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The Road to TCMFF 2017: My Wish List

Since only a portion of the TCM Classic Film Festival offerings has been revealed, I’m going to fantasize about what else the festival programmers could schedule. In making my ideal list, I’ll pretend rights or physical print restrictions don’t exist, and I’ll stick to this year’s theme of MAKE ‘EM LAUGH: COMEDY IN THE MOVIES. I’m sure some of the programs and films I’d like to see at the festival will surprise you!

SPEEDY showing Harold Llloyd and Ann Christy at Coney Island

Harold Lloyd and Ann Christy in SPEEDY (1928)

Long-term readers and Twitter followers know I’m a silent film buff, and I know the perfect gateway to introduce others to the medium is comedy. I have multiple suggestions in this category. Harold Lloyd will be shown, but due to his granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd‘s activism in preserving and promoting his work, his work screening at the fest is usually likely. I’m a fan, so I don’t object. I’d like more silents at the festival!

Alice Howell in Cinderella Cinders

Alice Howell in CINDERELLA CINDERS (1920)

I’d love TCM to put together a program of silent film comediennes’ shorts. That way the audience could get exposure to or reacquaint themselves with multiple women stars from that era. There have been recent restorations, including some recently screened on the network, that could help fill the bill. Gloria Swanson, Louise Fazenda, Mabel Normand, Bebe Daniels, Flora Finch, Carole Lombard, Alice Howell, Marie Dressler, and Elsa Lanchester are all comediennes with existing silent shorts. If looking for a longer bill, shorts could be paired with Constance Talmadge‘s hour-long, recently found and restored comedy GOOD REFERENCES (1920).

Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers in GET YOUR MAN

Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers in GET YOUR MAN (1927)

Clara Bow‘s GET YOUR MAN (1927) provides the perfect excuse for a spotlight on the jazziest silent film comedienne. More exposure for Bow, especially with an introduction by her biographer David Stenn, will spotlight why America’s former favorite redhead deserves to be remembered as a talented comedienne whose onscreen naturalism belied self-aware technique. Discussion of how an incomplete film was reconstructed by the Library of Congress using “still photographs and inter-titles from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to fill in the narrative gaps” would be a mini-course in film preservation. If the program needs filling out because GET YOUR MAN is fifty-seven minutes long, short materials like the fragment of RED HAIR (1928) can be screened.

ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd Laughing in Bed

ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd

I’m divided whether I want a program of comedy duo shorts or one featuring duos whatever the length of their films. Shorts duos I’d be delighted to watch at TCMFF included Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts, Todd and Patsy Kelly, Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle, and Laurel and Hardy. If the fest highlights comedic duos’ best moments even from longer fare, I’d want to see added Marie Dressler and Polly Moran, Abbott and Costello, and Wheeler and Woolsey. I’m sure including Bob Hope and Bing Crosby along with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis would make even more fans happy!

Moonstruck Moon over Bridge Shot

MOONSTRUCK (1987)

With Norman Jewison already in attendance for the fiftieth anniversary of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967), I hope another one of his films celebrating its thirtieth anniversary gets snuck onto the schedule–MOONSTRUCK (1987). It’s laugh out loud funny in an idiosyncratic way, and it celebrates life and the mistakes that make it interesting with no cynicism. It, also, captures an old New York City that’s been disappearing via gentrification, displacement, and the passing of the older generations.

Now that you’ve read my picks, what films or programs would you like to see at TCMFF?

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Black Friday Treat: The Bargain of the Century (1933)

Thelma Todd Still from The Bargain of the Century (1933) sharpenned

Feeling Black Friday fatigue? Here’s a delightful Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts comedy teaming, The Bargain of the Century (1933), that pokes fun at battling for bargains for you! The duo’s slapstick antics bring humor to scenes best experienced secondhand. In their quest for a good deal, the women give and get bruises in a rough shopping crowd. Each lady does so in her own inherently idiosyncratic style. Thelma’s character is a scrapper, not afraid to get into the mêlée, and ZaSu’s character eventually gets a grabbing with her formerly timid, fluttering hands. Their shopping excursion ends up costing them more than they saved when they accidentally get a policeman (James P. Burtis) fired, whom they have to house and feed until they find him a new job. Of course, that task turns out not to be so easy! Watch the videos below to see how it all plays out.

