Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Music in the Time of Cholera

With sincerest apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez...

I've been busy with other activities but I engaged in two that would make great movies (not porn either).

I read a book called The Blue Death: Disease, Disaster, and the Water We Drink by Dr. Robert B. Morris. It is the story of civilization's water supply since the early 19th century. I have heard the story of the water pump handle but this book puts more detail on the man and the incident. For those not familiar with the story, Dr. John Snow (a pioneering epidemiologist) was convinced a specific well was the source of contaminated water that was causing cholera in London. He had the pump handle removed and the cholera stopped. That's simplified and dramatized but the story of cholera and how Dr. Snow and others tried to stop it is fascinating. That's the best part of The Blue Death although Morris includes other page-turning anecdotes that are nearly as fascinating. Morris starts with cholera's terror and leads us to present day terrorist threats. Although non-fiction, I think the book could be adapted for the screen.

I also saw the musical The Drowsy Chaperone at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. Billed as "a musical within a comedy", I thought for sure that this was some faux revival from the 1980's but was surprised to discover it debuted at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2001.

As long as I mentioned it, let me plug the San Francisco Fringe Festival that runs September 3 to 14 at the Exit Theater. The Exit Theater is not a single venue but multiple, small venues in the Tenderloin. Fringe Fest is a festival of short plays produced with minimalist staging.

Back to The Drowsy Chaperone - this sweet natured musical is a lampoon of the musicals of the 1920's (think Gershwin or Cole Porter). A man (with decidedly effeminate mannerisms) is sitting at home alone and pulls out a vinyl record of The Drowsy Chaperone (a fictitious musical from 1928). The music and staging from the The Drowsy Chaperone proceeds to play out in his living room as he spouts expository dialogue about the actors in the 1928 production. The plot is secondary (like a porn movie as our guide likens it) but suffice to say it is the story of boy meet girls, boy loses girl & boy gets married. There is a lot of stuff layered on but this is as much an homage as a spoof.

I think the movie rights for this musical must have been optioned given the current revival of big screen musicals. Among my favorite numbers were Show Off, I Am Aldolpho and Message From A Nightingale. The latter song was from a different, fictitious musical recording from the era that had been put in the wrong album jacket. It must have been a least partially based on the musical version of The King and I except more racially offensive. It featured several of The Drowsy Chaperone actors in yellow face and wearing outrageous Chinese costumes. It is patently offensive by today's standards and could only be performed as satire but I'm not as PC as many (particularly in San Francisco) and think I could view a similar musical as an interesting and quaintly amusing artifact from the different era.

The Drowsy Chaperone plays until August 17 at the Orpheum.

I don't watch TV too much anymore but one of my favorite shows is ending this upcoming season. I am referring to The Shield. The Shield deserves many posts so I won't rehash (i.e. bore) why I am impressed with the show. It premieres on September 2. Last night, I watched a number of cast interviews on the internet.

Just to keep my hand in the pot, I saw Ride Lonesome at the PFA.

Ride Lonesome with Randolph Scott, Lee Van Cleef, Pernell Roberts, James Coburn and James Best; (1959).

That's right, Adam Cartwright and Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane in a movie together. Actually, both actors play against type if type is defined as their signature roles. The film has an existential feel to it as Randolph Scott is hyper-laconic as the bounty hunter that must face his prisoner's murdering brother (Van Cleef) and a pair of decent but realist outlaws (Roberts and Coburn). The plot is your basic chase movie but it delves into to the psychology of Scott, Van Cleef and to a lesser extent Best as the cowardly prisoner. At the center of these damaged men is the beautiful Karen Steele whom I hadn't seen before. She plays a recently widowed woman that is along for the ride and forms an emotional love triangle with Scott & Roberts. The film only runs 71 minutes and that includes a marauding Indian subplot that could have been trimmed down.

