[ A brief pause while I roll my eyes at the level of media coverage this film has garnered. It seems impossible to find a UK newspaper that doesnt have at least one Barbie-related article each day. It’s just a film folks! ]
OK back to The Electric Hotel.
The core of the story concerns the fictional character of Claude Ballard, a once-renowned silent film director who has since faded into obscurity.
In the 1960s, a young film student discovers Claude living in the once-luxurious Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles and surrounded by canisters of decaying reels of his old films. He has never lost his love for cinematography — he still walks through the city with two small cameras in tow — though he hasn’t made a feature film since 1910. That final film — “The Electric Hotel” — was an ambitious and fantastical melodrama which both enthralled and shocked audiences. Its creation almost killed Claude.
The novel traces Claude’s career from his early days as an associate of the pioneering Lumière brothers to his apprentice years filming in the streets of Paris and in the Australian outback. The main focus however is on his years in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which saw his period of greatest creativity and his partnership with a Brooklyn theatre owner, an Australian stuntman and the French actress Sabine Montrose.
The Electric Hotel vividly captures the sense of wonderment that greeted the first films, even though they were short and generally just depicted scenes from everyday life. We’re so accustomed now to slick productions and technical wizadry that it’s hard to imagine how much impact Claude Ballard’s first film — of his sister’s death throes — had when it was projected.
Claude recalls his own excitement when he was present at the world’s first experience of projected motion pictures in Paris during December 1895.
In each Lumière view, every inch of the screen was alive, and it was the background of fluttering leaves, or rippling waves, or drifting clouds that captivated the eye as much as the foregrounded subject. … in the span of ten minutes, in a hotel basement, the still image and the projected slide had become the slow-witted cousins to this shimmering colossus.
Smith’s narrative shows however that it didn’t take long before audiences demanded more exciting fare, placing greater and greater pressure on filmmakers like Claude to come up new thrills and adventures. Today’s directors would sympathise hough they do have the benefit of vastly bigger budgets.
Claude triumphs over his competitors because he can deliver more elaborate stunts and stage sets — one of his early productions titillates audiences with scenes of an actress in the bath.
His film The Electric Hotel is meant to be his masterpiece, a ground breaking melodrama set in a remote hotel run by a mysterious widow. It’s the most technically demanding film ever made, involving furniture that moves of its own accord, a real tiger and an exploding hot air balloon.
Smith gives fascinating insights into the ways those film pioneers overcame the technical limitations of their equipment. Just as he did in The Last Painting of Sara de Voss, he draws extensively on history though his research is so seamlessly woven into the narrative, it never comes across as an info dump.
His leading lady Sabine Montrose, for example, is based on the life of Sarah Bernhardt, one of the early prominent actresses to act in motion pictures, and he uses the real-world rivalry between the Lumiere brothers and Thomas Edison as a key plot device. It’s Edison’s fierce protection of his patents, as much as the vitriolic character attacks on Montrose as the leading lady, that brings the curtains down on The Electric Hotel, and with it Claude Ballard’s career in commercial films.
There’s a lot more to this novel than cinematic history though— it has themes around the fragility of memory, the blurred lines between fact and fiction and the price of fame. It all adds up to a thoroughly enjoyable novel that conjures up the allure and magic of those early days in cinema.
The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith — Footnotes
Dominic Smith hails from Australia though he’s lived for much of his life in the USA. He is the author of six novels, the most recent of which, Return to Valetto, was published earlier this year. He won the Turner Prize for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters with his first novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre. His fourth novel, The Last Painting of Sara de Voss, was named the Literary Fiction Book of the Year as part of the Australian Book Industry Awards. The Electric Hotel, his fifth novel, was published in 2019.