Tuesday, April 1, 2014

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2014 - Spring/Summer Festival Announcement

Alice Terry in the most fabulous hat ever dancing the tango with
the most fabulous Rudolph Valentino in Rex Ingram's film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

There is nothing more exciting for me than to experience on the big screen films I have never seen and also films I am quite familiar with.  I'm thrilled that my favorite film which starred Rudolph Valentino (yeah, that guy) The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will open the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

I have nothing more to say today except visit their website to see the full lineup and do not hesitate and go buy your festival passes here

Do it, do it now!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Goodbye Shirley Temple

She endured as a symbol of hope, spunk and cheerfulness throughout her long life.  Forever identified as the little girl with the mop of curls and ringlets, a set of dimples and a smile that brightened the darkest days of the depression.  Today film fans across the globe mourn the death of Shirley Temple.

To those who did not grow up during the depression when life was pretty dark and stark or watching reruns of her films as I did may not understand her appeal.  You cannot deny, however, her spark, her talent in films that were crafted to highlight those talents and the universal appeal of a little girl that inspired a nation to stick out their chins, hold their heads up high and keep on keeping on.  It was as simple as paying five or ten cents if you could scrape it up and she would make you forget your troubles, adult or child for the length of a film.  sometimes that was enough to get you through another day.

She was not an instant success, she worked hard when she was too young to really understand the films she was making, the “Baby Burlesques” just beyond being a toddler, the talent was unmistakably there.  Fox Films signed her up and after she strutted down the aisle of a plane singing to James Dunn and a planeload of pilots in Bright Eyes about The Good Ship Lollipop a star was well and truly born. 

Temple’s talent was prodigious, she more than held her own against Lionel Barrymore in The Little Colonel, Victor MacLaglan in Wee Willie Winkie, Guy Kibee and Slim Summerville in Captain January, against Mary Nash (was there ever a more mean and nasty spinster than she?) in Heidi and The Little Princess and danced magic with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.  At Fox (and 20th Century Fox) many stars were groomed for stardom as featured players in Temple pictures, stars like Alice Faye (who was in two films, Poor Little Rich Girl and Stowaway).  The plots of the films were tailored to her, adding songs and dances to showcase her.  Her films broke box office records and was a cash cow to 20th Century Fox during the hardest of times.  She was such a valuable property, in her prime she was never “loaned out” to another studio, though MGM lobbied hard for her services for The Wizard of Oz.

As she grew into a teen and entered the child star awkward age, Fox strove to keep her young but the sameness of the plots began to wear thin as did her popularity.  By 1940 she was all but done, though her prodigious talent still remained, she signed with David O. Selznick and acted well in Since you Went Away.  The public, however, would not or could not forget the little girl with the curly mop and the major starring days were over.  She really did shine in John Ford’s Fort Apache and played comedy to hilarious ends in The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer, more than holding ground with both Cary Grant and Myrna Loy.  Very tongue and cheek and it’s still really a delicious film today.


In her later life, she served as an Ambassador with distinction and was one of the first notable women to go public with breast cancer and the resulting mastectomy.  She seemed to be a woman of grace, gratitude and intelligence.  She seemed so delighted and pleased when she accepted a lifetime achievement Screen Actors Guild award a few years back.