This film was quite a find for me. It certainly was influenced by High Noon and must have influenced Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Tom Hatten and Elvira

When I was growing up in El Paso, my family had cable TV. The best part of cable TV was that our basic package included some Los Angeles stations that I watched regularly. I think we had four LA station - KTTV (Channel 11), KTLA (Channel 5), KHJ (Channel 9) and some other station I can't recall now. It was through KTLA and KHJ that I learned to love old movies (and despise Cal Worthington and his dog Spot).

Tom Hatten hosted about 10 hours of KTLA programming every weekend. On Saturday & Sunday mornings, Hatten would host The Popeye Show. Hatten would show 1930's vintage Popeye cartoons. I became familiar with the Fleischer Brothers from Hatten's encyclopedic knowledge of Popeye. Hatten, seemed to an adolescent, to be an accomplished sketch artists as he would free-hand various Popeye themed drawings during the commercial breaks.

Hatten's program introduced me to the old Popeye cartoons (Bluto vs. Brutus), Betty Boop, Bimbo and other cartoons that I never see anymore.

Later, I would learn that Hatten had hosted a weekday, after school, children's program on KTLA since the 1950's. By the time I found him on weekend mornings, he was winding down his career at KTLA.

More influential on me was The Family Film Festival that Hatten hosted on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. The concept was similar except Hatten didn't doodle and the studio & wardrobe were not nautical themed. Hatten would share tidbits on classic films during commercial breaks. It was this series that introduced me to the films of the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, and many others. A quarter century later, I can still remember Brian Donlevy positioning corpses on the ramparts at the end of Beau Geste, a infectious little ditty titled "Everyone Says I Love You" that all four Marx Brothers sang in Horse Feathers, seeing Hope and Crosby in all seven Road movies and thinking Dottie Lamour was one hot little number (former Miss New Orleans). I haven't seen any of those films since then but I can still remember certain scenes vividly.

Over on KHJ (Channel 9), they had a movie host that couldn't have been more different than Tom Hatten. I am of course referring to Cassandra Peterson; better known by her stage name - Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Before she became a national phenomenon, Elvira hosted a horror movie program called Movie Macabre on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. During the commercial breaks, Elvira would perform comedy skits and lampoon the movie. I recall her black gown plunged all the way to her waist and her two rather impressive talents. It wasn't just Elvira that caught my attention, the movies stuck in my mind. At the time, they were probably known as grind house films although I was not familiar with that term at the time. She also spoke with a Valley Girl accent that I didn't pick up on until the song came out a year or two later.

I recall seeing Count Yorga, Vampire, Willard, one with Bill Shatner and Ernest Borgnine where they had black eyes like the victims in The X-Files many years later, I think I saw one with Clint Eastwood set during the Civil War where some women amputate his leg against his will, and a English gothic picture with strong hints of incest. These films I don't recall quite as vividly as Hatten's films.

They don't show films like that anymore. Maybe AMC shows some of the films The Family Film Festival showed but I don't see them often. When was the last time you saw Paleface on TV?

Last year at Hole in the Head, they screened a documentary called American Scary. It turns out every major city had a local horror movie show on Friday & Saturday night...every major city except El Paso! Until I moved to the Bay Area and heard about Creature Feature, I thought Elvira and Los Angeles were the whole enchilada. It's a bittersweet realization that Hatten and Elvira probably couldn't exist in today's world of corporate ownership, focus groups, and PC groupthink.

Now that I think about it, I think one of those LA stations showed Our Gang shorts by Hal Roach. I can't remember the last time I saw Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla and the rest of the gang.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Faces in the Crowd and the Disciples of Jason

While attending so many movies a year, I see many of the same faces in the theater. With the exception of the ubiquitous and near famous Jason, I don't know any of their names. Here are a few thumbnails:

#1 - Asian guy, dark hair, medium height, 40's, eyeglasses, mustache, always scribbling something on a notepad, sits on the outer aisle seat, PFA and Castro regular. Last sighting - July 20, Castro Theater, The Fuller Brush Girl.

