Wednesday, May 13, 2015

For the Love of Film 2015 Film Preservation Blogathon - Aelita

Ferdy on Films is again one of the hosts of the For the Love of Film preservation blogathon.  The theme this time around is sci-fi. Be sure to visit our host blogger Ferdy on Films to check out the excellent posts by some really fine film bloggers!   Blast Off! 

More importantly!  You MUST donate, $1, $5, $50, any dollar amount will do some good to help save and preserve another film.  

My contribution is a musing on Aelita Queen of Mars (1924) a Soviet-Sci-Fi extravaganza.  Sadly, life, visitors from overseas and several illnesses back to back kept me from watching the film again. This post is not at all what I initially intended!

I first saw Aelita at the Castro Theater in the 1990's during one of the film festivals.  I *think* it was the SF International Film Festival.  Dennis James played the film with his own score on the organ and a vintage theremin.  I wish I could remember the name of his percussionist, but, dammit I am old! 

It was a fabulous evening at the movies.  Dennis studied under Clara Rockmore (student and the very best artist to wield a theremin) and his score was magnificent.  A showman always, I remember the score better than I do the actual plot of the film!  

The film is entirely Soviet with enough propaganda for any commrade.  After all, the film begins with strange messages from out space and no other nation has the guts and where-with-all to make the effort by the ever glorious Soviet Republic! That and a thrwarted romance or two.  It is a must see!

This film is also a triumph of incredible expressionistic and wacky design.  With settings on Mars, angular and massive, you can spend hours ignoring the themes and stories and just wallow in the details.  The stills here do not do the film justice.  You simply MUST see the costumes in movement.

It is one of the early science fiction films to venture out in space and visit alien life.  Well, so it was 22 years after Georges Melies A Trip to the Moon (also pretty darn spectacular). 

To watch Aelita, it's not on DVD presently in the US.  It had been previously released by KINO on VHS.  Not a great way to see the film, but here is a youtube of the KINO release.  Let's hope Flicker Alley will release it anew in conjunction with David Shepard.

To further whet your appetite, here are some stills and screen grabs.  Just imagine if this were all that were left of this marvelous film?  This is why your donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation during this blogathon, or any other of the 365 days a year are needed.  If we had only stills to remind us and wonder about this film, what a loss it would be.  Sadly, so much of the world cinematic heritage is lost forever.  Every day new discoveries are made in archives across the globe.  But, it is money that drives the wheels of restoration.  Please do your part to help!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

On the Bedside Table

Per usual, I am dipping into more than one book at a time, perhaps not the most efficient way to read and absorb, but, that is always how it has been with me.  Before I get started on what I am currently reading, let me begin with an announcement of a new book coming down the pike. 

I am very excited about this one.  In the interest of full disclosure, the author is a very dear friend of mine.  I've been watching this project gestate and am thrilled to announce a new biography of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. by Tracey Goessel entitled The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks.  It's coming out in October and you can order it by hitting the link above.  Having read an early draft of the manuscript, I can state without reservation, this will be a terrific read!  Tracey is the foremost collector of Douglas Fairbanks and has utilized some amazing material housed in her massive collection for this book, stuff that has never before been seen. 

I just recently finished Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen.  This certainly was a page-turner. I had no problem with the switch between the Lombard biography and the events leading up to the crash. I found the biography of Lombard to be "bio-lite" easy to skim and clearly cribbed from the sources. It was also rather scanty, which is fine.  The tome would have been much longer and only adding pages and no new material really.  The meat of the research went into the files on the crash, recovery the aftermath, and final investigation, this was very good. I like that he gave names and stories of the other victims of this accident, Lombard was the big name, but there were others on board. That was nice, it completed the story.

Where the author completely lost me had to do with either ridiculously easy errors in the text to correct such as the oft-repeated "Robert Stack Academy Award Winner," no he was a nominee. The real deal breaker for me were the pages and pages where the author put himself in Clark Gable's head and was expressing thoughts, feelings and memories of Lombard for which he had no source. I suppose it was to make Gable a more human tragic figure, but, it made me groan. The notes in the kindle edition were scanty and I assume the same in the brick and mortar version.  It was a fast read, nicely paced.  Buy it here.