 

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival Preview, Part 1

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is almost here! Its first film fills the Castro Theatre’s screen on Thursday night. We’ll rewind our scene to before its audience sits, before they pile into the picture palace, before they stand in a line snaking down Castro and stretching around the corner down 17th, and stop where they chat with anticipation about the experience that awaits them with their friends. Let’s take a look at the films selected to celebrate the festival’s twentieth anniversary.

All Quiet on the Western Front Field Juxtopostion

It’s incorrect to say the festival eases into its first screening with only one feature. A centerpiece film always kicks off the event in grand style. This year it’s the silent version of war film All Quiet On The Western Front (1930), directed by Lewis Milestone. There were actually two versions of the film made simultaneously, a sound version for English-speaking audiences and an “International Sound Version,” essentially a silent with a later added score and intertitles, written for foreign language markets. While the talkie version was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two, festival Artistic Director Anita Monga says, “Many people consider it to be superior to the sound version.” The epic devastatingly details what happens to a group of young German boys recruited to the trenches of World War I. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompany the film.

An off-site opening night party follows the movie. The McRoskey Mattress Company‘s top-floor loft turns into the Kit Kat Club, a 1920s Berlin cabaret hosted by Swedish chanteuse Clara Gustavsson. Also performing are the Craig Ventresco Trio, featuring Meredith Axelrod. Fine food and drink are part of the festivities. Your party ticket gets you nibbles from Poesia Osteria Italiana, wine from Barefoot Wine and Bubbly, beer from Sierra Nevada, and a special cocktail—the Voluptuous Panic—created by Bartavelle‘s Suzanne Drexhage. Vintage attire and dancing are encouraged! Something called the Naughty Boudoir Photo Booth makes a first appearance. Whether you enter the booth before or after imbibing is up to you!

2014 Amazing Tales From the Aarchives Bryony Presentation

Photo by Pamela Gentile from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s Site

If you attend the party, keep in mind that Day 2 of the fest begins bright and early at 10 AM with Amazing Tales from the Archives! If you miss this educational session, your hardcore silent film fan friends will brag about all the interesting facts they learned and rare films they saw. The ever entertaining Serge Bromberg, of Lobster Films, recounts finding Maurice Tourneur’s 1914 short Figures de Cire (House of Wax). Bryony Dixon brings a treasure trove of footage about the RMS Lusitania to mark the centennial of its sinking, and crowd favorite actor Paul McGann adds narration to her films. Festival President Robert Byrne describes the meticulous process of reconstructing and restoring William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes. In recognition of another centennial, this time Technicolor‘s, Movette Film Transfer‘s Jennifer Miko screens a home movie shot at Hearst Castle and starring its architect Julia Morgan and W.R. HearstDonald Sosin accompanies this program.

Cave of the Spider Women

I’m excited this year’s Chinese selection deviates from past offerings. While the suffering women dramas previously screened, often starring Ruan Lingyu, were excellent, Cave of the Spider Women or Pan si dong (1927) offers something new to the program. It is a magic-spirit film, a genre popular in 1920s Shanghai, but quite rare to screen today due to so much of early Chinese film being lost. A nitrate 35mm print of the movie was discovered in the National Library of Norway‘s archives. This is not an unusual occurrence. Staffing and funding limitations mean that films listed as lost might lay in other archives undocumented and awaiting discovery and thus restoration before they deteriorate too badly to be saved. In the film. a monk and his followers—a monkey, pig, and shark spirit–search for Buddhist texts while facing dangers like the seductive Spider Queen and her handmaidens. Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius accompany the film.

When the Earth Trembled Poster

Poster Image Courtesy of EYE Filmmuseum, Desmet Collection

When the Earth Trembled (1913) fills the local interest slot. If you’re guessing by the title that it’s about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, then you are correct! The movie may be the first fictional one made about the disaster, and it incorporates real newsreel footage shot in the earthquake’s aftermath. That’s of special note since the Lubin Manufacturing Company later lost the majority of its newsreel footage in a vault fire, so contained within this disaster epic is a chance to see true life scenes that otherwise would have been destroyed. Director Barry O’Neil‘s insistence on realistic recreations adds to the sense of danger. His leading lady Ethel Clayton almost died when a chandelier fell on her during an earthquake scene. Due to his attention to detail and film mogul Siegmund Lubin devoting four months to making the movie, when normally his studio cranked out two pictures a week, they produced a mega-spectacle that’s sure to thrill today. Multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne accompanies the film.

F.W. Murnau Der letzte Mann 1924 Grooming Scene

Film critic Paul Rotha described The Last Laugh (1924), or Der letzte Mann, as “cine-fiction in its purest form.” Director F.W. Murnau‘s technique was revolutionary. He created a drama focused on an ordinary man’s fall using few intertitles, a fluid camera, and the best of Emil Jannings‘ acting ability. Jannings’ character, a hotel doorman, takes pride in the fine uniform his job provides him. The uniform brings him respect and gives him greater status in his workingclass neighborhood. When his job and uniform are taken away from him, his identity and position are the greater losses compared to the income. The perilousness of work instability and its impact on self-worth and class and social status can resonate for today’s audiences experienced in recession. Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, in its inaugural appearance accompanies the film.

Ghost Train 1927 Still

Image Courtesy of the British Film Institute

The Ghost Train (1927) is the first film adaptation of the popular stage play by Arnold Ridley. It blends horror and comedy elements in depicting what happens when strangers are stranded at a supposedly haunted train station. I’ve seen the 1941 version starring Arthur Askey, which emphasized comedy over the supernatural, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Hungarian director Géza von Bolváry was freer to play up the story’s spookier and darker aspects. After American horror hits Dracula and Frankenstein upset some vocal members of the public, the British Board of Film Censors created the H(orror) certificate as an advisement in 1932, but in reality that resulted in children under 16 being banned from cinemas showing films labeled such. British filmmakers avoided getting the certificate by avoiding the horror genre. Online clips from the silent version show clever uses of animation and superimposition. Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius accompany the film, and Paul McGann provides narration.

This concludes Part 1 of my San Francisco Silent Film Festival preview. Part 2 follows tomorrow!

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The Little Tramp at 100, Part 1

Little Tramp at 100 A

Last month, The San Francisco Silent Film Festival joined a worldwide celebration of Charlie Chaplin with The Little Tramp at 100. Three programs celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the Little Tramp persona’s first film appearance.

The first screening featured Charlie’s work from his third studio, Mutual Film Corporation. Someone at the fest wittily titled this program Our Mutual Friend. It featured three shorts accompanied by Jon Mirsalis on solo piano. The shorts were The Vagabond (1916), The Cure (1917), and Easy Street (1917).

The Vagabond Poster

The Vagabond features the Little Tramp’s characteristic blend of comedy and drama. He’s a wandering violinist trying to earn his living busking. He settles on a saloon as a prime place to play only to be displaced by a much louder band. If his violin is going to be drowned out, he decides to “join” the band, collecting their tips for himself! Eventually his trickery is discovered, and he’s forced to flee those he fleeced, which sets him upon the path where he finds Edna Purviance‘s Gypsy Drudge.

Image Source: Discovering Chaplin

Her story is Dickensian. She was born to a wealthy family, but abducted by gypsies and forced into slavery. A chance meeting with the Little Tramp changes her life. He mistakes her for a paying audience, but while she loves his music, she has no money to give him. He ends up rescuing her from her captors, and their newly shared life is hardscrabble, but happy until a chance encounter with an artist threatens their relationship.

The Vagabond Cleaning Scene

The Tramp starts to take care of the Drudge, as he makes her more presentable to the world in his eyes. He cleans her face removing any dirt of the past, and he vigorously scrubs out every facial orifice, earholes and nostrils included! For maximum comedic effect, Edna the actress makes herself look as silly and awkward as possible, as she grimaces exaggeratedly during the Drudge’s cleaning. In her next scene with the Tramp, he’s “fixes” her hair. Her new hairstyle may be less wild, but it’s no more fashionable. The intimate physicality of these scenes shows the trust built between the characters, and it mirrors Edna’s offscreen trust in Charlie’s comedic instincts.

The Vagabond Eric Campbell

Eric Campbell, a former stage actor, was part of Charlie’s film troupe at this time. The role isn’t the most developed villain he played in Charlie’s films, but he uses his bulk to make the Gypsy Chieftain menacing, while finding the funny in the brute. The imposing Chieftain’s movements are comically floundering as he’s outwitted by Charlie’s tiny violinist.

The Cure Poster

The Cure spoofs the mineral water craze of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Spas or resorts used to be built around wells and springs spouting what was lauded as medicinal waters. They were reputed to do everything from improving libido to curing insanity. Though Charlie’s character The Inebriate goes to such a health spa to dry out with the wet cure, he arrives packing more liquor than some bars. He causes chaos everywhere he goes, especially when fleeing his treatments.

