Scriptwriters: Paul Dickey, Mann Page, Rex Taylor
Director: Alfred Santell
Cast: Theodore von Eltz, Ruth Stonehouse, Walter McGrail, Harry Fenwick, Marie Astaire, Ben Dealey, Ben Hewlett, Fred Kelsey, Hank Mann, Max Asher
In the 1920s, American cinema, or rather Hollywood one knows more about self-reflection than any other. At first glance, Hollywood films of those years, that touch on the theme of cinema, put the “American idea” into question, but in fact, they only confirm it. Whether it is King Vidor's “Show People”, Rupert Hughes's “Souls for Sale” (a symptomatic title!) or Alfred E. Green’s “Ella Cinders”, each of these films, in a melodramatic or comedic vein, is about young, naive people who head to Hollywood in search of fame.
In the 1920s, there is also another type of films about the industry, in which cinema is “embedded” in a variety of genre constructions, from detective to comedy. So, when Keaton makes the main meta-films of that time, “Sherlock Jr.” and “The Cameraman”, he continues an already rather robust tradition (which might include Chaplin’s “Behind the Screen” and Mack Sennett’s comedies that ridicule film cliches or whose action takes place against the backdrop of film sets).
Which makes the film “Lights Out” made by Alfred Santell in 1923 and shown in the USSR in 1928 all the more interesting. It not only absorbs the features of different types of films about cinema, but is also ahead of many in terms of time and thought. In a cleverly twisted story about the two thieves trying to take revenge on the leader of the gang who betrayed them, cinema acts both as an instrument of revenge and as a total trap not only for the chosen victim, but also for its creators. The main character, a young screenwriter Egbert Winslow, traveling to Hollywood with an armful of his writings, after meeting with the aforementioned couple, plans to create a detective film series using their professional help. The fraudsters foist on the scriptwriter the idea of a colorful hero, completely, in all details, based on their boss. The trap works: seeing himself on the screen, an enraged “High-Shine” Joe goes to Hollywood to kill Egbert. Upon arrival, he finds himself on the set, where he meets the actor playing him. At this moment, the direction of the narrative changes dramatically, and the detective story is replaced by a tragicomic farce with all its inherent features: doubles, pursuits, and the reshuffling of the real and the surreal.
The mixing of genres that takes place in “Lights Out”, the constant play with their conventions, is one of the distinguishing features of Alfred Santell’s work. Having started his film career as a handyman back in 1912, Santell (real name Samuelson) quickly became one of the prominent screenwriters, and then directors. In the late 1910s, Santell ended up at Universal. He returned there after the war, together with another aspiring director, Erich von Stroheim. Their two names, separated by commas, began to appear in the newspapers, and the studio had high hopes for the dramatic talent of Stroheim and the comedic talent of Santell.
Today Santell is known mainly for his late films from the 1930s–40s. Not all of his early films have survived. This makes the Soviet release copy of his first full-length film, recently found and attributed in our archive, all the more valuable.
A simpleton screenwriter Egbert Winslow has tried unsuccessfully to become famous in Hollywood. By chance, on the train, he meets two criminals who dream of taking revenge on a famous gangster. He betrayed them, stealing all the spoils after the robbery, and they ended up in prison because of him. The thieves incite Egbert to make a film about a robbery, which would accurately reproduce not only the appearance of the gangster, but all the circumstances of the crime.