Nationality: French. Born: Paris, 25 October 1889. Education: Collège de Chantilly; Collège Chaptal, Paris, baccalaureate 1906. Served with Service Cinématographique et Photographique de l'Armée, 1917. Family: Married (second wife) actress Odette Vérité, 1933. Daughter: Clarisse (Mme. Jacques Raynaud). Career: Actor at Théâtre du Parc, Brussels, 1908–09; began selling screenplays to Gaumont, 1909; formed production company, Le Film Français, 1911; artistic director of Le Film d'Art, 1917; after death of first wife, travelled to United States, 1921; patented widescreen "Polyvision" process, 1926; patented "Perspective Sonore," stereophonic sound process, 1929; directed Marie Tudor for television, 1965; lived in Nice, worked on screenplay for Christophe Colomb project, first begun in 1939, 1970s; reassembled Napoléon premiered in New York, 1981. Awards: Gold Medal, Union Française des Inventeurs, and Cinérama Gold Medal, Société des Auteurs, 1952; Théâtre de l'Empire named for Gance, Paris, 1961; Grand prix national de Cinéma, 1974; César Award, 1980; Commandeur de la Légion d'honneur; Grand officier de l'ordre national du Merité, et des Arts et des Lettres. Died: In Paris, 10 November 1981.
Films as Director:
La Digue, ou Pour sauver la Hollande (+ sc)
Le Nègre blanc (+ sc, role); Il y a des pieds au plafond (+ sc); Le Masque d'horreur (+ sc)
Un drame au Château d'Acre (Les Morts reviennent-ils?) (+ sc); Ecce Homo (+ sc) (unfinished) (+ sc); Le Fleur des ruines (+ sc); L'Heroïsme de Paddy
La Folie du Docteur Tube (+ sc); L'Enigme de dix heures (+ sc); Fioritures (La Source de beauté) (+ sc); Le Fou de lafalaise (+ sc); Ce que les flots racontent (+ sc); Le Périscope (+ sc): Barberousse (+ sc); Les Gaz mortels (Le Brouillardsur la ville) (+ sc); Strass et compagnie (+ sc)
Le Droit à la vie (+ sc); La Zone de la mort (+ sc); MaterDolorosa (+ sc)
La Dixième Symphonie (+ sc); Le Soleil noir (+ sc) (unfinished)
J'Accuse (+ sc)
La Roué (+ sc); Au secours! (+ sc)
Napoléon (Napoléon vu par Abel Gance) (+ sc)
Marines et Cristeaux (+ sc) (experimental footage for "Polyvision")
La Fin du monde (+ sc)
Mater Dolorosa (+ sc)
Poliche (+ sc); La Dame aux Camélias (+ sc); NapoléonBonaparte (+ sc) (sound version, with additional footage)
Le Roman d'un jeune homme pauvre (+ sc); Lucrèce Borgia
Un Grande Amour de Beethoven (The Life and Loves of Beethoven) (+ sc); Jérome Perreau, héro des barricades The Queen and the Cardinal); Le Voleur de femmes (+ sc)
J'accuse (That They May Live) (+ sc)
Louise (+ co-sc); Le Paradis perdu (Four Flights to Love) (+ co-sc)
La Vénus aveugle (+ sc)
Le Capitaine Fracasse (+ co-sc)
Manolete (+ sc) (unfinished)
Quatorze Juillet (+ sc); La Tour de Nesle (+ sc)
Magirama (+ sc, co-pr) (demonstration of "Polyvision" in color)
Austerlitz (co-d, + co-sc)
Cyrano et d'Artagnan (+ co-sc)
Bonaparte et la révolution (+ sc, co-pr)
Le Portrait de Mireille (Perret) (sc); Le Glas du Père Césaire (+ sc); La Légende de l'arc-en-ciel (sc); Molière (Perret) (role)
Some Max Linder short comedies (role as Max's brother)
Paganini (sc); La Fin de Paganini (sc); Le Crime de Grand-père (Perret) (sc); Le Roi des parfums (sc); L'Aluminité (sc); L'Auberge rouge (sc); Le Tragique Amour de Mona Lisa (Capellani) (sc)
Cyrano et D'Assoucy (Capellani) (sc); Un Clair de lune sous Richelieu (Capellani) (sc); L'Électrocuté (Morlhon) (sc)
Une Vengeance d'Edgar Poe (Capellani) (sc); La Mort du Duc d'Enghien (Capellani) (sc); La Conspiration des drapeaux (sc); La Pierre philosophe (sc)
L'Infirmière (Pouctal) (sc)
L'Atre (Boudrioz) (pr)
Napoléon auf St. Helena (Napoléon à Saint-Hélène) (Pick) (sc)
Le Maître de forges (Rivers) (sc, supervisor)
Lumière et l'invention du cinématographe (Louis Lumière) (Paviot) (commentary, narration)
La Reine Margot (Dréville) (sc)
By GANCE: books—
J'Accuse, Paris, 1922.
