Thursday, April 12, 2012

I Will Remain Silent

With the 2012 Oscar Award for Best Picture, The Artist has been credited with introducing a new generation to silent films. In the Bay Area, we are fortunate to have several venues to see silent films on a regular basis.

During the first four months of 2012, the Stanford Theater has teamed with Dennis James to perform silent films (mostly on Fridays). Already in 2012, James has performed the Mighty Wurlitzer six times at the Stanford and a seventh time at the California Theater during Cinequest.

One James performance remains on the current Stanford calendar is The Mark of Zorro (1920) on Sunday, April 15. Additonally, the Stanford has posted their April through June schedule and James performs four films on May 2 and 3.

Not counting Faust at Cinequest, I saw two of James' performances so far this year:

Wings starring Buddy Rogers & Clara Bow; with Gary Cooper; directed by William A. Wellman; silent with intertitles; (1927)
Beau Geste starring Ronald Colman; with Noah Beery & William Powell; directed by Herbert Brenon; silent with intertitles; (1926)

Wings will be the opening night film at the 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival on July 12.

Wings won the equivalent of Academy Award Best Picture in 1928. I wonder how much of the award can be attributed to the spectacular aerial combat scenes. Although still thrilling, the footage has lost some of its effectiveness over the past 84 years.

What hasn't lost any effectiveness is the magnetism of the It Girl. Clara Bow shines white hot in this film. Whether coquettishly swinging her legs while watching Buddy Rogers work on his hot rod, dressed in uniform as an ambulance driver or shockingly topless while MPs arrest her for a mistaken case of prostitution, Clara Bow has It in spades. I can't fathom why Rogers pines after Jobyna Ralston's character when Clara Bow is giving come hither eyes. I can't get over the It Girl.

Gary Cooper has a scene as doomed pilot which is more curiosity than anything. Coop had It too. The camera loved him and he was impossibly handsome as a young man. His character has fatalistic ease which I've seen him project in other films. Gary Cooper without the flat voice seems at a handicap. I think Cooper was able show more emotion without volume or pitch modulation than any actor.

Dennis James toured with Buddy Rogers and Wings in the late 1970s. He shared some stories before the screening. Rogers learned to fly for the film and many of the aerial shots were just him and the mounted camera. Filmed in Texas, Rogers and co-star Richard Arlen were like pilot. Director William Wellman knew the aerial scenes looked better against a cloudy background. Whenever they would get weather reports of cloudy weather, Roger and Arlen would scramble to get the planes up and the shot completed before the film ran out.


When I was kid watching the Family Film Festival on KTLA, the Gary Cooper version of Beau Geste (1939) was one of my favorites. Coincidentally, William Wellman directed that version of Beau Geste.

I wasn't even aware there was a silent version of Beau Geste. When I saw the film on the Stanford calendar, I was anxious to see the silent version(March 30) as well as the 1939 version which screened March 31 to April 2. Unfortunately, I could only make it down to Palo Alto for the silent film.

After seeing the silent version, I can say I prefer the talkie. I have not seen the 1939 film for 15 or 20 years so my preference may be based on nostalgia. One thing recall is the role of the Sergeant who was named Markoff and played by Brian Donlevy in the 1939 version vs. Lejaune (Noah Beery) in the 1926 film. In both films, the actors gave striking performances. Donlevy was nominated for a Supporting Actor Oscar his portrayal. Berry's turn came before the Academy Awards were handed out. The sadistic drill instructor is apparently a flashy role as R. Lee Ermey, Louis Gossett Jr., Richard Widmark, Clint Eastwood, Warren Oates, Lon Chaney, Jack Webb and Eileen Brennan have discovered.

William Powell has a small role as a cowardly thief. With a goatee, he looks more like a beatnik than Nick Charles.

There is no need for me to recount the plot Beau Geste. Apparently, there was a French Foreign Legion craze in the US during the early part of the 20th century which resulted in numerous fiction and films such as von Sternberg's Morocco (again Gary Cooper turns up), Under Two Flags which was on the double bill with Beau Geste at the Stanford and other. "Beau" and "Morocco" show up frequently in the titles of the films of this subgenre.

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