The cinema is an invention without a future.
—attributed to Louis Lumière
According to the Library of Congress, more than 75 percent of all silent films have been lost. Much of that is due to the unstable medium itself—celluloid nitrate is both highly flammable and prone to decay. Every now and again, a film thought to be lost forever shows up somewhere in the world, in an archive drawer or as a foreign print sitting in a far-flung attic or basement.
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. Thought to be lost for many years, the film was rediscovered and now resides in the Filmoteca Espanola film archive. I've borrowed the germ of the film, and the title, for my own dramatic purposes.
Each morning, for more than thirty years, Claude Ballard returned to the hotel lobby with two cameras strapped across his chest and a tote bag full of foraged mushrooms and herbs. His long walking circuit took in Little Armenia, where he photographed rug sellers smoking cigarettes in the dawning light or, more recently, the homeless college dropouts and beat-niks along Sunset Boulevard, striplings, the doorman called them, the ambassadors of Hollywood ruin. This morning—a crisp sunny day in December of 1962—he'd also foraged up into the hills and canyons and now sat in his usual chair, leaning over a coffee table with a pair of nail scissors, trimming the stems of oyster mushrooms and the lacy fronds of wild fennel. He wore a threadbare glen plaid suit with Swiss mountaineering boots, a crumpled white handkerchief flaming like a moth orchid from his breast pocket.
* * *
His appointment was late so he began to delicately insert the trimmed plants into envelopes, the hotel manager's English setter, Elsie, nuzzled and sleeping at his feet. Claude could remember a lineage of hotel setters and bloodhounds, purebreds that slept in the lobby and rode the elevators when they were bored or hungry. Speck, the first mascot, was a forager in his own right, moving between the eleven floors where residents and guests left out their breakfast dishes. D. W. Griffith, who'd made the first American epic, used to coax Speck into his room with bacon and eggs. When he died of a stroke under the lobby chandelier in 1948, all but forgotten, the dog kept vigil outside his room every morning for a month.
* * *
Claude watched Elsie breathe and twitch at his feet, transported into a dream chase, he imagined, by the smell of damp underbrush and ragweed that clung to his trousers and boots. He looked out through the glass doors for a sign of his visitor, but only the doorman, Sid, was standing there in his gold-trimmed cap and epaulets. From this vantage point, he appeared to Claude like a war-weary admiral standing alone on a dock, staring out to sea, hands clasped behind his back. He still dressed as if he opened doors for Bob Hope and Jack Benny.
* * *
But the truth was the Knickerbocker Hotel's best days were far behind it. If the lobby had once resembled an elegant Spanish Colonial outpost, with its stenciled, hand-painted ceilings and Moorish tapestries, it now resembled a Madrid funeral home on hard times. Frayed cordovan carpets, dusty ferns in copper pots, velvet gondola couches marooned in pools of fifteen-watt lamplight. Celebrities once sat in easy chairs smoking cigars or reading Variety, but now an unemployed screenwriter was taking his pet iguana for a morning stroll and Susan Berg, an actress of the silent era, stood in her robe whispering a monologue to an empty chaise lounge.
* * *
Over the rim of Claude's bifocals, Susan appeared as a winking silhouette, a corona of daylight streaming in behind her from the street. Her words were mostly lost, her face turned away, her voice soft and worn. She delivered this speech a few mornings a week, always in the same alcove, where insurance clerks or secretaries on their way to the Guaranty Office Building might glimpse her through the front windows. These were the last lines she'd ever spoken on camera, dialogue intended not to be heard but to be printed on inter-title cards. Claude sometimes caught a single phrase or word from the murmured speech, and the line Why single me out for revenge? had stayed with him. She'd told him that it was from a 1922 Western called Comanche Bride', but Claude couldn't recall it. By the time of its release, his directing days were over and the medium was dead to him.
* * *