The Electric Hotel, by Dominic Smith

The Silent Era of film has always attracted me. I love stories set around the myriad innovations that were needed to create the movies that we know now—though I also pity the people who got left behind and were forgotten. Dominic Smith shows us both of these sides of the story in The Electric Hotel through the biography of a fictional director, Claude Ballard. When we meet him in 1962, at the open of the novel, he lives in a Hollywood hotel that has become the home to other silent film relics. The arrival of a film student sends Claude back down memory lane, to the days when he first started working for the legendary Lumière brothers.

The bulk of The Electric Hotel spans the late 1890s to the end of World War I. After seeing some of the short reels created by the Lumières, Claude knew that he had to make films. Something about the medium let him create beautiful, truthful things. By the turn of the twentieth century, Claude was working with his own little outfit of a budding producer, a stuntman, and an actress who wants nothing more than to be a perfectly natural actor. (As I read her dialogue, I remembered a story I once heard about Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier when they were making Marathon Man. Hoffman asked a question about how Olivier prepared to play a Nazi; Hoffman was a method actor. Olivier replied, “My dear boy, it’s called acting.”) While Claude and the others are interested in creating illusions, Sabine Montrose wants to make something real. Curiously, Claude’s quest for imaginative films makes him more human than Sabine’s for realistic acting.

A cinématographe Lumière, one of the earliest film cameras. (Image via Wikicommons)

Claude falls in love with Sabine, but I didn’t find this relationship nearly as interesting as everything that was going on with film. Claude’s desperate love for Sabine is only one of the major conflicts in the story. The other comes from Thomas Edison, whose rapacious legal battles over patents squelched the nascent film industry in New Jersey so much that a lot of filmmakers and actors fled to Hollywood so that they could create without being threatened with a lawsuit. After Claude and Co., create what will be Claude’s masterpiece, the eponymous The Electric Hotel, they get slapped with a menacing legal letter from Edison’s lawyer that sends them back to the drawing board when they suddenly can’t release it. Have you ever wanted to reach through a book and time to punch a historical figure because they’re being a complete jerk?

In addition to musing on early film history, the novel touches on the double-edged sword of fame; the loss of film history to fires, vinegar syndrome, and other calamities; and perhaps the hope that time really can heal wounds. The arrival of the film student at Claude’s hotel/retirement home is a catalyst for restoration. This student talks Claude into letting him have the director’s stock of film that he has been keeping (hoarding) for decades so that they can be preserved before they’re lost forever. (It’s estimated that most early film has been irretrievably lost, though discoveries are occasionally made.) It’s deeply satisfying to see Claude, his film, and his own history redeemed, even if it seems like there are more lows than highs in his life. This book also makes me hope that there are other film students and historians out there looking for history before it completely disappears.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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