Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra

While researching Hollywood films that depict the moviemaking process for what is shaping up to be a book-length project, one of the most intriguing figures I've come across is Robert Florey. Florey, of course, has already been championed - by William K. Everson and others - as an interesting if off-beat director of B-pictures. What I find so intriguing about Florey is that he made at least three films dealing with Hollywood itself. The first of these, his experimental 1928 short, The Life and Death of 9413 - A Hollywood Extra, sets the tone for the other two, which were mainstream releases by a big studio (The Preview Murder Mystery and Hollywood Boulevard).

This short was co-directed by Slavko Vorkapich, later to become known for his work editing montage sequences for MGM. The main credits are starkly simplistic, and I got a chill reading the credit "Camera work - Gregg"; Gregg being Gregg Toland at the beginning of his highly innovative career.

The film's opening is similar to that of the opening of Hollywood Boulevard, with Florey's trademark canted camera angles showing looming buildings - tall, Expressionist structures that look like they could have come straight out of a UFA production. While Hollywood Boulevard uses actual Hollywood locations, it conveys the same sense of being overwhelmed. The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra owes something to the Soviet and German "city symphonies", in its focus on a single time and place and its characters representing clearly-identifiable "types", but is firmly in the avant-garde tradition, filled with heavy-handed symbolism and Expressionist settings (only a handful of shots appear to have been taken on location at all). The film presents a nightmare vision of the "becoming a star" trope that was so popular at this time in films like Souls for Sale and Ella Cinders. In researching the films of the silent era that depict Hollywood and the filmmaking process, the overall view of Hollywood seems to be surprisingly darker than it would be later in the 30s (at least until A Star is Born, in 1937). Part of this is no doubt due to the then-recent scandals involving stars like Fatty Arbuckle and Wallace Reid. Souls for Sale, in particular, plays off the image of Hollywood as a kind of moral wasteland, with the father of its young star-struck protagonist preparing sermons in which he condemns the town. The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra is very much made from the point of view of "outsiders", albeit ones who want to break in to the business just as badly as the characters they depict.

As the film is ultimately more a showcase for its technique rather than its content, it is not particularly enlightening in terms of investigating what it says about the industry at that time. Of its two directors, Vorkapich went on to have what could arguably be considered the more "successful" career, establishing himself with a particular skill at the biggest of the studios. Florey would never rise above the level of B-pictures, but always demonstrated an astonishing degree of inventiveness and stylization in most of his work.

Taken strictly on its own, The Life and Death of 9413 - A Hollywood Extra would not be a terribly interesting insight into the filmmaking process itself, but because three of its makers went on to have established careers in the Hollywood film industry, it can be seen as an example of their work before they were reigned in by the commercial demands of the studio system.

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