Storytellers is an ongoing attempt to tease out bits of history or literature that would make damned good films. Because if we throw enough ideas out there, Hollywood might accidentally make something good.
“At the pre-emptory request of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the past nine years and ten months of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States.” -Joshua Norton
After a decade of business missteps left him destitute, on September 17, 1859, San Francisco resident Joshua Norton issued a proclamation in San Francisco newspapers (who printed it as a joke) that he was declaring himself the emperor of the United States, ordering the armed forces to immediately dissolve Congress, and for the representatives of the various states to meet at the San Francisco music hall for him to work out arrangements of government. Not surprisingly, the military did not comply, and representatives did not appear at the designated meeting. What might have been an amusing footnote in a busy news week turned into a novelty that lasted over a two decades as the city accepted him and he began issuing regular proclamations, printing his own currency and bank bonds, selling them to tourists. Various local establishments accepted his currency as legal tender.
It’s two stories nestled as one. A madman, buried in his own delusions, taking a stand on what he thought was right and just. In his madness, he was everything a sovereign should be: kind, patient, gentle, fired with righteous anger. He was an idiot savant of charity, living solely on the generosity of others. They say that only men who want no power at all are fit to hold it, that the only way to earn power is to be entrusted with it and then use it wisely, ex post facto privilege. Norton was that peculiar sort of sovereign, the ruler in exile, all proclamations and bluster without an ounce of tangible power. But he strove to earn the power he insisted was his denied right. His highness wandered the city and performed inspections, intervening on occasion when ethnic riots threatened to erupt in the Chinese quarter. The beautiful metaphor of the story is that Norton took on the mantle of everything a democratic citizen should be in his masquerade as emperor. A government of the people, the people as assembled emperors.
It is also the story of a city though, a people invested with a certain kindness that is all too rare throughout history. Nine times out of ten, this story ends with Norton dying anonymously in a gutter, teeth kicked in or lungs giving out under a final fatal bout of pneumonia. Cultures around the world have revered the icon of the mad prophet, blessing Loki’s many guises with the right to speak truth to power. Norton was embraced by a city, honored. The police saluted him as he passed on the street. The finest restaurants welcomed him every day, charging his royal highness not a dime for the meals, but proudly hanging plaques attesting to his patronage. Theaters and shows would hold seats for the emperor on opening nights.
But they were not laughing at him, no. He was not playing the fool and they were not winking as they played an audience. Norton did not exploit the generosity of the city, dying with nothing to his name but trinkets, spare change and forged letters from kings and queens. 30,000 people streamed to his funeral, over a tenth of the city in an age before electricity birthed celebrities.
The danger in making the film is that it would either be turned into a grift or a vehicle for feeling sorry for the nut job. To get at the heart of this story would require a deft screenplay that avoided the screenwriter’s 101 short cuts of setting up a pretty young lady (alluded to be his long lost daughter) who exists solely to worry about Norton, or a corrupt city commissioner (alluded to as the one responsible for Norton’s original destitution and thus madness) to play obvious antagonist. This is not the story of a man so much as it is the story of a collective fever dream of something grand and impossible. The key insight is that Norton himself is a fundamentally static character, who after the initial snap, evolves very little over the course of the story. The evolution all occurs in the attitude of the city. There is a curious minor figure in the tale, a young police officer who once arrested Norton in order to force him to get treatment for his mental disorder, who would serve as an ideal narrator. Tell the story from his point of view, moving from scoffing, to caring, to ultimate acceptance of a dream.
Casting our young officer would be straightforward. There is no preconceived notion of his build or appearance, so it would be an acceptably meaty role for any number of young actors coming out of the indie circuit. Norton would be an interesting role to cast because the pathos of the character hinges on the fact that he is everything that a sprung from nowhere emperor should not be. Somewhere around 40-60, homely, pudgy. The leading men with charm oozing out of their pecs need shewed away from this role. Paul Giamatti might be an interesting choice, and as a nice dark horse Stephen Toblowski would fit. Jeff Bridges might be the most perfect fit, bringing a bit of the Dude and a bit of Bad Blake. Bill Murray would be an interesting choice too, so long as he checked the goof at the door and channeled the sad clown. Of course, it’s exactly the sort of biopic that would catch the eye of somebody like Travolta going Oscar trolling, or horror of horrors, Robin Williams.
“Everybody understands Mickey Mouse. Few understand Hermann Hesse. Only a handful understood Albert Einstein. And nobody understood Emperor Norton.” -Principia Discordia
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.