Book Review: The Electric Hotel – Where’s the Spark?

Historical fiction by Dominic Smith, author of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, uses "a germ" of film history

Scene from El hotel eléctrico by Segundo de Chomón (Wiki Commons PD: 1908). Watch the full eight minutes on YouTube.)
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Released just today (June 6, 2019), the historical novel The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith tells a story from the earliest days of silent cinema. I was drawn to the book because I’m something of a movie buff (I know enough to be dangerous about filmmaking technology), and I’m both an author and a rabid fan of historical fiction. I received an advance copy of the book from NetGalley, and I was jazzed when I read the introductory “Author’s Note.” Smith discloses, “The Electric Hotel is the name of a silent ‘trick film’ made by the early Spanish director Segundo de Chomón, and released as El hotel eléctrico in 1908.” And like the majority of films made during that era, this one was assumed to be lost. But a print has been discovered and restored. Wow! I was expecting I’d get a behind-the-scenes story of the making of this seminal cinematic work. But I was to be disappointed. I should have picked up the clue from Smith’s own admission. He goes on to say, “I’ve borrowed the germ of the film, and the title, for my own dramatic purposes.” The key here is the germ. The title and a few superficial details are all he borrowed. The story’s main characters and its plot – while based generally on broad-brush history – are almost entirely fanciful.

The Electric Hotel by Dominic Smith (Sarah Crichton Books: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

How much should historical fiction be based on fact? I suspect answers will vary. Most readers just want a good story, don’t they? Okay, I’ll tell you what bothered me, and you decide.

The actual Electric Hotel is an eight-minute short with a sci-fi premise: A couple check into a hotel that is wired to automate all kinds of menial tasks. (You can watch it on YouTube.) Their suitcases unpack themselves, an animated brush gives the man a shoeshine, a disembodied comb coifs the woman’s hair, and the fellow gets a shave and a haircut from a razor that floats in the air. Then, the denouement: Cut to the basement, where something goes wrong in the hotel’s complex electric powerplant, the engine of the wonders. On the upper floors, things go haywire – suitcases and sundry objects go flying in all directions. We’re left with the recurring sci-fi theme: Seemingly benign technology can turn on its creators.

By contrast, Smith’s Electric Hotel is an hour-long horror movie – claimed by its makers to be one of the first features at a time when D. W. Griffith was only thinking about making even longer epics like his three-hour Birth of a Nation. Smith retains the stop-motion photographic trick of making bags appear to unpack themselves. That’s the only similarity I could find. His creepy hotel is inhabited by a beautiful seductress witch who lures traveling businessmen to their demise. (They check in, but they don’t check out.) Also included for eye-candy appeal are a live tiger, a dirigible hovering in the sky, and a daredevil stuntman who sets himself on fire and leaps from amazing heights.

But my main complaint about Smith’s narrative has nothing to do with historical accuracy. My heartaches over this book are flaws of basic storytelling. As you might expect from his name, the main character, filmmaker Claude Ballard, bears no resemblance to Segundo de Chomón. Ballard is a fictional amalgam of many early cinematographers. He is a bland, almost expressionless fellow. Apparently the only way he can express himself is by choosing where to point his camera. But we get almost nothing from Smith about the man’s creative process or artistic aspirations. He becomes hopelessly fascinated with a gorgeous theatrical star, the fictional Sabine Montrose. He will eventually cast her as the black-widow lead in his pioneering feature. (Chomón was married to his star Julienne Mathieu, who stars in his short, but this is another superficial parallel.) Smith presents Ballard’s lust for his leading lady as a fact without much explanation or illustration. Yes, she’s beautiful and movie fans flock to see her naked, but why Ballard can think of her and no one else is left to the reader’s imagination. As a result, I developed no affinity for Ballard. He’s passive but not aggressive, so he’s not even malicious enough to be an antihero. He aspires to nothing except to put images on highly perishable nitrate film stock.

Australian-born novelist Dominic Smith now makes his home in Seattle (Allen & Unwin). His other historical novels include The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, also about film history.

And here’s my other key complaint: A bit more than halfway through the book, the making-of movie plot is abruptly cut off. It’s only a modest spoiler to let you know that Ballard’s feature-film distribution is halted by legal action from none other than Thomas Alva Edison. (Here’s another undisputed fact: Edison held patents on several elements of film manufacturing and distribution, and he defended his rights viciously.) So, however much you may be rooting for the emotional attachment between Ballard and Montrose, they separate abruptly. (During the movie shoot, they have been married, but not for romantic reasons.)

Ballard, a Frenchman, makes his way back to Europe. World War I is raging there, and he ventures to Belgium to get documentary footage of the atrocities inflicted by the German invaders.

I won’t relate the rest of the story nor offer details about colorful supporting characters. Smith’s prose is artful and at times baroque, and for this bold choice in a marketplace of plain-vanilla pulp writing, he has my respect. And I can think of two pardonable artistic reasons why he may have committed to the two narrative choices I’m here pointing out as flaws.

Both choices underscore the treacheries of the emerging film medium.

As to Claude Ballard’s infuriatingly bland character, Smith may be saying filmmakers are wide-eyed gawkers, shameless witnesses. Audiences will find emotions in the imagery, as they did in Garbo’s closeups, when her director was mainly concerned with how he lit her face.
And as to pulling us out of the pre-Hollywood story and into the horrors of war, we learn this: Cinema pioneers first crafted fantasies to amuse or shock but would soon find out that live-action visual media could captivate millions simply by shooting the news.

Gerald Everett Jones is a novelist whose books include Bonfire of the Vanderbilts and Preacher Finds a Corpse.

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