Napoléon vu par Abel Gance, Paris, 1927.
La Roué, scénario original arrangé par Jean Arroy, Paris, 1930.
Prisme, Paris, 1930.
La Fin du Monde, scénario arrangé par Joachim Renez, Paris, 1931.
Mater Dolorosa, scénario original arrangé par Joachim Renez, Paris, 1932.
Napoléon, as seen by Abel Gance, edited by B. Ballard, London, 1990.
By GANCE: articles—
"Qu'est-ce que le cinématographe? Un sixième art," in Intelligencedu cinématographe, by Marcel L'Herbier, Paris, 1946.
"Les nouveaux chapitres de notre syntaxe," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), October 1953.
"Départ vers la polyvision," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1954.
"Entretien avec Jacques Rivette et François Truffaut," in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), January 1955.
"The Kingdom of the Earth," in Film Culture (New York), December 1957.
"Film as Incantation: An Interview with Abel Gance," in FilmComment (New York), March/April 1974.
On GANCE: books—
Arroy, Jean, En tournant "Napoléon" avec Abel Gance, Paris, 1927.
Daria, Sophie, Abel Gance, hier et demain, Paris, 1959.
Icart, Roger, Abel Gance, Toulouse, 1960.
Brownlow, Kevin, The Parade's Gone By, New York, 1969.
Kramer, Steven, and James Welsh, Abel Gance, Boston, 1978.
Icart, Roger, Abel Gance; ou, Le Promethée foudroyé, Lausanne, 1983.
King, Norman, Abel Gance: A Politics of Spectacle, London, 1984.
Groppali, Enrico, Abel Gance, Florence, 1986.
On GANCE: articles—
Epstein, Jean, "Mon ami Gance," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), August/September 1955.
"Gance Issue" of L'Ecran (Paris), April/May 1958.
Lenning, Arthur, "Napoléon and La Roue," in The Persistence ofVision, edited by Joseph McBride, Madison, Wisconsin, 1968.
Brownlow, Kevin, "Bonaparte et la révolution," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1971/72.
Welsh, J.M., and S.P. Kramer, "Abel Gance's Accusation against War," in Cinema Journal (Evanston), Spring 1975.
Gilliatt, Penelope, in New Yorker, 6 September 1976.
Drew, W.M., "Abel Gance: Prometheus Bound," in Take One (Montreal), July 1978.
Nerguy, C., and Y. Alion, "Un Grand Amour de Beethoven," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 October 1978.
Brownlow, Kevin, "Abel Gance," in Film Dope (London), September 1979.
Allen, W., "Napoléon reconstructed," in Stills (London), Autumn 1981.
Obituary, in the New York Times, 11 November 1981.
Cluny, C.M., "Abel Gance: trop grand pour le cinéma?," in Cinéma (Paris), December 1981.
Lafaye, C., obituary, in Cinéma (Paris), January 1982.
Riley, B., obituary, in Film Comment (New York), January/February 1982.
Jeancolas, J.-P., "Abel Gance entre Napoléon et Philippe Pétain," in Positif (Paris), June 1982.
Icart, R., C. Lafaye, and L. Martin, "Tumultueux Abel Gance," in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), May 1983.
