Sunday, February 20, 2011

2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Event

On February 12, I spent the day at the Castro Theater watching the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Event. The main festival runs three and lately four days in July but they have produced a one-day winter event for the past several years.

This year's line up was:

The Pawn Shop starring and directed by Charlie Chaplin; silent with intertitles; (1916)
The Rink starring and directed by Charlie Chaplin; silent with intertitles; (1916)
The Adventurer starring and directed by Charlie Chaplin; silent with intertitles; (1917)
L'Argent; directed by Marcel L'Herbier; silent with French intertitles; (1928)
La Bohème starring Lillian Gish & John Gilbert; directed by King Vidor; silent with intertitles; (1926)


The Chaplin films were part of a short film program featuring early Chaplin films when he was under contract with Mutual Film Company. His films at Mutual were his final under contract to another studio. After the Mutual contract ran out, he founded Charlie Chaplin Studios. It was at Chaplin Studios where the Little Tramp's greatest films were recorded. Films such as The Kid, City Lights and Modern Times were shot...and then distributed by United Artists which Chaplin partially owned at the time.

The shorts featured Chaplin's stock company of actors including Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell and Henry Bergman. The Chaplin films were accompanied by Donald Sosin on piano.

I thought films were entertainig but they lack the pathos which Chaplin's feature films have. The films felt more like slapstick which may be due to their nature. Each film was between 23 and 25 minutes so there wasn't a lot of time for character development.


L'Argent was based on an Emile Zola novel. It was accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. The film was screened with French intertitles. I'm not sure if the English intertitles were laser projected or added to the celluloid.

The production was spectacular with crowd scenes and lavish sets. Director Marcel L'Herbier employed experimental techniques that have since become standard such as overhead shots and vertical tracking shots. The net effect of the cinematography is awe inspiring. That's not to say that the performances were equally inspired. In the lead role as the villain is Pierre Alcover as financier Nicolas Saccard. The beefy actor plays the treacherous and sleazy Saccard as driven by two parts greed and one part lust.

Saccard is joined by two other immoral characters. Guant, cruel and almost cadaverous, Alfred Abel plays rival financier Alphonse Gunderman. Whereas Saccard is sweaty and excitable, Gunderman is always composed and impeccable. Abel must have specialized in these types of characters because he played a very similar role the year before in Metropolis. Finally, Brigitte Helm (fresh off her starmaking performance as Maria and the robot in Metropolis) plays Baroness Sandorf, a decadent courtesan who toys with Saccard. The Metropolis stars were cast as part of the financing deal for the expensive L'Argent.

The film clocked in at 2 hours and 50 minutes (not including intermission) so there was quite a bit of plot although much of the film served as a vehicle for Alcover, Helm and actress Mary Glory to chew up the scenery. The synopsis is that Saccard is ruined by Gunderman but sees an opportunity involving a solo airflight and subsequent mining operations in South America. Saccard finances Jacques Hamelin's venture for his financial gain as well as to become better acquainted with Hamelin's wife (Glory). After Hamelin's success which requires an extended stay in French Guiana, Saccard's maneuvers and machinations (both financially and romantically) are chronicled with gusto.

Although Alcover, Helm and Glory emote and slink around, the real stars of the film are the elaborate and enormous set pieces as well as location scenes at the Paris Bourse and Paris Opera House. L'Herbier exhibits impressive skill in staging large crowd scenes involving hundreds to thousands of extras.

Ironically, L'Argent which is nominally a cautionary tale of greed and excess wallows in the excess of its own production and length. Both could have been trimmed to the film's benefit but it would have lessened the grandeur of the film. The line between grand and excessive is hard to distinguish. Whichever side L'Argent falls on is largely moot because the film conveys its message perfectly by matching production standards and the director's ambition with the plot. L'Argent is spectacular and a spectacle.


The final film of the day was La Bohème accompanied by Dennis James on the Wurlitzer. During the introduction, it was mentioned that the film could not use Puccini opera music for the film. It was until the 1970s that a young Dennis James incorporated Puccini's score during a film screening with Lillian Gish in attendance. Gish was reported moved to tears.

That sets expectation quite high going into the film. I wasn't quite as moved by the film and James' score as Ms. Gish was. James' score was very good; better than I can recall from his previous performances.

The film left me mild. I can't point to specific performance but it seems that La Bohème has been told in a more engaging manner than this version. At 96 minutes, too much of the story may have been excised to achieve its abridged length. Part of the problem is Gish herself. Whereas performances in silent films always seem anachronistic when judged by modern standards, I found Gish's Mimi to be particularly out of touch with my sensibilities. Gish's screen persona was a chaste young woman and she applied it to Mimi. Of course, Mimi remain true to Rudolph until death but Gish kind of prances around as Mimi in some strange costumes and looks and behaves like anything but Bohemian. In a nutshell, Gish distracted me from the film.


It was nice to see Stephen Salmons (festival co-founder) introduce the Chaplin shorts. The crowd was smaller than they draw at the July festival. Speaking of which the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival will be held from July 14 to 17 at the Castro Theater.

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