Directed by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapić
The United States of America
What does it take to create a great film? Trained actors, expensive sets, impossible special effects? Does a director need three assistants, the cameraman three grips, and the actors personal hairdressers? Could it be that we have trained ourselves to believe that films can only measure up to the sum of its parts? To think so would be foolish. For decades filmmakers have proven that great pieces of art can be made on miniscule budgets. How many big budget Hollywood directors started their careers by making cheap horror films with their friends in their local woods? How many independent films have been created thanks to the dissemination of cheap camera equipment and film stock? In this age of digital video and Youtube, it is easier than ever for amateurs to get their cinematic visions made. But what about the time when the cinema was still in its infancy? Filmmakers like Griffith and DeMille didn’t have Super-8 film or PixelVision cameras. Murnau and Lang didn’t have access to Final Cut Pro. But that didn’t stop young filmmakers from making bold, brash, and innovative films. One need only look at the phenomenal The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra to see that even in the cinema’s youth filmmakers were not limited by their budgets, but by their imaginations.
Made in 1928, it had a budget of $96 (adjusted for inflation, that’s $1191.33). Sources say that the money was divvied up as such: Film Negative, $25 ($310.24), Store Props, $3 ($27.23), Development and Printing, $55 ($682.54), Transportation, etc, $14 ($173.74). The sets were made of toys and cardboard buildings that were projected like shadows. Paper cut outs and spare film stock litter the background to create a thriving metropolis. Notice that the expenses of the film didn’t include actors’ salaries. That is because the actors weren’t immediately paid, but compensated with benefits that they could claim at a later date. Quite simply, The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra was one of the thriftiest film productions in early cinema history.
From this tiny budget came one of the most challenging and stinging indictments of the Hollywood production system in history. The story begins simply enough: a man goes to Hollywood with the hopes of becoming a movie star. The man (played by John Jones) travels to the desk of the appropriately named Mr. Almighty, the Hollywood producer. He presents Mr. Almighty with a letter of recommendation. However, Mr. Almighty callously dismisses him after writing the number 9413 on his forehead. The number becomes his identity. As he joins the ranks of other Hollywood extras, he notices that they also have numbers. He meets #13, a pretty female extra. He also meets #15, a handsome man who eventually becomes a star.
We watch #15’s escalation to stardom in a curious sequence of scenes where he puts on a number of different masks. Each mask has a different facial expression on it. Eventually, it becomes apparent that the masks represent his ability to act and become different personas. #9413 approaches #15 and shows him his own mask. It is a flimsily made piece of paper and doesn’t live up to the standard of #15’s stately plastic masks. #9413 is spurned and forced out as #15 begins a terrible downward spiral beset upon him by his crushing popularity.
But we don’t have much time to focus on #15’s plight. The film is, after all, about #9413. As he moves from audition to audition, he becomes more and more depressed by his failures. In one of the film’s most inventive scenes, we see a montage of #9413 trying to climb a flight of stairs. But each time he almost makes it to the top, a jump cut deposits him back at the bottom. A modern Sisyphus, #9413 is doomed to be denied his beloved prize. Having lost his identity and money to failure and bill collectors, #9413 succumbs and dies. He ascends to heaven (with the aid of several paper cutouts and a long piece of string) whereupon he meets an angel. The heavenly specter wipes the number from #9413’s head, restoring the humanity that was stolen from him in Hollywood.
Despite its short length (it only clocks in at about 13 minutes) and almost nonexistent budget, The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra is a miracle of early filmmaking. In many ways, its frugality was its greatest strength. The cardboard sets and paper cutouts make the film seem reminiscent of German Expressionism and the French avant-garde. Much of the film’s beauty comes from the masterful cinematography designed by co-director Slavko Vorkapić. Vorkapić, who would become most well known for his montage work in such films as David Copperfield (1935) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), had a true eye for filming special effects. As an audience weaned on CGI and high tech special effects, it is easy for us to identify when Vorkapić uses cutouts and projections. But despite this, they have aged so well that we don’t mind that they look fake.
But the true genius behind the film is director Robert Florey. Beginning his career as an assistant to Louis Feuillade (director of the infamous Les Vampires serial) and as an assistant director to Jose von Sternberg, Florey was one of the most diverse directors in early Hollywood history. He would helm as director the first Marx Brothers movie The Cocoanuts (1929), several low budget horror films such as the Bela Lugosi scream-fest Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), and the film noir The Crooked Way (1949). He was even chosen to direct 1931’s Frankenstein before it was reassigned to James Whale. Florey demonstrated his considerable skill before it was fully developed in The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra. Much like his later films, it is dominated by a moody, and often tragic, atmosphere that permeates each shot. What we are presented with is a cinematic vision of a life wasted, of potential extinguished, of dreams shattered.
Truly, The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra was a labor of love. A tale of great tragedy and redemption, it has become even more relevant in today’s society that so eagerly embraces the cult of celebrity. While no-talent hacks are paid millions of dollars a film just to stand around and look pretty, real professionals, real artists, struggle everyday to make ends meet so they can achieve their dreams. The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra is a tribute and a memorial to those who will never achieve their goals thanks to a cruel and unforgiving system. But it also serves as a beacon of hope for those who wish to pursue careers in filmmaking. Just as Vorkapić and Florey created a masterpiece with only $96, The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra beckons new generations of artists to get out there and create with all they’ve got.