Friday, June 08, 2018

'Napoleon' in Manhattan

Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow in 1967
A few years ago, a chat with a master projection booth technician I met brought to mind a unique movie-watching experience. The conversation was with Chapin Cutler; we were talking about old movie houses when he told me that 40-some years ago he had worked in the booth at the old Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge. 

In my early days as manager at the Biograph I had a few telephone conversations with the manager of that famous movie theater (I don‘t recall his name). Occasionally I talked with my counterparts at repertory cinemas/art houses in other cities about shipping prints back and forth, etc. The Orson Welles (1969-86) was known then as quite a trend-setter.

Cutler also said he was working in the booth at Radio City Music Hall when I saw Abel Gance‘s “Napoleon” on October 24, 1981. He told me he had supervised the installation of the synchronized three-projector system it took to present Gance’s restored 1927 masterpiece. It was no easy task to present it a fashion faithful to what Gance had called “polyvision,” which entailed split screen images and other effects, including some splashes of color.

The restoration of the film was a great story, itself. It had been a 20-year project supervised by film historian Kevin Brownlow. Then the film, which had been released over the years at various lengths over the years, was edited into to a four-hour version by Francis Ford Coppola, whose company, American Zoetrope, released it.

Just as the French filmmaker had originally envisioned, a live orchestra accompanied the silent film. The new score was written by Carmine Coppola, father of Francis Ford Coppola. The power that music added to the overall experience would be difficult to overstate.

Throughout the 1920s Abel Gance had been seen as a great innovator, a visionary, even a genius. Then came the mammoth production, “Napoleon,” and its abysmal failure at the box office. In 1927 it cost a theater a lot of money to install all the equipment it took to present it properly, with three projectors working in unison. Because few theaters opted to install such a system for one film the first run engagements were limited. Talkies soon came along and silent movies, no matter how avant-garde, were shelved.

Although Gance kept working on film-making projects, he sometimes spiraled into dark periods of despair. There was a point when he was said to have burned some of the footage from his original cut of “Napoleon.” Who knows what its true running time ought to be? I’ve read accounts that suggest Gance wanted it to run nine hours. And, maybe he wanted to make sequels.

Eventually, Gance became somewhat obsessed with re-editing “Napoleon,” perpetually, trying to transform some version of it into an important film that could be seen and appreciated by a wide audience. Some observers considered him to be a washed up crackpot and anything but a good risk.

To get to Manhattan I drove to D.C. and took the train to New York. During the Metroliner trip from Union Station to Penn Station I read several Charles Bukowski stories from a paperback edition of “Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness.” It had been purchased at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco eight months earlier that year, but I hadn't read much of it since the flight home.

Reading several of Bukowski’s tight, briefly-told tales back-to-back on a fast-moving train really knocked me out. The feeling I had about the story called “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town,” is still easy to conjure up.

To top it off, the whole trip was part of a business project. My Biograph bosses in Georgetown wanted me to assess the commercial potential for “Napoleon” for smaller markets in the mid-Atlantic region, because they were considering a bold move to become a sub-distributor of the film. So I was traveling on other people’s money!

Then, during my walk from the hotel to the theater, bad luck flung a cinder into my eye. When the movie started I couldn’t watch it, because I couldn’t get the damn thing out of my eye. It felt like a sharp-edged boulder. Since my mission was to WATCH the movie I had to do something, so I went out to the lobby.

Corny as it sounds I asked the first Radio City Music Hall employee I encountered if there was a doctor in the house.

The answer was, “Yes.”

Hey this was Manhattan. Of course there was a doctor on duty to take care of medical emergencies and yes, to flush blinding cinders out of the patrons’ eyes; although the cinder had packed quite a punch, the thing actually weighed less than a pound. Back in the auditorium, the movie was spectacular.

I left the theater overwhelmed and returned to Richmond more than a little enthusiastic about the possibility of being associated with screening the same movie at the Mosque in Richmond and in other large theaters with orchestra pits in the region. 

Unfortunately, the notion of playing Gance’s greatest film in cities all over the country, accompanied by live orchestras, withered and died. When it went into general release the sound was put on the film in a conventional way. CinemaScope was used to show the triptych effect. 

So the deal my bosses had in mind never materialized. Still, the new four-hour version of “Napoleon” did run at the Biograph in February of 1983, to mark the theater’s 11th anniversary.
It was still impressive, but not at all what it had been like at my viewing in Manhattan. At least I got to see the part I had missed before.

Abel Gance died at the age of 92. He lived just long enough to see his reputation as a great filmmaker totally rehabilitated. His death came just three weeks after I saw “Napoleon,” during the run promoted in the 1-sheet above. At the time of his death in 1981, once again, critics were calling Gance a genius. Which provides a happy ending to this meandering story.

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