Photo: Albert Dieudonné in “Napoleon.” Credit: San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Oakland and the East Bay area were the places to be the weekend of Saturday, March 31 and Sunday, April 1. The silent film JOAN OF ARC played in Berkeley Saturday, only overshadowed by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s screening of the restored NAPOLEON on both days at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland.
The Paramount, built in 1931, is a glorious Art Deco theatre that survives with its beautiful decorations, furniture, and fixtures intact. Gorgeous, gold Art Deco figurines line the lobby walls. The lobby is almost Wizard of Oz like in its beautiful colors and features. Green bands draw focus to the four walls. The mezzanine and balcony walls and ceiling are lined with sculpture-like figures. Elegant, artistic light fixtures and lamp shades populate hallways, lobbies, and lounges. Both men’s and women’s smoking lounges feature striking murals, while the women’s restrooms contain lovely purple tile on the floors and decorative mirrors to apply makeup. The theatre alone is a work of art.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival outdid themselves with the film presentation, partnering with Photoplay Productions and American Zoetrope to present a true artistic masterpiece. The Festival employs the tag line “True art transcends time” in their advertising, and this line certainly applies to NAPOLEON.
Kevin Brownlow stumbled across 9.5 mm film footage of NAPOLEON as a boy, beginning his lifelong obsession with restoring this magnificent film both to its full length and its true place in history. He has continued this work for over 50 years, aided by Patrick Stanbury and now Zoetrope films, to reconstruct the film to as closely as possible match director Abel Gance’s vision of cinema transforming life.
Gance himself noted in the original program for the film the grand notions of its creation. “It was not to make a banal historical drama that I attempted to restore to life the prodigious visage of one who described himself as a piece of rock cast into space. My early research revealed the need for technical developments in photography to stretch the cinematographic style. The triple screen is one such development. I used it to combine three expressions: physiological, cerebral and emotional. It demands an effort of comprehension to fuse these three elements in a sixteenth of a second. Open your hearts, spirits and eyes! My method in “Napoleon” has been to make an actor of the spectator…Napoleon is a climax in his own time, which was a climax in Time itself. And the cinema, for me, is the climax of life.”
Gance truly envisioned a new cinema, one combining technical expertise with artistic vision to create monumental art. Gance employs every form of camera trick, moving it on tracks, boats, horses, pendulums, etc. to put the audience in the middle of the action. He superimposes multiple images atop each other to represent both feelings and ideas, and of course created what is Polyvision to truly shape a monumental image of Napoleon. This film represents the climax of his visions to recreate cinema, which he hoped to do in another five films defining the life of the military hero.
Carl Davis and his wonderful score greatly add emotional heft to the motion picture. As he didn’t have enough time to create an original score for the five and a half hour film, he compiled classical pieces along with his grand Napoleon theme to emotionally fit the scenes. Davis’s original program notes mention that Beethoven felt a special relationship with Napoleon, writing about him in letters and dedicated the third “Eroica” symphony to him. Davis arranged Corsican folk songs and other pieces to fit the rhythm of the images, and created a lush, romantic theme to represent Napoleon as heroic leader.
Gance develops stirring military segments, thrilling chase sequences, and overpowering spectacle to capture the young leader’s life. While many sections could be called almost fascistic in how they shape a hagiographic military leader, the film also contains a humanizing romantic section, many humorous moments, and fine acting. Vladimir Roudenko, who plays the young Napoleon, wonderfully captures the fierce, proud, intelligent boy dreaming of heroic victory. Albert Dieudonne represents the galvanizing, energetic general inspiring those around him to action. His angular features mirror those of the powerful eagle that visually represents Napoleon. Gance also gives himself the showy part of Saint Juste, the man deciding who would die during the Revolution.
The film climaxes with the Polyvision segment, the three paneled finale that represents Napoleon and French troops successfully invading Italy. While the audience clapped after most of the stirring segments preceding it, this part truly captures the communal nature of film in how it births feelings that sweep the audience along in moments of passion.
As Gance goes on to explain in his original notes, “With Napoleon I have made a tangible effort toward a richer and more elevated form of cinema; let yourselves go completely with the images; do not react from a preconceived point of view. See in depth; do not persist in confusing that which moves with that which trembles, discern behind the images the traces of tears which often imbue them. Only after this effort will you know whether or not the journey into history that I have given you is a lesson or a poem. My aim has been to offer all weary hearts the most wholesome, sustaining and pleasing nourishment. That bread of dreams which, in our age of harsh necessities, becomes as indispensable as the music of light which will transform the great cinemas into cathedrals.”
Abel Gance’s film NAPOLEON reveals a true master at work, a film that envelopes you in thrilling thoughts and feelings and never lets you go.