“Silent cinema can become like an hypnotic experience. I think you can get entranced. It’s almost like a voodoo experience. At least it has happened to me, and I really believe that some of film viewers, they have to give a chance to silent cinema because they have to be brave, because I have a feeling that some people that they say, ‘Oh, no silent film!’ If they taste it, I think it can become an addiction.”
Spellbound by Movies has received official press accreditation by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival! I am excited to be given this opportunity to bring you fuller coverage of its offerings. Check this blog starting next week for updates on the festival and reviews of its films. When I can, I will live-tweet in-between films here.
In one week, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival kicks off with a return of everyone’s favorite former showgirl, Louise Brooks. She stars in the recently restored Prix de Beauté. Thirteen other feature-length films follow as do two programs of shorts. Amazing Tales from the Archives returns to highlight film preservation. Since silent film crossed international boundaries easily, so do the festival’s featured movies and musicians. The major programs represent the creative production of nine countries, and as there are always shorts before each feature, the count may go up by the festival’s end.
All screenings occur in the Castro Theatre. Details from the program follow below!
Thursday, July 18 at 7:00 PM
Prix de Beauté (France, 1930)
Musical Accompaniment by Stephen Horne
Director: Augusto Genina
Cast: Louise Brooks, Georges Charlia, H. Bandini, A. Nicolle, M. Ziboulsky, Yves Glad, Alex Bernard
“Prix de Beauté marks Louise Brooks’s last starring role in a feature. Less known than her work with G.W. Pabst (Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl), Prix de Beauté was marred by its foray into early sound (Brooks’s voice was dubbed). Our presentation is the superior silent version recently restored by the Cineteca di Bologna. Brooks is stunning as Lucienne, the ‘everygirl’ typist who enters a beauty contest and is introduced to a shiny world of fame and modernity. But Prix’s script, a collaboration between René Clair and G.W. Pabst, doesn’t leave Lucienne in a fairy tale bubble but leads to a powerful, moving denouement. Cinematographers Rudolph Maté and Louis Née make beautiful use of Brooks’s glorious face. Approximately 108 minutes. 2012 Restoration courtesy of Cineteca Bologna, screening in DCP.”
Thursday, July 18 at 9:00 PM
Opening Night Party
Location: McRoskey Mattress Company
“Celebrate the start of SFSFF 2013 with drinks, hors d’oeuvres, dancing to the Frisky Frolics, and the first-ever SF Silent Film Festival Beauty Contest, all on the amazing top floor loft of the historic McRoskey Mattress Company!”
Friday, July 19 at 11:00 AM
Amazing Tales from the Archives (Free!)
Musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne
“Céline Ruivo, Director of Film Collections at the Cinémathèque française, will present on the Cinémathèque’s restoration of films from the Paris Exposition of 1900, Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre. Rob Byrne, film preservationist, will present on his restoration of Allan Dwan’s The Half-Breed starring Douglas Fairbanks (and premiering on July 20).”
Friday, July 19 at 2:00 PM
The First Born (UK, 1928)
Musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne
Director: Miles Mander
Cast: Miles Mander, Madeleine Carroll, John Loder, Margot Armand, Ellat Atherton, Ivo Dawson Scenario Miles Mander, Alma Reville
“The directorial debut of actor, writer, and producer Miles Mander, The First Born was adapted from his own novel and play, set in a British upper-class milieu and touching on morality, politics, and the disintegration of a marriage. Sir Hugh Boycott (Mander) and his young bride Madeleine (Madeleine Carroll) have a passionate marriage that is rocked when she fails to produce an heir. Mander’s gem rises above standard melodrama with its deft observance of character, perhaps helped by its co-writer Alma Reville, a well-known advisor to her husband Alfred Hitchcock. The First Born was recently restored by the BFI National Archive. Approximately 88 minutes. 35mm restored print from the BFI National Archive.”
Friday, July 19 at 4:30 PM
Tokyo Chorus (Japan, 1931)
Musical accompaniment by Günter Buchwald
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Cast: Tokihiko Okada, Emiko Yagumo, Hideo Sugawara, Hideko Takamine, Tatsuo Saito, Chouko Iida
“Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus is a delicately composed tale of parental love, middle-class dreams, and suburban and urban realities. A young insurance salesman finds his life turned upside-down when he defends a fired co-worker. His family’s response, particularly his young son who wants a bicycle, is the heart of this film which shows the emergence of Ozu’s mature style—and a wonderful blend of comedy and drama. Approximately 90 minutes. 35mm print from Janus Films.”