Icart, R., "Quand Abel Gance voulait travailler chez Franco," in Cahiers de la Cinémathèque (Paris), no. 38–39, Winter 1984.
King, Norman, "The Sounds of Silents," in Screen (London), May/June 1984.
Virmaux, A. and O., "Deux amis," in Cinématographe (Paris), November 1986.
Stojanov-Bigor, G., "Abel Gans," in Kinoizkustvo (Sofia, Bulgaria), vol. 44, no. 6, June 1989.
Virmaux, A., and O. Virmaux, "Quatre remarques sure le cycle Antoine," in Jeune Cinéma (Paris), no. 204, November-December 1990.
On GANCE: films—
Ford, Charles, and Jacques Guillon, Les Éloquents, France, 1956.
Kaplan, Nelly, Abel Gance, hier et demain (Abel Gance, Yesterdayand Tomorrow), Paris, 1964.
Brownlow, Kevin, Abel Gance—The Charm of Dynamite, London, 1968.
* * *
Abel Gance's career as a director was long and flamboyant. He wrote his first scripts in 1909, turning to directing a couple of years later, and made his last feature, Cyrano et d'Artagnan, in 1964. As late as 1971 he re-edited a four-hour version of his Napoleon footage to make Bonaparte et la révolution, and he lived long enough to see his work again reach wide audiences.
Gance's original aspirations were as a playwright, and throughout his life he treasured the manuscript of his verse tragedy La Victoire de Samothrace, written for Sarah Bernhardt and on the brink of production when the war broke out in 1914. If Gance's beginnings in the film industry he then despised were unremarkable, he showed his characteristic audacity and urge for experimentation with an early work, the unreleased La Folie du Docteur Tube, which made great use of distorting lenses, in 1916. He learned his craft in a dozen or more films during 1916 and 1917—the best remembered of which are Les Gaz mortels, Barberousse, and Mater dolorosa. He reached fresh heights with a somewhat pretentious and melodramatic study of a great and suffering composer, La Dixième Symphonie. Even more significant was his ambitious and eloquent antiwar drama, J'Accuse, released in 1919. These films established him as the leading French director of his generation and gave him a preeminence he was not to lose until the coming of sound.
The 1920s saw the release of just three Gance films. If Au secours!, a comedy starring his friend Max Linder, is something of a lighthearted interlude, the other two are towering landmarks of silent cinema. La Roue began as a simple melodramatic tale, but in the course of six months scripting and a year's location shooting, the project took on quite a new dimension. In the central figure of Sisif, Gance seems to have struggled to create an amalgam of Oedipus, Sisyphus, and Lear. Meanwhile portions of the film that were eventually cut apparently developed a social satire of such ferocity that the railway unions demanded its excision. The most expensive film as yet made in France, its production was again delayed when the death of Gance's wife caused him to abandon work and take a five-month trip to the United States.
Like his previous work, La Roue had been conceived and shot in the pre-1914 style of French cinema, which was based on a conception of film as a series of long takes, each containing a significant section of the action, rather than as a succession of scenes made up of intercut shots of different lengths, taken from varying distances. But in Hollywood, where he met D.W. Griffith, Gance came into contact with the new American style of editing. Upon his return to France, Gance spent a whole year reediting his film. On its release in 1923 La Roue proved to be one of the stunning films of the decade. Even in its shortened version—comprising a prologue and four parts—the film had a combined running time of nearly eight hours.
Gance's imagination and energy at this period seemed limitless. Almost immediately he plunged into an even vaster project whose title clearly reflects his personal approach, Napoléon va par Abel Gance. If La Roue was particularly remarkable for its editing (certain sequences are classic moments of French 1920s avant-garde experimentation), Napoléon attracted immediate attention for its incredibly mobile camerawork, created by a team under the direction of Jules Kruger. Napoléon thus emerges as a key masterpiece of French cinema at a time when visual experimentation took precedence over narrative and the disorganization of production offered filmmakers the chance to produce extravagant and ambitious personal works within the heart of the commercial industry. Gance's conception of himself as visionary filmmaker and of Napoleon as a master of his destiny points to the roots of Gance's style in the nineteenth century and his romantic view of the artist as hero. The scope of Gance's film, bursting into triple screen effects at the moment of Napoleon's climactic entry into Italy, remains staggering even today.