Just when you thought the final word on Buster Keaton had been written, you come across this richly detailed and meticulously researched book. Buster Keaton's Crew The Team Behind His Silent Films by Lisle Foote highlights and shines the spotlight on the unsung heroes who worked, played baseball, helped create, supported, and filmed Buster Keaton. This is one of those books, a must for the silent film fan, and, the Keaton aficionado in particular. Scrupulously researched, there are a thousand stories hidden here. A must have for any Keaton Damfino or fan of silent film, you will see many many familiar names among the "players" and it is an absorbing read.  Buy it here.

I read this several months ago, Hope: Entertainer of the Century by  Richard Zoglin.  It was a very readable book. I think the problem with the entire book is simply the fact that Bob Hope controlled his public persona and that was solely what was presented in his own books (ghostwritten or not) as well as here. You get the shtick and not the man down deep. The author mentions that Hope was not what you would call introspective. Certainly not in public. Plenty of people who worked with Hope have been interviewed, neverheless, there is no real depth or examination. I enjoyed the book a good deal as a chronicle of Hope's career, his early years and struggle to rise to the top was most interesting to me as it was the period that was so little known. As an examination of what made Bob Hope tick just is not there. It seems Hope never let his hair down and revealed the inner man, even to his surviving children. He did a lot of good work, made some good films and he worked tirelessly for the men and women in uniform overseas. I suspect this is the most thorough book on Hope that will likely be written. My feelings at the end are somewhat ambivalent about the man and I certainly did not agree with his politics. But, that is neither here nor there, it's a free country!  I suspect I will go watch They Got Me Covered or My Favorite Brunette and I will laugh and enjoy the movies and that, will be just fine.

I've got a bun in the oven right now, more on Rudolph Valentino.  How much more can there be, you ask?  Well, there is a thorough examination of his career and his reception across the world.  Slated to complete in 2016, here is my shameless announcement and a link to the Facebook page if you want to keep up with the progress

Invisible Stripes 1939

William Holden, George Raft and Humphrey Bogart
 1939 is a year that is held up as being the greatest in classic Hollywood.  With the release of films like The Wizard of Oz, The Women, Gone with the Wind, Dark Victory, and seemingly countless others, it was a magical year.  Invisible Stripes, also released in 1939, is not one of them.  It's as much of a dog in many ways as MGM's silly Ice Follies of 1939, with none of the camp.


I make no secret of my love for the films of Warner Brothers and I love a crime film.  Nothing like a good gangster flick.  You have to give Invisible Stripes an A for effort.  For me it did not work out so well.

George Raft and Jane Bryan in a publicity shot for Invisible Stripes
George Raft plays Cliff Taylor,  an ex-con who wants to go straight.  After being released from prison and on parole, he finds it hard to find and hold a job due to his criminal past. Cliff's younger brother Tim, played by a very green William Holden, is worried because he cannot afford to marry his girlfriend Peggy, played by Jane Bryan.  Tim is also disillusioned about being able to make a mark for himself in the world honestly. Cliff while he struggles to get how own life in order, is worried Tim might end up leading a life of crime like himself.  Tim is a hothead and in a hurry to be a success.  After Cliff gets fired from his job at the garage, he tells the family he is working as a salesman.  In truth, he is back working with fellow ex-con and gangster, Charles Martin, played by Humphrey Bogart, and they organize a number of robberies. 

With the dough he gets from his criminal activities, Cliff is able to buy a garage for his brother, who is now able to get married. Cliff, in the meantime, decides to quit the gang. However, after a failed robbery, Martin and his pals hide in Tim's garage. The police find out about this and Tim is arrested and taken to the police station. Cliff manages to exonerate his brother from the charges, but in exchange Tim has to identify the robbers and testify against them. Before the police can proceed to arrest Martin, Cliff meets him in his house and tells him to escape before being caught. However, Martin's pals, seeing their boss and Cliff together, believe that they are trying to escape and kill them both.

