I’m overstimulated with images and sounds and staying up too late. That can mean only one thing–I’m attending the 17th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Well, most of it. Sometimes sleeping or eating has taken a priority over screenings or hobnobbing with friends old and new. Here are some quick impressions of the fest so far.
Before Wings, We were treated to the color sequence that remains of this mostly lost Clara Bow film. Clara’s hair is as flashing red as I’ve read versus how it photographs more darkly in black and white. She’s vibrant and beautiful in color as she goofs around in her swimming trunks with a pelican. Even though she did not survive the advent of talking motion pictures due to temperament, she definitely could have survived the evolution of color film. Clara is one of filmdom’s biggest what-ifs.
The second instance of Clara Bow at the fest. While Bow steals all her scenes, this is really a men’s picture. Charles “Buddy” Rogers (playing Jack) and Richard Arlen (playing David) are the featured stars. They’re in the now familiar story of young men growing up quickly into men when pressed into service. We follow their induction into this homosocial world as their friendship and platonic love develops and is tested by jealousy and fate. Ultimately their relationship ends in tragedy.
This was my first instance of seeing the film on the large screen. I’ve only seen it on the small box before. I noticed two slight, but fun things.
The first is naughty. When Jack and David enlist, there’s a door marked private in the background. It opens to reveal the backsides of some very athletic and trim male figures. The quick-eyed of the Castro audience made a sound at all this cheekiness. Then the door closes. If you think you imagined the nudity, the door opens another time to reveal the same distinguished figures. Later El Brendel‘s comic relief character Herman Schwimpf goes to the door and starts dropping his trousers, obviously an in-joke to what we’ve glimpsed behind the door, but he’s wearing his underwear, so we’re spared seeing if his character has tattoos other than on his arm.
I’ve read mention of how Rogers’ and Arlen’s swearing was not appreciated by all, but I’m not the best lip-reader, and I may have been hampered in the past by watching a diminished image, but I had no trouble discerning what was clearly said in the battle scenes. I think their swearing added realism, so I’m not against it.
Now the major things.
The print was gorgeous. Not only had they cleaned it up well, but I don’t remember seeing tinting previously. It was very effective seeing the flames associated with the flight battle scenes. Those planes were made of wood and full of gasoline and ammunition, so they would have made a spectacle burning. When the bad guys are hit, the flames are a relief because they mean our heroes are safe, but when they’re on our heroes’ planes, they add to the tension and our worries.
Wings was accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and foley artists. The orchestra always does a fine job of melding music to image, but the presence of such sophisticated sounds effects took the aural adornment to a new level. The sound effects helped make the audience gasp louder at each plane crash or mid-air collision. While we couldn’t feel the physical crashes, each boom added to our sensory experience giving more realism to our experience. Poking around on the internet, I’ve learned a little more about the foley artists from the screening. The “small army of Foley sound effects artists led by Star Wars veteran Ben Burtt and Mont Alto’s Rodney Sauer.”
I’ve some thoughts on the ending. I do not want to give anything away for those who have not seen the film, so read no further if you do not wish to be spoiled. You’ve been warned!
I’ve been thinking of character types and class and how they relate to the ending. Jack is the classic American type. He’s youthful, energetic, scrappy, ambitious, and middle class. He does not realize he’s in love with Clara Bow’s Mary, who’s a perfect match in qualities. He survives. David is sophisticated, genteel, rich, and stalwart. He’s in love with Jobyna Ralston‘s Sylvia Lewis, who looks as though she belongs in a beautiful art nouveau print. She seems as if she’s from another rarefied era. David, despite being an all around swell fellow, perishes. Obviously the idea was to show the consequences of war and not just the exciting air fights. We’re sad when David dies, but we’d probably be more devastated if Jack did. He’s the type of person we’ve been taught our country should be filled with. The ambitious, not wealthy whose drive was to rise up in class and build up the country as they innovated in their modernity and populated and rebuilt the United States. Jack’s living not only gives us hope for the character’s future in the film, but also gives us hope for a country rebuilding after war.