In thinking back on her films now, there are many that still stand out, she was able to dig deep with natural emotion in scenes with Jean Hersholt in Heidi, Captain January with Guy Kibee and The Little Colonel with Lionel Barrymore.  Many actors later said they hated being in films with her, I suspect a lot was pure jealousy because she was so very good.  I can’t help but be charmed and remember with delight her dances with Bill Robinson, for whom she still had tremendous affection all through her life.  You can see it here and I will leave you with it, once of the classic routine’s from 1935s The Little Colonel.  The Good Ship Lollipop has sailed on at last. Rest in peace and thanks for all the films, the cheer and the singing and dancing.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Little Tramp at 100 - The San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Castro Marquee on a drizzly day (photo courtesy Kimberly Kinser)
I had the delightful pleasure of attending the 100h Anniversary of the birth of The Little Tramp spending this past Saturday at the Castro Theater enjoying the winter program of The San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  Chaplin's Tramp was, more or less, officially born on January 11, 1914.
Chaplin during his early days at Keystone
The first program was three of Chaplin's short films made for Mutual Film Corporation in 1916 and 1917.  Staring with The Vagabond (1916), Easy Street and The Cure (both 1917).  All featured Chaplin regulars, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell and Henry Bergman.  The prints were all digitally screened.  The films themselves were beautiful restorations that, I was told, will be made available on blu-ray later in 2014 for home viewing.  I love The Cure, it is one of my favorites, how I wished that The Adventurer had been chosen for the short lineup, as well. 
This period of Chaplin's life had been declared by Chaplin himself that it was one of the happiest creative periods of his career.  He had great freedom, he was in a relationship with his leading lady, life was good.  On screen it certainly shows.  I confess, it is Edna that I love seeing Chaplin with.  There is a sweetness, a lightness, a rapport with Edna that you never see with any of Chaplin's future leading ladies.  As a pair they were well-matched on screen and it is a beautiful thing to see, this rapport, this affection.
The trio of shorts were accompanied by Jon Mirsalis ably at the piano.  He deft fingers matched the balletic action on the screen.  1916’s The Vagabond does not have too much of a plot.  The opening sequence of the vagabond violinist at the salon is hilarious and his meeting and becoming smitten with Edna is tender.  Not to spoil it, but the happy ending here belies the almost trademark image of Chaplin’s tramp walking alone down life’s highway.

Easy Street is another delightful film in which the tramp becomes a policeman in his attempt to reform and change his life.  Unfortunately, his beat is on “Easy Street” which in reality is anything but.  It’s ruled by the thunggishly huge and fearsome Eric Campbell.  Campbell is, however, no match for the savvy and quick study policeman.  He not only succeeds in reforming himself, he reforms the entire neighborhood and wins Edna in the end. 

Chaplin and Edna in The Cure

The Cure is a departure back to the music hall performer in which Chaplin plays an inebriate who is taking the waters for a cure for his addiction to alcohol. He starts his journey battling with a revolving door (a running gag through the breezy film), Eric Campbell as his foe in Edna’s affections and Edna is also his foe since she is encouraging him to give up drink. When his giant trunk, i.e., his travelling bar is discovered, the contents are unceremoniously dumped into the well of healing waters, with predictable and hilarious results.

Before screening the 1921 film, The Kid, we were treated to the debut of The Tramp character in the 1914 Keystone Kid Auto Races. The premise is simple, a small crew with a camera is documenting the kid auto races, Chaplin’s supercilious tramp is essentially annoying them by constantly getting in the picture. In today’s parlance, you’d call it photo-bombing. While I’ve known of this film historically, I think this was the first time I’d actually seen it. It was a beautiful print and the delight really lies not only in Chaplin’s ease and movement in and out of the camera, his attitude and then watching the spectators watching him. As Jeffrey Vance noted in his intro, you get to see Chaplin’s character get his first laughs on screen. Accompanied by Jon Mirsalis, this is another historic cinema moment to check off my bucket list.

Kid Auto Races, the crowd is watching Charlie, not the races
The Kid marked a big change for Chaplin. It was the last film he costarred with Edna and it was his first feature length film. Of course, he directed Edna in the 1923 film A Woman of Paris, which I quite like. And he famously produced The Sea Gull which starred Edna and was directed by Josef von Sternberg. The film was aborted and whatever was footage existed, Chaplin had destroyed. I digress, back to The Kid.

