Monday, June 6, 2016

San Francisco Silent Film Festival Recap Day 1

The highlight of the year for me is the annual visit to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  2016 was no exception, many, many highlights!

Recap Day 1, Thursday, June 2, 2016
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival started off with a bang by screening Paramount’s 1928 Beggars of Life (1928) featuring festival favorite and silent icon Louise Brooks.  The film is a cracker-jack potboiler directed by William Wellman one year after his breakthrough with the epic and massively popular Wings (1927).  The film played to a nearly sellout crowd and the musical accompaniment was handled by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.  They played the same score when they accompanied in 2007 at The Castro.  They played well, as you might expect!  The crowd responded to the music and the film, rapturously.

This film is my favorite of any of the films which starred or featured Louise Brooks.  It was the first film I ever saw, way back when The Avenue Theater on San Bruno Avenue was screening silent films every Friday/Saturday night (this dates me as a person of a certain age).  The film has lost none of its punch after all this time.  Stellar performances by Brooks, Richard Arlen (who did not get along with his leading lady, and vice versa) and Wallace Beery. 

Wellman directing Wallace Beery on location in Jacumba

Brooks is wonderful as “the girl” who murders her abuser of a father and then dons menswear (mandrag if you will) to escape with Richard Arlen for a life on the rails and other dangers.  Beery all but steals the film, as was normal for any film in which Beery is onscreen for more than 2 minutes.

Jim Tully (right) giving some advice to Richard Arlen "cooking on the road."
The film is loosely based on Jim Tully’s novel of the same name.  Loosely based because there is not much that went from novel to screen except the trains.  Brooks did not much care for the author.  See this informative page at The Louise Brooks Society.  If you are a fan of Louise and have not joined The Louise Brooks Society already, you really should. 

Beggars of Life is available on DVD at Grapevine Video, but, I would suggest you wait.  The Eastman Museum print that was screened is restored and I have a sneaking feeling the restoration might make it onto a major label DVD.

This film got the festival off to a good start.  Much more to come in Part II, come back tomorrow.

Screen capture of Arlen and Brooks in a lyrical moment

Do not miss what promise to be excellent recaps by friends and fellow bloggers, Lara over at Backlots, BethAnn at Spellbound by Movies, Lea at Silent-ology and Mary who writes over at Larry Harnisch’s The Daily Mirror.  Thomas Gladysz writes for Huffington Post and you can be sure he will have a thoughtful review up soon, too.  Some have been posting throughout the weekend of events.  How do they do it, I’m exhausted???

Saturday, May 7, 2016

I Remember Mama (1948)

1-sheet poster
RKO Studios purchased Kathryn Forbes novel Mama's Bank Account in 1943 (Forbes was raised in San Francisco and the book details the life of her grandparents).  The project sat for several years before Dewitt Bodeen  was hired to fashion a script from the novel.  Bodeen wrote two drafts of the script before he traveled to New York to see the play I Remember Mama which was penned by John Van Druten.  The play was produced by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein and ran at The Music Box Theater from October 19, 1944 to June 29, 1946 (a very respectable 713 performances).  Oscar Homolka who played Uncle Chris was the only cast member to make it to the screen adaptation.  Marlon Brando made his Broadway debut as eldest boy Nels.

Philip Dorn, Barbara Bel Geddes, Steve Brown and Irene Dunne
The film was co-produced by Harriet Parsons (daughter of famed, or infamous columnist Louella Parsons) and director George Stevens.  Greta Garbo was approached for the title role, but she declined, not surprisingly.  It was Parsons who brought Irene Dunne to the table as a possible for the role of Marta Hansen ("Mama" of the title).  Parsons sent Dunne a copy of the book, who read it and said she would accept if she could give them a list of directors for the project.  Dunne chose Stevens (with whom she'd worked before on Penny Serenade).

The film is chock full of great character actors, Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the lodger Mr. Hyde, the aforementioned Oscar Homolka as Uncle Chris, Ellen Corby as Aunt Trina, Edger Bergen as Mr. Torkelson, Florence Bates as Florence Dana Moorhead and Barbara O'Neill as Jessie Brown.  

Shot partially on location in San Francisco, being a local, I have a very warm spot for this film. Stevens is one of my favorite directors and this film shows what you see so much of in his postwar work, a delicacy, a real depth, genuine heart.  The true heart of the film are Barbara Bel Geddes as Katrin and Irene Dunne as Mama.  

