Cinema and Media Studies Abel Gance
by
Paul Cuff
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 April 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0254

Introduction

Although Abel Gance (1889–1981) is now recognized as a major figure of early cinema, he often struggled to find acceptance of his work in established canons of taste. As Jean Epstein wrote in 1927, Gance’s films are “magnificently imperfect,” evidencing an “turbulent, unstable, precipitous, excessive” concoction of styles and ideas that is not easily understood or embraced (see Abel Gance. Afterimage 10 (1981): 28). The label frequently attached to him—“the Victor Hugo of cinema”—continues to link him to 19th-century romanticism rather than 20th-century modernity. Not helped by the long-standing unavailability of much of his work, Gance remains something of an unknown quantity in much of film history. He began his career in the theatre, but his talent as a film director was established through a series of skillfully made comedies and melodramas produced in the 1910s. Gance’s cinematic career reached its zenith in the 1920s, when his increasingly ambitious film projects garnered much notoriety in the press. His multi-hour epics J’accuse, La Roue, and Napoléon pioneered the use of mobile camerawork, superimposition, rapid-montage, split-screen, and wide-screen processes. Peers often criticized Gance’s creations for their excessive length, melodrama, or literary pretentions, but it was generally acknowledged that his stylistic and technical feats were second to none. However, the coming of sound brought challenges that could not be overcome by Gance’s optimistic enthusiasm for new technology. His first sound project was La fin du monde, a critical and financial disaster that diminished his standing among his peers, producers, and public. In the 1930s, Gance rarely got the chance to work on personal projects over which he had full control, and his intellectual idealism was increasingly alien to Europe’s political climate. Having been one of the most renowned filmmakers in the silent era, by the time of World War II Gance was almost forgotten outside of France. Although he continued to concoct huge cinematic schemes, between 1943 and 1981 he could find finance for only two feature films. His critical reputation suffered during this time for lack of access to (and thus interest in) his earlier work. Whereas silent films by contemporaries such as D. W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein remained in circulation throughout the sound era, Gance’s work was frequently subject to partial or total loss. Major critical resuscitation took place only after the restoration of the silent Napoléon in the 1980s, but large areas of Gance’s artistic activities remain relatively unknown and unexplored.

General Overviews

Although Gance was the subject of a great deal of critical writing in the 1920s, such as Epstein 1981 (originally published in 1927), his career had slid into near-obscurity by the time the foundational writers of film studies, such as André Bazin, came to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s. By this time, prints of Gance’s major work were widely dispersed, but often were in no condition to be viewed. The filmmaker’s habit of tampering retrospectively with his creations helped increase the difficulty of accessing reliable or stable material. Important early studies, such as Jeanne and Ford 1963, were hampered by unreliable evidence about Gance’s early life and career, as well as the inaccessibility of prints of his films. Most early studies of the director were biographical and historical rather than critical. Brownlow 1968 sought to introduce a filmmaker virtually unknown outside of France and to awaken interest among critics and archives in re-exploring Gance’s work. Kramer and Welsh 1978 was the first work of English-language scholarship to reappraise Gance’s career in any depth, although this work predated the major revivals of the 1980s. Beginning in 1979 and 1980, Kevin Brownlow’s evolving restoration of Napoléon created new audiences for the film and reasserted Gance’s importance more generally to students of film history. The director’s death in 1981 also resulted in greater access to his private papers and other archival evidence, and a number of important publications followed. Icart 1983 was the first full biography of Gance, correcting a great deal of misinformation (much of it stemming from the filmmaker himself) and revealing the true extent of his ambitions within and beyond the cinema. Additional close stylistic and theoretical analyses emerged in Abel 1984, which examines Gance in comparison with contemporary French filmmakers, and King 1984, which discusses Gance’s aesthetic innovation in a political context. More recent work has taken advantage of greater access to a wider range of primary material (both celluloid and paper) relating to Gance. Studies such as Véray 2000 offer more evidence of the range of Gance’s lifetime of work and the extent to which scholars must understand surviving texts in relation to unrealized projects.

  • Abel, Richard. French Cinema: The First Wave, 1915–1929. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

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    An essential text on French silent cinema, Abel’s work contains large sections on all of Gance’s major silent films. The chief strengths of Abel’s approach are his close analysis of the films and his ability to frame their production within a wider industrial context.

  • Brownlow, Kevin. “Abel Gance.” In The Parade’s Gone By. By Kevin Brownlow, 517–564. New York: Knopf, 1968.

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    This chapter in Brownlow’s renowned study is one of the earliest English-language treatments of Gance. Based on interviews with the filmmaker from the mid-1960s, this chapter covers Gance’s early career in the film industry, his activities during World War I, and the productions of J’accuse, La Roue, and Napoléon.

  • Epstein, Jean. “Abel Gance.” Translated by Tom Milne. Afterimage 10 (1981): 27–30.

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    Includes an English translation of “Les cinéastes—Abel Gance,” originally published in 1927. Epstein’s character sketch of Gance is perhaps the most rewarding and revealing contemporary study. It is at once lyrical, sympathetic, and stimulating; Epstein seeks to defend Gance’s eccentricities rather than to explain them away. His judgments on Gance’s “excessive” and “precipitous” filmmaking style are thought provoking and still highly relevant.

  • Icart, Roger. Abel Gance, ou, Le Prométhée foudroyé. Lausanne, Switzerland: L’Age d’homme, 1983.

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    The first reliable biographical study of Gance, Icart’s study is based on extensive primary research and his personal knowledge of Gance. Extracts from Gance’s screenplays and other film writing are provided between chapters. An essential overview of the filmmaker’s career, which sadly is unavailable in English.

  • Jeanne, René, and Charles Ford. Abel Gance. Paris: Seghers, 1963.

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    A mix of biographical sketch, primary material, and criticism. Offers a solid overview of the filmmaker’s career and provides texts by Gance and his critics. However, many of its biographical claims are superseded by Icart 1983, whereas Icart 2002 (cited under Primary Documents) contains a wider range of primary material.

  • King, Norman. Abel Gance: A Politics of Spectacle. London: British Film Institute, 1984.

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    The first English-language study to take advantage of archival material. King argues that Gance was a “reactionary innovator” and places the filmmaker in an aesthetic and theoretical context. Rather thin on close analysis, but superbly researched and insightful. King also provides invaluable translations of texts by Gance and his contemporaries.

  • Kramer, Steven Philip, and James Michael Welsh. Abel Gance. Boston: Twayne, 1978.

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    An engaging and sympathetic English-language study of Gance. Kramer and Welsh provide a rich intellectual context to chart Gance’s growth as an artist and provide strong accounts of his major films. For those new to the filmmaker, an ideal place to start investigating his work.

  • Véray, Laurent, ed. Special Issue: Abel Gance, nouveaux regards. 1895 31 (2000).

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    An anthology covering various historical, intellectual, critical, theoretical, and technical aspects of Gance’s work. Contributions draw on extensive archival research and seek to reveal the relationship between Gance’s realized films and his unrealized projects. As well as containing a detailed bibliography (see also Bibliographies and Filmographies), the collection is also rewarding because it covers a wider range of films than many other studies.

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