24th San Francisco Silent Film Festival Recap
|Ossi Oswalda echoed my sentiments after seeing the schedule|
Please also give a read to recaps by my good friends, Mary Mallory of the Dailey Mirror, Beth Ann Gallagher of Spellbound by Movies, Lea Stans of Silentology, Alison Strauss of the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival in Scotland, Thomas Gladsyz over at the Louise Brooks Society, and Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London.
|Every year I am blessed to attend.|
There is not always a theme to the yearly proceedings. There did seem to be an unofficial theme of bad guys, rotten husbands, lovers and creeps in the lineup this year. Not entirely sure if that was an intended theme, it just felt that way.
|The Cameraman (1928)|
May 2nd - Thursday
The first program was the ever popular free program, Amazing Tales From the Archives. I was very glad to see that this was the largest crowd I've seen for the morning program (on a weekday, no less) than I can remember. This proves that archivists and film restoration is sexy, yay.
The program opened with Board President of the SFSFF ROB BYRNE and researcher THIERRY LECOINTE talking about the amazing world of flipbooks. The flipbooks highlighted were the work of Leon Beaulieu. This small collection of 24 fin de siècle flipbooks was totally fascinating. Leon Beaulieu was one of the most famous makers of "folioscopes" in France between the end of 19th century and the beginning of 20th century. In 1898, he patented a viewer for the "folioscope" and named it "Petit Biograph Parisien."
A few of the flipbooks represent the only surviving elements of films that are now considered lost. The detective work described by both Rob and Thierry to identify the source of these little gems was enthralling. The samples that were screened in their presentation were wonderful glimpses of a magical time gone by. If you want to learn more about the history of flipbooks, here's a terrific resource. Also, the SFSFF program book doubled as a flipbook with a nod to Eadwaerd Muybridge.
STEFAN DRÖSSLER, head of Filmmuseum München, discussedthe restoration of Robert Reinert’s Opium and Germany’s flourishing national cinema at the end of WWI.The research into Reinert was fascinating, given that Reinhert was not his birth name. His life seemed one of failures and tragedy, yet, he left his mark.
|Hisashi Okajima during his presentation with the depressing |
statistic of the survival rate of Japanese cinema.
(Guenther Buchwald photo)
HISASHI OKAJIMA, director of the National Film Archive of Japan, demonstrated the Mina Talkie Sound System used for Kenji Mizoguchi’s Furusato which starred Japanese opera star nicknamed "our tenor" Yoshie Fujiwara. Fujiwara bore a little resemblance to one Rudolph Valentino, I was not alone to notice this.
|Japanese tenor Yoshie Fujiwara|
So you agree there is a resemblance to Valentino?
BRUCE GOLDSTEIN, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum and founder of Rialto Pictures, illustrated how “Silents Got No Respect” the minute talkies came in. Goldstein previously screened The Donovan Affair, of which I was not a fan. Mr. Goldstein is an animated presenter and showed is ample evidence of how Hollywood really did start to denigrate the silent era from almost the day sound came. He highlighted that the lack of respect did, inadvertently, preserve bits of films that have otherwise been lost. My only caveat with his presentation was dating the resurgence of silent film to Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's landmark series Hollywood in 1980. Personally, I would give that nod to people of a certain age (me) having viewed the Robert Youngson compilation films like Days of Thrills and Laughter from the 1960's. This was an engaging and very entertaining close to the Amazing Tales from the Archives program.
Stephen Horne manned the piano for the portions needing accompaniment and did a fine job. Expect nothing less!
|Gary Cooper in Wolf Song (1929)|
The plot of Wolf Song is simple enough, fur trapper Sam Lash (Gary Cooper) and his partners (Louis Wolheim and Constantine Romanoff) team up and land in Taos, for a good time. While in Taos, Sam meets Lola Salazar (Lupe Velez) and they fall in love. She an innocent and he a man of the world. They elope and while blissfully happy for a time, Sam feels the call of the wild and leaves her for his old life. He returns and has to fight the Indian enemy Black Wolf (played with menace by George Regas). Nearly dead, he finds his way back to Lola, crawling up the stairs of the family home which reminded me of the later infamous crawl over the dirt and rocks in Duel in the Sun. Lupe prevailed and Sam welcomed to the family at last.