#2 - Dark brunette woman, zaftig, 40's, typically well dressed, I thought she worked at the Castro but maybe not, she is friendly with the Castro staff, PFA and Castro regular, likes to sit in the center a few rows back. Last sighting - July 18, PFA, Point Blank.

#3 - Asian guy, 50ish, kind of short, heavy set, short hair, eyeglasses, always dressed business casual (white dress shirt/dark slacks), always carrying around a gym bag, I mostly see him at festivals (Indiefest, SFIAAFF, etc.). Last sighting - 2008 SFIAFF?

#4 - Blonde/light brown haired white woman, light skin, heavy, always wearing a dress, Castro regular, seems to like old movies, sits near the front of the theater, stage right, saw her exit at Embarcadero BART during the morning rush hour, friends with #1. Last sighting - July 20, Castro Theater, The Fuller Brush Girl.

#5 - Older white woman, white hair, big round glasses, likes older films, I used to see her at the Balboa when it was rep house, I've seen her at the Castro many times. Last sighting - 2008 Noir City?

#6 - 40's, skinny Asian guy, balding, Castro regular, naturally looks angry, I think he's a waiter at one of the restaurants in Rincon Center. Last sighting - July 19, Castro Theater, Day of the Animals?

#7 - older, white guy, bald headed, wears overalls frequently, regular at Indiefest/Roxie, ran into him at a bookstore on Valencia that has since closed. Last sighting - 2008 Hole in the Head.

#8 - older, white guy, long beard, kind of shifty looking, wears weightlifting gloves, Castro regular.

Then are a bunch of people that I mentally refer to as the Disciples of Jason (great name for a horror movie). Jason, of course, is Jason Wiener. When I first saw Jason at IndieFest several years ago, he sat alone front and center. Over the years, several people have started to congregate around him. They even sit in the front row with him.

DoJ#1 - skinny, 20something, white guy, glasses, Jason's first disciple, haven't seen too much him as of late. Last sighting - 2008 Hole in the Head?

DoJ#2 - white girl, brunette, eyeglasses, 30ish, Jason told me her name but I forgot, I see her the most often of the DoJs. Last sighting - July 19, Castro Theater, Day of the Animals. I'll bet even money she attended all five shows that day.

DoJ#3 - Asian guy, 30s/40s, slightly balding, kind of a mullet haircut, eyeglasses, kind of heavyset. Last sighting - July 19, Castro Theater, Day of the Animals sitting next to DoJ#2

DoJ#4 - white guy, 50's, sandy blonde/grey hair, medium height, heavy set. Last sighting - 2008 Hole in the Head/Tokyo Gore Police .

At Day of the Animals, DoJ#2 and DoJ#3 were even sitting front row at the Castro although not in the center part of the aisle. Then I noticed #8 was sitting in Jason's seat directly in front of the Mighty Wurlitzer.

The ticket taker at BAM/PFA is a short, bushy haired, 20something guy with thick eyeglasses. I think he works or worked at the Balboa. He let me into Seven Samurai for free once at the Balboa. I had a splitting headache so I slept through much of the film. I came back the next day to catch the film in its entirety; he asked if I had been there the day before and I told him about my headache so he let me in for free.

Finally, last Tuesday (July 15), I saw San Francisco International Film Festival's Rod Armstrong at 19th St. BART in Oakland. Amazingly, he wasn't talking.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Taking Inventory as of July 20

The Wild Bunch directed by Sam Peckinpah; starring William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan; (1969)
The Shanghai Gesture directed by Josef von Sternberg; starring Gene Tierney, Walter Huston, Victor Mature and Ona Munson; (1941)
Violent Saturday with Victor Mature, Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine; (1955)
Point Blank directed by John Boorman; starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson; (1967)
Day of the Animals with Leslie Nielsen; (1977)
Miss Grant Take Richmond starring Lucille Ball and William Holden; (1949)
The Fuller Brush Girl starring Lucille Ball and Eddie Albert; (1950)

The Wild Bunch was part of the Castro's 70 MM festival.

