Friday, September 26, 2008

Son of Silent Scream Series: "Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody."

I'm considering Fridays as part of the weekend. And you know what that means . . .

Greetings, Screamers and Screamettes. This year we start our tour of silent horror landmarks with Abel Gance's 1923 two-reel horror comedy Au secours! (known in English under both the literal translation Help! and the more thematic Haunted House).

Help! is a light, visually inventive piece that was shot by Gance partially for the purpose of proving to worried money men that his reputation for artistic innovation and personal unreliability did not necessarily mean that he was a financial risk. Despite Franc's enduring reputation for cultural superiority, the ups and downs of Gance's career are sad testament to the fact that the movie biz capitalists of France are as quick as any Hollywood buck hustler to screw over an underperforming genius.

Gance got his start in the dirty business of making dreams at the age of 19 when landed a couple of acting gigs. He quickly made the leap to the other side of the camera, though none of his earliest films survive. The earliest Gance film that still exists is the 1915 comedy The Joke of Doctor Tube, a goofy, technologically innovative, effects-driven piece about a mad scientist who zaps various people and things with a space-distorting ray. Gance's surprising follow up to what was essentially a madcap series of visual gags was The Torture of Silence (1917), a grim and tragic story of a love triangle that ends in suicide. Despite its unremittingly downbeat tone, critics and audiences flocked to The Torture of Silence and made it the blockbuster flick of the year. The film turned Gance in a hit-making machine. He cranked out two more big hits in 1917 and another blockbuster in 1918.

In 1918 Gance was drafted and sent to the frontlines of World War I. He was exposed to chemical weapons, nearly killed, and sent back home a physical wreck. The experience politicized Gance and his next flick was I Accuse, a savage anti-war film that reworked the love triangle premise of his first big hit into a Great War tragedy. The flick was an international hit. Flexing the power his unprecedented international popularity gave him, Gance launched into La Roue, an epic melodrama. Gance spent nearly three years shooting what amounted to literally millions of meters of film for the project. Then, before he could complete the flick, Gance's wife died of TB and the world-renowned director simply walked of the set. Financial backers were left with an eight-hour long rough cut and an absent auteur. After a four-month unscheduled vacation, Gance sauntered back to France and finally finished the film, but much of his capital with the French film industry had been squandered.

This brings us to Help!. Eager to show that he could still pack ticket-buyers into theaters, Gance returned to the short film format. Plot-wise, Help! is firmly in genre territory. Co-written with lead actor Max Linder, Help! centers around a classic premise: Max, a reputedly fearless man, is bet that he cannot spend one hour – from 11:00 to midnight – in a haunted house without calling out for help. What follows the necessary exposition is nothing short of a crazed, comical, and surreal showcase of silent era special effects. Set design, costume design, and various visual tricks all combine to make something that, in a later era, might be best described as "trippy." Humorously, Max remains by the unfazed by the cavalcade of passing phantoms (and what amounts to a small zoo's worth of various wild beasts). But before he can declare victory, he receives a chilling phone call that provides the film with a final surprise.

In a way, the film is a throwback to what scholars of early cinema describe as "cinema of the spectacle:" a mode of filmmaking that emphasizes the gee-whiz capabilities of the medium over its ability to render narratives. After establishing himself as the vanguard of modern cinema, Help! is Gance's opportunity to look back to his roots. It's a love letter to pioneer filmmakers like Georges Méliès. The plot is also a grab bag of pop influences. The "haunted house bet" idea was already a bit of chestnut when Linder and Gance picked it up. The literally phoned-in twist at the end is itself borrowed from a then popular short dramatic piece called "On the Telephone," produced by none other than Grand Guignol theater of Paris. Still, there's something pleasing in watching such over-qualified artists tackle the material without condescension or the sense that they are somehow slumming it. In fact, like Gance, Max Linder came to the film with something to prove. Once a major star in France, Linder was limping back to France after a disastrous bid to break into the American market. He needed this as a comeback. There's a sense that both the director and lead are determined to find the most entertaining material they can and put it over like world-class showmen. This sense of giddy fun communicates easily to the audience. Help! was a hit in 1923 and it is still a great little slice of genre fun now.

Sadly, it didn't save either Gance or Linder from their self-destructive tendencies. Linder never regained his status as a major star and, in 1925 on Halloween, he killed his wife and then himself in a suicide pact. Gance, thinking he'd once again proven his worth to the movie biz, launched on another epic: Napoleon, a nearly eight-hour long cinema event that consisted of three movies shown simultaneously on three large side-by-side screens. Though critically lauded, it was a financial disaster – it could only be shown in venues specifically designed for the film and, even then, there could be only one showing a day. Now considered Gance's masterpiece, the film was cut and recut until it existed mainly as scraps in stock-footage archives. Undeterred, Gance start shooting a second three-screen epic: The End of the World, a sci-fi flick about a comet that smashes into the Earth. Fed up, financiers pulled the plug on Gance before he could do any more damage. For the next 40 years, producers kept Gance on a short leash. Though he continued to make flicks into the 1960s, conventional wisdom is that he repeatedly checked his own talent to suit the mostly on-spec jobs he was given. At the end of his career, he turned in on himself, creating fragmentary recuts of his old masterpieces.

In 1971, Francis Ford Coppola and Kevin Brownlow released a major restoration of Gance's long-abused Napoleon. Brownlow had been collecting "lost" fragments of the film since 1954. The new print restored the 1927 in its entirety. Gance heard about the restoration and was pleased, but he never his classic whole again. He died in 1981 at the age of 92.

Gance's Help! and The Joke of Doctor Tube are available on the out-of-print Image Entertainment edition of Gance's 1935 Lucrezia Borgia. Though used copies of the disc will run you nearly $70, you can find the DVD on Netflix.


Anonymous said...

I'm not really all that familiar with Abel Gance's work, but I do know him from NAPOLEON and was lucky enough to catch a screening of that film years ago with a live orchestra.

This silent film of his sounds incredibly cool!

It's interesting to read how successful some of Gance's films were, but it's depressing to think about all these successful filmmakers who many people aren't aware of or will disappear from mainstream memory over time.
For instance, I feel like contemporary horror audiences really have no clue as to who Alfred Hitchcock is.
Part of me is just feeling old, especially when I hear stories from my wife, who teaches high school English, and she tells me how RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is some old classic to her students, in the way that only old black and white movies used to have that reputation.
So, yeah, that makes me feel old, but also a little melancholy as these old filmmakers fade away without any appreciation.
So, I guess I'm saying, thanks for checking these things out and bringing it to our attention.

CRwM said...

Thanks for stopping by, amigo.

Watching the stats, I've noticed that talking about silent era horror kills the readership numbers. I guess few horror fans want to hear about it.

Still, I'm glad you're digging it. I've always found these silent era guys inspirational. It's one thing to make great horror movies. These guys made fascinating films while, at the same time, they were inventing the syntax of the medium. Next time some horror director is credited with good editing, just think that these guys were busy inventing editing!