Another reason to see this film (besides a practically buck naked Cooper bathing in the river) is the obvious and explosive chemistry between Cooper and his costar Lupe Velez. They were having a blazing love affair at this time and it fairly jumps off the screen. Directed by Victor Fleming and lensed by veteran cameraman Allen Siegler this film was real a treat. The musical score was handled by Dr. Philip Carli (who made a very welcome return to the Festival). His scoring was a highlight, really.
|Ossi Oswalda in Die Austernprinzessin (1919)|
I make no secret of my infatuation with the delightful Ossi Oswalda who shined on film for Ernst Lubistch as no other star did. This includes the wonderful Pola Negri, too. Do not @me about this. Die Austernprinzessin/The Oyster Princess was shown at the Castro many moons ago and remains one of my happiest memories in the cinema.
Ernst Lubistch and his frequent collaborator Hans Kraly created yet another satirical confection with this delightful, over the top film. Ossi Oswalda does steal the film as the spoiled daughter of the millionaire who simply must be married to a prince, NOW. Thanks to a matchmaker, a suitable prince is found, the down on his luck Prince Nucki (played delightfully by Harry Liedtke*).
|Harry Liedtke as Prince Nucki|
Ossi starts training to be a wife, including maternity training with a poor doll who bears the brunt of her punishment. Prince Nucki sends Josef, his valet, to check things out. Naturally, there is mistaken identity and Ossi and the false Prince elope in a hasty marriage. They return to the family home for a wedding banquet and "A Foxtrot Epidemic Suddenly Breaks Out During the Wedding" (believe me this has to be seen to be appreciated).
The real Prince Nucki has gone off on a bender with his pals and passes out in a park. Ossi hosts the Multi-Millionaire Daughter's Association Against Dispomania and all the drunks are herded in to be cured. All of them old men, except Nucki, who is soon the apple of every girl's eye. How to settle who gets to help cure him? A massive boxing match, of course. Ossi, beats all her rivals and falls for the real Nucki. She weeps telling him she is already married as does he, thinking he is married to an awful heiress. Josef saves the day by letting them know they are married, to each other. So ends happily. Wayne Barker accompanied with a sprightly score. My recap does not do this little film justice, if you love Lubistch, this will delight you with absurdity and wry humor. I was very impressed.
I bypassed Aleksandr Dovzhenko's 1930 film Earth to have some dinner with fellow attendees. I will be able to watch this in the comfort of my own living room, and will do so.
Kevin Brownlow (my hero) introduced a 1924 Clarence Brown film I have long wanted to see, The Signal Tower. This film is an action packed thriller featuring perennial silent baddie Wallace Beery Virginia Valli, previously unknown to me Rockliffe Fellowes, and featuring a young Frankie Darro. Darro better remembered for his searingly fantastic role in William Wellman's 1933 film Wild Boys of the Road. This new restoration was completed as a joint project between Photoplay Productions and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
As Kevin explained in his always entertaining fashion at the podium, the road for him to obtain this rare film was a long and rocky one. The print does not exist in 35mm original elements (where have we heard this before?) but in a tinted Kodascope show at home print. As Kevin feared, the print was not the sparkling crystal clear visual he would have preferred, but, it was good enough. Brown was already a master behind the camera, as far as I am concerned and this film was no exception. The Northern California scenery was lush and lovely. Brown's experience working with Maurice Tourneur gave him skills as a visual artist and his own technical skills as an engineer put the cameras in the best places for the most effective shots.
The story showed the love of a family, the threat of a slimy city parasite (Beery was always so good at this) and the excitement and danger of a runaway train. Most effective were shots through windows and doors (this would also be a theme during various films in the festival), in particular at the signal tower looking through the windows through the rain. Brown always left something in the foreground to provide depth. Fool that I am, I was so caught up in the film, I missed Clarence Brown's two cameos in the film!
Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius played a rousing, percussive fast moving score for the film. Very effective in the pulsating thrills of the runaway train. They rightly received a standing ovation, it was epic!
I skipped Opium due to the fact I was worn out and had another early morning. Various reports were, regardless of my love for Veidt, it was not a great movie.
