San Francisco Silent Film Festival - A Look Forward to Day 4

Day 4 and the closing day of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will begin with a presentation by my hero, Kevin Brownlow. Amazing Tales From the Archives II, he'll present a program on 50 years of film preservation. Kevin is a wonderful speaker and I am anxious to not only hear but to see his program.



Accompanied By: Dennis James
(USA, 1916, 60 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Lois Weber
Cast: Mary MacLaren, Harry Griffith

Without question, Lois Weber was the most important woman director of the silent era. She began her career in 1908 when a “long” film lasted 20 minutes, and directed her last feature a quarter century later in 1934, well into the sound era. During that span she directed (and often acted in) more than 140 films, many of which were critical as well as popular successes. Weber saw film not only as entertainment, but also as a means for exploring the important social issues of the time. Abortion, birth control, capital punishment, religious hypocrisy, the living wage, child labor, prostitution, and white slavery were all topics Weber addressed in her films.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Lois Weber as a woman on a soapbox, though. Her films were well scripted, well acted, and highly popular. In 1916 she was the highest paid director at Universal and her films were among the most successful produced by the studio. Weber is less well known today due in large part to the fact that only a handful of her films still survive and even fewer are available for viewing. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of EYE Film Insituut Nederland, a “new” and important title from Weber’s canon is reemerging from the darkness

SHOES was released to the American public in June 1916 during the height of the social reform movement. Weber directed and released an astonishing 19 films that year, many of which were highly controversial and often subjected to cries for censorship. The only known surviving copy of SHOES was a heavily deteriorated nitrate print residing in the collection of EYE Film. In 2008 the institute undertook a three-year project to restore the feature and return it to the screen. The print film was digitally scanned combined with fragments from another source, and then digitally corrected to the extent possible. English titles were recreated based on translation from the Dutch titles and the original color tinting was recreated by matching the source material. The final result of this preservation effort is a new film negative that serves as a preservation element for the film, and of course a brand new 35mm allowing SHOES to be shared with the world.

Print courtesy of EYE Film Instituut Nederland


Wild and Weird: Short Film Favorites with New Music
Accompanied By: Alloy Orchestra
(77 mins, digital)

This collection of shorts from the silent era demonstrates the wonder of early special effects, still dazzling after 100 years!

Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend d. Edwin S. Porter
Edwin S. Porter’s adaptation of a well-loved Winsor McCay character follows the “fiend” on his hallucinatory travels after rarebit gorge. (1906, USA, 9 min.)

Red Spectre d. Ferdinand Zecca
A demonic magician living in a mysterious cavern conjures up and toys with young women, until he is opposed by a good spirit. (1907, France, 9 min.)

The Acrobatic Fly d. Percy Smith
F. Percy Smith’s demonstration of a talented housefly, a.k.a. The Balancing Bluebottle. (1910, USA, 3 min.)

The Thieving Hand d. Edwin S. Porter
A one-armed man gets an artificial limb at the Limb Store, but the new arm has a mind of its own. (1908, USA, 6 min.)

Princess Nicotine d. Paul Panzer
This reverie, also known as The Smoke Fairy, has mischievous fairies besting a sleeping smoker. (1909, USA, 5 min.)

Arthème Swallows his Clarinet d. Ernest Servaès
This surrealistic short has music-lover Arthème continuing to play his clarinet even after an accident involving a falling piano causes him to swallow it! (1912, France, 4 min.)

Cameraman’s Revenge d. Wladyslaw Starewicz
A story of jealousy and revenge starring beetles! Starewicz’s genius at stop-motion animation has never been surpassed. (1912, Russia, 13 min.)

Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend: The Pet d. Winsor McKay
After eating rarebit, a man dreams that his wife’s insatiable pet keeps growing and growing until it threatens the entire city! (1921, USA, 10 min.)

Filmstudie d. Hans Richter
A Dadaist wonder! (1926, Germany, 5 min.)

Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra d. Robert Florey
This brilliant and deeply funny short tells the story of what happens to one man’s dreams of stardom in the Dream Factory. (1928, USA, 13 min.)

