Saturday, June 13, 2015

#209: Au secours! (Abel Gance, 1924)

French director Abel Gance was one of the pioneers of silent film, best known for his 1927 historical epic Napoleon, but I'd somehow overlooked seeing any of his films until now. If this short horror comedy is any indication, I'm probably missing out on a lot.
Au secours!, which translates as "Help!," is only 24 minutes long, but it's packed with visual invention, creatively disturbing imagery, comedy, and fun. The film came about because of a bet placed between pioneering silent slapstick comedian/actor Max Linder and director Gance. Gance had a reputation for lengthy, meticulous shoots that resulted in complex, epic films, and Linder bet Gance he couldn't direct a film in less than three days. Gance accepted the friendly wager, hired Linder to play the lead, and made Au Secours!.
In a nod to the film's reason for existing, the story is about a friendly wager. At one of those swinging '20s gentleman's clubs, wealthy haunted castle owner Comte de Mornay (Jean Toulout) is pleased with himself for scaring the bejeezus out of his gentleman pals. The group of men, heavily armed, walked into his haunted castle together on a dare, and, to a man, they came running back out, terrified. Now the count is teasing them over cigars and brandy at the club and challenging the men to a healthy wager. If any of them can spend one hour alone in the castle without calling for help, they will earn a healthy sum and bragging rights. If they lose the bet, they'll have to pay up. The men, still terrified, refuse.
Fortunately, Max (Max Linder) is on his way to the club. Max is a newlywed and has been spending time with his wife Renee (Gina Palerme), engaging in activities like regaling her with song while wearing a funny hat as she practices her rowing. He suddenly remembers he's been neglecting his bros, so he heads to the club for a guy's night out. On his way there, he thwarts an attempted mugging, so you know he's the brave type. After the fellows get him up to speed, he gladly accepts the bet. He must spend the hour of 11 p.m. to 12 a.m. in Mornay's castle without ringing the help buzzer.
Max is in a bit over his head. This is a seriously screwed up castle. It's full of snakes, alligators, a hippo, ghosts, regular-sized skeletons, giant skeletons, weird creeps, gunfire, axe swinging, and breaches in the space-time continuum, among many, many other strange and terrifying things. Gance and Linder both get to show off here, and they have a great sense of physical space and timing, Gance behind the camera, Linder in front of it. I especially loved the gliding camera as the audience is led onto the castle grounds, and Linder's hand moving nervously toward and away from the alarm buzzer. There's a real sense of playfulness and experimentation here that carries over enthusiastically to the viewer.
Gance continued his lengthy career well into the sound-film era, but Linder's story is far more tragic. Though he was considered a pioneer of slapstick comedy and possibly its originator and was adored by Charlie Chaplin, Linder was a deeply troubled, unhappy man. Suffering from severe depression and lingering WWI injuries and seeing declining ticket sales for his films, Linder made only one more movie after Au Secours!. He and his wife, Helene Peters, committed suicide together in 1925 after a previous suicide pact the year before was unsuccessful. Linder and Peters left behind their infant daughter Maud, and the couple's separate wills had conflicting instructions for Maud's care, leading to a bitter custody battle between the two surviving families. Maud is still alive at age 90, and enjoyed successful careers as a journalist, film historian, assistant director, and documentary filmmaker. She's taken a strong role in preserving her father's legacy, putting together a compilation of his film work in the 1960s, making a documentary about him in the 1980s, and writing a book about him in the 2000s.
Now that I've brought you all down with Max Linder's sad end, let me lift you back up again by embedding this great little movie.

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