I recently spent two consecutive Saturdays in a sort of time machine, living the silent movie experience of 1927 — what seemed back then to be its culmination, but was in fact a final blaze of glory before the whole structure collapsed under the onslaught of talking pictures. The first Saturday (on March 31) was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I never expect to repeat, but the second (on April 7) was one I can recreate for myself any time I want — and so can you.
Seeing Abel Gance’s Napoleon as it was meant to be seen — with a live symphonic accompaniment and its climactic three-panel “Polyvision” seqence, including this Tricolor tryptych — truly is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I’ve been lucky; I’ve seen it three times. The first time was Bastille Day (July 14) 1981, when just about everybody who was anybody in Hollywood — plus a hefty contingent of nobodies like me — crammed the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles to see Gance’s masterpiece and to hear Francis Ford Coppola’s father Carmine conduct his own score. That engagement was such a thundering triumph that Napoleon and Coppola pere returned to the Shrine for nine days in December and January ’82, and I saw it again.
The great Kevin Brownlow — on top of everything else he’s done — has made the restoration of Gance’s picture a lifelong project, ever since he first bought two 9.5mm reels as a teenager in the 1950s. His efforts have been tireless and positively superhuman. In his 1983 book on the subject he lists no fewer than 19 different versions of Napoleon, beginning with its April 1927 premiere at the Paris Opera (4 hours 5 minutes) and Gance’s so-called “definitive version” (9 hours 20 minutes) shown twice only the following month — through various re-edits and reissues, right down to Brownlow’s own 1983 reconstruction for the Cinematheque Francaise (5 hours 13 minutes). But Brownlow didn’t stop there; additional footage has continued to surface from time to time in the nearly 30 years since his book. The version screened in Oakland was assembled by Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury in 2000 for the British Film Institute and has never been shown outside Europe; these four screenings were the first in the U.S., and no others are contemplated. With the expense and time involved in hiring and rehearsing a live orchestra (to say nothing of, in the SFSFF’s case, bringing composer Carl Davis over to conduct the score in person), plus the technical demands of three synchronized projectors, Napoleon is insanely expensive to present. The San Francisco Festival’s efforts in this regard were heroic to the point of foolhardiness: it cost more than their entire budget for a normal year, and even if they sold every one of the Paramount’s 3,100 seats (at $40-150 a pop), they would only break even. (They sold out, sure enough, at the screening I saw; I can’t speak for the other three. I stuffed some extra cash in the Festival’s donation jar in the lobby, saying, “It’s a noble thing you people are doing, and I know you’re taking a bath on it.” The attendant smiled and shrugged: “It’s the mission of the festival.”)
Well, God bless ’em for it.
Gance regarded Napoleon as a tragic hero, and he planned a biography in six installments that would take his protagonist from his early revolutionary fervor and triumph through growing tyranny and megalomania to final downfall. But the best-laid plans, you know: Gance blew his budget for all six pictures on the first one, and the rest were never made. Probably just as well in the long run; it makes it possible for the one he did make to end on an exultant note, with the conquest — oops! “revolutionary liberation” — of Italy. But it matters little whether or not you accept Gance’s historical analysis (personally, I don’t; I think Bonaparte was pretty much a Megalomaniac in Waiting from the word go, biding his time while the thugs and jackals of the Reign of Terror lopped each other’s heads off); Napoleon is still a sensual and emotional feast that makes the word “movie” sound too puny to contain it. Seeing it the way we saw it in Oakland was a rare privilege, and I’m telling you right now: If you ever hear of this picture coming to anyplace within a thousand miles of you, do not let this golden opportunity slip by, and do not imagine that it will ever come again. Hop a plane, book a hotel, rent a car, do whatever it takes.
I’ll close this half of the post with a YouTube clip of the Napoleon trailer prepared for the SFSFF. Be sure to take it full-screen; it’ll give you (just barely) an inkling.
My sister-in-law mentioned a while back that
she was embarking on a project to see all the
Oscar-winners for best picture that she hadn’t
managed to catch up with over the years. First
on her list, naturally enough, was Wings —
the first (and until this year the only) silent
movie to win the Oscar for best picture.
(Strictly speaking, that’s not exactly true. There
was no actual “best picture” category that first
year; what Wings won was “best production”.
There was also “artistic quality of production”,
which went to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. So in
a sense you could say that that year — for
the only time — there were really two best
pictures. Frankly, I think this production/
might be worth bringing back.)
Anyhow, back to my sister-in-law’s see-all-
the-best-pictures project. It so happened
that I had just gotten the new Blu-ray
restoration of Wings and had been looking
for an excuse to host a screening of it. I
urged her not to settle for Wings from
Netflix. I learned last year at the
Kansas Silent Film Festival that to see
Wings on home video is one thing, but
to see it projected on a large screen is to
understand at last why it won the Oscar
(something it has in common with both
Lawrence of Arabia and Oliver!). I
suggested she wait until I could screen
it for her and my brother, she agreed,
and the date we settled on was April 7.
Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide gives Wings two-and-a-half stars, saying: “One of the most famous silent films is, alas, not one of the best, despite rose-colored memories.” I say it’s Leonard who needs a memory check; Wings is a whopping piece of entertainment, and it set the template for Oscar-winning best pictures, with only rare (and usually regrettable) exceptions, from that day to this: well-crafted crowd-pleasers rather than groundbreaking works of art.