The 1920s in France was a period of considerable creative freedom. Given this atmosphere, a widespread urge to experiment with the full potential of the medium was apparent. If the freedom came from the lack of a tightly controlled studio system, the desire to explore new forms of filmic expression can be traced to a reaction against the situation imposed by Pathé and Gaumont before 1914, when film was seen as a purely commercial product, underfinanced and devoid of artistic or personal expression. This had been the cinema in which Gance had made his debut, and he was one of those striving most forcefully in the 1920s both to increase the possibilities for personal expressiveness and to widen the technical scope of cinema. He pioneered new styles of cutting and camerawork, as well as widescreen and multiscreen techniques.
It is ironic, then, that the advent of the greatest technical innovation of the period left Gance stranded. The explanation for this lies less in the irrelevance of sound to his personal vision of the medium—he was pioneering a new stereophonic system with La Fin du monde as early as 1929—than the fact that new forms of tighter production control were implemented as a result of the greater costs associated with sound filmmaking.
The 1930s emerge as a sad era for a man accustomed to being in the forefront of the French film industry. Gance, whose mind had always teemed with new and original projects, was now reduced to remaking his old successes: sound versions of Mater dolorosa in 1932, Napoléon Bonaparte in 1934, and J'accuse in 1937. Otherwise, the projects he was allowed to make were largely adaptations of fashionable stage dramas or popular novels: Le Maître de forges, Poliche, La Dame aux camélias, and Le Roman d'un jeune homme pauvre. In the late 1930s he was able to treat subjects in which his taste for grandly heroic figures is again apparent: Savonarola in Lucrèce Borgia and the great composer—played by Harry Baur—in Un Grand Amour de Beethoven, but by 1942, when he made Le Capitaine Fracasse, Gance's career seemed to have come to an end.
Though a dozen years were to pass before he directed another feature film, Gance maintained his incredible level of energy. Refusing to be beaten, he continued his experiments with "polyvision" which were to culminate in his Magirama spectacle. He eventually made three further features, all historical dramas in which his zest, if not the old towering imagination, is still apparent: La Tour de Nesle, Austerlitz, and Cyrano et d'Artagnan. The French 1920s cinema of which Gance is the major figure has consistently been undervalued by film historians, largely because its rich experimentation with visual style and expressiveness was not accompanied by an similar concern with the development of film narrative. Gance's roots were in the nineteenth–century romantic tradition, and despite his literary background, he, like his contemporaries, was willing to accept virtually any melodramatic story that would allow him to pursue his visual interests. For this reason French 1920s work has been marginalized in accounts of film history that see the growth of storytelling techniques as the central unifying factor. The rediscovery of Gance's Napoléon in the 1980s, though—thanks largely to twenty years of effort by Kevin Brownlow—has made clear to the most skeptical the force and mastery achieved in the years preceding the advent of sound, and restored Gance's reputation as a master of world cinema.
French film director Abel Gance (1889–1981) is best known for his historical epic Napoléon va par Abel Gance, a silent film that employed every available film technique and was designed for viewing on three screens. Gance is regarded as a film pioneer, and one of the greatest directors in French film history.
Gance, a Paris native, was the illegitimate son of a wealthy physician, Abel Flamant, and a working–class mother, Francoise Perethon. He was raised by his mother and her boyfriend, Adolphe Gance, whom she would marry. Gance attended the Collège de Chantilly in Paris and the Collège Chaptal, also in Paris, where he received a baccalaureate in 1906.
In early childhood, Gance wanted to become a playwright. His parents, however, wanted him to pursue a respectable career. Bowing to their pressure, he worked as a lawyer's clerk with the intention of pursuing a successful career in law. But his love of the theater proved too strong and he made his acting debut at the age of 19 with the Theatre Royal du Parc in Brussels. He also acted on the Paris stage. Eventually, he penned a verse tragedy, La Victoire de Samothrace, dedicated to stage actress Sarah Bernhardt. The play was about to be produced when World War I broke out in 1914, and forced its cancellation.