The Shanghai Gesture was part of the United Artists 90th Anniversary Retrospective at BAM/PFA.

Violent Saturday and Point Blank were part of a Widescreen program at BAM/PFA.

Day of the Animals was one-fifth of a Midnites for Maniacs marathon. The theme was of the ~12 hour, quintuple bill was Animals Attacking Humans and included Phase IV, Alligator, Jaws, and Piranha 2: The Spawning. With the exception of Jaws, these were some cheesey 1970's films. I recall Alligator from my childhood. It was based on the urban legend that New Yorkers were taking baby alligators home from their Florida vacations. When the gators grew too large, the were flushed down the toilet and that there was an alligator infestation in NYC.
Piranha 2: The Spawning was notable for being James Cameron's directorial debut. I may have seen this film. It's the one where the piranhas fly.

Miss Grant Take Richmond and The Fuller Brush Girl were part of a Lucille Ball triple feature at the Castro.

A few quick notes:

I'm becoming a diehard Josef von Sternberg fan. Having seen The Scarlet Empress (1934) and Shanghai Express (1932), I was curious how much I would enjoy a von Sternberg film without Marlene Dietrich. There are a lot of problems with The Shanghai Gesture. The plot is contrived and requires incredible suspension of belief, Gene Tierney is strangely wooden and Ona Munson chews up the scenery in yellowface. Still, the visuals, Walter Huston's mellifluous voice and Mike Mazurki's movie stealing supporting role make for a fun film.

Point Blank is a neo-noir film that seems to have higher aspirations. Remade by Mel Gibson as Payback, this simple revenge tale was skillfully directed by John Boorman, who went on to make the equally stylish Excalibur 15 years later. Point Blank has surrealistic moments such as Marvin alternating between a furnished and empty apartment after his wife commits suicide and a love scene where Marvin and Dickinson embrace and as they turn over in each other's arm, a new partner is revealed. The cinematographer also took care to coordinate the actors' wardrobe and set designs in vibrant earth tones - mustard yellow and blood red. There was also a memorable sequence where Marvin is walking down a long corridor and his leather soled shoes tap out a rhythmic beat. The scene never shows where he is going. Another big plus was that the beginning and end were filmed at Alcatraz and Fort Point.

It was also interesting to note the difference between the two films. Point Blank was similar to French New Wave as Marvin's nihilist works his way up the food chain of The Syndicate. Marvin starts the film trying to get ~$90,000 that is owed him (a considerable amount in 1967). By end of the film, the money is secondary and he ultimately leaves the money behind. In Payback, Gibson goes after a rather miniscule sum with dogged and comic determination. Another interesting difference is that the Dickinson character is Marvin's sister-in-law. In Payback, Dickinson's character (Maria Bello), is a prostitute. Although I enjoyed Payback, it is clear that Point Blank is a much better film. Marvin was perfectly cast as the lead; I can't think of any of his contemporaries that could have played the role.

Violent Saturday is a cross between Gun Crazy and East of Eden set in a small Arizona mining town of Bisbee. I've been to Bisbee as my father grew up in that part of Arizona. The film has not aged well but it serves as an interesting time capsule. One stilted and cliched line sticks in my mind. A wealthy woman is having an affair with the town lothario. She is conflicted about what she is doing. She says to him "You are everything and nothing." If loving you is wrong, I don't want to be right...

The Fuller Brush Girl was notable for the gorgeous Gale Robbins in two scenes - one where is wearing horn rimmed glasses as the femme fatale (quite possibly inspired by Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven) and another where she sings the "Put the Blame on Mame" at a burlesque house. That is the song that Rita Hayworth made famous in Gilda. Actually, at 39 years of age, Lucy admirably and impressively wears some skimpy outfits that shows off her gams and engages in spirited physical comedy that presaged I Love Lucy by a few years.