The film is charming and heartbreaking. What a raw talent was the four year old Jackie Coogan. Chaplin worked hard to win his trust and all that hard work (and adoration on Coogan’s part) really shows. It is also heartbreaking, in retrospect to see the tender farewell to Edna in Chaplin’s films. She is sweet and moving as the young mother and later as the well to-do singer who gives back because of the child she lost.

Douglas Fairbanks visited Chaplin during the making of The Kid and
this is one of my favorite candid photos of all time.  Coogan and Chaplin's delight at Fairbanks' antics is a joy to behold.
Coogan went on to an incredibly successful career as a child star throughout the silent era. Sadly, he was also one of the first documented screen stars who was pretty much bilked out of his fortune by his parents. Coogan’s lasting legacy for child actors is what is now known as the Coogan Law, protecting their trust funds and earnings.

The treat for this screening was Timothy Brock conducting the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra playing Chaplin’s score for the film, arranged by Brock for a smaller orchestra. It was a terrific coup by the SFSFF and worked really well. I was not the only person who shed tears at the close of the film.

The last film of the day was The Gold Rush. Chaplin shot much of the location work in Truckee, CA (a good substitute for the Yukon) for the snowy scenes. Though only a few years on from The Kid, you can see how Chaplin’s personal life had changed him, he aged a great deal in four years with his marriage to Lita Grey (the vampish angel in the dream sequence of The Kid). Grey was originally slated to play Georgia inThe Gold Rush, but pregnancy forced her retirement from the screen. She was replaced by Georgia Hale.

The Gold Rush has many legendary set pieces, the “dance of the rolls” the shoe leather dinner, and the tipping cabin. Chaplin working with Mack Swain is delightful but one cannot help by wonder how it might have been played by Eric Campbell in a more sympathetic role. (Campbell died tragically in 1917 in a car accident). Supported by Timothy Brock and the SF Chamber Orchestra, the film went off without a hitch. What looked like a fully packed house of adults and children was rocking with laughter. It was a great end to a fun day.

I must also add what a special day it was because I got to at least say hello to some fellow bloggers, like Lisa at Backlots and Beth Ann at Spellbound by Movies.  The other special added bonus was sharing the day with a dear friend who is a Chaplin afficionado who had not seen Chaplin's films on the big screen, as they are presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  It was like looking at the films through new eyes and it was a real joy to share it.

See you in May for the full festival at the Castro.  Passes are already on sale at their website.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Out with the Old, in the with the New Year

Mildred and Harold Lloyd ring in the New Year circa 1930
2013 was a year of fitrs and starts with this blog.  I'm usually lousy at resolutions.  I will continue to watch films in 2014 and aim to post about them, like them or not.  Hopefully my commentary will be interesting, insightful and fun.  If not, forgive me. 

For those who have stuck by this blog and checked it out when I have posted, I thank you.  I wish all my online, behind the screen friends and happy and healthy 2014. 

See you in 2014 and make sure you watch lots of old classic movies, you will be happy you did!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Charles Chaplin Day - January 11, 2014

2014 marks the centenary of Charlie Chaplin's start in the filmaking business.  To kick things off, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is spending January 11, 2014 screening some Chaplin films to celebrate.  It's at the Castro and you can buy a pass for the day here.

Here's the program:

January 11, 2014 at 1:00 PM
Accompanied by Jon Mirsalis on piano

Three shorts Chaplin made at the Mutual Film Corporation his happpiest and most creative period.   The Vagabond (1916, with Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell) Charlie is a musician who rescues a girl from a band of gypsies.
The Cure (1917, with Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Henry Bergman) An inebriated Charlie checks into a sanitarium to take the cure, but brings a cabinet of liquor with him.
Easy Street (1917, with Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell) Chaplin blends comedy and social commentary in this film that sees his character go from tramp to police constable.