While waiting for his theatrical break, Gance turned to the movies. In 1909, in need of money, he made his debut in Moliere. Despite his low regard for film at the time, he performed in minor roles for the Gaumont studios, and even attempted screenwriting. During this period, life was hard for Gance. He lived in poverty and suffered from bouts of starvation and tuberculosis.
Became a Film Director
By 1911, Gance started directing films. He regained some of his health and formed a production company. His first film as a director, La Digue, was a failed attempt. None of Gance's earliest films survived, but an early short that still exists, La Folie du Docteur Tube (1915), revealed his innovative grasp of visual effects. Gance may have thought little of films, but liked experimenting with technique. In the short film, Gance used an anamorphic lens to tell the story of a mad scientist who uses a ray to distort people and everyday objects.
Gance's poor health kept him out of most of World War I, and he spent much of the period with the Film d'Art company, directing about a dozen films in 1916 and 1917. He directed two highly successful films, Mater Dolorosa (1917) and La Dixieme Symphonie (1918), but management soon regarded him as a wild experimenter with an eccentric visual style that included using close–ups and dolly shots, techniques still outside the film mainstream. In Mater Dolorosa, he used editing and camera technique to portray the inner thoughts of his characters.
The more he experimented, Gance fought frequently with company producers. However, the success of his works forced them to back off. Mater Dolorosa led to a series of other quality films that included Barberousse (1917) and La Zone de la Mort (1917).
Served on the Front Line
Gance was becoming one of the best known directors in France when he was called up for duty toward the end of World War I. He was placed at the front lines, where he suffered mustard–gas poisoning and almost died. He was discharged, but he asked to be redrafted so he could shoot on–location battle scenes for a project he was developing, the antiwar film J'accuse!. On August 25, 1918, Gance returned to the front with a camera crew and began shooting. The film, released in 1919, would be the first European production that showed real footage of the carnage of war.
J'accuse! was a three–hour epic and a huge box–office success in Europe. The story itself involved a rather conventional and melodramatic love triangle; Gance's methods included a rapid editing style that is said to have influenced the great Russian filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein. The film established Gance as France's leading film director.
Throughout the 1920s, Gance released only three films, but two were cinematic landmarks. He benefited from a time of great creative freedom for artists. In the 1920s, he experimented even more, pioneered editing and camerawork styles and introducing wide–screen and multi–screen techniques.
Between 1919 and 1921, Gance shot enormous amounts of film on location for his next project, La Roue. The story combined elements of the Oedipus and Sisyphus myths in a love–triangle story that involved an aging railroad engineer, his son, and a secretly adopted daughter/sister. During the final production stages, when Gance was editing the massive work, Gance's wife died from influenza. Distraught, Gance walked away from the film, much to the horror of producer Charles Pathée. The rough cut that Gance left behind was eight hours long.
During his absence, Gance traveled to the United States to promote J'accuse!, which was highly regarded there. Gance received a tempting offer to direct films for the Metro studio, but he did not like the Hollywood studio filmmaking system. The highlight of the trip was a visit with pioneering American filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who asked Gance to work at his film company, United Artists. Gance considered the offer, but returned to France four months after walking off La Roue. Pathée was still furious.
Gance was anxious to apply the new style of Hollywood editing to La Roue. When he had started work on the film, Gance had employed the French cinematic style of long takes. When he returned to work on the film, he spent a year re–editing what had been shot. The film was finally released in 1923, and audience and critics were stunned.
Even re–edited, the film still ran close to eight hours, and included a prologue and four parts. For general release in 1924, it was edited to 130 minutes. A restored version released in 1980 ran 303 minutes. This restored version enabled modern audiences to better view the overlaying of moving images and the rapid editing that made La Roue so historically important.
The film was enormously popular but, because of its length and its expensive production, it generated little profit. Indeed, at the time, La Roue was the most expensive film produced in France. Gance's financial backers began to worry about how his creativity would affect their investments.