Digital print courtesy of David Shepard

The Nail in the Boot
Accompanied By: Stephen Horne
(USSR, 1931, 54 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Mikhail Kalatozov
Cast: Alexandre Shaliashvili, Siko Palavandishvili

THE NAIL IN THE BOOT was to be the last film made in Georgia by the future author of THE CRANES ARE FLYING and SOY CUBA (I AM CUBA): it was to be eight years before he was able to direct another film. Made for the “Samkhedrofilmi” (Military Film) studio, it was intended as a so-called defensive-military and agitation-propaganda (agitprop) film, with the message that slipshod workers are saboteurs causing damage to national defence, and with the aim of ideologically educating the audience to oppose future enemies. The film had an alternative title, THE HOMELAND IS IN DANGER.

As its main title indicates, the plot is inspired by the universal folk anecdote “All for the sake of a horseshoe nail”. The first part of the film takes place on a battlefield. A soldier is dispatched to notify divisional headquarters that the armored train is faced with destruction and urgently needs aid. On the way, his foot is injured by a nail sticking out of the sole of his boot, and he fails to reach headquarters in time. The train is lost. The second part of the film is a courtroom enquiry into the action of the protagonist, at which different aspects of the story emerge.

The least of the criticisms leveled against Kalatozov was that this plot was confusing for the audience. The main attack was more fundamental and crushing. Kalatozov was accused of being carried away by formalistic pursuits and of destroying the logical narrative by ideological and other errors. Formalism was now a permanent stigma upon him. V. Katinov, in Proletarskoe Kino (1932, issue 5), charged: “When making THE NAIL Kalatozov did not apply the revolutionary method of dialectical materialism to his theme, but proceeded from formalistic aestheticism.”

Today, almost 80 years later, we may feel that the Communist Party was to some extent justified in complaining that Kalatozov had not met the required ideological criteria. His first concern is seeking the visual concept of the film, and only then what the State requires from him as a Soviet artist. THE NAIL IN THE BOOT, rather than calling for mobilization and battle with the conventional enemy, inspires sympathy with a loyal man who risks being subjected to oppression. The sentiments are expressed by subtle cinematic means and brilliant use of the potential of the materials available to Kalatozov in the early days of his creative life. If he failed the Communist Party’s exam, he triumphs in the higher exam of time and history. —Excerpted from a piece by Nino Dzandzava in the Giornate del Cinema Muto catalog

Print courtesy of Gosfilmofond


He Who Gets Slapped

Accompanied By: Matti Bye Ensemble
(USA, 1924, 95 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Victor Sjöström
Cast: Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Ruth King

HE WHO GETS SLAPPED is a Hollywood film of a Russian play, made by a Swedish director—the great Victor Sjöström, star of Bergman’s WILD STRAWBERRIES (1958). It is also the first film made by the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. These are all good historical reasons for studying it, and for expecting something special.

Sjöström is here paired with Lon Chaney, the silent era’s greatest character star, and a master of the grotesque. The director reins in Chaney’s excesses and coaxes from him an eloquent, restrained, yet hugely powerful performance. Chaney plays Paul Beaumont, an aspiring scientist who loses everything in one horrific day—his theories are stolen, he is disgraced before his peers, and his wife scorns him in favor of the man who robbed him. Each horror culminates in a slap to the face. Beaumont cracks, begins to laugh, and the next time we see him he’s employed as a circus clown and known only as HE. And then the film’s true story begins.

Chaney is in love again, with a beautiful equestrienne (a young Norma Shearer). But she’s in love with a handsome young circus star (John Gilbert), but her sleazy father is about to promise her hand to… but I won’t give it away. Over the course of the narrative, HE will face his original trauma once more, for real, and overcome it, after a fashion.

Chaney’s character, HE, obsessively revisits his own trauma, re-enacting the slap that ended his first life, again and again, for the delectation of the circus audience. As an exploration of emotional masochism, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED is an extraordinary work, far removed from the romantic glitz MGM would make its stock-in-trade.

Beyond the film’s bizarrely powerful narrative and tantalizing psychological undertones, there’s the technique. Sjöström was master of the match-dissolve, where one image bleeds into another, creating an expressive juxtaposition. This film is unique in MGM’s output, unique in its director’s work, unique in film history. It’s the film that tells us what life is (with a single image!), the film that matches the laugh of the clown to the snarl of a lion, and the film that creates a great love story from a tale as artificial as the whiteface makeup of a clown. —Excerpted from David Cairns’s Senses of Cinema

Print courtesy of George Eastman House

Individual tickets and festival passes may be purchased online at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.

See you there!


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