Monday, July 13, 2009

The 14th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival

True Art Transcends Time....


Douglas Fairbanks as The Gaucho

I've recovered as well as can be expected. It's amazing how exhausting a film festival can be, I can only imagine the people running it are dead for weeks afterward.

The 14th annual silent film festival was, once again, a fabulous and exhausting weekend. This is one of my favorite weekends of the year, I look forward to it and I am never disappointed. The venue is a fabulous vintage theater and the people who fill the auditorium clearly want to be there and they view each film with great enthusiasm and loud applause. The musicians are top notch and the films are usually stunning to look at and cover a wide variety of territory. This year was no different; we had films from China, France and Czechoslovakia and, of course, some really wonderful American silent films.





The opening night program always seems to pull out the stops with a Big Hollywood Vehicle. This year’s opener was no different. A MOMA print of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Gaucho got the weekend off to a rousing start. The Gaucho is a late film and a very different one for Fairbanks. His character of El Gaucho is a charming bad boy with a ready grin as many of Fairbanks’ characters can be. In addition to all of the usual here was a darker character, a more cruel and wicked character. He smoked incessantly, he drank, he wenched, he lusted and he was violent. He robbed not to avenge the poor, but to enrich his own coffers. This was not the man who penned Laugh and Live (of course, he really didn’t pen that either). In my own long-winded fashion, this was not the Doug Fairbanks the Boy Scouts would recommend. Lupe Velez played his love interest and very much lived up to the moniker of “spitfire.” She gave as good as she got and very nearly stole the film from Fairbanks, almost. Also notable in the cast was an unbilled cameo by one of the most recognizable faces from the silent era, and one who appeared in several films this weekend, Mary Pickford as the Virgin Mary. The film was introduced by Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta who also did the intro for the 2 color Technicolor test/outtakes of Mary Pickford showing the effects for the heavenly aura and the matte effects. The film was spectacular in the use of the hanging miniature and matte painting. Fairbanks was spectacular in his stunts and skill with the bolas, we would expect nothing less from Doug. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra debuted a new score for The Gaucho. It was a terrific score and a great success judging by the reaction of the audience. A Standing O, well deserved.


Rodney Sauer in his gig suit

Amazing Tales from the Archives is always a screening I refuse to miss. It is both a happy and sad experience. Sad to see little fragments that remain from various lost films; happy to see the good work being done by the various film archives to preserve even the smallest of clips. This year also featured the debut Screen Snapshots Seventh Series which was restored by Anne Smatla, the 2008 Fellowship recipient. Clara Bow was one of many stars to be seen to good advantage in this short film. The Academy Film Archive also presented some rare fragments that were recently preserved, including a trailer (very title heavy which was a shame) from a lost Constance Talmadge film Polly of the Follies. Also screened was a brief tantalizing snippet from a lost film starring Ramon Novarro A Lover’s Oath. On the piano was the wonderful Stephen Horne, who played beautifully for films he'd not seen.

Fairbanks, the original swashbuckler had a little competition this year in the presentation of Bardleys the Magnificent. This was a prime example of an MGM swashbuckler that really delivered the goods. It was great to see John Gilbert as the hero (a bit of a rogue, actually) and the lovely, really lovely Eleanor Boardman romance on screen. The stunts were very Fairbanksian, not quite done with Doug’s élan, but still brought the audience to cheering (myself included). I’m so grateful that this film was not only discovered, but preserved and also now available on DVD. Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra played the film beautifully. One can see very readily Gilbert’s appeal in this film, very tongue in cheek, yet very natural. Vidor’s slick direction was aided by the terrific camerawork of William Daniels. The film had lushness and a bit of tongue-in-cheek that was hard to resist.

The Wild Rose was not viewed by me in its entirety, and I do regret not being able to see the entire screening. The film was introduced by Richard Meyers and we also had the distinguished guest Qin Yi, widow of the star of the film Jin Yan (the Rudolph Valentino of Chinese cinema). Qin Yi received the first “Living Legend” award from the Silent Film Festival and also was tasked to return home with an award for the Chinese Film Archive to celebrate their efforts in film preservation. Wang Renmei plays “Little Phoenix” a wild child in a rural town. She reminded me a great deal of Mary Pickford, one with a spunky attitude who was a leader amongst the children of the village and not above a little chicanery. She had a real winning smile, manner and a terrific charm. Jin Yan portrayed the artist from the city was very much the dashing, art deco city boy. He had all the charm of Valentino; think Valentino’s 1925 film Cobra and you will get the picture. Sadly, I left the film part way through. I hope to get the opportunity to view this film in its entirety as I feel it will be well worth revisiting.

