100 Years Ago: Abel Gance’s Proto-Countercultural Mad Scientist Movie THE MADNESS OF DOCTOR TUBE

Abel Gance is today maybe best known for a film that has been properly seen by only a relative few – his monumental and ambitious NAPOLEON (1927, and revised endlessly). It was to have been part of a six film series, though only the first chapter was made. Its climactic last reel was to be exhibited in a three-projector, three-screen triptych arrangement which is, needless to say, difficult to mount, though it has been done. The duration of the films many different cuts vary from under two hours to nine and a half (!!!) hours. This NAPOLEON is as difficult to pin down and as irascible as its subject.

He made many other films as well, and some are also well-known, like his anti-war classic J’ACCUSE (1919), his earlier long-form epic LE ROUE (1923), and his planet-in-peril sci-fi movie END OF THE WORLD (1931).

Here is one of his first short films, made in 1915. It’s a bit of a goof, like a cartoon dashed off in a few hours, but Gance managed to invent a few new techniques for it. Films like this – minor ones, with nothing earthshaking to say – can bring us closer to their times, because we can all abide in the same ridiculousness together, even though we are separated by a century – and a pretty dark one. We haven’t had the silliness shaken out of us yet.

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