May 3rd - Friday
Florence Vidor as Vera shined in this film for me, I confess it was partially because her clothes were just fantastic. The Russian/Flapper garb was fantastic and she looked fabulous. Sadly, no costumer credit, everyone looked great, even the fantastical stylized costumes worn by the performers.
Clive Brook as Norodin, a broody knife-throwing/escape artist was very sensitive here. His unrequited love was obvious to everyone, except the blind recipient of his ardor. Brook was far less wooden than he would be in the talkies. Truth be told, I did not agree with his manipulative ploy to get Vera to recognize she loves him.
Lowell Sherman was at his very best as the rakish baddie who sets out to have the beautiful Vera at any cost. As much fun, if not more so, than his turn in 1924's Monsieur Beaucaire or as the ultimate in rotten men deflowering and jilting Lilian Gish in the hoary chestnut Way Down East from 1920. Sherman was a master at this kind of role, you could say he walked though it, but, he was delicious.
The supporting cast was excellent, down to the acrobats who appeared. You can spot a really fast cameo of Eugene Pallette at a party. Looking more portly than he was in the 1916 Gretchen the Greenhorn (last screened at the SFSFF in 1996), you miss hearing Pallette's distinct gravely voice. I have to save some serious kudos for El Brendel here. He is woven throughout the film as a Greek chorus and sounding board for Clive Brook's Norodin, paired with a performing bespeckled goose. You'd think this was going to be super campy, sure there are moments of humor and farce. But, El Brendel is remarkably expressive and touching here. I find him annoying in Wings, and in this he was wonderful.
Dr. Phil Carli accompanied as only he can. The music was spot on and his style is completely one with the film.
If any of what I've said makes you want to see the film, you are lucky, you can! Released on DVD/Blu-Ray by KINO/Lorber I cannot recommend this highly enough. I watched it a few nights prior to the festival screening. It was terrific both times.
|Ita Rina in the poster for Tonischka|
the duality of her life illustrated
My good online friend the Self-Styled Siren recommended Tonischka/Tonka of the Gallows with her whole heart over at Film Comment. Her recommendation along with a passionate review by Lokke Heiss was enough for me. I did buy this film on DVD from the Czech Republic on their recommendations. So happy me when it was announced for the 24th SFSFF. This pretty much was the film of the weekend for me.
Czar of Noir Eddie Muller introduced the film and later I met him in the Spotlight Lounge and fangirled and thanked him for the joys of Noir Alley. He really is the best thing to come to Turner Classic Movies since Robert Osborne. His introduction to Tonischka/Tonka of the Gallows was as informative as any of his Noir Alley intros are. Eddie certainly set us up for a bleak tale. The film was set up in four acts, beginning with Spring and Eddie asked us to remember Spring at the end of the film.
The standout performance is Ita Rina as the doomed Tonka. I really do not have words to describe her, she was beautiful, luminous, heartbreaking, tender, and tragic. This is a performance for the ages. The film was hypnotic, lyrical, even in the worst moments and a gut punch of a movie that I completely loved.
|Jack Mylong as Jan and Ita Rina as Tonka in the Spring|
My friend Mary Mallory (she blogs over at The Daily Mirror) summed it up for me perfectly: "I thought it was beautiful and moving, Sunrise in reverse, in that the country is peaceful and full of love and the city brings darkness and despair."
This was compounded and underscored by Stephen Horne's emotional playing for the film. Pausing in silence in moments and supporting so tenderly the story. It was an emotional high point for me. This was a truly great film, not an easy film, compelling and shattering.
|Lew Cody and Florence Vidor in Husbands and Lovers|
Back to Husbands and Lovers now, in this we get another look at Florence Vidor as the downtrodden wife of Lewis Stone. There was plenty of #MeToo hissing when the film opened and there was poor Grace Livingston, a virtual slave to her husband James (Lewis Stone). Ungrateful brute insults her right off the bat. She withers under his slights. The zing has certainly gone out of this marriage, if it was ever really there in the first place. Grace goes out and bobs her hair and buys a new gown to impress her uncaring spouse. Her change in appearance is noticed by Jame's friend Rex Phillips (Lew Cody). Rex who drives James to and from work, has already proven he has an eye for the ladies. Now he sets his cap for James' attention-starved wife. She so starved for attention she blossoms with his flattery.