Underworld a 1927 Paramount gangster film directed by Josef von Sternberg was everything it was cracked up to be. It featured the humongous George Bancroft as Bull Weed. I always thought he was a big guy next to Bogart and Cagney in Angels with Dirty Faces (and others), but seriously, he was a huge man. Clive Brook appears as a former lawyer and drunkard with the moniker, Rolls-Royce. Evelyn Brent plays Bull Weed’s moll, Feathers. Comedian Larry Semon was cast as the rather fey character Skippy Lewis. You could tell this from his manner and if you couldn’t, his stop at the pink powder puff dispenser in the Dreamland café should have clued you in and telegraphed the point home. It is the first time I’ve seen this infamous piece of machinery which is a device well known among the Valentino fans. The film was gritty, had a nice deep focus, many stunning close-ups and plenty of violence. A really nice miniature of the hearse that was to rescue Bull Weed from the gallows can be seen intercut with shots of the real hearse. This was the kind of film Warner Brothers did so well in the 1930s, but this was a real precursor to the genre. Stephen Horne received a well deserved Standing O, his intense score supported the action of the screen to perfection.

The Wind starring Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson is a film that is not unfamiliar to most. Directed by Victor Seastrom for MGM in 1928, it was Gish’s final film for MGM, in fact, her final silent film. Gish plays a sweet girl from Virginia traveling to a desolate spot in Texas (actually the Mojave Desert) to live with her cousin and his family. It does not take long for poor Letty to rouse the ire and jealousy of her cousin’s wife seen brandishing a large knife carving up the carcass of a steer, if you get the subliminal message. Letty’s charms have not gone unnoticed by the cowboys and she is forced to choose a husband. Letty has already had a run in with the absolutely wonderful and slimy Montagu Love as cattleman, Wirt Roddy. (Love was a classic villain in many a silent film, talkies revealed his delight British accent and he was cast more often than not as a benign father figure in the 1930’s). I won’t spoil the plot for anyone who has not seen this intense film, its unforgettable the first time you see it. It was enhanced by the Mighty Wurlitzer under the expert hands of Dennis James and with the added SFX of authentic wind machines and pistols. I found the wind machines a bit loud, but I expect this was due to their rather close proximity to where I was seated.

I skipped Aelita, Queen of Mars, the final screening for Saturday evening. I’ve seen the film, it was a long day and I was tired and happily gave up my seat to someone who had not seen the film. I’m sure the experience was much as it was when I saw Dennis James play it back in 1991 at the Castro. James on the Mighty Wurlitzer and also a vintage Theremin. The film is a designer’s dream, cubist and just fascinating; stills do not to the film justice. If you have a chance to see the film, do not pass it up.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was a program of pre-1928 Disney cartoons. Prior to the birth of Mickey Mouse there was Oswald. Eight silent shorts were shown with Donald Sosin on the piano (and performing cartoon vocals and sound effects). Sosin was aided by his wife and son in this regard. Leonard Maltin and Leslie Iwerks introduced the shorts. Leslie Iwerks is the granddaughter of Disney’s great collaborator, Ub Iwerks (who also was an inventor of the famed Multiplane camera).

I skipped Erotiken, the Czech silent. I was on the mezzanine when the film ended; the response was excellent from what I heard.