Bodeen recorded that even with the finished script Stevens felt it was fluid and was ever changing.  Initially Jessica Tandy was cast as Aunt Trina and she did not want the part.  Stevens disagreed and tried to keep her on board.  Tandy went to producer Harriet Parsons who then convinced Stevens to let her go.  The story goes that Stevens said, the role can go to the script girl, who happened to be Ellen Corby.  This story might be disputed, Corby had plenty of extra and small bit work under her belt by this time.  Nonetheless, Corby earned an Academy Award nomination for her efforts (she lost of Claire Trevor in Key Largo).

The filming was slow and over budget, which cut into Stevens payout as producer, he seemed not to care.  He was striving for something with the film.  That said, according to studio records, once he was on location in San Francisco, the filming went smoothly and quickly.  Ads were taken out for locals to appear as extras, providing they had their own vintage wardrobe.  Apparently people had to be turned away the response was so great.  

On Liberty Street in San Francisco

For Stevens, working on the film was a way back in to Hollywood and a visitation to his childhood (he hailed from San Francisco).  The film is heavy on nostalgia.  It is a tale of immigrants making their way in the new world.  I like to think this is what my grandparents went through after they immigrated from Russia to Connecticut. 

At the heart, is Irene Dunne, her stillness is the rock to which every character clings.  She is not a plaster saint of a mother, there is a toughness underneath her character, steal rod that holds the family together.  She is the thread that holds all the pieces of the film together.  I find her utterly believable in the role.  Dunne underplays her accent and underplays, never overdoes a moment.  Unlike Loretta Young in 1947's The Farmer's Daughter, Dunne's gentle humor and real warmth shines in this film.  She earned her fifth, and final, nomination as Best Actress for this film.  She lost to Jane Wyman who won for Johnny Belinda

Dunne and Stevens on the set lining up a shot

Barbara Bel Geddes (daughter of great designer Norma Bel Geddes) was also honored with a nomination for her portrayal of Katrin.  Her freshness and youth made her utterly believable as the eldest daughter and the life lessons she learned.  For someone who was young, it's a shining performance.

Barbara Bel Geddes as Katrin

One of the more moving moments of the film are with Oscar Homolka and Tommy Ivo as young Cousin Arne.  The boy while in hospital learns to swear in Norwegian to distract from the pain of his operation.  The second is when the family goes to visit Uncle Chris as he lay dying.  Irene Dunne reads from his accounting of all his good works (of which the family did not suspect him of) paying for operations and such.  His final toast with Marta (who was his favorite niece) and his wife Jesse Brown (beautifully played by Barbara O'Neill).  Homolka plays to the gallery for much of the film, but, it works because he is the beloved and still feared Uncle for the children.  He is loud, uncouth and he does not show his love for them easily.  It's a bravura performance and must have been great on stage.  Also nominated, Homolka lost of Walter Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Oscar Homolka
 I could go on and on about the moments and vignettes that make this film so very special.  Is it sentimental, yes.  Is it nostalgic, yes.  There is a sweetness to the film, so unlike the films coming out of Hollywood in the postwar, film noir climate.  With all of the uncertainty, unpleasantness going on at that time (and even now you could well say) this film is a joy to watch.  Films should not be torture to watch, they are entertainment.  This film is 100% engaging and entertaining.

Not everyone had the good fortune to have a Mama like Marta Hansen.  But, for Mother's Day, you can by letting yourself go and enjoy this look back in time, and the telling of a simple story with a whole lot of heart. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

On The Bedside Table - New Books

Just a quick drive by to highlight a couple of new books.  The first will be published in October, just in time to start your Xmas shopping. 

Just when you thought nothing more could have been discovered, or written, about the Marx Brothers, Robert Bader has proven the naysayers wrong with what looks to be an exhaustive and epic look at their stage career in Four of the Three Musketeers.  This is a subject that, more often than not, is touched upon or completely overlooked when talking about The Marx Brothers. 

This is a very important book to add to the canon of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo.  With recommendations by Dick Cavett and Leonard Maltin at the publisher website, I do not need any more nudging than this to pre-order it.

From the publisher website:

Before film made them international comedy legends, the Marx Brothers developed their comic skills on stage for twenty-five years. In Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage, Robert S. Bader offers the first comprehensive history of the foursome’s hardscrabble early years honing their act in front of live audiences.

From Groucho’s debut in 1905 to their final live performances of scenes from A Night in Casablanca in 1945, the brothers’ stage career shows how their characters and routines evolved before their arrival in Hollywood. Four of the Three Musketeers draws on an unmatched array of sources, many not referenced elsewhere. Bader’s detailed portrait of the struggling young actors both brings to vivid life a typical night on the road for the Marx Brothers and also illuminates the inner workings of the vaudeville business, especially during its peak in the 1920s.