As their mutual attraction deepens to something more than ordinary friendship. Fate deals a blow to their amour when in the case of a mistaken identity during an assignation at a party Grace reveals to James her love for Rex. This dramatic sequence lit and shot with deep shadows and light through window blinds with mastery by Antonio Gaudio. Gaudio had not yet Americanized his name to the more familiar Tony Gaudio who was an asset to many a Warner Brothers film in the 1930's through the late 1940's.
As James bows out of the picture to give her a divorce, Rex is now faced with the sad fact he must give up his bachelor lifestyle and marry Grace. James finds himself regretting his choice and he desires to try and win her back. But, his reticence and attorney's advice set him back. However, on the day of the wedding, he lurks outside the window where Grace is preparing. She sees him, they meet and he lures her away with declarations of love. Meanwhile, Rex is jilted at the altar, while the organist plays the wedding march endlessly as they wait for his bride who will never come. Fadeout on Grace and James driving off to, one hopes, a happier second time around.
I have to confess, I found poor Grace confusing here. I get she was totally downtrodden and the attentions of Rex were attractive. Rex, however, was not. The leading man status of Lew Cody has always befuddled me, he was not handsome, more often oily and creepy. If I had been Grace, I would have left both of them in the dust!
Dr. Phil Carli applied his usual panache at the keyboard for this. Excellent support, as we have become used to.
|Lyda Borelli in a marvelous colored sequence|
|Lyda Borelli as the old Contessa and Ugo Bazzini as Satan|
having a wonderful time!
The film was stunning to look at. The print was tinted and toned and also had Handschiegl stenciled color. It was magnificent color work. One of the greatest effects in the film was the reveal of Satan who, literally, climbed out of a painting. Ugo Bazzini's appearences throughout the film were marvelous, just animated enough to steal every scene.
The film was preceded by a Kinemacolor short of various species of sweetpeas. Rodney Sauer accompanied with aplomb on the acordion.
Musical accompaniment for the feature was by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. There was lots of sly innuendo in their music. It supported it beautifully.
Once again, I sacrificed the late evening films. I needed to rest and recharge at home.
May 4th -Saturday
|Conrad Nagel and Marion Davies pictured|
on the poster for Lights of Old Broadway
The early film to start the day was a beautiful print of Lights of Old Broadway. The print source was the Library of Congress and as related in Lara Gabrielle Fowler's introduction this was gifted to the LOC by Marion Davies herself. The film is the story of two babies orphaned at sea crossing with their Mother. Each is adopted by a family, one rich and one poor. Years later we follow the story of Irish American tomboy and hoyden Fely O'Tandy. Sister Anne is raised by Lambert de Rhonde (Frank Currier) and his wife (Julia Swayne Gordon) with her brother Dirk (Conrad Nagel). Funny how nobody seemed to notice these two looked exactly alike. The audience did, though.
As Lara related, the character of Fely is very much who Marion Davies was at her heart. Loyal, generous, loving and a fighter. Naturally, she falls for Dirk, a man higher up the social ladder and before the fadeout, this plot point resolves itself neatly.
The subplot of the film had to do with bringing the electric light to New York City (and a touch of Tammany Hall). This print saved the big guns for the reveal of lights and color. Like Rapsodica Satanica the print was tinted and toned, used Technicolor and also had Handschiegl stenciled color which was utterly beautiful. The best I have seen, filling the frame with color and so much detail and nary a flicker out of registration. It was really impressive.
Dr. Philip Carli was again manning the 88 keys and used New York music some familiar and some not throughout the film. There was a sweetness to his scoring for the music of Fely and Anne and a great percussive high point with the big reveal of the lights. A great start to the day.
Next up was an early embryonic John Ford western entitled Hell Bent starring Harry Carey. Now I have silently complained the lack of westerns being shown at this festival. Now we get two Harry Carey films in a row. This a recent restoration by Universal Pictures who have committed to restoring as many silent films made by Universal at the rate of 10 films a year. Finding first rate source material for some films, heck most, is a challenge as Universal lost to accidental fires or willfully burned negatives to their silent films.