January 11, 2014 at 4:00 PM
Accompanied by San Francisco Chamber Orchestra with Timothy Brock conducting Chaplin’s score
The Kid
Cast Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Jackie Coogan, Carl Miller Written by Charles Chaplin
Chaplin’s Little Tramp becomes a surrogate father to an abandoned child—the wonderful child actor Jackie Coogan—in this eloquent marriage of comedy and sentiment. Probably his most personal film—Chaplin himself was placed in a home for destitute children at age seven—The Kid is considered by many to be his most perfect. Plus: We celebrate the centennial of Chaplin’s Little Tramp character with Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) The first appearance of Chaplin’s Tramp character set the stage for Charlie’s ascendency as a star! And Kid Auto Races is the very funniest of the Keystone films! Approximately 70 minutes total
The films will be introduced by Jeffrey Vance.

Preceding The Kid, there will be Charlie Chaplin Look-Alike contest. Come dressed as the Little Tramp and win a prize!
January 11, 2014 at 7:30 PM
Accompanied by San Francisco Chamber Orchestra with Timothy Brock conducting Chaplin’s score.
The Gold Rush 1925
Cast Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Henry Bergman, Malcolm Waite, Georgia Hale Written by Charles Chaplin
Inspired by images of the 1896 Klondike gold rush and the Donner Party disaster of 1846 (in which snowbound immigrants resorted to eating their shoes—and their dead companions—to survive), Chaplin manages to turn stories of cold, hunger, and loneliness into a sublime comedy. The Little Tramp becomes a prospector who sets out for the Klondike to strike it rich, battling starvation, bears, and other prospectors along the way. The Gold Rush contains some of the most iconic images in cinema, including the famous scene in which Charlie makes a gourmet feast of his boot! Georgia Hale plays the beautiful dance hall entertainer who steals Charlie’s heart.
Approximately 80 minutes
The film will be introduced by Jeffrey Vance.

I'll be there, hope you will be too!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Parker/Totter/O'Toole and Fontaine - The Passing of the Old Guard

This past week was a particularly harsh one for film buffs with the passing of Eleanor Parker, Audrey Totter, Peter O’Toole and Joan Fontaine. 

Eleanor Parker’s career is one I have not followed closely.  Her coolness on screen did not appeal to me, but I am told by several friends there are some good performances I really should seek out.  I always liked her as the Baroness in The Sound of Music if for no other reason she was the counterpoint to the spunky sweetness of Julie Andrews.  I have a real fondness for her in Between Two Worlds which I find her to be very effective.  She also positively steals Scaramouche, MGM’s overblown Technicolor swashbuckler.  How Mel Ferrer and Stewart Grainger could have preferred Janet Leigh over Parker is beyond me.  Parker is utterly gorgeous in glorious Technicolor and clearly she relished the comedic aspects of the film.  I am told I must see Caged for which she was nominated for an Academy Award.  She loses points for the 1951 film Valentino, for obvious reasons.

Audrey Totter was noted mostly for nourish, B films.  I loved her in Lady in the Lake and The Set UpShe remains a favorite simply for her role in one of my favorite of all films, The Unsuspected.  Everything you need to see about Totter on film can be seen in the below clip from The Unsuspected, it’s glorious as she was.  She married and retired early for what I presume was a happy life contrary to the tough dames she played on screen. 

Peter O’Toole was the last of the hell-raising, hard-drinking, hard-partying actors from his generation that included Richard Burton, Richard Harris and the delicious Oliver Reed.  His incredibly bright blue eyes shining against the baked desert in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia will remain an iconic image on film.  Even in dreck, I do not think he gave a bad performance, but once wonders with all the abuse it is a wonder he survived to 81.  He was much nominated by the Academy eight times and never won, excepting an Honorary Award in 2006.  A shame, that. 