As Bader traces the origins of the characters that would later come to be beloved by filmgoers, he also skillfully scrapes away the accretion of rumors and mythology perpetuated not only by fans and writers but by the Marx Brothers themselves. Revealing, vital, and entertaining, Four of the Three Musketeers will take its place as an essential reference for this iconic American act.

Newly listed on amazon and on the publisher website is a delightful new book by author (and blogger) Jennifer Ann Redmond is Reels and Rivals: Sisters in Silent Film.  Some names Jennifer has explored in the book may be unfamiliar to you.  In their heyday, they were big stars. If you love the silent era,  if you have a sister, well, this is a must read!

From the publisher website:

Female silent film stars possessed beauty, persistence, flair, and probably a sister in the business.
You may have seen Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation (1915), Constance Talmadge in Intolerance (1916), or Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms (1919), but their sisters also starred in major motion pictures, such as Marguerite Marsh in The Master Mystery (1919), Norma Talmadge in The Battle Cry of Peace (1915), and Dorothy Gish in Orphans of the Storm (1921).
These six appeared in countless movies. Most of their films are lost, but their legends remain.     
Few knew at the time that these extraordinary women were more than just faces on a screen; they were complex and human, with sometimes strange parents, body image issues, and relationship struggles. Their mistakes and triumphs often mirrored our own, though they were miles away in Hollywood. Their stories of violent marriages, heartbreaking tragedies, drastic surgeries, and secret identities are finally revealed in a candid exposé of the truth behind the tinsel.
Sister stars in Reels and Rivals that are profiled include: Norma and Constance Talmadge; Lillian and Dorothy Gish; Edna Flugrath and sisters Shirley Mason and Viola Dana; Helene and Dolores Costello; Poly Ann and Loretta Young with sister Sally Blane; Constance and Faire Binney; Priscilla and Marjorie Bonner; Grace and Mina Cunard; Alice and Marceline Day; Marion and Madeline Fairbanks; Laura and Violet La Plante; Mae and Marguerite Marsh; Ella, Ida Mae, and Fay McKenzie; Beatriz and Vera Michelena; Mary and Florence Nash; Sally O’Neil and sister Molly O’Day; Mabel and Edith Taliaferro; Olive and Alma Tell; and famous Vaudevillians The Duncan Sisters and The Dolly Sisters.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Favorite Photo of the Week #13

Because it's his birth anniversary this week! The great silent star Rudolph Valentino still looks pretty darn good at 121.  This is a favorite photo of him taken on the set of The Young Rajah.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Restored Louise Brooks Film to Open 21st San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The 21st San Francisco Silent Film Festival will open this year on Thursday evening June 2nd with a restored version of the 1928 film Beggars of Life starring perennial favorite, Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen and a scene stealing Wallace Beery.  Having seen this in a beat-up 16mm, it is my understanding from one who knows, this will be an eye-opener.  It is also sure to be a very hot ticket, so order your festival passes now.  The screening will be followed by the annual opening night party hosted at the McRoskey Mattress Company.

Friday, June 3

The first day of the festival will open with my perennial favorite program, Amazing Tales From the Archives.  This year's presenters will be Georges Mourier who is working with the Cinemathèque Française on a new restoration of Abel Gance’ 1927 masterpiece Napoleon vu par Abel Gance.  As you may well recall, I can never forget, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened the epic film at Oakland's Paramount Theater in 2012.  My recap of that memorable experience is here.  Peter Schade and Emily Wensel of Universal Pictures will be talking about Paul Leni's 1929 film The Last Warning (screening on Saturday, June 4th).  Bryony Dixon of the BFI will be back to present with treasures from the BFI, she's always a delight and I am looking forward to her talk.  SFSFF Board President and Archivist-in-Chief Rob Byrne will be speaking about the restoration of the 1917 film Mothers of Men, filmed almost entirely in Santa Cruz.  I'm not sure at this point if he will talk before the film, or during Amazing Tales. 

Next up will be a delightful film starring tempestuous Pola Negri, A Woman of the World.  In this film, Negri shows how much of a sense of humor she did have about her famed screen image. This is not to be missed!

Great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu is represented with another of his "gangster films" That Night's Wife (Sono Yo No Tsuma).  I adored Dragnet Girl a few years back, so really looking forward to this.