There was some excitement for this since it was so early in John Ford's career, how much classic Ford would it show. A few good vistas was all I got out of it. Beale's Cut was dramatic and an effective use of some great landscapes was pretty much it. I found the plot more than a little jumpy and hard to follow. As a proto-Ford film, it could have stayed lost for me. I hope in future we will get some other excellent western films from William S. Hart, who was a master of the genre on his own.
In honor of Diana Serra Cary's 101st birthday the film was preceded by an early Baby Peggy short called Brownie's Little Venus (1921). Written and directed by Fred Fishback (later infamously associated with the Roscoe Arbuckle trials) this film does little to showcase Peggy except her adorableness and fearlessness. Perhaps that was enough, the audience was certainly receptive. The real star is Brownie the Wonder Dog. It was a charming, if not a little overlong film. I'm a sucker for a dog star.
Dr. Phil Carli's rollicking score kept the film moving along to the happy conclusion.
Next up was a narrative documentary exploitation film called Goona Goona. Filmed on location in Bali with natives acting for the screen for the first, and likely only time. Directed by Andre Roosevelt and Armand Denis, the location was primitive and beautiful. You could see the gorgeous teak wood carved buildings, temples and screens. The film was somewhat exploitive for the native undress of the women of all ages in the film. The story was a simple tale of a farmer Wyan who loved the local girl who helped run the village coffee stand, Dasnee (who looked to be all of 13-14 years old). The son of the local ruler returned from his European education and stopped for a coffee and became smitten, okay lusting for the beautiful Dasnee. She showed some very uncomfortable glances in his direction. Wyan and Dasnee marry, as does the Prince to another royal.
Wyan goes off with other villagers on fishing expedition at sea in a large catamaran (to the tune of Debussy's La Mer). For reasons we are never told, the prince's sister arranges for Dasnee and her sister to be drugged so he can go and have his way with her. Nice sister, eh? The prince stealthy sneaks into their hut, lays down his kriss (his ceremonial sword and pretty graphic phallic symbol) and rapes Dasnee. Wyan returns and finds the kriss in the bed and runs off to seek vengeance. He finds the prince and stabs him dead, then returns to Dasnee and kills her, innocent like Desdemona. He is arrested and taken to the tribal ruler who then stabs Wyan in revenge. A lot of vengeance in the last 10 minutes, which was the best part of the film for me.
Do not get me wrong the scenic portions of the film were nice, but, the story was more primitive than the islanders. The scoring was done wonderfully with The Clubfoot Gamelan joined by two highly regarded composers from Bali. The music was great and the best I've heard from Clubfoot musicians. Entirely suitable to the themes and film.
Having a dinner with author Gwenda Young and other friends, I begged off seeing The Wedding March to satisfy myself with a viewing at home with Gaylord Carter on the organ. It is von Stroheim's film, a tender and beautifully shot film. I missed Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, to my great regret.
May 5 - Sunday
|Michiko Oikawa as Sunako in|
Hisashi Okajima, director of the National Film Archive of Japan was on hand to introduce this rarity from director Hiroshi Shimizu, Minato no nihonmusume/Japanese Girls at the Harbor. The real star of this film is Michiko Oikawa as Sunako. She runs the gamut of emotion and life experiences with so much behind it, this belies her age here, barely 19 years old. Infused with a talent beyond her years and only 16 film credits to her name, Oikawa died in 1938 at 26 from heart problems and tuberculosis. A tragic loss to the Japanese film industry.
The story is again simple, two best friends walk along the same path to and from school, pledging eternal friendship. They are quickly separated by a boy who is older and has a motorcycle and is a bit of a gangster. He also plays around with a more knowing girl of the town. In a fit of jealousy Sunako shoots the girlfriend. Fadeout, years have passed and we now see Sunako as a woman of the streets in Geisha garb. More prostitute than true Geisha, she shares her house with an indolent artist Miura.
They return to Yokohama where she works in a bar and he stays home in their apartment. She meets up with her former boyfriend Henry, who is now married to her old school friend Dora. Henry seems to have settled into bored married life, Dora loves him and wants him to be happy. He sees Sunako and the old flame is rekindled. She is hardened by the cruelty of her life. Yet she longs to see Dora and her memories of their friendship is awakened by visiting their old haunts. She visits them and feels so completely out of place in this small home.
Meanwhile, her indolent artist makes a connection with a poor woman also rooming in the same apartments building. She offers to do their washing to earn money. She is ill and has no other means, he befriends her and Sunako throws him out. Henry takes to visiting bars and becomes a drunkard. Sunako seeks him out to send him home to Dora. She knows she must leave Yokohama or they will never be happy.
Returning home she finds the woman dying and to her shock she is the woman Yoko, whom she shot in the church. She resolves to leave with Miura her painter and find a new life. Dora and Henry try to say farewell, and literally miss the boat as it sails away.
Gueter Buchwald and Sacha Jabobsen provided tender support to this fragile tale of friendship, love, regret, cruelty, and forgiveness. They received a standing ovation, rightly so.
|Billy Kent Schaefer, Clive Brook and Alice Joyce in The Home Maker|
Alice Joyce plays Eva, the mother of three who hopes for an improvement to their lives when her husband Lester played by Clive Brook gets his much deserved promotion. Eva has become an obsessed cleaner in the house and is often sharp with her children. Lester on the other hand, really does not like his job much and prefers to daydream a little as he awaits promotion. Lester's hopes are dashed when the boss, son of the founder, changes things up and promotes on merit rather than seniority. Lester and Eva are crushed for very different reasons.
Noticing a fire next door, the family rushes to the aid of their nosy neighbor and saves her. Lester climbs the ladder to help put the fire out in the chimney. While on the roof he feels he can provide for his family better off being dead and with Eva the beneficiary of his life insurance. He rolls off the roof in an attempted suicide. Fate deals Lester a blow by failing at suicide and ending up a cripple in a wheechair.
Eva now must find work and she goes first to Lester's former place of employment, not seeking a handout which Mr. Bronson offers, but a real job. He sends her to work on the floor of the department store where she shines and prospers as a saleslady. Lester meanwhile, paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair runs the household and finds time to spend with their children. He loves it and both he and the children thrive. Eva moves up the ladder of success and becomes a much more relaxed and happy person. Lester finds his true calling.
One night, another fire, and Lester to save his son Stephan (played by a thoroughly wonderful Billy Kent Schaffer who nearly steals the movie) gets out of his wheelchair and puts out the fire. Now the moral dilema, does he go back to work as man of the house or remain in the chair? The doctor is called when Eva sees him move one of his legs in his sleep. She now is fearful, will she go back to housework and drudgery? Lester confesses to the Doctor who he convinces to tell Eva he will never walk again. Thus ensuring them both a happy outcome.
Naturally, in 1920's society, Lester could not have simply walked and remained home. He would have had to go back to being the breadwinner to maintain his manhood. Eva would have had to subjugate and give up her job and return to the home to become wife and mother again.
Stephen Horne accompanied with a jaunty score. Again, so well suited to the film, we are truly luck to have him travel so far every year.
The last film for me was Shiraz: A Romance of India, another of the German/Indian coproductions by Franz Osten and Himansu Rai. A fictionalized tale of love and how the Taj Mahal was built, this epic film is as wonderful as Throw of Dice (which screened last year). Filled with exotic local, gorgeous costumes and luch Indian vistas, one dreams of this film being made in color to capture all the majesty. Himannsu Rai is perfect as the title character Shiraz, his longing for Dalia played by the beautiful Seeta Devi. Charu Roy played the Emperor Shah Jehan and was imperious and moving dressed in jewels truly fit for a king. It was a wonderful film and I loved seeing it on the big screen.
Raga pianist Utsav Lal provided some traditional style raga music on the keyboard and simulating instruments like the tabla and vina by plucking and banging the strings. It was very effective. I had previously watched this with the Anoushka Shankar score on DVD at home. Both scores are excellent.
This was the end for me as I had to prepare myself to go back to work the following day. This festival was one of the best curated bunch of films in the 24 year history. I regret not being able to see them all, I will shoot for that goal next year. It was great to see friends, see movies and enjoy the whole experience.
|That's it! A wrap for 2019!|
* The charming Liedtke and his wife were murdered at the close of WWII by the marauding Red Army. He attempted to save his wife from rape and both ended up murdered. Along with Ossi Oswalda, their end stories were not happy ones.