San Francisco Silent Film Festival Recap - Part 2

Mary McLaren in Shoes

Saturday, July 16
Disney’s Laugh-O-Grams featuring J.B. Kaufman & Russell Meritt
Variations on a Theme with silent film musicians and composers

Sadly, I had freaked myself out to such a degree over making sure I got exactly the Napoleon tickets I wanted, I stayed home and camped on Ticketmaster in true geek fashion and skipped the Laugh-O-Grams and the Variations on a Theme programs.  Then I met some fellow geeks for lunch before the Mauritz Stiller.

The Blizzard
Mauritz Stiller’s film The Blizzard was a simple tale of love and madness with a really huge herd of reindeer thrown in and an excellent tracking action sequence of the hero of the story being dragged across the ice by a rampaging reindeer. The poetic hero spent the remainder of the film not recovering until the magic of music heals him and brings us a happy ending. My pithy comments above do not do justice to the film. Yes, the plot seemed rather silly, even from the well regarded and revered Selma Lagerlöf. All that being said, I found myself moved and touched by the end of the film. The action sequences were thrilling and thrillingly filmed. The sensitive scoring by the Matti Bye ensemble lifted and supported the film.

The Goose Woman
I've waited 30+ years to see this film. It was SO worth the wait. The plot of the film might be considered a tad hackneyed, but who cares when you’re watching a tour de force performance by Louise Dresser? In what can only be called a very brave actor, Louise Dresser spends much of the film, sans makeup and a complete and utter mess of a woman. In fact, I think she was made up to look far worse. Behind the makeup or lack thereof, in her eyes, you see every emotion of hate, self loathing, tenderness and she barely moves a muscle. It’s epic and awe inspiring. Jack Pickford also shines as her illegitimate son. He tries to be understanding and a good son, especially when he is reviled by his own mother. You can see the family resemblance, Jack Pickford’s face morphs into his sister Mary’s at time. You see that Jack had some real talent, and not simply as a womanizer and drinker as he was in his off screen life. Constance Bennett has little to do except look pretty and be the object of affection. That said, you can see glimpses of the glamorous screen presence she would become in the 1930’s. Stephen Horne accompanied the film. This was my pick of the weekend (so far). It was the film I most wanted to see and it did not let me down.  Kevin Brownlow did not steer any of us wrong with this one.

Mr. Fix-It
Previously considered a lost film, Mr. Fix-It was restored with the aid of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the contributions of The Goessel Family Foundation. We can thank them all for this, Mr. Fix-It may not be top drawer Fairbanks, but, it was 100% delightful and vintage pre-swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks. While Doug appears a little old (mostly due to make-up) to be a young collegian, once he hits US shores, the action rarely stops. Even with all the speed bumps in the road, he manages to make good on his promise to fix things up for a happy ending.

The Woman Men Yearn For
Lacking in stamina, I skipped this and the wonderful Mont-Alto score. I regret it, but I will have the opportunity to screen the film for a proper review. Reports from all were that Marlene was luminous and Mont-Alto was wonderful.

Sunday, July 17
Amazing Tales from the Archives II featuring Kevin Brownlow
Initially announced to have Kevin speak about 50 years of restoration, he really did that anyway in chronicling his journey of discovery through Abel Gance’s Epic Napoleon. Kevin narrated during clips, stills and some wonderful rare footage of Abel Gance circa 1965 was shown. Kevin cribbed from his 1980 era book Napoleon and it only served to whet the collective appetites of the audience for the complete restoration to be shown in 2012. At least that is what it did for me.

This was my first film with Mary McLaren. I only knew of her, really, from her tragic later years, impoverished in a home that was beyond condemned. Having met her in 1980 at a memorial service for Rudolph Valentino, I recognized in this young delicate woman the same beautiful eyes, cornflower blue. In this film, as the put upon heroine, she was luminous, beautiful and sad. Her performance was subtle and her communication of heartbreak was intense.  A young girl, the sole support of her family longs for a new pair of shoes. Her salary is controlled by her mother and portions are wasted by her wastrel of a father. Unable to stand it any longer, she sells herself to a cabaret singer (portrayed sleazily by William V. Mong) to obtain the shoes. Filmed on location in Los Angeles, it was a tad preachy, but nonetheless effective. The drama was only heightened and almost was overwrought by the mighty Wurlitzer under the capable hands of Dennis James. We had the added bonus of the introduction of the film by Robert Byrne, who helped restore the film.  The before and after clip reel was astonishing.

Wild and Weird featuring David Sheppard
This was a preview of a new Flicker Alley release produced by David Sheppard. A collection of weird and wonderful short films. This included the most beautiful print I’ve ever seen of The Red Spectre and one of my favorite early Vitagraph films The Thieving Hand. Avant Garde and just plain bizarre films were shown and accompanied with a percussive beat by the Alloy Orchestra. Friends know I am rather traditional in my approach to music that accompanies silent films, in this Alloy hit the right notes (or drums). It was a loud and very fun program. And this ended the festival for me.

Due to taking the Friday off from work to attend, I had to make it a very early night for the Monday to come. I do regret missing He Who Gets Slapped, but it’s a film I’ve seen several times and have seen previously on the big screen.

I’m biased because I am a local, but I do love the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and I am already looking very much forward to what the summer will bring in 2012. The volunteers, the staff, Anita Monga, Stacey Wisnia and the Castro Theater are all to be commended, it was a great weekend.


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