Friday, July 19 at 7:00 PM
The Patsy (USA, 1928)
Musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Director: King Vidor
Cast: Marion Davies, Orville Caldwell, Marie Dressler, Dell Henderson, Lawrence Gray, Jane Winton
“Before William Randolph Hearst decided that comedic roles were beneath her, Marion Davies had already established herself as a madcap comedienne on the musical stage. Director King Vidor had enough Hollywood clout to defy Hearst and play to Davies’ true strengths and the result is demonstrated in her incandescent performance in The Patsy. J.B. Kaufman writes, “Energetic, irrepressible, bubbling over with good humor yet capable of quiet sensitivity, she proves herself once and for all a genuine star. In her most celebrated scene she demonstrates her talent for mimicry by offering devastatingly accurate impressions of Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri. (Mae Murray and Lillian Gish were, like Davies, MGM stars at the time, and Pola Negri’s Three Sinners was released almost simultaneously with The Patsy.)” Approximately 84 minutes. 35mm print from the Library of Congress.”
Friday, July 19 at 9:30 PM
The Golden Clown/Klovnen (Denmark, 1926)
Musical Accompaniment by Matti Bye Ensemble
Director: A.W. Sandberg
Cast: Gösta Ekman, Maurice de Féraudy, Kate Fabian, Karina Bell, Robert Schmidt, Erik Bertner
“Gösta Ekman is the eponymous clown in this tale of rural ways confronting the glamour and danger of the big city. The small town Joe (Ekman) and his circus princess Daisy (Karina Bell) find success in Paris, but become embroiled in a love triangle with a Parisian bon vivant. This beautiful restoration by the Danish Film Institute highlights the exquisite cinematography of Chresten Jørgensen and Einar Olsen. Approximately 128 minutes. 35mm restored print courtesy of the Danish Film Institute.”
Saturday, July 20 at 10:00 AM
Winsor McCay: His Life and Art
Musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne
“John Canemaker acclaimed biography Winsor McCay: His Life and Art celebrates the early-twentieth-century genius who gave the world Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur. This special presentation is illustrated with stunning images from Canemaker’s book, as well as screenings of four of McCay’s greatest films: Little Nemo (1911, 3 mins), the first adaptation of a comic strip to a film format; the indelibly disturbing How a Mosquito Operates (1912, 6 mins); Gertie the Dinosaur (1914, 18 mins), the charming and infinitely influential animation McCay designed as part of a Vaudeville act; and The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918, 12 mins), a somber animated counterpart to McCay’s editorial cartoons. Approximately 70 minutes.”
Saturday, July 20 at 12:00 PM
The Half-Breed (USA, 1916)
Musical accompaniment by Günter Buchwald
Director: Allan Dwan
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Alma Rubens, Sam De Grasse, Tom Wilson, Frank Brownlee, Jewel Carmen, George Beranger
“The great Allan Dwan directed this western drama set amongst the redwoods and filmed in part near Boulder Creek (with Victor Fleming behind the camera!). Based on a story by Bret Harte and adapted by Anita Loos, The Half-Breed stars Douglas Fairbanks as Lo Dorman, a half-Indian outcast from society who lives in the forest and makes his home in a hollow tree. The coquettish pastor’s daughter (Jewel Carmen) toys with his affections, but it is Teresa (Alma Reuben) on the run from the law, who shares Lo’s status as an outsider. This brand new restoration is the result of a partnership between Cinémathèque Française and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. World Premiere! Approximately 70 minutes. 2013 Restoration 35mm print.”
Saturday, July 20 at 2:15 PM
Legong: Dance of the Virgins (Bali, 1935)
Musical accompaniment by Clubfoot Orchestra & Gamelan Sekar Jaya
Director: Henri de la Falaise
Cast: Poetoe Aloes Goesti, Bagus Mara Goesti, Saplak Njoman, Njong Njong Njoman
“One of the last features shot in two-strip Technicolor, Legong was filmed entirely on location in Bali in 1935 by the Marquis Henry de la Falaise (a WWI hero, the ex-husband of Gloria Swanson, and the current spouse of Constance Bennett). The film is a tragic tale of love denied—Poutou, a respected Legong dancer, falls in love with young musician, Nyoung. Her father is delighted with Poutou’s choice and wants to help her to conquer Nyoung’s heart. But Poutou’s half-sister Saplak pines for the musician. When Nyoung chooses Saplak, Poutou drowns herself. Legong’s real theme is much more than mere melodrama—it is the delineation of Balinese culture. De la Falaise captured religious rituals including frenetic dances and mystical parades, and everyday dealings at the local marketplace. Small details chronicling the life of the villagers make the film an absorbing and mesmerizing quasi-documentary in gorgeous Two-Color Technicolor! Approximately 65 minutes. 35mm restored print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.”
Saturday, July 20 at 4:00 PM
Gribiche (France, 1926)
Musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Director: Jacques Feyder
Cast: Jean Forest, Françoise Rosay, Cécile Guyon, Rolla Norman, Charles Barrois, Andrée Canti, Armand Dufour, Serge Otto, Alice Tissot, Major Heitner, Georges Pionnier, Soufflot, Mme. Surgères
“Jacques Feyder’s first film for Films Albatros is the story of a young boy (Jean Forest) who lives with his widowed mother (Cécile Guyon) in a lower-middle-class Paris neighborhood when he is ‘discovered’ by a rich American widow, Mrs. Maranet (Françoise Rosay in her first important role), who decides to adopt the boy and give him a ‘proper education.’ This charming film was recently restored by the Cinémathèque Française with the collaboration of the Franco-American Cultural Fund—DGA, MPA, SACEM, WGA. Approximately 112 minutes. Restored 35mm print from the Cinémathèque Française.”