Considering that Miss Grant Take Richmond stars Ball and Holden, I expected more. It was a rather formulaic comedy and Lucy seemed miscast as the eponymous Miss Grant. In fact, I fell asleep for the last few minutes after Ball catches Holden red-handed. It doesn't matter, I'm sure Holden does the right thing & somehow avoids punishment.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Evening Class Interview with SF Silent Film Festival Founder Stephen Salmons

I rarely cross link but I ran across an interview with Stephen Salmons, the founder of the SF Silent Film Festival. I thought it was very interesting reading about the origin of the festival and other silent film venues (primarily in the Los Angeles area). Salmons was interviewed by Michael Guillen for his blog - The Evening Class.

The Evening Class Interview with Stephen Salmons Part 1.

The Evening Class Interview with Stephen Salmons Part 2

That reminds me that all weekend at the (SF)^2 Festival, they reminded the audience to mark their calendars for the (SF)^2's 4th Annual Winter event on February 14, 2009. They haven't announced what film(s) will be screened but in this interview, Salmons stated they would likely show Bardelys The Magnificent (1926) directed by King Vidor and starring John Gilbert and a 19 year old John Wayne in a small role. The significance of this film is that it was thought lost until prints were recently found in Europe.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Patsy and The Unknown

The other treat from 2008 (SF)^2 Festival was The Patsy. The film was a showcase for Marion Davies comedic talents. King Vidor directed and Marie Dressler, Dell Henderson, and Lawrence Gray turned in strong supporting performances. Jane Winton was also striking as the older sister and seach of IMDB show she only made a few talkies. I wonder what happened to her. Perhaps she couldn't make the transition to sound.

If anyone has seen the film, the highlight is Davies' impersonations of Mae Murray, Lillian Gish and Pola Negri. I don't believe I've seen film with any of those actresses much less know their affections to appreciate an impersonation of them. However, I laughed out loud at Davies antics. Equally amusing was a sequence where Davies spouts nonsensical platitudes in an attempt to create personality.

The plot involved a middle-class family of a couple (Dressler and Henderson) with two attractive daughters. Grace (Winton), the older daughter, is dating Orville Caldwell. Pat (Davies), the younger daughter, pines for Orville but Orville doesn't even notice her. Pat spends the films trying to attract Orville's attention without much luck until she ends up at a playboy's (Gray) house.

I believe this is the first Davies film I have seen. I expected her to look like Kirstin Dunst but she was prettier and projected an innocence that cannot be achieved in today's society. Of course, while she projected virginal naiveté in this film, she was 10 years into a relationship with William Randolph Hearst, a millionaire 35 years her senior and whom she liked to drive insane with jealousy if the rumors regarding the Thomas Ince affair are correct. Nonetheless, that doesn't affect my opinion of her performance. In my opinion, her performance in this film was the best of festival and lifted this film to my favorite.

Another very interesting film was The Unknown directed by Tod Browning with Lon Chaney & Joan Crawford. The 20something Joan Crawford was quite attractive and is unrecognizable from the bitchy, arched eyebrow, shoulder pad wearing, "No wire hangers!" gay icon.

The plot is simply unbelievable. Chaney is an armless trick shot artist and knife thrower in a circus. Crawford is the circus owner's daughter and Chaney's assistant and object of his secret desire. That's not the only secret his is keeping. On screen it looks obvious that Chaney has his arms at his side under his shirt. The reason it appears that way is not due to bad costuming or special effect but because his character has arms. He keeps his arms under a girdle with the help of his midget assistant. At night, he loosens the girdle so that he can commit crimes. This is an ingenious ruse because the crime obviously were committed by an man with arms and Chaney is the one person in the circus without arms. Not only does Chaney have 2 arms but he has 2 thumbs on his left hand. The circus owner catches him one night without his girdle. Chaney strangles the man to keep his secret but Crawford glimpes the crime from her window. Luckily for Chaney, she only sees a man with two thumbs strangling her father; she doesn't see his face. Oh yeah, for some unstated reason, Joan can't stand the touch of man and continually rebuffs the advances of the circus strongman.

With the father dead, Crawford sells the circus and Chaney stays to console her. He thinks he making progress but Cojo the midget reminds him that if they are married, she will see his arms on their wedding night, not to mention his thumbs thumbs. Chaney has a response to that - he gets a shady doctor to amputate his arms. While Chaney recuperates, the circus strongman comes back to woo Joan. When Chaney sans arms returns to Joan to propose marriage, he is dumbfounded to learn that she is engaged to Mr. Muscles. You can imagine Chaney's disappointment. He literally gave his left arm for her. Not one to be spurned, he plots to murder the having horses rip his arms from his body!

Of course, the premise is silly but it was treat to see The Man of a Thousand Faces. Chaney's dexterity with his feet was amazing and I was disappointed to read he had foot double - a man without arms that had learned to smoke a cigarette, drink from glasses, etc. with his feet. Also, this films was a Director's choice. Guy Maddin, director of My Winnipeg, read the French intertitles. The film was introduced by Jesse Hawthorne Ficks, the founder and host of Midnight for Maniacs introduced the film and Maddin.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Her Wild Oat

As I mentioned previously, I particularly enjoyed Her Wild Oat at the 2008 SF Silent Film Festival or (SF)^2 Festival as the announcer called it.

Her Wild Oat has a plot that has been reworked many times. It's basically a variation on the Cinderella fairy tale. Pretty Woman bares some resemblance as does many other films that I can't recall presently.

Colleen Moore plays Mary Lou Smith, a young woman that runs a lunch counter on wheels. She's a hard working and kind hearted woman with a Louise Brooks bob years before Louise Brooks bobbed her hair. She saves her money to take her dream vacation at a beach resort. One day Phillip Latour, a wealthy young man, is mugged. He borrows some dirty overalls and sits down for a cup of coffee at Mary Lou's counter. A hole in his pocket leave him without even a dime to pay his tab. Mary Lou lets him work it off by washing some dishes. A man of leisure, he ends up breaking more dishes than he cleans. Of course, he doesn't let on that he is wealthy.

He comes back later to pay off the damages, tells Mary Lou some story that he is a driver for the wealthy Phillip Latour and that he is driving him to the beach resort she dreams of. That information prompts Mary Lou to take the vacation of her dreams. With the help of a chorus girl that dines at her counter, Mary Lou buys some new clothes for her vacation. The outfit she wears when walking into hotel is garish to say the least. It's perfectly accessorized with a purse that looks like a poodle and a tall plumed hat. The beach resort exterior shot is Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego which has been the setting of many films, most famously Some Like it Hot with Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe.

After checking in, Mary Lou is ready to enjoy herself. Sadly, she is treated rudely by the other guests because she is not high society. The hotel detective thinks she is a prostitute and warns her off. Saddened and disillusioned, she begins crying but is spotted by an expense padding newspaper reporter that knows her from the lunch counter. He comes up with the idea creating a new persona for her and the Duchesse de Granville is born (named after a soup on the lunch menu). Mary Lou gets a new wadrobe, a wig, and a bigger suite.

The Duchesse is treated much better the Mary Lou by the people that snubbed her before. While dining with the reporter, the Duchesse is spotted by Latour. He is informed by the waiter that she is the Duchesse de Granville. Here, the plot become too contrived for even a screwball comedy like this. It just so happens that Latour's widowed father is marrying the real Duchesse de Granville and scheduled to honeymoon the hotel. Recognizing Mary from the diner, Latour still insists on addressing the Duchesse as his new step mother and pretending not to recognize her.

At this point, Mary Lou takes various and increasing measures to maintain her false identity with hilarious results if you can suspend disbelief. Finally revealed for the fraud she is, she hightails it out of town and back to her diner. While commiserating with her chorus girl friend, the diner begins to move. You guessed it - Latour is driving the car and towing her diner to his mansion where she is warmly greeted by the household staff. Presumably, they marry & live happily ever after.

