Wednesday, July 15, 2009

2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Recap

The 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival ran from Friday, July 10 to Sunday, July 12 at the Castro Theater. I saw 9 of the 12 programs. The programs I missed were Amazing Tales From the Archives, Underworld and Oswald The Lucky Rabbit. Underworld, directed by Josef von Sternberg, screened earlier this year as part of the PFA's von Sternberg retrospective. Amazing Tales From the Archives is a free program that the festival produces every year. It features clips from restored films and other "found" footage. I've seen it in years past but decided to skip it this year. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was a series of animated short films produced by Disney in the late 1920's. The character predated Mickey Mouse but Disney lost control of it due to legal issues. The program was narrated by film critic Leonard Maltin. It would have been nice to see but it was the first program on Sunday and I wanted to go to the gym that morning so I passed.


First, let me say it was strange not to see festival founder Stephen Salmons at the festival. The reasons for his departure from the Silent Film Festival remains unstated. The only information I could find was from a Mick LaSalle podcast when he stated his departure was voluntary and planned. He was vague about what his future plans are. LaSalle asked (suggested) that he treat this as a sabbatical and that he would return to the festival at some point. Salmons demurred.

I was surprised that Salmons wasn't the emcee like previous years as he seems well-suited for that role. On the podcast, Salmons said he would be at the festival as an audience member although I did not see him. During the McRoskey Mattress raffle drawing, the announcer thanked Salmons ("wherever he is") as if his contact with the festival staff was nil.

Salmons stepped down as Artistic Director and I also noticed his name is not listed among the Board of Directors. Anita Monga introduced several films and her self-announced title is Acting Artistic Director. Certainly, a programmer of her stature merits permanent hire but perhaps she didn't want the job permanently or maybe there is an expectation that Salmons will return.


Feature Films
The Gaucho starring Douglas Fairbanks and Lupe Velez; cameo by Mary Pickford; silent with intertitles; (1927)
Bardelys The Magnificent starring John Gilbert; directed by King Vidor; silent with intertitles; (1926)
Wild Rose; silent with Chinese intertitles; (1932)
The Wind starring Lilian Gish; silent with intertitles; (1928)
Aelita, Queen of Mars; silent with English & Cyrillic intertitles; (1924)
Erotikon; silent with English & Czech intertitles; (1929)
So's Your Old Man starring W.C. Fields; directed by Gregory La Cava; silent with intertitles; (1926)
Fall of the House of Usher; silent with French intertitles; (1928)
Lady of the Pavements starring Lupe Velez; directed by D.W. Griffith; silent with intertitles; (1929)

Short Films by American Biograph
They Would Elope starring Mary Pickford; directed by D.W. Griffith; silent with intertitles; 6 minutes; (1909)
Their First Divorce Case starring Mack Sennett and Fred Mace; directed by Mack Sennett; silent with intertitles; (1911)
The Lesser Evil starring Mae Marsh; directed by D.W. Griffith; silent with intertitles; 17 minutes; (1912)
The Barber's Queer Customer; (1900)
The Trick That Failed starring Mary Pickford; directed by D.W. Griffith; silent with intertitles; 7 minutes; (1909)

Short Films (not American Biograph)
Fall of the House of Usher; silent with intertitles; 13 minutes; (1928)
Color outtakes of The Gaucho starring Mary Pickford; (1927)

Live Accompanists
Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Donald Sosin
Stephen Horne
Dennis James
Phillip Carli
Joanna Seaton (vocalist)

I might have forgotten a short film. According to the program, The Barber's Queer Customer was scheduled to precede Fall of the House of Usher but instead it preceded Erotikon. Anita Monga announced that the short film scheduled to precede Fall of the House of Usher was a 16mm print and the Castro does not have a 16mm projector. Piano accompanist Stephen Horne suggested the short film version of Fall of the House of Usher. So Fall of the House of Usher followed Fall of the House of Usher. I think the 16mm film was Getting Even.

Getting Even and The Trick That Failed were scheduled to precede The Wind but I only recall seeing The Trick That Failed.

I don't know if all these program changes were due to misprints in the schedule or the staff shuffling the films at the last minute.


I've become a fan of silent cinema. Certainly, seeing silent films in the fabulous Castro Theater (which could have screened the films during their original releases) with world class accompanists enhances the experience.

I thought the festival was a little flat compared to last year. Last year, I greatly enjoyed Her Wild Oat and The Unknown. Nothing stood head and shoulders above the rest but I enjoyed all the films with one exception.

The Gaucho is possibly the first Douglas Fairbanks action films I've seen. I can understand his tremendous popularity now. He was charismatic beyond words. In this film, he made lighting a cigarette a feat to behold. He twirled bolos and bedded Lupe Velez; I'm not sure which was more dangerous. The film was great fun and modern in its pacing.

Bardelys The Magnificent is famous for being lost. For 80 years, there were no known prints of the film until one was found in France. Even then, the third reel was missing so it was screened with still photos. Starring silent film superstar John Gilbert, Bardelys is set in 18th century France and stars Gilbert as the charming lothario who is forced to romance chaste revolutionary to win a wager.

Wild Rose was a Chinese film. It reminded me of an Anna Mae Wong film called Pavement Butterfly. The essence of the stories is that a woman (usually poor and not of the right class) falls in love with a wealthy man (typically a slumming dilettante/artiste). The man's family objects but he chooses love over his family's condemnations. Cut off from his wealth, the couple live in bliss until the cruel realities of poverty strike. Then the woman makes a pact to leave the man if his family will resolve his financial/legal problems. It is usually a sad ending; in this case, the Japanese invade Manchuria and everyone goes off to war. Wang Renmei delivered a charming performance.

The Wind was a technically stunning film starring Lilian Gish. Filmed in the 120° heat of the Mojave desert and the eponymous effect created with large airplane propellers, Thee Wind was an arduous shoot. It was exhausting to see the actors fight the constant blowing sand. The film was about a woman's travails and eventual descent into madness. I would have enjoyed it more if they had not tacked on a happy ending that diverged from the source novel. Gish claims that they shot a more appropriate ending that conformed to the novel but focus groups disliked it. So the studio (MGM), shot a an ending the woman finds happiness by opening her heart to her husband.

Aelita, Queen of Mars was the only film of the festival I did not enjoy. The film was an early and influential science fiction tale from the USSR. The dual story arcs involve a Soviet inventor whose wife is having an affair which is just a symptom of the larger societal problems besieging the young country in the aftermath of the revolution. The second plot line involves the Martians who observe earth and the protagonist in particular. When the inventor finally gets to Mars, it is revealed to all be a dream but not before unseen hands hammer out a sickle and a rousing patriotic song closes the film. Silly, predictable and tedious but somewhat interesting for creating the outer space stereotypes that would take hold in the US starting with the Flash Gordon & Buck Rogers serials, the best part of the film was Dennis James and Mark Goldstein's live score which included the Mighty Wurlitzer, a theremin and Buchla Lightning Wands.

Erotikon was a Czech film about a couple who couple for one night & then go their separate ways. The man is a real "player" while the woman is less experienced but she gains experience within 9 months of their encounter. She eventually gets married and moves to the same city as her one-time lover. Of course, she has to run into him and they can't decide whether or not to renew their affair. This film was all about the reaction shots - an [first?] orgasm, a childbirth, a stone-faced midwife, a cuckolded husband, etc. This film was my favorite of the festival.

So's Your Old Man was a WC Fields vehicle that was amusing. I was having trouble sleeping that weekend. I was worried that I would doze off during the films. I stayed awake throughout all the films except for a few minutes during So's Your Old Man. That's not say it wasn't funny but Fields certainly was a silent film star that made a successful transition to talkies and aged well. He was a well-preserved 46 when he made Old Man but I prefer him 10 to 15 years older with a bulbous nose and nasally twang. I found Alice Joyce to be quite beautiful. Apparently she didn't make it out of the silent era. William "Shorty" Blanche, who was Fields' stage partner, yucks it up as the caddy.

The Fall of the House of Usher looked years ahead of its time. Influenced by German Expressionists, the film also includes avante garde surrealism that would eventually become cliche but was cutting edge at the time. An excellent score by Stephen Horne added to the ambiance.

The final film of the festival was Lady of the Pavements directed by DW Griffith. I'm not sure who had top billing but Lupe Velez was definitely the star. Made immediately after The Gaucho, Velez charm and charisma were on full display. She wrestles Franklin Pangborn to the ground (like a Mexican Spitfire), she performs a brassy song and dance number in a cabaret (with a great smoking poodle sign), she looks beautiful after her Eliza Doolittlish transformation and she made my eyes water up after her humiliation at the hands of the wonderfully bitchy Jetta Goudal. Apparently, Goudal & Velez despised each other in real life and had to be kept separated except for their scenes together - it shows in their performance. Who the heck is Jetta Goudal? I don't know either but I wish she would have made more films. The Dutch actress made 18 films; most of them between 1925 and 1927. She has no credits after 1932 (age 41) but would live for another 53 years; eventually passing at age 93. William Boyd, who would make a career out of playing Hopalong Cassidy, made the most of his supporting role as Goudal's and then Velez's lover.


My final thoughts -

I can see now that Douglas Fairbanks was the real deal. He was the prototypical movie star.

The concept of women as victims was on full display this festival. Most of the feature plots were some variation on this theme; particularly women sacrificing themselves for their true love.

I couldn't take my eyes off Lupe Velez whenever she was on the screen. She exuded energy and feminine sexuality.

Some of the movie staples date back to the silent era - science fiction and horror films recycled the same schtick for 40 or 50 years.

The musicians that accompany the silent films are spectacularly talented. Maltin mentioned the most silent film accompanist improvise the score for the short films. I did notice that Dennis James, who I have heard several times, falls back to a few standards. I most recently heard James accompany Birth of a Nation at this year's Cinequest. I'm positive I heard a few identical bars between Aelita and Birth of a Nation. I think when James needs a rousing chorus, he falls back to this coda. That's not to take anything away from James because he is a world-class accompanist. I like to think I've become familiar enough with silent films to pick up on some trends.

There was a musician from festivals past that I miss. I enjoy Clark Wilson's work but he was not on the program this time.

If I had seen it at the festival, I believe Underworld would have been my favorite film of the festival.

The reader for the French version of Fall of the House of Usher is a little flat. I don't know if he is translating on the fly but his delivery was unintentionally funny at time. It was more of a distraction than anything. No one goes to a silent film to be amused by the intertitle reader. When the intertitle is a name or the same word as in English, it's not necessary to read the text aloud. Also, if one cannot sufficiently master the intonations to show fear, anger, desperation, etc. maybe a professional actor reading from a prepared script/translation is better.


Finally, the annual Silent Film Festival Winter Event was announced. It will be held on December 12. Presumably it will be held at the Castro Theater.

Brian Darr mention on his blog that Fairbanks The Black Pirate is screening at the California Theater (San Jose) on Friday, August 7 with Dennis James on organ.

No comments: