According to its director, Robert Florey, the entire budget for the 11-minute 1928 silent film was ninety-seven dollars, eighty of which was the cost of the negative, developing and printing. The film may have seemed at the time, even to the filmmakers, to be only a bagatelle, but almost seventy years later, in 1997, the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in its annual review of films of significant historical importance. For the three who created the film, it was only one of several experimental films they made before being launched into mainstream Hollywood careers. Each one became a “star,” fate distancing them from the movie dead end of Mr. John Jones, extra number 9413, the unfortunate subject of their film.
Florey helmed dozens of “B” movies in the 30s and 40s, followed by a distinguished career in television. Co-director Slavko Vorkapich became a major Hollywood force in the 30s, creating all-important montage and time transition sequences for dozens of large budget Hollywood movies. Years later, Vorkapich expounded his film theories as teacher and lecturer, influencing generations of emerging filmmakers. The third “star” of this triad is credited simply as “Gregg.” He was the cinematographer of 9413 and of the two other experimental shorts made by the trio in the late twenties. “Gregg’s” previous credits were as an assistant cameraman with Arthur Edeson, a founding member of the American Society of Cinematographers, who had credits going back to 1914. Gregg also worked with George Barnes, the deep focus pioneer who was to have so much influence on the young cinematographer.
In less than a decade, Gregg Wesley Toland rose to the top rank of cinematographers. At least a half dozen of his films, with directors Orson Welles, John Ford, and William Wyler are in the canon of the greatest American movies; yet Toland died at the untimely age of 44.
The Life and Death of 9413 a Hollywood Extra tells the story of a young man who arrives in Hollywood with high hopes and a letter of recommendation.
Mr. Almighty, a producer writes a number on the young man’s forehead, defining his status as an extra. #9413 meets #13, a young woman extra, and # 15, another extra who is being groomed to become a vacuous star.
Trying unsuccessfully to repeatedly climb the stairs to stardom in a scene reminiscent of the struggling laundress in Leger/Man Ray’s “Ballet Mechanique,” our Sisyphus-like hero dies. As a new arrival in heaven, an angel wipes the extra number from his forehead.
Here is the film. The jazz score by (dp)3! Is well done but quite different from the jazzy lyricism of the one reputedly imagined by the filmmaker— George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
The most distinguishing hallmarks of the film are the intricate German Expressionistic cityscapes created by Vorkapich. They bear strong resemblances to Lotte Reiniger’s cutout silhouettes in her animated films, as well as to models in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but created on a much leaner budget. Much of the kinetic feel of the cityscapes is purported to have been done by swinging a bare light bulb behind a translucent screen, creating the illusion of movement and dancing shadows.
Contrasting with the light rhythms of these sequences is the second style — live action scenes with actors, Mr. Jones being played by Jules Raucourt. The actors are filmed mostly against black backings, often using low angled expressionistic light, devoid of the deep focus imagery that was to define Toland’s later work. The camera is also mostly static, only panning for several shots near the melodramatic climax when 9413 grows ever more desperate, on the phone seeking work. Finally, he slumps to the floor in close-up and expires. The third technique employed by the filmmakers, and the most anomalous one, is the use of documentary street footage, all of it handheld, some at jauntily tilted, even dizzying angles. There are shots of notable Hollywood landmarks as well as panning klieg lights of a Hollywood preview, a Walker Evans-like menu board, even tilting shots of the then very new and phallic City Hall on Spring St., a metaphor of 15’s rising status as a star.
The film changes tone with 9413’s toy carriage ride to heaven, a charming nod to the light-hearted goals of the filmmakers.
Over the decades, the film has been interpreted by some as a critique of the dark side of Hollywood, a vision explored by novelist Nathaniel West in Day of the Locust, which decades later became a film of John Schlesinger, photographed by Conrad Hall. But The Life and Death of 9413 a Hollywood Extra seems to me to be a comic parable. The hyperventilated acting style was not typical of the late silent era and it must have been chosen within the frame of classic commedia del arte’s broad characterizations and stylized gestures.
The Life and Death of 9413 a Hollywood Extra is more than an historical experiment in avant-garde cinema of the late silent era. Its unabashed, freewheeling use of multiple techniques: documentary footage, table-top models, jagged jump cuts, gestural acting, handheld camera, multiple exposures, expressionistic light, are all devices that today’s film students recognize and readily embrace. What’s once old, becomes new again, then becomes timeless.