Sheet Music from the film

Of local Bay Area interest is the 1917 film Mothers of Men, a suffragette film starring Dorothy Davenport Reid (Mrs. Wallace Reid) shot almost entirely in Santa Cruz (and Berkeley).  Rob Byrne will also be an entertaining speaker when it comes to chronicling the discovery and restoration of the film.

German actor Emil Jannings makes his return to the festival in E.A. Dupont's fantastic Variete.  Lya de Putti is cast as the young trapeze artiste.  Great camera angles and perspective from the trapeze artist vantage point.  Not for the squeamish in that regard. 

I know absolutely nothing about Behind the Door, this tag line from the Cinefest 33 screening should be considered fair warning, "One of the most gruesome and bizarre of the atrocity films made in the United States between 1917 – 1919." 

Anita Monga declared in her announcement of the film at the press event on April 6th, That Behind the Door would be "the Sleeper Hit" of the festival.  It involves taxidermy, I am already creeped out.  Rob Byrne will be giving a talk and hosting a slide show on the restoration of the film (a project with Moscow Film Archive, the Library of Congress and other unnamed entities) at the Presidio Officer's Club on May 26th. This event is free, but, you need to register.

Saturday, June 4:

Laurel and Hardy's The Battle of the Century has long been half a movie.  The second reel had been missing all my life, until recently, that is.  Local historian, film collector and cracker-jack accompanist Jon Mirsalis located the elusive second reel.  So, who is ready for pie (in the face)?  Also on this bill of fare are two Buster Keaton short, Cops and The Balloonatic.  We will also be treated to the uber creepy 1907 Pathe film The Dancing Pig.  Once seen, it cannot be unseen, you will never view bacon in quite the same fashion.  Jon will also tinkle the ivories for this screening.

We will be treated to Anthony Asquith's directorial debut with the film Shooting Stars.  I adore backstage musicals and movies about movies being made (Footlight Parade, etc.) and this looks promising.  Asquith's A Cottage on Dartmoor, screened some years back and is an absolute favorite of mine.  Maud Nelissen will be accompanying. 

Oscar Micheaux is a familiar name to many who attend the festival.  Within Our Gates is a political hot button of the day by showing the Jim Crow and the resurrection of the ghastly Ku Klux Klan.  A luminous Evelyn Preer stars.  A not to be missed film as this is the earliest complete feature produced by African American, Oscar Micheaux. 

Rene Clair's The Italian Straw Hat is a classic and one I've never seen on the big screen.  This is a new restoration and I am looking forward to Clair's light touch and hilarious comedy.

Director Paul Leni is not a name that may be too familiar to your average Joe.  Another European import (like Lubitsch), his flair for comedy and terror in The Cat and the Canary never ceases to amuse and terrorize me.  The Man Who Laughs is one of the greatest of all silent films.  I am so looking forward to seeing the newly restored The Last Warning starring Laura La Plante.

Sunday June 5:

We will get a treat of hand colored wonders with the program Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema, not to be missed.  The films presented come from the collection of our friends at the EYE Filmmuseum.

Ernst Lubistch's 1918 delight I Don't Want to be a Man was a huge hit as the San Francisco International Film Festival many years ago when I first saw it.  Starring the hilariously funny Ossi Oswalda, this is certain to be another surefire hit for the weekend.  This program is a double feature with a Clyde Cook comedy What's the World Coming To?, a futuristic comedy when men have become more like women, and women more like me.

The grandfather of all "documentary" or "docu-dramady" films, Robert Flherty's 1922 Nanook of the North is a must see for anyone who need to tick films off their bucket list.  While it is not a strict documentary, the family portrayed are appealing and shows us a world nearly gone from the planet. 

Another newly restored film will be Fritz Lang's Destiny (Der Mude Tod).  Will love conquer all, even death?  Lili Dagover stars in this deeply visual travelogue of love over space and time.

To continue with the theme of restoration, Les Deux Timides is a repeat of the Festival from 2008 (like Beggars of Life was in 2007).  I was not blogging back then, but, I do remember enjoying it quite a lot.  Looking forward to a new print.

The 21st Festival weekend will close with a film that promises to send us all home on a light, high note, Douglas Fairbanks 1919 film When the Clouds Roll By.  One of Fairbanks' last straight comedies before becoming firmly entrenched as a swashbuckler (and who among us would complain?).  I love Doug and make no bones about it.  Looking forward to this!

Hope to see some of you there! 

Fairbanks predates the more famous Fred Astaire walking on the ceiling!