Saturday, July 20 at 6:30 PM
The House on Trubnaya Square (USSR, 1928)
Musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne
Director: Boris Barnet
Cast: Vera Maretskaya, Vladimir Fogel, Yelena Tyapkina, Sergei Komarov, Anel Duakevich, Ada Vojtsik
“Our vote for Best Soviet Silent Comedy ever, Trubnaya is a brilliant look at class distinctions in the newly urbanized Soviet Union. ‘Set in a Moscow housing project, where a young scrubwoman discovers a new sense of self after she sees a film about Joan of Arc, this silent 1928 comedy displays a superb technique, a grace with actors, and a talent for eccentric characterizations that suggest Leo McCarey more than Karl Marx.’-—Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader. Approximately 64 minutes. 35mm print courtesy of the Pacific Film Archive.”
Saturday, July 20 at 8:30 PM
The Joyless Street/Die freudlose Gasse (Germany, 1925)
Musical accompaniment by Matti Bye Ensemble
Director: G.W. Pabst
Cast: Asta Nielsen, Greta Garbo, Gräfin, Agnes Esterhazy, Werner Krauß, Henry Stuart, Einar Hanson, Grigori Chmara
“Not only one of the most important films of Weimar-era Germany, The Joyless Street is also one of the most spectacular censorship cases of the era. The story from the inflationary period in Vienna in the years immediately after World War I was considered too much of a provocation with its juxtaposition of haves and have nots—that and its frank sexuality. Pabst’s film was twice shortened by the German censors and other countries made cuts or outright banned the film. This painstaking restoration supervised by Stefan Drössler has reconstructed the film as close as possible to Pabst’s intention. It is a magnificent achievement. Approximately 150 minutes. Restored 35mm print from Filmmuseum München.”
Sunday, July 21 at 10:00 AM
Kings of (Silent) Comedy
Musical accompaniment by Günter Buchwald
“Preservationist and showman Serge Bromberg has selected some of his favorite silent era shorts to make gorgeous new transfers using the best materials possible. The films in our program feature titans of silent comedy—Charley Chase, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and of course, Felix the Cat. The Silent Film Festival starts Sunday morning right–with a program fit for the entire family. Titles include: Felix Goes West (USA, d. Otto Messmer, 1924), Mighty Like a Moose (USA, d. Leo McCarey, 1926), The Love Nest (USA, d. Buster Keaton, 1923), The Immigrant (USA, d. Charles Chaplin, 1917). Approximately 71 minutes. DCP presentation.”
Sunday, July 21 at 1:00 PM
The Outlaw and His Wife/Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (Sweden, 1918)
Musical accompaniment by Matti Bye Ensemble
Director: Victor Sjöström
Cast: Victor Sjöström, Edith Erastoff, John Ekman, Jenny Tschernichin-Larsson, Artur Rolén, Nils Aréhn
“Produced during a renaissance in the Swedish film industry, The Outlaw and His Wife confirmed the promise of director Victor Sjöström, whose previous film, Terje Vigen, had been a big success for Svenska Biograf. Like a western with a romanticized renegade hero, The Outlaw and His Wife is the ballad of an accused thief on the run (played by Sjöström) who finds work on the farm of a generous, self-sufficient widow, and their growing attraction turns to love. When a jealous rival alerts the authorities to the thief’s real identity, the couple take off together into the wilds of Iceland. Approximately 105 minutes. 2013 35mm restoration courtesy of the Swedish Film Institute.”
Sunday, July 21 at 3:30 PM
The Last Edition (USA)
Musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne
“In 2011, film preservationist and SFSFF Board President Rob Byrne learned that an original nitrate print—the only known surviving copy—of The Last Edition existed in the vaults of the Dutch national archive. One of the few surviving films created by Emory Johnson in the mid-1920s, The Last Edition stars veteran actor Ralph Lewis as a pressman at the San Francisco Chronicle. Shot in and around the Chronicle building, the action-packed drama features thrilling chases throughout San Francisco, newspaper production from press to print, and a (literally) ‘stop the presses’ climax that includes a dramatic fire and rescue. This brand new restoration is the result of a partnership between EYE Film Institute Netherlands and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. World Premiere! Approximately 105 minutes. 2013 35mm restoration.”
Sunday, July 21 at 6:00 PM
The Weavers/Die Weber (Germany, 1927)
Musical accompaniment by Günter Buchwald
Director: Friedrich Zelnik
Cast: Paul Wegener, Valeska Stock, Georg Burhahrdt, Emil Lind, Wilhelm Dieterle, Hermann Picha, Herta von Walther, Camilla von Hollay, Theodor Loos, Dagny Servaes
“Based on the 1892 play by Gerhart Hauptman dramatizing a Silesian cotton weavers uprising of 1844, The Weavers was once known as the German Potemkin. Its makers downplayed its radical message, but The Weavers resonated with viewers in 1927 whose social reality reflected a chasm between rich and poor. George Grosz’s sardonic, beautifully drawn intertitle art has been restored to this riveting film. Approximately 97 minutes. 2012 restoration courtesy of F. W. Murnau Stiftung and Transit Film GmbH. Screening in DCP.”
Sunday, July 21 at 8:30 PM
Safety Last! (USA, 1923)
Musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Directors: Sam Taylor, Fred Newmeyer
Cast: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Bill Strother, Noah Young, Westcott B. Clarke
“A bespectacled man hanging off the hands of a collapsing clock on the side of a skyscraper high above teeming city streets is one of the most indelible images of cinema. The thrilling climax of Safety Last! is made all the more exciting because Harold Lloyd, one of the masters of silent-era comedy, didn’t need CGI to make it happen. But why he is up there in the first place? A girl of course! Safety Last! takes a familiar story of a boy meets girl and turns it into high-art comedy. Layered with expert gags, the 1923 film inspired Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Agee to write of the climb: ‘Each new floor is like a stanza in a poem.’ Approximately 70 minutes. 2013 restoration courtesy of Janus Films, screening in DCP.”
This weekend I celebrated a milestone birthday, and my confectionery of choice was ice cream. That got me thinking of the technicolor conclusion of Kid Millions (1934). If you’ve never seen the film, watching the above clip won’t spoil you. It’s pure fantasy that’s mostly unrelated to the film’s complicated comedy plot.
In this film, Eddie Cantor‘s character Eddie Wilson, Jr. has a dream of a better life for him, his sweetheart, and children. Once he escapes his life of poverty and toil aboard a barge, he wants to open up an ice cream factory that will give away its sweet product for free to children. The bulk of the film is him trying to claim a previously unknown inheritance to make all his dreams come true.
The ending sequence remains amazing today, so it must have made a tremendous impact on its original depression-era audience. Beautiful women in silky pajama-like outfits dance, sing, and make ice cream on huge sets with giant props. It’s as if Busby Berkeley had never become a choreographer, but had been a factory foreman instead. The film’s actual choreographer Seymour Felix must have had a blast coming up with routines.
In a time when many were without a lot, here was a scene filled with giant shakes, fruit, chocolate, bottles of milk, and plates of ice cream with no end of abundance in sight. Anyone of any age watching the screen children break down the door to rush into the factory would understand that urge. They’d trample Eddie for a taste of happiness.
Poor Eddie has a hard time today, too. For someone once so famous and celebrated, he’s not very well-known. He was a multi-media star (stage, radio, records, films, TV, and books), and he was awarded an honorary Oscar. Yes, his jokes seemed old when he told them, but as a performer I find him engaging and entertaining, so I laugh.
If an average person has a hint of who he was, he’s either Banjo Eyes or more likely that blackface performer. The latter is probably why his movies are not often revived. In his films there’s inevitably a scene of him performing in blackface. This performance form is no longer favorably viewed today, but back when Eddie started it was much more common, particularly in vaudeville and in film for a short while.
It’s a shame that often overshadows his performances, his humanitarian work, and his support of performers of color, like Sammy Davis, Jr. Just look at his version of utopia in Kid Millions. Sitting together in the same room eating their Neapolitan ice cream is an integrated cast of children. There’s even a pan of the room in which a row of African-American children are momentarily spotlighted. This was unusual at the time and had to be by design. Cantor’s heavenly ice cream social was for all children.
Have a happy Fourth of July! Don’t be like Joan and get too close to fireworks.
After the holiday, expect posts on recent Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum events, Charlie Chaplin Days and the 16th Annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, the upcoming San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and the PFA’s Raoul Walsh film series.
“One of the things that Scorsese said right from the beginning was that I want silence, silence, as much silence as possible. Of course the instinct of the sound editors is always to put tons of sounds in–things echoing, footsteps echoing, dripping water, and all of those things. When I first went in to do the preliminary mix I said to them you have to be aware that he doesn’t want that. He wants silence, silence, as much as possible. Silence is much more powerful, which we learned on Raging Bull. Taking the sound away at times, at critical times, is much more powerful than pumping all kinds of sound in.”
Saturday night I made a trip back in time to enjoy early cinema; I caught the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum‘s program. Judith Rosenberg, who’s well known in the Bay Area and beyond, she participated in the Master Class for silent film musicians at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, played piano scores for each film. Featured were two short comedies and the one full-length drama.
Swiss Movements (1927)
Directed by Robert P. Kerr
Written by Frank Roland Conklin
Starring Jimmie Adams, Doris Dawson, Billy Engle, William Irving, Cliff Lancaster, & Stella Adams
Production Company: Christie Film Company
This comedy short stars Jimmie Adams, sometimes called the poor man’s Charley Chase. The premise is very simple. Jimmie’s character Freddie wants to marry Doris Dawson’s character, but she’s thrown him over for a blowhard called Yodel. The two men compete for her hand in a mountain climbing contest. Scrawny Freddie looks like no match for his burly lederhosen-clad foe. Freddie’s tethered to his potential father-in-law, and even then two cannot compete against one, but their opponent isn’t content to rely on his athleticism to win. Yodel cheats multiple times mostly in telescopic view of their sweetheart, who refuses to cheer on someone who won’t play square. One of his tricks elevates this climbing comedy from purely being pedestrian. He enlists a friend to dress in a bear costume to scare off his opponents. The bear scenes and those of a mountain goat bring the greatest laughs in a picture that could use a few more.
Dog Shy (1926)
Directed by Leo McCarey
Written by H.M. Walker (titles)
Cinematography by Floyd Jackman
Starring Charley Chase, Stuart Holmes, Mildred June, Josephine Crowell, William Orlamond, & Buddy the Dog
Production Company: Hal Roach Studios
Mildred June’s The Girl has a problem. Her family wants to marry her off to a nobleman. The Duke’s an older, self-absorbed bore. Lucky for her Charley Chase intercepts a phone call and hatches a plan to help the honey sight unseen, but her mother hangs up before he can get an address, phone number, or even a name. As filmic luck will have it, Charley accidentally gets a job as a butler–in her house and finds the girl! Adding to his troubles, he’s been dog shy his whole life, and chief amongst his duties is taking care of the family dog, Duke. Charley the actor’s funniest scenes are the ones he shares with the dog. They work well together. The comedic potential of having The Duke in a house with Duke are further wrung out when Charley misunderstands the command to bathe the dog. A plot twist allows Charley to become the hero to his future in-laws. Before Charley saves the day, there’s a very silly, but fun scene of six adults pretending to be howling dogs.
The Valley of the Giants (1927)
Directed by Charles Brabin
From a Novel by Peter B. Kyne
Written by Wid Gunning & Gordon Rigby
Cinematography by Ted D. McCord
Starring Milton Sills, Doris Kenyon, Arthur Stone, George Fawcett, Paul Hurst, Yola d’Avril, Phil Brady, & Charles Sellon
Production Company: First National Pictures
This was my second viewing of Valley of the Giants, and I remain baffled why its director Charles Brabin became a footnote in film history. He’s often referred to as Theda Bara‘s husband, but he was a director before and during their marriage. He worked in film for over three decades. Even if his other movies were lost or not as strong as Valley of the Giants, he deserves credit for making a film that plays well in any era.
This was the second adaptation of the novel by Peter B. Kyne. The first was made in 1919 and starred Wallace Reid. A train accident during that filming led to his morphine addiction. At least two other adaptations followed. One was made in 1938 and starred Wayne Morris, and the other was made in 1952 and featured Kirk Douglas.
In this adaptation, Bryce Cardigan (Milton Sills) returns from Europe to his hometown Sequoia in Northern California. His father John Cardigan (George Fawcett) is a lumber baron of Humboldt county. Bryce returns to problems. His father has gone blind, and even worse an unscrupulous competitor named Seth Pennington (Charles Sellon) wants to destroy the Cardigans and monopolize northern lumber. Romantic complications are added in the form of Pennington’s niece, Shirley (Doris Kenyon). Bryce and Shirley fall in love during and despite the business battle between their families.
One of my main pleasures in watching this film is the location shooting. This outdoors film was shot in Humboldt county amongst the redwoods. Scenes of the trees, the coast, and the lumber industry give the movie an authenticity of place that’s also enticing to the eye. There’s a certain privilege in seeing a landscape before it changed more over time due to the logging industry and development. Today’s vantage point makes the in film threat of felling the Valley of the Giants particularly anxiety provoking.
Real-life husband and wife Milton Sills and Doris Kenyon have screen chemistry. Playing romantic foils doesn’t often work for spouses. Some actors hold back, afraid to exploit intimacies, preferring to keep the personal personal. Other pairings are so awkward onscreen they give off the whiff of contract relationships arranged to bolster careers. Not so here. There’s a sweet moment after Bryce saves Shirley’s life during a train accident. As they wait for rescue, she looks down. He leans toward her to sniff her hair a moment, but changes his mind and tries to kiss the top of her head. She looks up and ruins that moment, but when she realizes what was about to happen, Kenyon radiates happiness, which in response is reflected back at her by Sill’s Bryce. They seem like two people falling in love and connecting.
Kenyon makes an impression. Her part is essentially a supporting one. She doesn’t have the same amount of screen time as Sills, and her part is not as fleshed out. She looks beautiful and is believable as the romantic interest, but also she makes her character a presence even during her quiet moments. There’s a scene when Shirley thinks Bryce won’t like her anymore because of her uncle. She sits, and her body language shows dejection. The tilt of her head and shoulders combined with stillness conveys her upset.
Sills takes advantage of his big role as the loyal son driven to save the family business. He’s likable and believable playing the All American good guy. He’s a Romeo to his Juliet. He’s a fighter for the cause in some brutal and well choreographed fight scenes. Any viewer will want him to win the fight and the girl.
