The sky was the limit during the 1920s as aviators conquered the airways. The first practical airliner, the 12-passenger Ford Trimotor, debuted in 1925. The world’s stock markets also reached for the stratosphere, with the value of common stock rising an average of 22 percent each year from 1925 through 1928, the growth rate touted as the dawn of a new era of perpetual prosperity. Fortune appeared to favor the bold.
In April 1928, French filmmaker Marcel L’Herbier began production on L’Argent, a spectacular and controversial adaptation of an 1891 novel by Émile Zola. Set in the 1860s, the novel is based on the 1882 failure of Union Générale. The French bank’s stock value had risen by 600 percent over three years without the capital resources to match even a third of that value. After its collapse, the stock market subsequently crashed, plunging France into a decade-long recession.
L’Herbier recognized the 1920s with its global fascination with the stock markets as a perfect setting for Zola’s tale, updating it into a modern parable of avarice. L’Herbier replaced Zola’s African railway development speculation with a South American air route set up to discover untapped oil reserves. Many criticized L’Herbier’s tampering with the words of Zola, who was a major figure of the literary and theatrical naturalist movements. André Antoine, founder of Paris’s Théâtre Libre, argued that placing any of Zola’s fictions in a time period other than the Second Empire (1850–1872) was a travesty. L’Herbier, convinced that Zola’s story would survive the transformation, paid little heed.
L’Herbier discovered the possibilities of cinema when he was transferred to the army’s Paris-based film corps in 1917 during World War I. He later recalled seeing his first motion picture, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915), before being called up a year and a half into the war. Born in 1888 into a privileged Paris family, L’Herbier had artistic aspirations, and he took advantage of his fortunate military posting by writing screenplays, eventually gaining a commission for a propaganda film produced by French cinema pioneer Léon Gaumont. After the war, he produced six films for Gaumont before starting his own company, Cinégraphic, in 1922.
A suggestion by opera diva Georgette Leblanc led L’Herbier to produce L’Inhumaine (1924), a melodramatic fantasy about a heartless woman. Many French avant-garde artists were involved in the production, including composer Darius Milhaud, painter Fernand Léger, and architect Robert Mallet-Stevens. L’Inhumaine represented the blend of commercial and artistic sensibilities that marked the work of the French impressionist filmmakers that flourished in the silent era. Unfortunately, L’Inhumaine was a failure both critically and financially.
L’Argent was produced on an epic scale, rivaling films like Napoléon (1927) and Metropolis (1927). L’Herbier’s Cinégraphic set the film’s budget at three million francs, partnering with another French film company, Société des Cinéromans, to help raise the funds. To complete the financing and secure an international release, L’Herbier arranged for Germany’s Ufa to distribute the film.
Lazare Meerson and André Barsacq designed monumental sets to represent Parisian banks, restaurants, mansions, and penthouse apartments, which were constructed at the Pathé Frères studios in suburban Joinville, outside Paris. Cameraman Jules Kruger, who was director of photography on Abel Gance’s Napoléon, built an elaborate infrastructure of tracks and cranes for sweeping and disorienting camera movements.
L’Herbier took his cast and crew, including as many as 2,000 extras, on location to Le Bourget airport, the Place de l’Opéra, and the Bourse, Paris’s stock exchange. Kruger used large carbon-arc lights at the Place de l’Opéra. Inside the Bourse, which L’Herbier rented for his exclusive use over the three-day Pentecost holiday, Kruger constructed special camera rigs for tracking shots.
As part of the distribution deal with Ufa, L’Herbier cast two German performers in major roles, both fresh from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Born in 1879 in Leipzig, Alfred Abel was a forester and draftsman prior to becoming an accomplished stage performer. His first film, 1913’s Eine Venezianische Nacht (literally, “One Venetian Night”), was directed by well-known theater director Max Reinhardt. During his 24-year film career, Abel appeared in 140 films, including Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mary (the 1930 German-language version of Murder!). He died at the age of 58 in 1937.
The appearance of the 17-year-old Brigitte Helm a year earlier in Metropolis had established her as a star of German cinema. She also worked with high-profile director G.W. Pabst in The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927) and went on to star in 38 films between 1927 and her retirement in 1935. However, her enduring legacy is as a fantasy cinema icon, enhanced by roles such as the queen of the lost continent Atlantis in L’Atlantide (1932). In 1935, Helm left both the cinema and Germany, settling in Switzerland, after which she never spoke publicly about her acting career. She died at the age of 88 in 1996.
L’Argent was the final production of L’Herbier’s Cinégraphic company. Not as bold as L’Inhumaine, L’Argent still blended high art and commercial filmmaking, leaving both the avant-garde and average viewers confused by what the film was supposed to be: melodrama or surrealism. The film’s condemnation of the speculative stock market may also have turned off audiences enjoying the monetary fruits of the “irrational exuberance” of the 1920s. Curiously, the film found its largest contemporary audience in Germany, still suffering the privations brought on by war reparations the country was forced to pay in the wake of WWI.
By the time it was finished, L’Argent had cost L’Herbier and his partners five million francs, or 66 percent more than the original three million francs budgeted. L’Herbier’s original edit ran two hours and 40 minutes. Before its release, it was shortened significantly by co-producer Jean Sapène, the head of Société des Cinéromans. During production, the relationship between the two producers had collapsed, and L’Herbier was convinced that Sapène’s actions were intended to scuttle the film’s chance of success. After a lawsuit, L’Herbier was able to restore some, but not all, of the missing footage. After a 1979 restoration, a close approximation of L’Herbier’s final cut was seen by the public for the first time.
L’Argent was the first feature film to have a documentary made about its production. The 40-minute Autour de L’Argent, following the director and crew as they worked, is a groundbreaking depiction of the filmmaking process. Shot and edited by the then-22-year-old journalist Jean Dréville, the documentary was re-released in 1971 with new narration read by Dréville himself.
L’Herbier continued making films in the sound era and accepted as inevitable the Vichy regime installed by the Nazis in 1940. In the 1950s, he embraced the new medium of television, producing more than 200 documentaries, which broadcast between 1952 and 1969. He also founded France’s first national film school in 1943. Institut des hautes études cinémato-graphiques counts Louis Malle, Alain Resnais, and Costa Gavras among its graduates. In 1985, the school was renamed La Fèmis. L’Herbier died in 1979 in Paris, at the age of 91.
Presented at Silent Winter 2011 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra