#294) The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra (1927)

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#294) The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra (1927)

OR “Walk-On, Bye”

Directed & Written by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapić

Class of 1997

The Plot: Mr. Jones (Jules Raucourt) arrives in Hollywood with dreams of making it big as an actor. When he meets with the studio, he has the number 9413 written on his forehead and is designated an extra. Endless casting calls always end with rejection, even though seemingly everyone around Jones has found success, including one actor (Voya George) with a drawing of a star on his forehead. There’s plenty of symbolism and visual treats in one of the earliest experimental films to come out of Hollywood.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “one of the most creative…and bleakest of the early avant-garde films.” There’s an all-encompassing essay by Library of Congress archivist Brian Taves.

But Does It Really?: Yeah, I dig it. “9413” has carved out a niche for itself in film history as the rare mainstream experimental film, and a silent one at that. The whole film is wonderfully stylized – from the art direction to the acting – and I can only imagine what a revolutionary viewing experience this must have been in its day. There’s a lot of symbolism going on in the film, but Florey and Vorkapić make it all accessible enough that even the casual viewer can make their own interpretation. “9413” never gets the attention of other movies (avant-garde or otherwise), but it’s definitely worthy of preservation, as well as a viewing or two.

Everybody Gets One: Robert Florey came to Hollywood from his native France in 1921 as a film journalist. He had an idea for a film about a struggling actor in Hollywood, but it never came to anything until he was inspired by a performance of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. He pitched the idea to cinematographer Slavko Vorkapić, who used his connections to get a camera and film for the production. How much Vorkapić ultimately contributed to “9413” is still up for debate.

Wow, That’s Dated: As longtime readers know, I love adjusting prices in movies for inflation. I find it helps make these older movies a bit more accessible, and the realization of just how awful the inflation rate has skyrocketed over the years gives you a good cathartic cry. Anyway, food in “9413” goes for anywhere from five to fifteen cents ($0.73 to $2.18 today), and Jones’ rent is $49 ($710.89 today).

Other notes

  • The film got a general release thanks to Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin was friends with Robert Florey, and was so impressed with “9413” that he held a private screening at his house for such Hollywood heavyweights as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, and producer Joseph M. Schenck, who got the film screened at the United Artitsts Theater in New York. While there, the film was picked up by the Film Booking Offices of America (aka FBO Pictures) and shown in 700 theaters in North America and Europe.
  • The film’s co-cinematographer is credited simply as “Gregg”. My instinct was correct: it’s Gregg Toland, then working as an assistant cinematographer at Samuel Goldwyn Studio, and a few short years away from his own legendary run of classics (see “Legacy” below).
  • Both directors make cameo appearances in the film. Florey is the casting director, and Vorkapić is the man walking up the never-ending stairway to Success (get it?).
  • The trees shown during Jones’ breakdown look an awful lot like the Spiral Hill from “Nightmare Before Christmas” (yep, that’s the official name of that thing).
  • How different would this whole film be if SAG had been a thing back then?
  • It’s not a spoiler if it’s in the title. Does Jones actually die at the end, or is he just dead in Hollywood? Heaven might not be literal heaven, but rather the world outside of show business, where Jones is no longer identified by a number. I’ve yet to see that interpretation anywhere online, so what do you eggheads think of that?

Legacy

  • Robert Florey was able to parlay the positive reception “9413” received into a steady job directing B-movies for the next 25 years. Among his accomplishments were “The Cocoanuts” (the first feature starring the Marx Brothers), and future NFR entry “Daughter of Shanghai”.
  • Slavko Vorkapić was offered a job with Paramount’s special effects department shortly after “9413” was released. He then became a freelance montage editor, whose work includes the montages in “David Copperfield” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”.
  • The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) bought out FBO in October 1928. That same month, RCA merged FBO with motion picture chain Keith-Albee-Orpheum to form a new movie studio: Radio-Keith-Orpehum, better known as RKO Pictures.
  • Ironically, once Hollywood transitioned to sound, leading man Jules Raucourt found himself demoted to film extra.
  • Gregg Toland went on to shoot “Citizen Kane”, “The Grapes of Wrath” and “The Best Years of Our Lives”, just to name a few of his more obscure titles.
  • Robert Florey expanded the original short into the feature-length comedy “Hollywood Boulevard” in 1936. While also visually impressive, the general consensus is to stick with the original.

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