The supporting casting is great. Arthur Stone’s Buck Ogilvy, Bryce’s friend, is convincing as a city playboy who grows up and becomes dependable as he aids his friend. Paul Hurst’s Jules Randeau oozes despicability and brings menace. Phil Brady’s Half Pint adds some comic relief as does the corrupt city council won over by spiked lemonade. Even George Fawcett whose role’s actions are limited by his character’s blindness makes his presence felt. He’s a combination of determination, saintliness, and paternal love.
Briefly there’s a sense that foreigners of different sorts are the causes of problems in Sequoia. Seth Pennington is an Easterner. Jules Randeau is likely French Canadian. Even a member of the city council is suspicious of Buck as a “furrignor.” Buck and Shirley disprove that “outsiders” are the problem, and the council demonstrates that many insiders are.
What’s really being examined are two kinds of capitalism. John Cardigan started his business from scratch with only the love of his wife to support him. He remembers and honors his wife and how he started. He has made his fortune but he shares his profits with the men who work hard for him. He thinks of them, their families, and homes when his business is threatened. He’s an ideal model of compassionate capitalism.
Seth Pennington is the model of an out of control, dehumanizing capitalism. He implies that John is a fool that overpays his workers. It’s not enough for Seth to do well. He has to maximize his profits even to the detriment of his men, and he attracts a motley, violent crew. He doesn’t want to continually expand his business and his market share. He wants to drive any competitor out of business. It’s not enough for him to do well. He has to make others do poorly in comparison, and he plays dirty.
Besides business dealings, romance, and scenic shots, there’s a great deal of action in this film. A runaway train scene is made even more impressive by not resorting to models. There are multiple fight scenes. During the first scrap between Bryce and Randeau, there’s a moment when he tries to jump on Bryce’s head. The camera cuts to the metal cleats coming toward the audience giving an almost 3D effect. During their last fight, extreme close-ups of their sweaty and bloody faces are intercut with fuller body action shots, making their battle personal and its outcome determined by drive and will. You’ll want to see who wins these smaller battles and the bigger one.
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I first got my hands on an Edward Gorey anthology as a little girl, and I devoured it. The black and white imagery of other eras, the humor, and the outrageous outcomes appealed to me. Children like their grim tales, and these were beautifully illustrated. Gorey isn’t just for children. He can be appreciated by adults, too. If you’re unfamiliar with him, but like Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, or Charles Addams, then you’re likely to enjoy Gorey. As you might suspect of someone so visual, Gorey was a film fanatic. For his eighty-eighth birthday, here’s a peek at some of the films that influenced Gorey.
We’ll start off with silent film. Amy Benfer wrote: “Gorey’s work is formatted very much like an incredibly baroque storyboard for a silent film. Each vignette alternates between panels of painstakingly ornate hand-lettered text and black-and-white illustrations. Like silent film, the juxtaposition of image and text allows us time to consider both, as separate but inseparable parts of the same work.” These silent film techniques came from watching silent films at exclusive screenings and archives.
Amongst the films screened were Louis Feuillade‘s. As someone who knew Gorey’s work first and later watched Les Vampires and Judex, I suspected an influence, and his friend Alexander Theroux wrote about it in his book The Strange Case of Edward Gorey. The fashions, the decors, the visual textures, the faces, the black humor, the surrealism, and the not always pleasant outcomes even for the good of those films are all reflected in Gorey’s work. I used to say that Les Vampires was an Edward Gorey story come to life, but it came first. Gorey put on paper the essence of these films with his own twists.
We see grand old houses, detectives, mysterious figures in black, people in peril, ballet dancers, upper crust soirées, bat imagery, secret messages decoded by a mirror, criminals afoot (albeit out of frame), and settings full of visual textures–from how they were drawn to prints and fabric contrasting with other decor.
Many of the above images are found in Les Vampires scenes:
Another Gorey film favorite involves the word vampire, Carl Dreyer‘s Vampyr. Gorey said, “You don’t see a thing and I think it’s the most chilling movie I’ve ever seen. I think your own imagination does a better job.” The film is much less plot driven than Les Vampires. Vampyr is more mood-driven. Instead of criminals inflicting chaos, it is supernatural evil that causes harm. The film was almost a silent, and it has more in common with silent film than sound. Since Dreyer had to reshoot dialogue scenes in different languages for international distribution, the dialogue is minimal. The lack of plot, dialogue, and explanation married with odd imagery and sounds brings unease.
Bringing unease was Gorey’s goal. Gorey’s quoted as saying in Ascending Peculiarity, “My mission in life is to make everybody as uneasy as possible. I think we should all be as uneasy as possible, because that’s what the world is like.” A film like Vampyr freed dialogue and images from meaning except what the viewer read into them. Gorey took that lesson and pushed it with the non sequitur filled The Object Lesson.
Despite the non sequiturs, our brains want to establish a plot and resolve what seems like a mystery of never ending detail that can only end badly. There is no meaning to the story, but it establishes a mood through images and text, much like movies can.
