Born an illegitimate son of a wealthy physician, Abel Flamant, and a working class mother, Francoise Perethon. He was raised by his mother and her boyfriend, who later became her husband, Adolphe Gance. Pressured by his parents, he began his working career as a lawyer’s clerk in hopes of achieving a prosperous career in law. But his passion for the theatre lured him to the stage and at 19 he made his stage debut in Brussels. Within a year, after returning to Paris, he made his screen debut as an actor in Moliere (1909). He made other film appearances in minor roles as well as taking a crack at screen-writing.
Living in poverty during this period in his life, he suffered from starvation and tuberculosis. But he regained strength enough to form a production company in 1911, and made his debut as a director that same year with La Digue (1911). However, like the rest of his early films, it was unsuccessful and as a consequence, he returned to the stage with a five-hour long play, Victoire de Samothrace, which he wrote himself. It was due to be a success with Sarah Bernhardt in the lead role, but the sudden outbreak of WWI canceled the premiere.
Due to his ill health he was kept out of most of the war. During this time he managed to achieve a profitable status at the Film d’Arte company as a director. He turned out such successful films as Mater Dolorosa (1917) and La Dixieme Symphonie (1918), but he gained a reputation at Film d’Arte as a wild experimentalist – using such outlandish techniques for the time as close-ups and dolly shots. As a consequence, he was frequently at odds with the management. At the point of being one of the most well known film directors in France, he entered the tail end of WWI. He was discharged shortly after due to mustard gas poisoning. But he requested that he be redrafted so that he could shoot on-location battle scenes for his latest idea for a film J’Accuse/I Accuse (1919). The three-hour long, triangular melodrama about the “futility of war” became a box-office smash all over Europe. It was Europe’s first fictional film to show authentic footage of the catastrophes of war. Being an experimentalist, he employed a rapid cutting technique that is said to have influenced such Russian filmmakers as Sergei Eisenstein and Pudovkin.
During the making of his next film, La Roue (1922), he and his second wife, Ida Danis, fell ill with the flu. Although he recovered and worked on the film in stages, his wife did not – she died shortly before the film’s release. Grieved by death of his wife and friend, actor Severin Mars, who starred in many of his films, he fled Europe and sailed to America. The trip turned out to be a nationwide promotion of I Accuse. He recalls that he did not like the Hollywood filmmaking system and refused an offer from MGM to direct for a hefty sum. The happiest moment was D.W. Griffith’s praise of I Accuse at a screening in New York.
Returning to France, Gance released the final cut of La Roue to much acclaim, especially for its montage sequence. His most important and outstanding film is Napoleon (1927). Considered to be a dictionary of all the techniques of the silent film era and an introduction to some techniques to come. It was shot using a three-camera panoramic process that involves the use of three projectors and a curved windscreen to create a deep, vast panoramic look. A couple thousand extras were used to fill the shots. Being the experimentalist that he was, he shot scenes in color, more than a decade before Hollywood would make The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939) in color, and in 3-D. But he decided against incorporating them into the film in fear that they would jar the audience’s attention. The film received a standing ovation the night of its premiere at the Paris Opera. It was then shown only in 8 European cities due to the expensive and technical apparatus and large size theatre needed to project the film. In the US, MGM purchased the distribution rights and elected not to show the film using the three projector windscreen equipment, claiming that it would interfere with the introduction of sound. Nonetheless, that doesn’t explain why MGM decided to drastically cut the film and rearrange it. As a consequence, the general release in the US was a not a success, audiences laughed at the film and critics panned it. It was the last film of Gance’s career that was to possess that magnitude of creativeness. His sound films were mainly done for studios, where he lacked the ability to be creative. He would return to Napoleon a couple times in his career. In 1934 he added stereophonic sound effects to the original film using a Pictographe. He had criticized film historians throughout the rest of his life for not giving his film Napoleon (1927) the attention it deserves. Finally, British director Kevin Brownlow spent two decades doing the arduous task of putting the film back together in its original format. It was first screened in London using the three projector format with a score composed and conducted by Carl Davis in 1979. Francis Ford Coppola produced the screenings at the Radio City Hall in the US, in 1981 to much acclaim. His father Carmine Coppola, composed and conducted the score in the US. Finally, Napoleon (1927) and its director received the respect they deserve.