presence of Mr Klitsch, Director general, and Directors Maydam, Lehman etc”.

At the beginning of 1933, by which time some 5000 17.5mm units were operating in France, the new machine was launched onto the market. It was dubbed the Pathe Junior, and sold at 12000 francs. Publicity blurbs called it “the cheapest, simplest lightest, and least cumbersome sound equipment available”.

The 17.5mm sound library grew only slowly. Some 50 films were issued annually. By October 1934, 1500 sound machines had been installed in France, and some 100 talkie programmes were available. Georges Rouvier was in charge of film distribution and projector sales.

Meanwhile, back in 1933 and in parallel with the launch of the Pathé Junior, the Natan company had sought to enlarge the 17.5mm market by moving into amateur cine, something not originally envisaged. Hence the launch of the Pathé Natan 175 sound projector. The predominant format in the amateur sector was 9.5mm, which had yet to introduce sound. It was therefore in response to demand from amateurs no longer satisfied with silent film that this new projector was launched.

The apparatus comprised two small cases, one containing the speaker and the other the amplifier and projector. Total weight was a mere 18 kgs and the price was 6000 francs. At the same time, a 17.5mm camera was offered at 650 francs to amateurs wanting to make their own films.

The low price was tailored to the target market; those who could not, for financial reasons, contemplate the acquisition of a sound projector; not just amateurs but also the very small operators or educational establishments who likewise had very limited means. The Pathe Junior was aimed at audiences of 250 to 500, the Natan 175 was more suited to audiences under 200.

A publicity campaign accompanied the launch of the Natan 175, both in the specialist press and in the programmes sold and rented by Pathé Rural. Pathe’s major film star, Renee Saint-Cyr, was featured in the campaign; pictures showed her using the projector and singing its praises.

17.5mm Pathé Natan 175 talkie projector

In January 1934, there were already more than 1100 Pathé Junior or Natan 175 machines operating in metropolitan France. There were moreover some 50 in Belgium and 60 in Algeria.

The Gauge Wars

If Pathé had responded successfully to the challenge of sound, Pathé Rural had greater difficulty in facing up to the increasing competition from 16mm, which was being vigorously promoted by American companies. In launching their new format, Pathé had hoped that the bulk of the market would fall in with the standard they were putting forward.

  “The promoters of this new film gauge are not seeking a monopoly, but rather hope that its adoption by competitors will greatly increase production and market penetration, to the profit of the whole film industry; they therefore hope that 17.5mm will soon be adopted as a standard.

Despite these hopes, 16mm was increasingly asserting its presence in the market. The two formats were not content to co-exist, but embarked on a veritable economic war for the conquest of international markets. The world found itself divided into two opposing camps, those who had adopted 16mm and those who preferred 17.5mm. In 1933, the German company Agfa fell into line with the Americans and took their side in the battle against the rival format.

Beyond the fight between these two formats, it should be made clear that other formats did appear on the market from time to time, such as 22mm or 28.5mm. However, the need to introduce some standardisation of film formats had long been pressed by those active in education and training; they considered it essential to the proper development of educational cinema and to better film distribution. In 1928, Mr. Barrier, a Government Inspector, issued a report on this topic:-

  “It will be necessary, for the same reasons that led to the adoption of the 35mm film standard, for narrow gauge films to be standardised too”.

Moreover, at the beginning of the Thirties, many countries with no film industry of their own were waiting for international standards to be agreed before instituting their own national programme s to introduce cinema into schools. But the economic damage any decision would cause to one or other of the two rival camps caused delay in the adoption of any international standard.

Already, in May 1931, the issue of standardisation of narrow gauge formats had been aired at the third International Instructional Film Congress in Vienna. The great majority of the delegates wanted an immediate decision in favour of 16mm. It was only the impassioned intervention of the French delegation that finally convinced the Congress to defer a decision; The French argued that such a conference should not use its moral authority to support sectional interests. Following the Congress, efforts were mobilised in France to defend 17.5mm and Pathé Rural, not hesitating to call on the support of nationalist sentiment:-

  “Every effort must be bent to the adoption of 17.5mm, the French format and, let us not forget, the first in the world to appear, by means of splitting 35mm in half”.

It was during the International Conference of Educational and Instructional Cinema, hosted in Rome in April 1934 by the International Institute of Educational Cinema, that the first steps towards speeding up the standardisation process were taken. The conference adopted the following Resolution:-

  “The Fifth Technical Committee formally adopts the view that a standard for narrow gauge film should be adopted as soon as possible. In consideration of the fact that this standardisation will have very serious economic consequences, the Committee proposes that, by whatever means seem to it most appropriate, the International Institute of Educational Cinema should take the lead in ensuring a definitive decision is taken by 1st August 1934.  The Committee recommends the convening of a sub-Committee specifically to deal with this issue, comprising representatives of users, technical experts and producers. In order to avoid complicating the current situation yet further, the Committee calls on governments and educational administrators to avoid any measures tending to favour one format or the other before 1st August 1934”.

