Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Considering Abel Gance

In 1968, the BBC televised a remarkable documentary about the French director Abel Gance. The film was Abel Gance: The Charm of Dynamite, by the English film historian and film maker Kevin Brownlow.

Brownlow's documentary is exceptional in many ways. One of its notable aspects is the footage of Gance himself - from the mid-1960's when the director visited England upon the occasion of the showing of his films, and earlier from the 1920's during the making of his masterpiece, Napoleon. That film, today, is considered one of the greatest of all time.

However, it wasn't always so - just as Abel's Gance's reputation wasn't always fixed. As Brownlow notes in the documentary, "For Gance, recognition came ridiculously late. Most people in the industry had forgotten his existence for 30 years. For 12 of them, he could find no work what-so-ever in the cinema. . . . Since the end of the silent era, the man who had taken the cinema further than any director except D.W. Griffith had been forced to sit down and wait for everyone else to catch up."

On Saturday, December 12th at 2:00 pm, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screens the other Abel Gance masterpiece, J'Accuse (1919). While not the monumental tour-de-force that is Napoleon (1927), J'Accuse is still a truly remarkable film. Saturday's showing at the Castro Theatre should not to be missed.

Like Gance's reputation, J'Accuse has traveled a tumultuous path to its current high standing in film history. Gance's film is a pacifist epic set against the backdrop of World War I - or the"Great War" as it was then termed, delineating the tragedy of that it's waste and carnage.

At the time of its release, J'Accuse established Gance (then only 29 years old) as the most important director in Europe. Though a huge hit in France (and in England, where it was also well received), the film was truncated at the time of its American release in order to blunt its powerful antiwar message. In the United States, it fared poorly.

Gance had attended a gala showing of J'Accuse in New York City in 1921. Griffith saw the film, and was so impressed (as would the New York Times) that he arranged its distribution through United Artists. However, it's not certain if the film played in the San Francisco Bay Area. (A quick search of the San Francisco Chronicle and Oakland Tribune did not turn up any instances of the film having shown locally, at least through 1922.)

However, it did show elsewhere. Here are two vintage newspaper advertisements. Each dates from 1922.

The first newspaper advertisement, for the Orpheum, dates from February and comes from the Marion Daily Star in Marion, Ohio. [Notably, that newspaper was once owned by Warren G. Harding, a publisher and politician in the early days of the century who succeeded America's wartime leader, Woodrow Wilson, as the 29th President of the United States. J'Accuse showed in Marion while Harding was in office.] The second newspaper advertisement, for the Garrick, dates from September and comes from the Manitoba Free Press in Winnipeg, Canada.

Like so many other silent films, J'Accuse has long been out of circulation. (It's convoluted history, and the history of its restoration, is another story . . . .) Saturday's showing at the Castro is a rare opportunity to see a great film on the big screen. It should not be missed.

For Saturday's screening, Robert Israel will perform his original orchestral score adapted to play on the Mighty Wurlitzer.The film is being co-presented by Alliance Française of San Francisco, with the generous assistance provided by the Consulate General of France.

1 comment:

  1. some additional thoughts on "J'Accuse" at