This is a standard Warner b-ganster film directed in a breezy style by journeyman Lloyd Bacon.  For me there is the immediate fail in my own suspension of disbelief in believing Raft as a noble son trying to make good.  Raft shot to stardom in the 1932 potboiler Scarface, a good deal of it based on his looks which were similar to the late Rudolph Valentino.  Raft was a graceful dancer (see the ridiculous and fun Bolero with Carole Lombard), but he was never much of an actor, if you ask me. 

Flora Robson and George Raft
In Invisible Stripes, curiously, his best scenes (to me) are with the totally miscast and wonderful Flora Robson as his mother.  Robson a good 6-7 years younger than Raft, still manages to pull off the elderly mother and both are seen at their best in the sequence at the employee dance where Raft is guiding her across the floor in excellent taxi-dancer style (he had experience in this regard).  She would fare much better in Samuel Goldwyn's 1939 offering of Wuthering Heights as Ellen.  She is the heart and soul of that film, to me.  

Holden is pretty during his Golden Boy days, but, still very green and awkward.  Bogart in one of his last smaller gangster roles does well and dies well, as usual.  He broke out of character in 1939's Dark Victory as Michael the Irish (by way of NY) accented horse trainer to Bette Davis' edgy and ethereal Judith Traherne.  Jane Bryan is totally serviceable as Holden's girlfriend as is Lee Patrick doing a turn as Bogart's moll.  Patrick has some of the best snappy dialogue in the film, this is no surprise.  It's also surprising that post code, some of it was let to slide.  Is it worth seeing, yes.  Is it Warner Brothers best effort in 1939, no.

Raft and Bogart filming their opening scene in the prison showers.
If legends are true, Raft turned down The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, instead he made They Drive by Night and Manpower, which certainly do have their finer points.  Not a wise man in making career decisions, nevertheless, I take him as I find him.  I think in 1939's Each Dawn I Die he is every bit an equal of James Cagney (who never disappoints).  Who can blame him for wanting to break the gangster mold? 

That Raft was good looking is sometime enough, he played hardboiled, plain and simple delivery, and when he smiled he could turn on the charm.  Perhaps I should not complain, but, in this film Raft is not even as memorable as Jack La Rue was in much smaller parts during this period.  Speaking of which, if you want to see a film with La Rue that is more plot and more unbelievable, go for the U.K. produced gangster film No Orchids for Miss Blandish.  It is a kick in the pants and a bit of a head twister, too.

Friday, March 27, 2015

EPIC Films for the 20th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival

It's hard to believe that it has been 20 years since the first San Francisco Silent Film Festival!  Who would have believed the festival could have grown so much and thrived?  Yeah, we all thought so!  Congratulations to the San Francisco Silent film Festival, from the earliest days to the present Board members and staff, it's been a great ride!  This year, looks like a great ride, as well.  Start off by buying your fesitval pass here, do it now.

The program is varied, interesting and has a nice balance of foreign delights as well as some truly fabulous warhorses! 

All Quiet on the Western Front
The program opens with the silent version of Lewis Milestone's incredible All Quiet of the Western Front starring Lew Ayres and Louis Wolheim and Ben Alexander. Rarely seen in the silent version, this is a not to miss opener for the Festival.

We start the weekend proper with another episode of Amazing Tales from the Archive, the festival free program I always enjoy.  The first Friday film will be a Chinese silent film Cave of the Spider Woman from 1927 recently repatriated to China from Norway.  The few stills and frame grabs I've seen look great!

Cave of the Spider Woman

San Francisco Board President Rob Byrne and EYE restored a 1913 Lubin film When the Earth Trembled, set in San Francisco at the time of the great earthquake in 1906.  It should be interesting to see a take on the disaster and tragedy so soon after the actual events.

Italian Poster for When the Earth Trembled
The great German actor Emil Jannings returns to San Francisco (virtually) in one of his great silent films directed by F.W. Murnau, The Last Laugh.

Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh

Another highly anticipated film (for me anyway) will be the 1927 German/UK film The Ghost Train.   Stranded travelers in a haunted train station, I am all about that!

This year we see the return of Harold Lloyd in one of my favorite of his comedies, Speedy. It is speedy so be preapred for a whirlwind!

Those who remember Gribiche from a few years ago will be pleased to see another Jacques Feyder film on the schedule.  This one also starring the remarkable Jean Forest in Visage D'Enfants.  I won't be missing it!  

Frank Capra is represented by not one of his silent films, but a talkie that is missing the soundtrack entitled The Donovan Affair.  I know this will be a crowd pleaser with the live actors and live sound effects, but, it's not a silent film!  Just silent by virtue of a lost track.  Oh well, I'm robbed of hearing Agnes Ayres real voice.  This also reunites Ayres and Jack Holt as they co-starred in Paramount's lost film Don't Call it Love (with Nita Naldi).  I know I will enjoy this, too, just being a curmudgeon at the moment!

Clarence Brown's 1927 Flesh and Devil is the film that started one of the most torrid affairs in Hollywood, at least for the 1920's.  Starring John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, you can really see them fall in love on screen and it does smoulder! The film also stars Lars Hanson, who is also fabulous in this film. 

Director Clarence Brown and Greta Garbo pose for a gag shot during the filming of Flesh and the Devil.
Then we are treated to a Norwegian film, Pan, "a story of simple overwhelming attraction."  I do not know anything about this film or anyone in it.  Going on faith here!

Day 4 (Sunday) starts with four shorts by The Amazing Charlie Bowers, presented by Serge Bromberg, I am NOT going to miss this! Serge Bromberg is a great showman himself, so this you get two for the price of one kind of entertainment.

After the amazing comedies of Charley Bowers, we get to relax with Avant Garde Paris, Man Ray and Dimitri Kirsanoff.  I am looking forward to Stephen Horne playing for these in particular.

Colleen Moore, popular in the past in Her Wild Oat also returns for the 20th festival in the recently restored Why Be Good? Should be good! 

Trade Advert for Why Be Good?
Also in the line up is a Swedish comedy Norrtullsligan about female office workers who share a flat and work in a man's world. 

Then comes the most anticipated film of the weekend, William Gillette in the 1916 Sherlock Holmes.  Long thought to be lost, recently and miraculously rediscovered.  Now we can see the man who really brought Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes to life.  How I wish Benedict Cumberbatch (pant pant) or Mark Gatiss would be joining us to introduce it, but, I know we will be all the better and happier because the esteemed Russell Merritt will be!

The Swallow and the Titmouse lay dormant for 60+ years, restored and recreated in 1979 this will be a non-missable.

The final day begins  with another free program which will be a silent film quiz "So you think you know silents."  I will play and likely not win anything, but it will be fun!

I've seen Blanche Sweet in only a few films, so The Deadlier Sex (1920) is going to be a real treat.  Looks like a riff on Smoldering Fires (1925) or Female (1936) and the added bonus of a cameo/bit with Boris Karloff early in his career.  I love Boris!

Next to Sherlock Holmes one of the most exciting and significant finds is the Bert Williams 1913 unfinished feature Lime Kiln Field Day.  Preserved and reconstructed this will be a one of a kind opportunity for the geekiest of film geeks.  Bert Williams was a huge star in his day and this formerly lost and forgotten footage is going to be a real eye opener.  I am very much looking forward to this. 

Finally, to close out the festival Kevin Brownlow will be interviewed "in conversation" with Serge Bromberg prior to the screening of Ben-Hur.  The print is Photoplay Productions restoration, so I expect Patrick Stanbury will be on hand as well.  The screening of Ben-Hur will be a trademarked Photoplay Productions "Live Cinema" presentation with the recorded orchestral score by Carl Davis.  I welcome this!  The score is fabulous, well suited to the film and the fact it is recorded detracts not one iota from the enjoyment of the film.  I know this is a precident being broken by the SFSFF and I hope that this happens every now and again if it brings back Kevin and Patrick and their beautifully restored prints.  (PLEASE, I know you did 2 Valentino's last year, but Photoplay's print of Valentino's 1925 The Eagle IS from a nitrate negative, best possible print) Looking forward to seeing Kevin and also a nearly naked Ramon Novarro if I must be shallow (and I must).  With the restored two color technicolor sequences, this film is simply fabulous on the big screen.  A fitting bang on epic to end a long weekend of fabulous silent films.

