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Brownlow Restoration of Abel Gance’s 'Napoleon' Triumphs at Oakland’s Paramount Theater

by Meredith Brody
March 26, 2012 7:02 PM
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As soon as the movie started, however, all was forgotten and forgiven. The film began sans intros; perhaps the over-eight-hour schedule (incorporating several twenty-minute intermissions, even at that length inadequate for getting everybody in and out of the bathrooms, and an hour-and-three-quarter dinner break) precluded such niceties. Brownlow will lecture on the restoration on Friday, March 30, at the Pacific Film Archive, with clips from the film accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano.

I hastened toward Brownlow during the first intermission, but he broke free from his acolytes and scurried away. The last time I saw him in 2007, after a PFA lecture on silent films, the perpetually boyish Brownlow was downcast and glum when he spoke of his ongoing "Napoleon" restoration, prophesying that it would never be seen by the audiences he craved. I tried to cheer him up, Pollyanna that I am, by insisting that eventually it would be. And here we were!

The magic resumed as soon as the movie started again -- although section two, largely a rain-swept and somewhat confusing battle scene, is the only one that reminded me of my friend Jonathan Benair’s quip after we emerged from the gala screening of Ronald Haver’s restoration of George Cukor’s "A Star is Born": “Great movie. Could lose twenty minutes.”

Gance is the master of superimposition (sometimes seemingly five frames at once), and innovator of the moving camera (on swings, horses, pendulums). The tinted scenes are unexpectedly moving.  Albert Diedonne in the title role is indeed god-given. Annabella, given a generous amount of screen time as a young girl ensorcelled by Napoleon, surprises me because she seems to belong to another Technicolor filmmaking era. (It turns out Gance discovered her at the age of 16.) Antonin Artaud, star of another silent, Dreyer’s "Passion of Joan of Arc," doesn’t evoke the same surprise.

During the dinner break, we’re lucky in our choice: Xolo, a taqueria (and sister restaurant to famed Temescal restaurant Dona Tomas) that first colonized the Uptown neighborhood surrounding the restored Paramount and Fox theaters. In fact, because we’re early in the ordering line, which stretches out the door in quick order, we nab a table upstairs with a rainswept view that includes the colorful neon sign on the 1928-vintage Fox Theater, restored and re-opened in 2009. We share pork and chicken tacos, guacamole, and a big bowl of delicious birria (goat stew), washed down with Mexican beer and horchata, while we discuss the genius of what we’ve seen.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival Executive Director Stacey Wisnia comes in to dine with her husband and NY Film Forum programmer Mike Maggiore; she stops to receive our fervent congrats and thanks. Perhaps I read too much into her reply – “Well, we’re making a lot of people happy” – because Dargis’s March 18 NY Times article reported the cost of these four performances as $720,000. How could ticket sales (from $40 -- $120) cover costs?

I keep hoping that other presenters would step up to the plate. (Film Forum’s Bruce Goldstein told a friend that prices for a similar production in NYC would “multiply…by five or ten.) Alas, this is it.

Dargis reveals that yet another restoration is being worked on. (A friend who recently saw some of the newly-discovered footage in the seemingly endless and still-not-fully-catalogued warehouses of the Cinematheque Francaise said it was astonishing.)


  • Vera in CA | April 11, 2012 4:42 PMReply

    Well, all I can say is, next time why not spend a non-pretentious, rage-free, no-iPhone-necessary *$40* like we did, and have an absolutely FABULOUS sightline in the 2nd row, center aisle. We both saw it in 1981, and sat next to a gentleman who had never seen it and barely even heard of it. When the curtains pulled back to for the finale, this total stranger literally grabbed my partners hand and held it. When it was over, we just looked at him expectantly. He declared it was the finest film he had ever seen. Ditto. Eschewing the dinner rush at the local restaurants, we tailgated in the parking lot across the street (like a few others did) and had a leisurely Champagne supper. As for the 'upper class' of the audience, well, I've seen better behavior at children's matinees. Five minutes before the start people were yelling and pushing in the lines to the various doors -- instead of actually listening to the announcements and simply walking in if one knew where one's seat was already.

  • Diane | March 27, 2012 7:09 PMReply

    Sorry - previous comment should say "Brownlow restoration" - too excited talking about it to type correctly, I guess.

  • Diane | March 27, 2012 7:07 PMReply

    My husband and I also saw the 1981 showing at the Shrine in Los Angeles and instantly fell in love with Gance's work. Have been enjoying the recent Gance TCM offerings, and will be attending the Saturday night performance (31st) in Oakland. Can't wait - more Brownlow restoration and the marvelous Carl Davis! It is a once (twice? thrice???) in a lifetime event. Superb!

  • Gary Meyer | March 27, 2012 6:25 PMReply

    It was everything Meredith says and much more. One could write or speak volumes about the wonders of the movie, the presentation and the Paramount.
    I urge people to get to thet bay area this weekend and see THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC with the Baltimore Symphony and full chorus on Saturday night at Berkeley's Zellerbach and spend all of Sunday seeing NAPOLEON. A weekend you will never forget.

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