An early surviving film from director Abel Gance and featuring both Séverin-Mars and Albert Dieudonné, this is a mad scientist comedy. The title character plays a trick on his nieces and their boyfriends by distorting reality itself, as one does.
Home Media Availability: Stream from Henri.
The Boob Tube
Imagine, if you will, that ten years before making The Godfather, Francis Ford Coppola teamed with Marlon Brando and Al Pacino to make a Jerry Lewis-style knockabout comedy short. That’s kind of what happened with The Madness of Dr. Tube.
A decade before Napoleon, Abel Gance was a young and enthusiastic director in his mid-twenties. He was in good graces with his producer and was given a free hand to make any picture he liked. Actors Séverin-Mars and Albert Dieudonné were part of the cast and Gance chose to experiment with filming his performers in a trick mirror. The result was The Madness of Dr. Tube. But this behind-the-scenes story did not have a happy ending…
Séverin-Mars plays Dr. Tube, a curious-looking creature indeed who experiments all day in his lab with only his young assistant for company. Tube’s nieces decide to pay a visit, which gives him an opportunity to use his new light distorting power on both the young women and their boyfriends. After more mirror-based shenanigans, which take up the bulk of the short’s runtime, all is returned to normal and Tube sticks his head in a birdcage.
This film is beloved. Oh brother is it beloved. And I can get behind a comedy as a vehicle for experimental filmmaking. I love The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, after all. The Madness of Dr. Tube has been called a precursor to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and a fair number of film historians believe that The Madness of Dr. Tube only failed because it was too daring for French audiences of the era.
My dears. I’m trying to be as polite as I can… French audiences of the silent era had seen dissolving skeleton wizards and clones being dismembered onscreen and all manner of camera tricks. Funhouse mirrors were well-known throughout the world. The audience would not have ignored The Madness of Dr. Tube because it was too daring. They would have ignored it because it had exactly one trick and repeated it interminably. (I should note that Gance stated The Madness of Dr. Tube was shelved.)
Gance was experimenting and that’s great. He continued his experiments and moved past mere trick mirrors. His cinematography is still astonishing. But, let’s be real here, he photographed a distorted mirror for the better part of twelve minutes.
The way The Madness of Dr. Tube is covered very much hits on my pet peeve of assuming that old timey movie audiences were rubes who were simultaneously impressed by literally anything that moved and terrified of any Capital “A” Art. In fact, many silent era moviegoers were smart and demanding cinephiles who knew exactly what they liked.
Much is made of the unusual story of The Madness of Dr. Tube but I feel that it fits neatly into the general French embrace of science fiction, especially humorous science fiction, and should be compared to the anarchic films of Jean Durand. I am an enormous fan of Durand’s Onésime series starring Ernest Bourbon and a mad scientist with light-bending powder would hardly be out of place.
Durand was responsible for the aforementioned dismemberment comedy in Onésime vs Onésime and in Onésime, Clockmaker, our hero decides to get his inheritance early by bending the laws of time and space.
Further, themes of transfiguration had been present in French cinema since the beginning. Heavily influenced by stage magic, both Georges Méliès and Segundo de Segundo de Chomón experimented with the very nature of reality itself. Physical distortion played a major role in Winsor McCay’s 1911 version of Little Nemo, thanks to the magic of animation.
(I’m also somewhat amused when a line is drawn between Dr. Tube’s white powder and cocaine, like it’s some kind of scandalous discovery. Drugs were everywhere in silent films of this period. White silly powder would not have been unusual or shocking.)
Parallels to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari are weak as well. The Spoiled Darling’s Doll has a stronger claim to being a Caligari forebear and I made that connection with my tongue firmly in cheek. If a mad scientist is all it takes to prefigure Caligari, well, get in line.
Gance viewed The Madness of Dr. Tube as something of a hill to die on. He was in the good graces of producer Louis Nalpas after coming in on time and under budget with an earlier picture and was given free rein for his next film. Gance had noticed the amusing ways distorting mirrors looked onscreen and wanted to use that effect for his next picture. He collaborated with the great cinematographer Léonce-Henri Burel to bring his vision to life. Nalpas and his business colleagues were horrified by the resulting short and Gance’s wings were clipped.
It’s difficult not to sympathize with Gance’s side of the story. A young and enthusiastic director’s joy nipped in the bud by cold business interests. That’s a story as old as movie studios themselves. However, two things could be true: Gance fell victim to the rising studio system and the film that was the catalyst was, in fact, not a very good picture.
This leads me to another pet peeve when discussing films: Understanding what the filmmaker was attempting does not automatically mean that they succeeded in what they were trying to do. This comes up repeatedly. “Well, they did this because it means XYZ.”
In the immortal words of Dan Hedaya in Joe vs. the Volcano: “I know he can get the job, but can he do the job?” Close only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades. Is it interesting to see an early experiment from a famous director? Yes, it is. But it’s okay to call it interesting and leave it at that.
The Madness of Dr. Tube is two minutes of movie in a twelve-minute sack. While it certainly has its fans, it seems that much of its acclaim has been retroactively assigned in light of Gance’s phenomenal later career and his David and Goliath tale of philistine studio interference. I do think that we need to at least examine the possibility that this is not a psychological experiment or an avant-garde artwork but, rather, simply a trick shot comedy that suffers from poor pacing.
When faced with a film like The Madness of Dr. Tube, we would do well to refer to David Macaulay’s satirical book The Motel of the Mysteries, in which an average 20th century American motel room is unearthed by 41st century archaeologists. Due to it being a rare intact example of such architecture, it is dubbed a burial vault, the toilet seat is believed to be a sacred collar and the television is an altar because all the furniture in the room is turned to face it.
Long story short: I don’t think it’s that deep. At least, not based on my experiences with French comedy of this era. Film historian Kevin Brownlow, one of Gance’s biggest champions, put it best in The Parade’s Gone By… when he described the film as a “self-indulgent romp with camera tricks” rather than having any profounder goal beyond the joy of experimentation.
Is it worth seeing? Yes, for Gance completists, especially in light of his own personal feelings toward the picture. But be prepared for an absurdly low steak-to-sizzle ratio.
Where can I see it?
Watch it online for free courtesy of Henri. There are English subs in the option bar.
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