The necessary meeting was arranged for 28th May 1934 at Baden-Baden. This brought together ten delegates (two representing each of the five countries directly affected, Germany, the UK, The USA, France and Italy). Bernard Natan himself represented his company’s interests. At the end of the discussions, he agreed to abandon his former position and to accept the change of format, subject to compensation from the American and German industries. An agreement in principle was therefore reached by which 16mm was recognised as the international substandard gauge format.

  “The Conference is pleased to record a unanimous decision to adopt a single format. The implementation of this agreement will be subject to further negotiations”.

According to Luciano de Feo, Director of the International Institute for Educational Cinema, who had himself chaired the discussions at Baden-Baden, the victory of 16mm over 17.5mm was won purely on technical grounds; at the beginning, indeed, Pathé’s legitimacy in the vast field of educational cinema had seemed to him almost natural:-

  “This development was guided by a great company, Pathé, which has unquestionably secured considerable standing in the world of education and training and has, indeed, been a pioneer in this field. It can justifiably be said that, if the importance of the technical considerations put forward by Pathé had not been recognised by all concerned, the issue of standardisation of the narrow gauge format would not have presented itself so acutely, nor would it have required an international solution; it would have resolved itself”.

The technical superiority of 16mm was never recognised by the French. They considered moreover that 16mm had carried the day by the incessant publicity it received, having been systematically promoted at every exhibition and cinema event throughout the world. Mr. Blemmec wrote about this in the following terms, in January 1933:-

  “Commercially speaking, 16mm has advantages; launched with relentless publicity, enjoying a monopoly in America and having conquered most of Europe, it has become deeply entrenched despite its manifest inferiority as a format by comparison with 17.5mm”.

After the defeat of 17.5mm, some bitterness was expressed by some of the gauge’s defenders, for instance G. Michel Coissac; “No doubt the German Press are crowing over their victory and make no bones about writing that France and her 17.5 gauge has been defeated”.

Despite the absence after the 1934 discussions of an official document formally declaring 16mm the narrow gauge standard format, Agfa and Kodak continued to gain ground on 17.5mm. In France, too, some groups lined up on the 16mm side. For example, in a statement which drew vigorous protests from the defenders of 17.5, The French Training League made public its intentions on the format issue at the beginning of 1935:-

  “1.We are not prepared to accept the status quo, that is to say, the current anarchy that paralyses all progress in the field of educational and training cinema. (…) 2.We are not in favour of 17.5mm (…) because it is the sole province of a single company which aims at establishing a veritable monopoly in schools and the post school arena. (…) 3. We recommend the adoption of a single, standardised 16mm format, because – while delivering equal quality and performance, it leaves the field open to all competitors”.

Subsequently, the Education Ministry finally settled the issue; a Circular of 8th October 1935 announced that grants would thereafter be available only for the acquisition of 16mm or 35mm equipment.

But Pathé Natan didn’t give up. At the beginning of 1936, the company launched a publicity campaign with the following message: “Before buying a cine projector, ask yourself these questions...How many similar models are already in use? How many film programmes are already available or in preparation for your chosen format?” and went on to boast of the widespread use of 17.5mm in French territory…But despite their efforts, 1936 was a year of resounding defeat for the company. This was underlined by the agreement – now official and final – signed at the Congress of Budapest in October of that year; all the countries represented undertook to no longer recognise or produce films other than on 16mm.

Accepting that the 16mm tide was becoming irreversible, Pathé Natan announced a 16mm projector in 1937, the Super-Pathé. They also took the decision to reduce to 16mm format the more interesting films from the Pathé Rural library.

  “Anyone who knows the range and diversity of the Pathé-Cinema catalogue will welcome the generosity of spirit shown by our great company, always concerned to serve French cinema”.

17.5mm Pathé Super Rural talkie projector

Despite everything, a new 17.5 mm projector was launched at the end of 1937, the Super Rural. This was an improved machine designed to be suitable for audiences of up to 1000. And in succeeding years, the 5000 Pathé Rural machines already in use continued to operate with the existing stock of 17.5mm films.

In the end, it was the German Occupation that brought the final disappearance of 17.5mm; on 21st June 1941, the Germans decreed that only 16mm was allowed; 17.5mm projectors had to be disposed of or converted. At the Liberation, film education took up 16mm, then universally adopted.

Translation ©Martyn Stevens, UK - December 2002


RETURN TO: 17.5MM MENU ........ MAIN MENU


Last updated 27 Dec 2014 ..................... 175frtrans.htm ................................. ©MM2 Martyn Stevens