Colleen Moore was definitely a major screen presence. She combined the distinctive haircut with an innocent persona and down-to-earth manner. She was girl-next-door cute and it's easy for me to see how she could have been a top box office draw. As the jazz age wound down, Moore felt she was too closely associated with the flapper image and this didn't play well during the Depression era. She retired from acting and is now largely forgotten. Certainly, silent era names such Pickford, Gish, Swanson, etc. are better known today. It's a shame that she didn't (hasn't) gotten the credit she deserves. At least from my one experience, she deserves more acknowledgment.

Upon seeing this film, I truly felt as though I had discovered a hidden gem. The synopsis didn't really appeal to me but I had a festival pass and needed to see films to make it worthwhile. I would really like to see more Moore film. It's sad to think that many of her films are probably lost due to nitrate film stock deterioration.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

2008 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The 2008 San Francisco Silent Film Festival ran July 11 to 13 at the Castro Theater. I bought a festival pass and saw 8 of the 12 programs. The crowds were impressive, film critic Leonard Maltin was there for the weekend, and I saw some very entertaining films. I notice that comedy ages well and action sequences are exciting because you realize the actors/stuntmen were risking their lives. Drama or melodrama does not age so well. The actors overacted in the dramas; they hammed it up by modern standards.

The 8 programs I saw were:

The Kid Brother with Harold Lloyd; (1927)
Les Deux Timides; (1928)
Mikaël directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer; (1924)
The Man Who Laughs; (1928)
The Unknown with Lon Chaney & Joan Crawford; (1927)
Her Wild Oat with Colleen Moore; (1927)
Jujiro directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa; (1928)
The Patsy with Marion Davies and Marie Dressler; directed by King Vidor; (1928)

Silent films with their intertitles bridge languages with less trouble than talkies. Les Deux Timides was filmed in France with French intertitles. Jujiro was filmed in Japan but had English subtitles. Her Wild Oat was filmed in Southern California but an English print couldn't be found. Instead, a print was located in the Czech Republic with Czech intertitles. New intertitle cards in English were inserted into the film. I can't remember all intertitle language permutations. For the foreign intertitled films, a reader was used. I think I would have preferred to have subtitled intertitles; I really mean that, I didn't just say it to make a bad pun.

The use of film readers for Japanese silent films was common and the profession (Benshi) was popular. If the use of a reader was warranted for any film at the festival, it would have been Jujiro because a benshi probably read the original film when it was released. Alas, a benshi was not used. This could be justified because the version shown was the American version with English intertitles. Quick aside - two years ago, I saw Picture Bride (1994) at the SF Asian American Film Festival. Tamlyn Tomita was in the audience that evening. That film was set in Hawaii during the 1920's. The legendary Toshirô Mifune appeared in the film (it was his penultimate film appearance). His character is simply credited as The Benshi. When I saw the film, I didn't know what a benshi was and couldn't understand why his character was narrating the action of the silent film within the film but his performance stood out. When I read the program notes, pre-film slide show, and blog of Brian Darr, I realized what a Benshi was and how Mifune's character was quite authentic.

The festival was filled with great films. I particularly enjoyed Her Wild Oat and The Patsy. Other enjoyable films include Mikaël, The Man Who Laughs, and The Unknown. I hope to write a follow-up entry in the next few days.

The above list is the feature films I saw. Each program started with a short film. The short films were, respectively:

Bronco Billy's Adventure; (1911)
Les Fromages Automobiles
L'Historie D'Une Rose
The Voice Invisible/Making A Record
The Last Call; (1922)
Mary Pickford's Technicolor Screen Test for The Black Pirate
Lost-A Yodel

I don't have years for all the short films.