Throughout the weekend the fesitval will be screening bits, shorts and newsreels about the PPIE, Panama Pacific International Exposition which is celebrating it's centenary in 2015.  According to Anita Monga, we'll be seeing rare films, many which have not been seen for decades. 

Live musical accompaniment for each film and we will see many familiar faces, Donald Sosin, the Matti Bye Ensemble, the Mont-Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Guenter Buchwald, Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.

Don't miss the holiday weekend and celebrate the art of the universal language of silent cienma.  True Art Transcends Time!

See you there!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Rudolph Valentino Tribute in Song

Rudolph Valentino about to serenade Lila Lee in Blood and Sand

Valentino was not terribly musical as far as we know.  He might have played a bit of piano (though at home his was a player-piano).  He posed with a guitar for Blood and Sand and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  His musical ability might have been confined to his grace as a dancer, for which he left plenty of good evidence on screen.

Valentino's singing voice is hard to judge, the recordings were made prior to the electrical microphone, so he sang into a horn (like fellow Italian Enrico Caruso).  Valentino laughed off his vocal experiment and moved on.

Valentino did enjoy opera an popular tunes.  His big films had special songs and music written to tie in, and there were numerous songs dedicated or inspired by Valentino.  You can hear many of them, including remasterings of the two recordings Valentino made on the CD, Rudolph Valentino Sings and Others Sing About Him.  It's a really fun CD, btw.

In everyone's life there is a special song, a piece of music that moves them.  Something that remains with them.  This may not be one of those songs, but, I really felt compelled to post it here.

I'm do not mean any disrespect here, this is not my meat of choice, shall we say.  I learned of a song today that I never knew existed.  The song was dedicated to the memory of Rudolph Valentino.  Was it written in 1926?  No!  It was much more contemporary, a song written and performed by country/western performer Freddie Hart.  I have not been able to track down a date when he wrote this song.

Composer and performer Freddie Hart

Valentino!  Valentino!

His name will live forever.
To America he came from a far-away land
and was known among women as a man among men.
His name is recorded in Love's Hall of Fame:
Rudolph Valentino was his name.

He had a technique with women unique so they tell,
for girls of all ages fell under his spell.
 Now that made men jealous, the could not compete,
named him "Casanova of the street."

Valentino!  Valentino!
Famous the whole world over.

Valentino!  Valentino!
His name will live forever.

Well he died but a young man not much overgrown.
Stories were told that he didn't die alone.
'Twas said that some women too their lives that day.
Rudolph Valentino passed away!

So loved was this man throughtout all the world,
he was a legend to every boy and girl.
In New York's Big City his service was held,
mourners by the millions cried "Farewell!"

Valentino!  Valentino!
Famous the whole world over.

Valentino!  Valentino!
His name will live forever.

I confess, the lyrics don't thrill or inspire me.  I won't comment further since country music is not my bag.  Likely this was not a chart topper.  But you can judge for yourself by listening to Freddie Hart's recording here.  He got one thing right, over 100 years later and people are still talking about Rudolph Valentino!

Enjoy your Valentino oddity for the day!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Rudolph Valentino's Hobbies

Valentino showing off his physique
Rudolph Valentino had many interests besides making the best films he could.  He was a man who was interested in everything!  As fame brought him wealth, he was very much able to indulge his whims and interests.