So’s Your Old Man was a chance to see W.C. Fields in one of his few surviving silent films. On display was Fields' classic “golf routine” and it still has the power to evoke gales of laughter in the audience. With or without dialogue, Fields is hilarious, and in this film he is also very sweet. The scenario was by Ben Hecht and directed by Gregory LaCava. That Fields and LaCava had a less than friendly relationship on this film did not seem to affect the comedy, as usual, Fields was brilliant. The only thing I do find disturbing is the moustache; I do not know why it was a necessary prop to the Fields countenance. In 1926, Fields was not the familiar face (and voice) he would become in the talkies and on radio. I suspect it was more of the “every comic has a moustache or gimmick” Fields talent was not gimmick enough. Alice Joyce played the Princess with a delicious tongue in cheek. She also wore quite simply the most fabulous clothes of the weekend. Her eye makeup was pure Theda Bara, but the cloche hat and gowns, my dear she looked splendid. Charles Rogers (not yet nicknamed “Buddy”) was fresh out of Paramount School plays the romantic lead in the sub plot. He’s quite handsome, quite charming and just shy of his huge success in William Wellman’s Wings. Not much to do but look decorative with his leading lady. One can readily see what Mary Pickford saw in him a few years later. Dr. Phil Carli tinkled the ivories as only he can for this film. He was, in a word, brilliant. I only wish Dr. Carli had been given more to do during the festival than this one feature (and the short that preceded the film).

I gave up after that, I missed Fall of the House of Usher and with great regret, Lady of the Pavements, the closing film of the weekend. If I learned to take the Monday off after the festival, I’d make it to the final film. I will make every effort to do that next year; this festival is too good to miss. The staff, the volunteers, they do a bang up job and I will bet it takes them weeks to recover from this. I can only hope they all take a nice vacation before planning next year.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival a few years back began to show a short film that would precede each feature. This year the short films were all early Biograph films. This was the highlight of the festival for me. It was an absolute treat (and it was a real treat) to see several early Biograph films projected on the big screen in 35mm. Incredibly, some films were recent strikes off original Biograph negatives housed at the Library of Congress. The clarity of Billy Bitzer’s camera work was a joy to behold. It was also a real thrill to see Mary Pickford in her first year on film. She was a charming seventeen year old and a comedienne of great natural ability with an almost instinctive economy regarding her acting style. Pickford and the camera, well it was a marriage made in heaven. She was allowed to play a wide variety of roles, not the stereotypical little girl persona that she is best remembered for.

The 1909 film They Would Elope was, I think, my favorite short of the weekend. It was almost as much fun watching the film as it was picking out the Biograph regulars in the background. The story was solid; the performance of Pickford was sheer delight as her frustration (and exhaustion) mounted. Kate Bruce was Mom, a very young Bobby Harron could be seen getting the horse and carriage, Mack Sennett was the rube with the wheelbarrow, Arthur Johnson as the preacher and rounding out with James Kirkwood as Dad. I see that apparently Henry B. Walthall could be seen in the background of the crowd scene and Owen Moore was in the car, I missed Owen totally. It was a sheer delight, as was The Trick That Failed.

It was abundantly clear that Biograph was the Tiffany of studios at that time. Not only more stars, but the films were of a much higher quality. The films they made were very good product, it is no wonder Biograph was such a huge success. As a case in point, the 1910 Thanhouser film The Actors Children which screened during the Archives program was a released year later and was a much less cohesive film. The film was very primitive film both in acting style and in cinematic style. There was a standing set and some brief exteriors were shot. That said it could not hold a candle to the quality of a film such as They Would Elope. The other delightful aspect of watching a series of Biograph films was to pick out the players in the back ground as I previously mentioned and also note some of the background props that popped up as often as Gladys Egan seemed to.

That’s it for my long-winded review. See you next year!

4 comments:

Mercurie said...

I really would love to attend the festival one day. It sounds like a lot of fun--indeed, I've always wanted to see Underworld. Alas, California is so far away... )-:

rudyfan1926 said...

Well worth saving the pennies for a trip. I know and appreciate how fortunate I am to be a local. Underworld was fabulous and was available on VHS, but not DVD as far as I know. So if you still have access to a VHS player, it might be worth checking out your local used spot for a VHS.

jessylin said...

Delicate pictures.This is great festival.Silent movie fans had in their minds their own idea regarding the 'spoken sound' of the actors and actresses they loved.

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fies said...

Yes.Some one great.I add,after the film's release, Valentino made a trip to New York where he met with several French producers. Yearning for Europe, better pay, and more respect, Valentino returned and promptly quit Metro.

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