Friday, April 5, 2024

NFR Project: 'The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra'


The Life and Death of 9413: a Hollywood Extra

Dir: Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapich

Scr: Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapich

Pho: Gregg Toland, Paul Ivano

Ed: not stated

Premiere: 1928

11 min.

Hollywood avant-garde film is an oxymoron, pretty much. Not a lot of non-standard narrative work has emerged from the confines of Tinsel Town.

Yet here is a remarkable example of DIY filmmaking, right on the cusp between the silent and sound eras. It was the brainchild of Frenchman Robert Florey, but it involved two who would become the most honored film professionals in Hollywood – Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland.

Florey was an ambitious film journalist who migrated to Hollywood in 1921, finding work in various capacities until he began to catch on as a director. Shortly after his first film, One Hour of Love (1927), he created this satirical short, paying for the production out of his own pocket – working with a budget rumored to be only $97.

Using handmade sets and miniatures, one 400-watt lightbulb for illumination, and the efforts of a few friends, Florey and Vorkapich crafted a 13-minute mini-epic that relates the sad tale of John Jones, a naïve aspiring actor who wants to make it big in the film world. Instead, his forehead is embossed with the number 9413, and he is condemned to an existence as a lowly extra, little better than a living puppet.

Meanwhile, another extra who’s able to hold masks of stereotypes in front of his face is acclaimed and given a star on his forehead, elevated to prominent status.

Poor 9413 continues to run up against the sign: “No casting today.” His bills pile up, he wastes away, and expires. Magically, he is transported to Heaven, where his number is erased from his forehead and he is given wings.

Florey showed the film to his friend Charlie Chaplin, who loved it. Chaplin in turn screened it for some of Hollywood’s high and mighty, and as a result got the film a bit of distribution – a surprising turn of events for a film that so solidly criticizes the industry.

Florey would go on to be a prolific and competent director of B movies, including the Marx Brothers’ first feature, The Cocoanuts, and the Expressionism-tinged Murders in the Rue Morgue. Vorkapich would become a master cinema craftsman, whose specialty was creating montages for mainstream Hollywood films. The camera operator, still at the beginning of his career, was Gregg Toland, an innovative cinematographer who would become legendary for his work on such films as Citizen Kane, winning an Oscar for Wuthering Heights (1939).

So much talent focused on so intimate a project gives the film a rich beauty, and makes its message just as current today as it was in 1928.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Seventh Heaven.