‘Vamp. What has the world done to deserve your European contempt and mockery? How we let you into this country is beyond a thinking man’s sense. You should go back to your homeland where they eat babies and drown in sexual vice.’
‘Sabine Montrose, you represent perhaps the greatest threat to civil society. In regards to your recent film ‘The Electric Hotel’ I am writing to tell you that Christian married women everywhere will mull your name alongside the devil’s, for it is in his company that you belong. An archangel seductress and a Vampyre ripped from Poe.’
So, if you think trolls are are a modern-day phenomenon, think again. They existed in the early decades of the C20th too. I suspect they’ve always existed, just in differing forms. Back then they spread their toxic vitriol via snail mail – the only difference being to our digital age that it therefore occurred at a more languid pace. The greats of the silver screen have always had their fan mail from the adoring multitudes, but the post was also a vehicle to communicate the bile of the haters. In ‘The Electric Hotel’, by Australian-American writer Dominic Smith, the fictional Marilyn Monroe of the era he set his tome in, Sabine Montrose, is, in part, forced to retire from making the earliest of movies by the strong criticism she received for her role in the book’s eponymous film. What also defeated her was the result of the stranglehold various trusts (read monopolies) had over various industries, despite the best efforts of Presidents Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson to curtail the damage they were doing. The villain of the piece here was Thomas Alva Edison. He controlled the early film industry with an iron fist. He was in no mood for compromise if an upstart indie tried to take a slither of his turf.
As a read ‘The Electric Hotel’ was full of interest but had the potential to be so much better. It deals with a fascinating time as the movie business starts to show signs of what it would become – ie today’s behemoth – in the eyes of the public. If a reader is interested in this era there is much to relish. As we know, at the moment archivists all over the world are struggling to restore the windows on a bygone world before reels of disintegrating footage in canisters, stored for a century or more, turn to mush. If the publication had of stuck to those exciting times, this would have been a more successful tale. When it leaves, as war approaches, it continues on and loses its sheen.
Claude Ballard, the central protagonist, paid his dues in Europe, working for the Lumiere Brothers at the birth of modern cinema. Later, in New York State, teaming up with producer Hal Bender, Australia stuntman Chip and the redoubtable Sabine, they set about making an early Gothic horror epic, seemingly unaware of the legal implications of trying to compete with Edison and his cronies. Claude is completely infatuated with the ageing but intensely mercurial Montrose. Earlier he had filmed her in the altogether taking a bath, as well as his own sister’s untimely death. Both shorts certainly caused the Edwardian Age to sit up and take notice of the new medium. One got the men folk very hot and bothered indeed.
As for what was, at the time, a forerunner to a full length feature, Edison scarpered the completed product well and truly, sending the careers of the filmmakers and the star into debt and personal nosedives from which they all struggled to recover. But the book opens and closes decades later with a more modern day film student seeking out the now elderly Ballard. He’s living in a seedy NYC hotel with his ancient completed film stored under his bed. It had only managed one public showing back in the day of the silent screen. The student resolves to make right the earlier travesty and present a restored copy to a modern audience.
There are pleasures to be had with Smith’s rendering of his fictional account, but as some reviewers have also stated, they come in fits and starts. It’s impact is distilled as it becomes yet another war story for much of its length. Its descriptions, though, of early film making, before health and safety concerns prevented caution being thrown to the wind, are enthralling. Stuntmen defied death even if disguised as women, dirigibles aflame fell from the skies and women with womanly desires had yet to be excised by the Hays Code. A beauty such as Sabine could cause a public meltdown the nature of which is hard to imagine in our flesh saturated world.
The author’s website = http://www.dominicsmith.net/