The Cure Chaplin & Purviance

The film features the comedy trio of Charlie, Edna, and Eric Campbell. The drunkard may have drink on the mind, but he’s not so distracted that he can’t find time to romance Edna’s The Girl. He has to work hard to impress her. Campbell’s The Man with Gout complicates their romance. The Inebriate accidentally keeps getting into scuffles with The Man, and The Man continually pesters The Girl. He follows her about, tries to sit near her, and tries to touch her. He’s much too forward.

The Cure's Inebriate vs the Masseur

Charlie’s outfits in this film aren’t the Little Tramp ones we’re used to. His resort clothes and the fact he can afford a rest stay show he’s portraying a much posher character. Later there are scenes of him resisting rough massages while attired in bathing gear. Seeing him stripped down, I could see how young he was by his skinniness, yet he possessed a trim muscularity that enabled his slapstick acrobatics. When The Inebriate starts dancing away from the feared Masseur, the bathing suit emphasizes his graceful control of limbs and movements.

The Cure Revolving Door Trap

There are no sad or dark moments in this film. It’s pure slapstick and satire. When The Inebriate attempts to enter the resort though its revolving door, Charlie signals we’re in for silliness. He spins round and round, popping in and out of the building, and soon traps The Man with Gout and an attendant in the door. The Inebriate finally ends up inside the building, still spinning his way through the lobby, up the stairs, and to his room. Those familiar with slapstick conventions might guess the giggle water he smuggles in will end up in the well, a situation that promises a film that will leave viewers drunk with good humor.

Easy Street Poster

Easy Street starts off with a darker world view. Charlie is back in his familiar tramp costume at the film’s beginning. His character, The Derelict, is so badly off he almost robs a rescue mission. Edna portrays a mission worker. Her kindness to him and his attraction to her inspires him to reform. He seeks work and gets hired as a policeman assigned an awful called slum Easy Street.

Easy Street Brawl

Our first view of Easy Street shows Eric Campbell’s The Bully brawling with the borough’s other crooks in the street. The living is not easy there, but if you’ve got brawn or guile, it’s easy to get away with whatever you want. It’s an anything goes place. We see that when two men are revealed on the ground at the center of the crowd. They’re getting mugged by the brawlers, who are fighting each over the pickings from their victims’ pockets.

Easy Street Lamp Scene

One of Chaplin’s chief conceits is coming up with imaginative ways for the little Derelict to defeat bigger and oftener brawnier bad guys. For example, being struck in the head with a police baton doesn’t phase The Bully. His thick skull protects him. He demonstrates his superior strength by bending a streetlight. The Tramp seems outmatched, but he gets a bright idea on how to use that gas lamp against his foe. The moment is hilariously surreal.

Easy Street Chaplin & Charlotte Mineau

The film gets darker when we meet more of the slum’s denizens. A sweet couple has too many children to feed, so Edna brings aid with assistance from Charlie. Charlie lightens the scene by feeding the babes like they’re a flock of chickens. In another apartment, there’s domestic violence. The Bully fights with his woman, and she pays him back in kind. Later Edna is threatened with rape by a heroin addict.

Easy Street Resolved

Since this is a comedy, it’s no spoiler to reveal that in the end Charlie makes life on easy street a little easier. How he does it brings laughs and it brings reassurance that the little guy can prevail and order can be restored.

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Back from the Rodeo & Will Rogers’ The Ropin’ Fool

Yesterday I went to my first rodeo at the Stanislaus County Fair. Keeping today’s post in a cowboy theme, here’s an excerpt of Will RogersThe Ropin’ Fool.

This novelty, silent short from 1922 was written and produced by Rogers and directed by Clarence G. Badger. There is a slight plot that provides the frame for Rogers’ roping tricks. It’s when those tricks supersede the plot, that the film takes us to a delightfully surreal place. That’s when his character “Ropes” Reilly shows off his talents in the town square. Rogers looks joyful as he slings his rope around and performs the types of tricks that made him famous at the Follies.

His ropes painted white show up well against his dark horse Dopey, but it’s a cinematic convention that makes those roping scenes amazing–slow-motion photography. We get to see all the details of the tricks that go by too quickly for our eyes normally, and their slowed down speed not only gives us a greater appreciation of how difficult these tricks were, but also makes these moments have a mesmerizing dreamlike quality.

The above clips comes from a video promoting Reelclassicdvd.Com’s edition featuring a musical score by Ben Model. If you’d like to see some more scenes minus any plot, but full of roping Turner Classic Movies has an excerpt of outtakes with narration.


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