Film Music

Quick Impressions from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival–Night One

San Francisco Silent Film Festival Logo

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.

Night One

Clara Bow Red Hair Promo

Red Hair
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.

Wings 1927 Paramount Poster

Wings
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.

Arlen & Rogers Duo Shot from Wings

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.

El Brendel Enlists

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.

Rogers Plane Shot

Now the major things.

Wings Tinted Flames Still

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.

Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

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.

Rogers & Bow Couple Shot from Wings


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Julie London, The Girl Can’t Help It

After hearing Julie London on String of Pearls, I searched for examples where her music not only intersected with film, but also the performer herself. I discovered she made over twenty films, and I found the gem below, an interlude in the Jayne Mansfield flick, The Girl Can’t Help It. London performed with a limited vocal range, but when paired with the right material, usually slow and sultry, she exuded a sensual, mesmerizing star quality. Even though her career heyday lasted only from the fifties through the sixties, her back catalog endeared her to new generations of fans thanks to the eighties and nineties lounge music revivals. In this clip the male lead Tom Ewell plays her version of Cry Me a River. Her song causes the singer literally to materialize and haunt Ewell’s character during a drunken hallucination.

String of Pearls

At Chez Gallagher, we’ve been listening to String of Pearls. Film lovers of Hollywood’s golden age will enjoy this broadcast of “music from the golden years of entertainment”. BBC Wales host Dewi Griffiths’s program could be called stream of consciousness radio.  Like a string of pearls where one pearl leads to another, one song leads to another. Griffith’s encyclopedic collection of trivia and personal reminiscences connect each song. Many featured songs were featured in classic era films, so Griffiths discusses as much film history as musical history. Selections come from the 1920s through the 1950s, making the show perfect for nostalgics even if they never lived in the eras they miss.