Gorey’s reputed to have consumed thousands of movies and books, he shows his influences, yet his work isn’t derivative. He uses film and literary techniques to create his own rendering of the world to reflect the realities he perceived. It’s a world we can step into opening the pages of his books, and he entertains us and makes us laugh, often out of discomfort. That might be the greatest compliment we can pay him.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival‘s annual Silent Winter closed with the grand sounds of the Mighty Wurlitzer last night. I had to sit in my seat overwhelmed by the last film and the day for a moment. Before the festival’s end, we were treated to fairy tales, laughs, romance, heartbreak, and redemption. All this filled a thirteen-hour day, but it was worth sitting for so long. Any San Francisco Silent Film Festival event event offers the rare chance to see silents accompanied lived and with a grateful and appreciative audience, making it easy to feel like a time traveller for a day or weekend.
My impressions of the day’s films follow below!
Snow White (1916)
Marguerite Clark revises her hit stage role for this adaptation. While she was thirty-three when she made this movie, her movements, manner, dress, and styling come together to give an impression of youth. She’s the sweet soul whose fairytale existence turns into a nightmare.
Her beautiful mother dies young, and her father the King dies shortly after marriage to an evil, formerly ugly woman (Dorothy Cumming), who promised the heart of Snow White to Witch Hex in return for possessing a greater beauty than the girl’s. The witch strikes the deal due to her vanity–she’s bald and wants a full head of hair.
The newly widowed Queen Brangomar makes the rightful heir to the throne a household slave like that other fairytale heroine, Cinderella. There’s even a moment when her former handmaids act like Cinderella’s fairy godmother and dress Snow White in their clothes and accessories to attend a party, where she turns a princely head before having to flee. The Queen is enraged. She wanted the younger man for herself.
More trials upon the good are shown in the form of the hunstman Berthold (Lionel Braham). He’s an honorable man and father, but the Queen threatens to kill his brood unless he brings her Snow White’s heart. His attempt to save his children, yet spare Snow White, sets in motion the rest of the film.
There is more darkness to this retelling than later film versions. Jealousy, threats, dark magic, and death color scenes with dread and danger. This is countered by beauty, whimsy, and nature. The good are all beautiful or handsome or funny. They’re in harmony with the world and order (like Snow White led to safety by a bird) or work in the natural world (like Bethold and the dwarves). The dwarves provide humor, but their love and kindness makes them protect Snow White. Despite the happy ending, there’s the threat of potential chaos after-the-fact. A now hirsute Witch Hex and her strange humanoid cat not only survive, but also celebrate with the court.
Think Slow, Act Fast: Buster Keaton Shorts (1920-1921)
Before attending the festival, I told my friend new to seeing silents live that Buster Keaton was handsome when he was young and that his segment was one she’d enjoy. She told me I was right on both accounts! Buster won over another filmgoer to silents.
The shorts screened were One Week (1920), The Scarecrow (1920), and The Play House (1921). When Buster is at his best, it’s easy to feel like Sybil Seely in a favorite scene from One Week. Chaos surrounds her. She sits inside a spinning house on a spinning chair, and she enjoys every moment laughing the whole time. Buster’s clever gags and freneticism take us all on a wild, fun ride. The only down moment was the audience’s palpable uncomfortableness at the minstrel scenes in The Play House, but it relaxed and laughed again once those scenes had passed.
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
Douglas Fairbanks plays the titular thief, a lazy, self-absorbed, chaos bringer made less threatening and redeemable by the actor’s charms. When we first see the thief Ahmed, he’s like Aesop’s grasshopper. He lounges and plays. When he has a need to be met, he steals from one of the ants, the people whose work have provided them homes he loots for food and fun. What he wants, he takes with no thought to others. After stealing a magic rope, he breaks into the Caliph’s (Brandon Hurst) home, and the sight of the sleeping Princess (Julanne Johnston) makes him pause. She awakens him.
After getting chased off from the palace, he returns as an imposter and suitor. The Caliph is trying to marry off the Princess, so princes from around the world are presenting themselves for consideration. Marriage to her means inheriting and ruling the kingdom once her father dies. Ahmed as false prince actually fulfills a prophecy. One of the Princess’s slaves has the gift of sight-seeing. Whoever touches the rosebush first will marry the Princess. Ahmed gets thrown into the bush by his horse!
While he successfully woos the Princess, he falls in love and cannot lie to her anymore. A spy for one of the other suitors (Anna May Wong), the Mongol Prince (Sojin), overhears his confession, which she shares. This competitor uses the information to his advantage, and he informs the Caliph of the deception.
After a discovered Ahmed is once again chased out of the palace, the Caliph wants to force the Princess to make a choice. Her loyal soothsayer once again helps. She devises a delay. The Princess will marry after seven moons the man who brings her the rarest gift. The princes and Ahmed then travel the world seeking the rarest gift to win the Princess.
This fantastical world is created through grand sets and inhabited by mysterious beings and dangerous creatures. Fairbanks shows off his athleticism jumping, swinging, and battling man and creature through these sets. Their scale often dwarf him until close-up.