First off, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Valentino was a notable health addict, long before a buff bod was something that was both fashionable and demanded of our screen idols.  He worked out at home, at the studio and at the Los Angeles Athletic Club.  Valentino even went so far to pen (or a ghostwritten) book on fitness entitled How You Can Keep Fit published by Physical Culture Magazine owned by Bernarr MacFadden (media magnate and health fanatic of the teens and twenties).  
Rudy enjoying a pipe and a book. 
Though he does not look like he is enjoying being photograhed!

Valentino had few vices with regard to his physical health, that one real vice was that he was a chain smoker.  Back in his day it was unfiltered cigarettes.  He liked odd smoking devices and he also enjoyed smoking a pipe.  It is a rare photo of him where he does not have a cigarette in hand.
He prided himself on being in superb shape. 
 With his fame came the ability for him to indulge in collecting all manner of things, swords, books and cars.  He loved cars!  From his earliest days he had a fascination with all things mechanical.  In fact, the legend of one of his first jobs in the U.S. working for Cornelius Bliss as a gardener, he got himself fired by stealing and wreking a motorcycle.  One does wonder if fame had not come his way if he would have ended up as a mechanic in a garage?  He likely would have been just as happy and contented.  

Posing with the new Cobra Car Mascot on his 1923 Avion Voisin
Of course, being a lowly mechanic would not have allowed Valentino to indulge in very expensive cars, like the Voisin and his enormous and expensive Isotta Fraschini. Valentino enjoyed doning a pair of coveralls and taking everything apart down to the chassis.  It was a good day that allowed him to play like this.

Rudy, clearly having a good time.

Valentino was also able to indulge his whims and passion for horses and dogs.  (No evidence of his loving cats except Natacha's pet lioness cub Zela).  Valentino's favorite of his many dogs was likely Kabar.  Many legends have arisen about Kabar, that he haunted Falcon Lair and such.  I suspect the real thing was he loved his master and mourned him.

With his Mastiff and Wolfhoud

Kabar is seen here excitedly barking while Valentino exercises Yacqui and shows off for Nealson Smith's publicity camera.  The stables at Falcon Lair were quite posh, by horse standards and also housed kennels for his numerous dogs.  The stable building is no longer a part of the Falcon Lair property having been parceled off decades ago.  It was converted into a house and is still quite posh, now for humans!

Rudy bringing Centaur Pendragon home in January 1926
Photography was another great passion. From his earliest days, Valentino indulged himself and recorded his travels and adventures by taking photographs.  He had a brownie, or some such camera from his earliest days in America.  Many candid photos of him posing on walks, in NY, and on tour survive.  His own snapshots preserved in his scrapbooks, not always so well composed, do show a flair.  As his personal wealth grew, he was able to invest in much more expensive camera and movie equipment, such as top of the line Debrie cameras from France.  He is using a Debrie to film Natacha below.  He also shot home movies while traveling and even on the sets of his movies.  Nobody was safe!

 Valentino also had the opportunity to travel, a pastime he enjoyed, but, did not get the chance to do all that much.  He stayed in America from 1913 to 1923 when he was finally able to return to his home country and also see Great Britain (where he visited Crabbet Stables to possible purchase his own Arabian horse), France, where he bought cars, Italy to see his family (and to order his Isotta Fraschini).  In 1924 he visited Spain on his summer trip to Europe.  He hobnobbed with the rich and famous, the peerage and royals as often as he could.  He had a love of the finer things in life and being one of the biggest movie stars of the era enabled him to do that.  The rich and famous flocked to him!

Rudy and Natacha waving on board ship

The Valentinos looking tres chic!

During his travels across the U.S. he also took the chance to meet mayors and other local politicians.

Rudy and Fiorello la Guardia at the Columbus Day celebrations in 1922

 Valentino collected books, armor, weapons and other beautiful things he displayed at his home Falcon Lair.  Sadly, so many items were auctioned off and scattered to the four winds to pay his debts after he died at the incredibly young age of 31 in August 1926.  He displayed a love of finery from his earliest days.  How wonderful that because of his hard work and fame he was able to indulge his passions and whims and enjoy a life to the fullest measure, as he did.

This post today is part of the Rudolph Valentino Blogathon.  Be sure to check out the terrific entries here.