Finally this weekend, on the same day as O’Toole, patrician Joan Fontaine also left at the age of 96.  It took me a long time to warm to Fontaine, I have to admit.  I was early on a fan of her sister Olivia de Havilland and found the coolness (much like Parker) a bit off putting.  That said, I have since warmed to her in many films, including Rebecca, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Jane Eyre (where I feel you can really see the underlying fire in Jane despite the reserved, guarded exterior), Tessa in The Constant Nymph and Born to be Bad (delightfully wicked, manipulative as Cristobel).  Pointing you to the Self-Styled Siren, her tribute to Fontaine is as elegant as Fontaine appeared to be.  I'd be lying if I did not think sister Olivia was waiting for Joan to die first so she could publish her long in progress autobiography.

My roommate asked me, how can you feel sad for the passing of someone who was 96 (or 81 for that matter) and someone you never knew?  I do not feel the keen loss that I felt when Cary Grant or Fred Astaire passed away, I can tell you where I was when I saw the news.  To me, this is more the passing of the old guard, the ever thinning ranks of a link to the old Hollywood.  I’ve been a film buff from an early age, the golden days before cable when local stations ran classic films constantly on rotation.  Where I cut my teeth, so to speak as an amateur film historian. 

In my lifetime, so many of the film stars I loved were still active, still working.  I’ve watched in my own time, perhaps to a lesser historically important degree than that of the WWI buffs, who saw the passing of the last witness to that awful spectacle a few years ago.  With so few real old greats remaining to bear witness to a time and people we will never see the like of again, I feel sad.  Hollywood, the film business has changed.  With the internet, twitter and the instant news cycle and without the dream factories, it also makes me sad that, with few exceptions, we will not see the likes of so many of these actors again. 

For better or worse, I still mourn the studio system that created, nurtured and protected them.  I miss the mystery, the mystique of an actor or star I admire.  With each that leaves us in due time, it is like the passing of an old friend.  Happily, each will live on, to be rediscovered anew by future generations so long as cinema endures in some fashion.  And as they pass, it also gives me the opportunity to revisit old favorites and find new ones thanks to suggestions from friends.  This is a sad time for their families, but for us who only knew them as flickering images on screen, it’s a way to say thank you for the delightful legacy left behind and treasure the art of cinema which we love. 

All in all, a very sad weekend for the Old Guard Hollywood and TCM needs to do a serious revision on their end the year clip reel.

Friday, December 6, 2013

On the Bedside Table - A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True by Victoria Wilson

I found myself wondering just how much life Barbara Stanwyck lived up to 1940 to have the first volume of a biography encompass so many pages.  In reading Victoria Wilson's first volume on the life of cinema great Barbara Stanwyck, I figured out why.  You not only get Stanwyck's life, but the History of the World Part I as well.  Lots of bang for your buck.

Let me say this, Ms. Wilson is an excellent writer.  It is my understanding she is also an editor of some renown and this might be the crux of the problem with this book.  It needed to be edited, it needed a machete.  I found myself getting lost in the book, there is so much context placing, so much detail of people who touched Stanwyck's life that you lose the subject at hand.  Then there are the plot rehashes of the films, hers, Frank Fay's and Robert Taylor's.  All of this should have been cut to the bone.  Unlike reading Gary Giddins' Bing Crosby: Pocketful of Dreams - The Early Years, reading True Steel I am *not* left wanting, panting, waiting for the second volume as I have been (and am) with the Crosby book.  I'm afraid of reliving the History of the World Part II along with the remaining 42 years of Stawyck's life in the next volume. 

Stanwyck was famously private and I think she really did succeed in keeping a good deal of her life private as she wished.  Wilson's research is impeccable, her writing is mostly engaging.  But I can't help feeling exhausted in reading it.  I am sure this was a labor of love, a volume of this heft had to have been.  But there is no warmth in it.

Stanwyck will always remain a bit of an enigma.  I think the one tiny thing that shows me a lot of what I need to see or know about Stanwyck can be seen in this video clip here

You can order the book here in kindle (which I did much easier to handle such a tome) as well as a true brick of a book.

Others might find this more engaging than I do, I adore Stanwyck and do not feel she was so much ill-served (she wasn't) but she was lost in the details.  ymmv.