But they had little to worry about from Gance's next film, Au secours!, alow–budget, two–reel comedy that took place in a haunted house. The modest film was a big hit and played in France for years. Now, the film is viewed as an insubstantial interlude between two cinematic masterworks.
In 1924, Gance began work on what would become his best–known and greatest film, Napoléon va par Abel Gance. Released in 1927, the epic recounted Napoleon's career from his childhood to the start of his Italian campaign. It included unprecedented visual effects that in some cases, never were used again. For the action scenes, Gance employed a three–camera process that involved three projectors and a curved, wide screen that produced a panoramic effect. The technique predated the wide–screen innovations of Hollywood in the 1950s and 1960s, particularly "Cinerama," with its three screens. The film also featured mobile camera work, as cameras were mounted on horses or swings. The editing was typically rapid and the film seemed in constant motion.
When it premiered at the Paris Opera, it received a standing ovation. Its screenings, however, were restricted due to technical problems. Only eight European cities could show it, because of the equipment and theater size necessary. These technical matters, as well as the film's length, essentially destroyed its profitability. Because of its six–hour length, it could only run once a day, which upset theater owners.
Distributors constantly cut away at the film. By 1928, it had been pared to 180 minutes. In the United States, Metro–Goldywn–Mayer bought the distribution rights, but never showed the film in its wide–screen version. In addition, the studio severely cut the film and even rearranged sequences. As a result, its American release was a disaster. It received bad reviews and audiences laughed at it. (A 435–minute "restored" version was finally shown in the United States in 1981).
The film would mark the last time Gance enjoyed total artistic freedom. His sound films were made for studios that restricted his independence. His producers told him they would limit his budgets. The technical innovation of sound itself added tighter production controls that further constrained Gance. His career would never return to the heights he achieved in the 1920s.
Career Went into Extended Decline
In the early 1930s, Gance was involved in several projects of note, but instead of innovating, he mostly remade sound versions of his silent films including Mater Dolorosa (1932) and J'accuse! (1937), or filmed adaptations of popular plays and novels. In 1931, he wanted to use his wide–screen process for a silent science–fiction film, Le fin du monde, about a comet that collided with the earth. But as costs skyrocketed, the producers grabbed control of the film, cut it from 93 to 55 minutes and dubbed in sound. In 1933, Gance used his own money to make asynchronized sound version of Napoléon va par Abel Gance, using an audio technology he had patented called "Sound Perspective." This multi–channel sound system sent specific sounds into specific speakers within a movie theater, and it was seven years ahead of the three–channel stereo phonic system the Walt Disney Company studios developed for Fantasia (1940). Despite the sound innovation, the project was a costly failure.
One of his more interesting projects was Lucrezia Borgia (1935), which was years ahead of its time with its frank depictions of sexuality and violence.
After Gance made Le Capitaine Fracasse in 1942, his career appeared to have ended. The following year, he had to flee France to avoid living under the German occupation. When he returned to France after more than a decade, he found that his prestige as a filmmaker had fallen considerably, due to the influential Cahiers du Cinema film journal and its group of writers who advanced new ideas about film. The writers felt Gance's historical dramas exhibited a right–wing fascism. When Gance released his last historical epic, The Battle of Austerlitz, in 1960, the writers intensified their critical assault.
Gance made his last feature, Cyrano et d'Artagnan, in 1964.
Gance lived long enough to enjoy the public's rediscovery of Napoléon va par Abel Gance. This was due an intensive, 25–year restoration effort by English film historian Kevin Brownlow, who wanted to return the film to its 1927 running time. Results of his early efforts were shown at the New York Film Festival of 1964. This helped rehabilitate Gance's reputation.
In 1979, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola hired Brownlow to work on a 70–millimeter reconstruction of the entire film for general release. The effort was a success, to the great delight of Gance. In 1981, Coppola screened the film, using the three–projector format, at Radio City Music Hall in New York.
That year, Gance died of a lung ailment on November 10 in Paris. He was 92. At the time of his death, he was planning an epic film about Christopher Columbus.
In 2001, Brownlow presented an improved reconstruction of the Napoleon epic. This led to a revival of Gance's other films.
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