Everything proceeds very straightforwardly. If you want a simple tale of the hero’s journey, then this film succeeds. If you want more of the wit that glints in Fairbanks’ eyes, then you’ll wish that Anita Loos had punched up the intertitles or scenarios like I did. Despite this quibble, the film entertains and teaches. Who can argue with the moral of this tale? Happiness must be earned, and it is.
My Best Girl (1927)
This sweet film goes down like a bon bon, but it also contains another false suitor and adds class angst. Mary Pickford plays Maggie Johnson, a working class girl. She takes a shine to the new stock boy at the five and dime, Joe (Buddy Rogers). At first he’s terrible at his job, but under Maggie’s tutelage he earns a promotion. The two fall in love during their time together. Maggie doesn’t know two important things. Joe already has a girlfriend, and his family owns the store. Their love gets tested by these revelations, his family’s disapproval, and her home life complicated by a troubled and trashy sister.
Some say you can see Mary and Buddy fall in love while making this picture. I’m not sure about that, but they have onscreen chemistry. Despite the out-of-date clothes Maggie wears, Mary looks pretty as Maggie. Her looks and sweetness make it believable that Joe would fall in love with her. Buddy is full of boyish charm and good looks. His clothes, energy, and any make-up used give him a modern, youthful look. If you look a little too closely at the pair and their scenes, Mary screens a little older than he. That’s due to her make-up, the sometimes hazy close-up lenses, and the unfashionable clothing, yet there is youthfulness in her looks and energy and that chemistry, so the pairing works.
This movie shares the theme with The Thief of Bagdad that happiness is earned. Maggie and her father (Lucien Littlefield) work to provide for the family. In fact Maggie often acts as their mother figure. Her mother (Sunshine Hart) is more interested in attending funerals than running her own home, and Maggie helps her sister Liz (Carmelita Geraghty) get out of constant scrapes. Liz is content to take anything given to her by her family. She doesn’t work, so she has time to get involved with ne’er-do-wells.
Maggie’s enmeshment with her family is presented as more of an obstacle than the class difference. Her first date with Joe runs long. No one in her family cooked dinner because they expected her to. Worse her sister gets in trouble with the law, and her parents don’t know what to do. Whether or not she can break away from them and their dependence on her provides drama to the comedy.
The most dramatic scene occurs in the family’s kitchen. I do not want to spoil the impact or surprise of the scene, but Maggie shows how much she loves Joe when Mary shows off her range of acting ability within minutes. It’s saddening and upsetting. Before long the sugary goodness of this romance returns. The film’s end uplifts and affirms romance.
At first I was not going to stay for Faust. I’ve seen it before on the small screen, but I couldn’t remember a lot of this version, so I stayed. The high brought about by My Best Girl was destroyed. When the scholar Faust (Gösta Ekmann) makes deals with the Mephisto (Emil Jannings), Faust brings suffering to himself and anyone he loves, like the innocent Gretchen (Camilla Horn). She loses everything, her family, good name, baby, and eventually her life. The misery of what occurs onscreen is supposed to be tempered by the redemption of Faust’s soul and their love living on into the afterlife.
The film is a prime example of German Expressionism. The scenes are striking. Any still from the film likely looks like a piece of art. Strange angles and bold shadows dominate. They are anxiety-provoking. Within these sets and shots, Jannings runs through his arsenal of mannerisms and expressions. Some could be nightmare provoking, particularly when he’s in Mephisto’s true form.
Although all accompanists were excellent this day, Christian Elliott‘s performance on the Mighty Wurlitzer for this film was outstanding. At times the sound was booming and domineering, other times it was more subtle and sad. During the devil’s scenes, the organ’s sinister sounds amped up his awfulness. The organ’s final tones were exhilarant for Faust’s and Gretchen’s souls ascension to heaven.
For Valentine’s Day, here is one of my favorite romantic scenes from a musical. The film Lovely to Look At, a remake of Roberta, may not be memorable as a whole, but it showcases some imaginative dance sequences featuring Marge and Gower Champion. While they had the unenviable task of replacing Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, the Champions were gifted with not recreating the earlier pair’s routines. The Champions’ dances were mostly freed from the show within a picture’s stagings. In Lovely to Look at, the big performance to save the fashion house remains, but their other dance scenes show their characters’ flirtations that lead to romance and to them falling in love.
In the above scene, their characters have spent the night accompanying their friends from boîte to boîte. Left alone, they have no distractions. He wants to dance with her one more time, that’s the only way he can hold a girl in his arms in a crowded room and have her all to himself, and she agrees after initially resisting. They have fun, and dance well together, and then the camera moves in for a close-up when they pause in front of a window. When it pulls back, we see the nightclub set has vanished, and only the starry night remains. In multiple long takes, they dance on and among the stars. They’re the only two people in their universe at that moment, and they both hear, feel, and move to the same song. They’re a perfect pairing. Long before they walk off together into the night, we know they have fallen in love. We’ve watched it happen.