Recapping the 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival - Part 2

Image from the National Media Museum Blog
Thursday, May 31:

10:00 am

The Amazing Tales from the Archive program is a free event for all who wish to attend.  I never, ever miss it.  It combines entertainment and education into seamless fun.  I call it the geek show in only the most affectionate way.  

Avrom Morewski and Ernst Deutsch in Das alte Gesetz
Two of the three presenters concerned restorations of films making their debut this year.  The first was E.A. Dupont’s The Ancient Law (which screened on the last day, Sunday). Professor Cynthia Walk opened the program speaking on how she came to work on, I would say engineer, the restoration and reconstruction of this film.  It happened after her discovery of the Censorship Certificate for the film which had the original titles for the film.  Martin Koerber of the Deutsche Kinemathek then took us through the job of restoring the film and showing examples of the various source prints (Swedish, Russian, Italian, French and American) and how they differed and contributed to the final print.  In a rare example of restoration, the film now matches the original length and run time of the original 1923 release. 
Kinemacolor film 1911 (courtesy BFI)

Davide Pozzi of L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna Italy gave a presentation on Kinemacolor, an early and beautiful color process. There were a few technical glitches with the playback of video of Davide’s colleagues explaining how the collection came to Bologna and the work that went into cleaning and saving the films.  While that was being ironed out, we saw three examples of fully restored films, including Lake Garda, Italy, and a portion of The Pageant Procession. The color is based on using red and green filters (later more perfected via the second Technicolor process if I am assuming correctly).  Once the kinks had been ironed out, we got to see the footage showing the process of restoration.  It was a pleasure to have Mr. Pozzi make his first visit to the festival and present on such an interesting process.

Film Historian Luke McKernan has done some groundbreaking and great research on Kinemacolor. Mr. Pozzi gave him a couple of shout outs during his presentation. 

Finally, Robert Byrne, Professor Russell Merritt and Elzbieta Wysocka of Filmoteka Narodowa presented about the exciting discovery and restoration of the German The Hound of the Baskerville (which screened on Saturday). The discovery of this film in the Polish Film Archive fills a gap for all fans of Sherlock Holmes. The restoration comprised the 35mm reels which were found in a collection of a monastery.  Nice to know the priests did not deny themselves a good movie now and again. The second surprise was a 9.5mm collector had a Baby Pathe show at home print which did fill in gaps missing in the 35mm print.  As they said in the brochure, this discovery was a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes himself. 

Donald Sosin accompanied the film bits shown and he is always a treat.

1:00 pm

This slot started with the screening of a newly restored 1924 Stan Laurel short called Detained. Titles were written by Tay Garnett. Garnett was not merely a writer, he was also a busy director in the 30-70’s.  One of my favorites is the wonderful and soapy 1932 One Way Passage starring Kay Francis and William Powell.

The short was not what I'd consider one of Stan’s funnier turns.  He plays a dope who has his clothes stolen and swapped by an escaped convict.  Stan is arrested again and is put in jail. Hello?? No mug shot of the guy they are actually looking for? I know, this is a movie, does not need to make sense.  Some interesting and creepy sight gags, one includes Stan being caught in a noose on gallows (which was the big find in the Netherlands, read about it here).  All’s well that ends well if you want to see it for yourself, you can find it here with Dutch titles.  ymmv on this one.  I love some of Stan’s comedies before there was Laurel and Hardy, this was just not my cup of tea.

Soft Shoes was our first feature film on day 2.  It is not exactly a western, though there are western bits.  Harry Carey play Sheriff Halahan of a town along the Rio Grande who is summoned to San Francisco to collect an inheritance.  The telegram he received was pretty vague, “come collect the inheritance from your deceased relative.” I suppose he knew who it was and came to San Francisco.  He meets up with a lady jewel thief and makes it his business to reform her.  Long story short, he does. It was good fun, I enjoyed it.  Lots of action and wry comedy.  Unusual for a western star. 

To those expecting to see some location shots of San Francisco were to be disappointed.  Only stock footage of the Bay and Ferry Building established location.  From then on, purely Los Angeles and studio locations. I am expecting to see a post or two from John Bengtson deciphering locations on this and several other films.

Now, back to the film itself, it was sourced from the Czech Film Archive and restored in partnership with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  This film has one of the earliest (that I remember) versions of the Universal Pictures airplane circling the globe logo to start, that got applause!

The film was helped along by the jaunty scoring of Donald Sosin.  He is a San Francisco favorite, at least he is one of mine. 

A light and lively start to the day. **** liked it!

Johannes Meyer and Astrid Holm

2:45 pm

Next up we had another lighter film, one of Carl Dreyer’s serio-comedies Master of the House. The film is a social, domestic comedy, with a moral.  Like many of Dreyer’s films, I think it could have been trimmed here and there. He made his point, but took a good long time in setting it up.   We have married couple John and Mary (Viktor and Ida in the original Danish print).  Establishing footage shows Mary working away as the lady of the house, everyone has their chores in the morning including son Dick and daughter Karin.  Everyone except Dad, that is.  He is shown as the film unfolds and the day begins just how much of a jerk Dad is.  You immediately think, why does she stay with this jerk? Mary is visited a few days a week by John's old nanny, Miss Madsen, known affectionately as Mads/Nana.  As the pressure builds on Mary, she becomes ill from stress and unhappiness and her mother and doctor arrange for her to be sent to a sanitarium for a rest cure. Mads and John's Mother-in-Law hatch a plot in which Mads will show him just who is the master of the house.  She sets out to humble him and teach him to be grateful for the wife who has gone away.  John does get his comeuppance, and home and hearth are set to right in the end. Mathilde Nielsen who played “Mads” stole the movie as far as I am concerned.  I need to learn more about her. ****, I liked it. 

The film was kept light and moving with the able and idiomatic accompaniment of Stephen Horne.

5:15 pm

An Inn in Tokyo, I thought I had seen before.  I was mistaken.  This film shows abject poverty and unemployment in the Great Depression that plagued the world in the 1930s.  The film was shot by Ozu in Tokyo’s Koto District which was pretty industrial and stark.  The head of the National Film Archive of Japan (I neglected to write his name down) introduced the film and said the reels for the electrical line would be some of the most beautiful still lives of such objects you’d ever see on film.  He was right about that; the lyrical starkness of this film was beautiful.  It is the story of Kihachi (Takeshi Sakamoto) who is searching for work.  He is turned down at every corner.  His two young sons are with him and find feral dogs to turn in for reward money (40 sen) this is how they can eat or find cheap communal lodging for the evening.  It is a grim life. 

As the boys wait while Kihachi seeks work, they meet another impoverished woman and child seeking work.  Otaka (Yoshiko Okada) and the boys play with her daughter as she seeks employment.

The elder of the two boys finds a dog and takes the proceeds to buy a military cap he coveted from another boy.  That night their father tells them they have to choose with what is left, food or shelter. Hunger wins the day and they find a restaurant to eat. It turns out the restaurant is run by an old friend of Kihachi, Otsune (Choko Iida).  She arranges to find him work. 

Meanwhile Otaka’s daughter falls ill and in order to afford medical care, she takes a job in a sake house.  Kihachi who has had a history of imbibing too much sake finds her there and berates her until he learns of her reason.  He attempts to borrow the money from Otsune, who refuses him.  In his desperation to aid Otaka, he steals and has his boys deliver the needed money to pay for the doctor.  He confesses all to Otsune and leaves to turn himself in to the police.  He begs Otsune to care for his boys.  He disappears down the lane into the fog and darkness.

I had to come home to read the plot of the film as the titles in the film, or the lack thereof, made some of the plot points murky to me.  My friends who attended with me were equally puzzled by the film.  I still feel it is unclear whether or not he did, in fact, turn himself in or escape to another prefecture.  *** only because I lacked understanding.

The film was accompanied with the dynamic team of Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius.  The scoring was very nuanced and underlined the stylized performances.  The comedic touches accented the film and then you were struck in the heart by all the small touches of tragedy. 

I missed People on Sunday and The Lighthouse Keepers because I had a dinner date with friends.  I will catch up with these two films at home.

This first full day of the festival was lovely and left me wanting more.  I really did want to see The Lighthouse Keepers, but, it was not meant to be.  The reports that came back were very good. 

Friday, June 1:

10:00 am

 I was looking forward to seeing another Constance Talmadge film.  Good References did not disappoint.  Constance was the youngest of the three Talmadge sisters.  Like the Pickford and the Gish families, absent alcoholic fathers, made their mothers formidable powerhouses.  The Talmadge girls all entered films, though middle sister Natalie retired as soon as she married.  Norma and ‘Dutch” as Constance was nicknamed went on to very successful careers in the silent era.  Dutch started in comedies for Vitagraph and found fame as the “Mountain Girl” in D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance.

Dutch was perfect in society comedies I have seen and Good References is no different.  A girl down on her luck in New York, without prospects and references, how’s she going to get a job? I have to say, as someone down on her luck, she had a pretty nice apartment (and a nasty landlady) Well, she does get a job by taking over for a new friend.  Naturally, she ends up falling in love with her boss, of course.  Some bumps along the road before the final fadeout.  This was a great start to the day.  It was light fluffy and no stress.
The tinted print was pretty good.  So no complaints there.  This is the second comedy I’ve seen with Talmadge, need to find more.  She’s a kick!

Donald Sosin provided the jaunty accompaniment which was as pleasurable as the movie. 

12:00 pm
Helen Lee Worthing in The Other Woman's Story

The Other Woman’s Story was a terrific surprise.  I never read the program before the festival for two reasons, (1) it’s too dark in the theater to read them even though I have a teeny flashlight on my keyring and (2) I like going in cold without preconceived notions.  In this case maybe I should have made the effort to read the program.  As author David Stenn pointed out in his introduction, the “Other Woman” in the film Helen Lee Worthing had a life as dramatic and compelling to be the subject of a movie herself.  Go ahead, google her and/or wait for the program notes to appear on the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website. Sad and amazing story.