Gilbert M. Anderson (a.k.a. Broncho Billy) was perhaps the first serial Western movie star. He has over 300 listings in IMDB and I'll guess ~100 has Broncho Billy in the title. Bronco Billy's Adventure was likely filmed near Fremont, CA (technically, the town is Niles). Anderson and his business partner George Spoor started Essanay Studios (pronounced S and A as in Spoor and Anderson) in Chicago. Due to the frigid winters, they opened a California studio in Niles. The site currently houses the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and shows silent films most Saturday nights. They have an annual Broncho Billy Film Festival that I keep meaning to see.

The Last Call was a Nick Carter detective film. I wasn't familiar with the character but some research reveals that Carter first shows up in dime store novels from the 1880's. Edmund Lowe starred in at least four Nick Carter films in 1922.

Mary Pickford's screen test was incredible for its color images. She had the greenest eyes. The Black Pirate was released in 1926. I had no idea that Technicolor was available then. The first film I am aware of that used Technicolor is The Wizard of Oz in 1939.

Kaleidoscope was a color film too but it was like looking at a kaleidoscope. In fact, I thought to myself while watching it that this same technique would be repeated 40 years later during the psychedelic 60's.

The Voice Invisible/Making A Record uses the same premise as the current Discovery Channel television show How It's Made. It showed how vinyl records were made which is kind of a strange topic for a silent era film.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Taking Inventory as of July 4

In my last post (which was my longest ever), despite throwing in the kitchen sink, I still forgot two worthwhile films.

I saw Love and Honor tonight at the Roxie. This film was directed by Yôji Yamada and is the final part of his samurai trilogy. A few years back, I saw Hidden Blade, the second film in the series. I didn't think too highly of that one. The film I really want to see is Twilight Samurai, the first in the series.

Love and Honor was nominated for many Japanese film awards but I am ambivalent. At its core, it is a melodrama with a horrible happy ending tacked on. Shinnojo is a low level samurai and food taster for the local bigwig. He hates his job and is pretty obnoxious to his wife, Kayo. One day, he tastes some bad shellfish and is rendered blind. His loving wife stands by him even though his future is uncertain. Circumstances conspire to force her to ask Shimada, a high level samurai, to intercede with the castle lord to get Shinnojo an annual stipend, a sort of disability pay. Shimada agrees to help but not for free. Interestingly, the stipend is measured in pounds of rice and Shimada wants a pound of flesh in exchange. So Kayo whores herself, Shinnojo gets his rice allowance, and they settle into their new lives...until Shinnojo's loudmouth aunt says she's heard Kayo is about town with an unknown man. When Shinnojo uncovers the truth, he divorces Kayo and starts training to challenge Shimada to a duel. Up until this point, the film was mildly enjoyable but the film descends into predictability during the last third. First, Shinnojo beats Shimada in the sword fight. This despite being blind and a low level samurai while Shimada trained at a prestigious dojo in Tokyo. Not only that but Shinnojo doesn't even have a scratch. Finally, after telegraphing the ending 10 minutes in advance, Kayo returns as "the scullery maid." Of course, Shinnojo's heightened senses identify Kayo immediately by the taste of her cooking.

I have been planning on seeing Love and Honor for the past few weeks. Its had a long run at the Roxie but I forgot to mention it in my last post. Before I forget again, Viva (starring and directed by Anna Biller) gets a long 5 day run at the Red Vic from July 11 to 15. I saw Viva at the 2007 IndieFest and loved it. I don't get out to the Red Vic often even though it has great programming. It's not convenient compared to the Roxie and the Castro. Of course, PFA is a 15 minute walk from BART.

I've seen four films since my last inventory.

Tokyo Gore Police, Japanese with subtitles; (2008) - Hole in the Head
Lizzie with Richard Boone; (1957) - part of a Joan Blondell retrospective at PFA
Mad Detective directed by Johnny To; Cantonese with subtitles; (2007)
Love and Honor, Japanese with subtitles; (2006) - Official Site