NEW YORK — CINEMA is the youngest of the arts, still a little shy of its 100th anniversary - if ones dates it, as most scholars do, from the day in 1895 when Louis and August Lumiere hung a screen in a Paris cafe and projected a few brief documentaries for the first movie audience in history.
Gaumont is the oldest of the studios, also approaching the end of its first century - which began when French entrepreneur Leon Gaumont, inspired by the Lumiere brothers and Thomas Edison, turned his newly purchased photography-supply company to the making and marketing of motion pictures.
The company he started is still going strong. Fittingly, it is celebrating its 100-year mark with a wide-ranging retrospective set to tour the United States and Canada throughout 1994 before returning to France in 1995.
Like any first-rate retrospective, ``Gaumont Presents: A Century of French Cinema'' has surprises as well as favorites and standbys. Perhaps the most refreshing surprise is the rediscovery of Alice Guy-Blache, the first woman to work as a movie producer and director.
Her filmmaking activities started in 1896, when the medium had only been invented for about a year. Just a decade later - more than 20 years before ``The Jazz Singer'' made talkies a commercial reality - she boldly attempted to integrate sound and cinema, filming dozens of short musical pictures with popular singers and orchestras.
By featuring her innovative career in its centennial series, Gaumont honors not only Guy-Blache, but also all the women - most of them overlooked and undervalued - who have contributed to the growth of cinema despite its longtime status as a male-dominated endeavor.
Since the history of Gaumont has been almost as varied as the history of French cinema in general, its 100-year celebration is less a unified event than a potpourri of highlights, some linked by common elements and others noteworthy for their differences.
Its silent offerings are grouped into 16 categories, ranging from ``Early Realism'' and ``Emile Cohl: The Animated Screen'' to ``Comedy of the Absurd'' and ``After the Great War: New Talents.'' Sound pictures include major works by cineastes as diverse as the innovative Jean Vigo, the philosophical Robert Bresson, the literary Eric Rohmer, and the irrepressible Jean-Luc Godard, plus such non-French filmmakers as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Ettore Scola, who drew support from Gaumont for ambitious projects.
Amid such variety, is it possible to characterize Gaumont filmmaking in a single statement?
``It's not as possible as with American studios during certain periods,'' says Laurence Kardish of the Museum of Modern Art, who served on the selection committee.
``What can be said is that Gaumont always seems to be involved with both popular filmmaking and the cinema d'auteur with more serious goals. Both tendencies have coexisted at Gaumont,'' he says.
The retrospective provides ample proof of Gaumont's love for mass-audience entertainment. The lineup includes such international favorites as ``The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe'' and ``Cousin Cousine,'' and the closing attraction is Luc Besson's thriller ``La Femme Nikita,'' a phenomenal box-office success.
Yet high art surges through the program, too - in opera films, for example, from Joseph Losey's elegant ``Don Giovanni'' to Hans-Jurgen Syberberg's entrancing ``Parsifal,'' and in such masterpieces of film aesthetics as Carl Theodor Dreyer's wrenching ``The Passion of Joan of Arc'' and Jean Vigo's anarchic ``Zero for Conduct.''
The two faces of Gaumont continue to coexist in its current activity. On the popular side, the studio's recent undertakings include French distribution of Mel Brooks's latest farce and development of a new picture by the makers of ``Les Visiteurs,'' a popular comedy. At the same time, Gaumont has produced ``J-L G par J-L G,'' a just-completed film by Godard, perhaps the most challenging, experimental, and ornery director in European cinema today. ``A project like this would be unthinkable for an American studio,'' Mr. Kardish says.
Gaumont has gone through many changes during its first century in business, reorganizing and reconstituting itself more than once, yet always maintaining the Gaumont name and managing to produce at least a film or two during even its most difficult years. In the mid-1990s, its schedule is busy and its self-image is proud.
I spoke recently with Gaumont president Nicolas Seydoux, who reminded me that the series would begin with ``Un deux trois soleil,'' a new movie by Bertrand Blier, whose ``Going Places'' and ``Get Out Your Handkerchiefs'' have been highly controversial with audiences.
Not being a strong admirer of Blier's work, I skeptically replied that I find Blier a provocative filmmaker, nothing more - and waited to hear how the chief of Gaumont would take my less-than-enthusiastic comment.
The answer came in a second.
``Then this film will provoke you!'' he said with a cheery smile - demonstrating again that the Gaumont company loves nothing more than a lively, even scrappy, dialogue with moviegoers around the world.