This film produced by B.P. Shulberg was what I’d call a sleeper hit.  It was not a big budget film, but it was very big on creatively getting the story across.  Each of the main characters is first introduced by way of a photograph with their backstory being told by the private investigator.  Most of the action took place in the courtroom and in flashback.  Worthing plays the partner (in an interior decorating business) to the man on trial for murder (Robert Frazer).  It’s obvious, she loves him, and he is married to another woman (Alice Calhoun).  As the film progresses, you see each name on the subpoena ticked off as they relate their stories. Who is the guilty party?  I confess, it was not difficult to guess who the murderer was.  Nevertheless, this was a complete surprise, creative, fun and well made little potboiler.  ***** I really liked it.

Stephen Horne created a great mood for the film and really kept the drama and action moving.

2:00 pm

I missed the program devoted to Silent Avant Garde because I was meeting someone who traveled 5000 miles to be in San Francisco.  I will catch up with these later on.  I know the musical accompaniment was handled by festival regulars the Matti Bye Ensemble.

4:15 pm

Next was one of the most highly anticipated restorations, Mary Pickford in her 1923 film Rosita. I saw this film decades ago in a cramped room, crappy 16mm dupe with Russian titles and the translations were read aloud.  I cannot remember the music if there was any.  Legend at the time was that Pickford hated it and destroyed the film. Based on this particular screening, no matter the rarity, I would have tended to agree with Mary.

Lobby Card for Rosita
As it turns out, Mary did not hate nor did she destroy the film.  She was most unhappy with her own performance.  While her opinion of the film seemed to have changed over the decades, it is not true that she willfully destroyed it. Mary must have forgotten that the film did good business and got very good contemporary reviews. 

Utilizing the source print repatriated from Russia to The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and a reel that is archived at The Mary Pickford Foundation, we have a film that is revealed to be incredibly beautiful.  It is amazing to see just how beautiful this film is, there was only a scant bit of noticeable nitrate damage that I remember seeing.  Utilizing the Handschiegl color process to illuminate the fireworks in the night scenes at Carnival, well, that was pretty damned impressive. I do not know exactly how much went into the restoration, but, this is utterly gorgeous.
In Rosita, Mary Pickford stars as a Spanish street singer who crosses paths with the King of Spain. This film was touted as Mary breaking out and playing an adult character rather than the spunky child she is remembered for.  If that is the case, silent film audiences had terribly short memories!  Pickford played all ages and ranges in the first half of her film career. So, the street singer Rosita is not new territory for her.  Like her pal Dorothy Gish in Nell Gwyn, Mary shows off here previously hidden depths of sexuality. The purest moment of Pickford’s touch is in the sequence when she is brought to the palace and she spies a bowl of fruit, and is hungry. It lasts under a minute, but, it is marvelous.

As the producer, Pickford bravely brought Ernst Lubitsch from Germany to post WWI Hollywood.  Her beloved mother Charlotte quashed Lubitsch’ suggestion of Faust.  She also poured money into the gorgeous costuming and huge sets on the studio lot.  Thanks to John Bengtson’s amazing detective work, mere minutes after the film ended (okay later that night) I received an email telling where the palace exteriors were filmed.  If you are wondering, it was at the stunning Balboa Park in San Diego. A lovely substitution for the royal palace in Spain.
The film written by Edward Knoblock and longtime Lubitsch colleague Hans Kraly.  Kraly would later write the scenario for many films, including Valentino’s 1925 swashbuckler The EagleRosita is filled with continental touches. 

Because the producer and star was Pickford, the remaining case almost seem like afterthoughts. Irene Rich is very memorable as the Queen.  She fits Lubitsch like a glove and shines.  George Walsh, brother of director Raoul Walsh, is remembered most famously as being fired from Ben Hur by MGM, is a rather stolid leading man. He is a big hunk of a guy with very little to do in the film so I cannot really judge his performance. I spotted Rosa Rosanova in an uncredited bit part early on.  Holbrook Blinn played the King.  He was lusty and wicked, just like you’d expect a Lubitsch King to be. 

Is this Pickford’s best film, no.  Is it entertaining, yes. Is it an important restoration, absolutely. Am I glad to have seen it, after the dismal 16mm experience, emphatically YES.  ***** I liked it!

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra played the score commissioned by MOMA and played it beautifully. This is not unexpected, Mont Alto is a tightly knit group that play seamlessly as if one. 

Another dinner engagement prevented me from Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness and regrettably I did miss the rarity Policemen. I will catch up with both at home.  

One of the other treats of this festival is meeting people.  I've chatted up Stephen Horne for some time and this year finally managed to get a photo to prove we've met.  In this instance, we were joined by the estimable Alison Strauss who curates the annual Hippfest in Bo'Ness Scotland.  Lifegoal: go to Hippfest)

Stephen Horne, Alison Strauss and yours truly

Did you miss Part One of my recap?  Here it is.
To be continued….


Popular Posts