Friday, August 31, 2012

2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (Part 2 of 2)

I've been so busy at work that I haven't had time to keep this blog updated.  I've seen 40 films since the SF Silent Film Festival (July 12 to 15).

My favorite film of the festival was The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna.  Brigitte Helm of Metropolis is the titular Nina Petrovna, the mistress of a Russian Army colonel.  Reminiscent of the intrigues of Dangerous Liaisons, Petrovna and the Colonel (Warwick Ward) alternately toy with the affections of a young and earnest Lieutenant (Franz Lederer).  What starts as a simple flirtation, spirals out of control as the Lt. appears to experience love for the first time, Petrovna is reborn by the young man's purity of heart and the Colonel seeks revenge.  As the film progresses, Petrovna transforms herself from a wealthy man's mistress into a poor man's true love.  However, the machinations of the Colonel combined with the Lieutenant's desperation result in Petrovna's ruination.  The title could refer to the lie which started the whole affair or the lie Petrovna tells to release the young man from the chains of love.

Although resembling a few von Sternberg and Louise Brooks films, The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna has a certain unique flourish to it which I attribute to Ward's performance as the third lead.  Helm grounds the film in a solid performance.  Comparing Nina Petrovna to the films von Sternberg or Brooks is high praise in my book.  The screening was greatly enhanced by the score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Speaking of Brooks, her Pandora's Box was probably the most impressive film of the festival.  If Nina Petrovna is 1A, then Pandora's Box is 1B only because I had high expectations going into the screening.  Once again, Louise Brooks commands the screen.  Was there ever a role in which Louise Brooks did not shine?  Brooks is Lulu, a woman with many male (and one female) admirers and few inhibitions.  Lulu's descent into the demimonde begins when her new husband dies as a result of a botched double suicide.  Convicted of murder, Lulu escapes her prison sentence (with the aid of her son-in-law no less) but not her fate. Lulu and her band of admirers take refuge in a seedy ship/casino where she barely escapes being sold into white slavery.  Ending up in London, Lulu has a climactic encounter with a Jack The Ripper character.

The synopsis is light on details because the highlight of Pandora's Box is Brooks' spellbinding performance.  Unbelievably radiant, Brooks/Lulu uses her charms to lead men to their destruction.  But rather than a femme fatale, Lulu's as much a victim of her own charms as the men she attracts.  Lulu attracts men with such a strong pull of magnetism that they wreak havoc on themselves and Lulu.  Not unaware of the effect she has on men, Lulu is an ambiguous character.  Perhaps not fully deserving of the sympathy she evokes from the audience, Lulu is nonetheless viewed through a prism normally reserved for tragic heroines.

Pandora's Box is also notable for some of the set pieces.  There is a sequence at the theater/circus where the characters navigate an obstacle course of backstage movements which was as impressive a display of blocking as I can recall.  The squalid ship and wretched garret in London were textbook examples of mise-en-scène.

Whereas Nina Petrovna was a pleasant surprise, Pandora's Box met all my lofty expectations.


A handful of films were quite good but, in my opinion, a step below Nina Petrovna and Pandora's Box.  

It wasn't until a few days before the screening of Docks of New York that I realized I had not previously seen the film.  Having confused Underworld with Docks of New York, it was only until I read the festival program that I realized the plot synopsis did not match my recollection of "Docks of New York."  A quick search of this blog confirmed my suspicion.  So it was that I made hasty plans to see Docks of New York and I'm grateful that I did.

At times, it becomes obvious I've seen too many films.  The plot Docks of New York begins with burly Bill Roberts, a coal stoker (George Bancroft) jumping off the docks to save a soiled dove (Betty Compson) from drowning.  Thwarting a suicide attempt, Roberts quickly wins Mae's (Compson) heart and the two have an intense night which reveals Roberts to be less brutish than first appearance and buoys Mae's spirits.  That premise - man saves woman from suicide and then quickly romances her is almost a trope but I can't quite place the films Docks of New York remind me of...and no, I'm not thinking of Vertigo.

Von Sternberg gives Compson the Full Dietrich - close-ups with soft lighting...all the better to emote with.  However, Compson is no Dietrich and the Dietrichesque character is split between Compson and the more audacious role of Bill's wife (played by the noted Russian actress/celebrity Olga Baclanova).  Yes, Roberts has a wife but the love story is between Roberts and a down-on-her luck whore.  For my tastes, Mae was too much a victim and Baclanova's role was too small to move the needle.

Docks of New York is more a paean to the masculinity of George Bancroft which in the role of Bill Roberts was considerable.  Rough and tough and lacking sentimentality, Roberts (as well as Docks of New York)  forces its way into your heart.  The film is also notable for a few of the sets - the boiler room on the ships and the raucous dive bar on the dock where Roberts holds court.


Stella Dallas was unabashedly maudlin but undeniably effective.  Overshadowed by the Barbara Stanwyck production (1937), the silent Stella Dallas covers familiar ground.  Stella (Belle Bennett) is the overprotective and gauche mother of Laurel Dallas.  Having married Stephen Dallas (Ronald Coleman) when he was at a vulnerable point in his life, Stella and Stephen separate and ultimately divorce as Stephen's fortunes and self-respect bounce back.  Once he reunites with his childhood love, the pieces are in place for Stella's tragedy.

As Laurel makes her debut in high society, she learns that her mother is ridiculed for her fashion faux pas (her application of make-up was particularly garish) and questionable companions.  Wanting to spare her mother's feelings, Laurel attempts to retreat with her mother to their small hometown.  However, Stella is aware of the embarrassment she causes Laurel and is prepared to make the ultimate maternal sacrifice.

Belle Bennett is more than adequate as the brassy Stella and carries the bulk of the film on her shoulders.  16 year old Lois Moran is impressive as Laurel and provides the crucial counterpoint to Bennett's attention-grabbing performance.  Jean Hersholt also shines as the graceless alcoholic who is the source of several of Stella's problems.  Ronald Coleman isn't quite as effective without "the voice" but certainly doesn't hurt the film.  Douglas Fairbanks Jr. has a small and largely ornamental role as Laurel's handsome boyfriend.


The Canadian starred Thomas Meighan & Mona Palma as a reluctant married couple.  Although the title refers to Meighan's character, it's Palma as his wife who has the meatier role.  As a sheltered Englishwoman left destitute by her parents' deaths, Nora makes her way to Alberta to live her older brother.  Conflicts with her sister-in-law (Dale Fuller in attention grabbing performance) push Nora into marrying Frank (Meighan) in order to escape her sister-in-law's wrath & ridicule.

The Cameraman is one of Buster Keaton's most famous films so I won't waste time & space on the plot.  I laughed heartily during the screening.

Wings was more enjoyable than the screening with Dennis James' accompaniment at the Stanford earlier this year.  No offense to Mr. James but the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra added some sound effects to the airplane scenes which was surprisingly effective.  Being familiar with the plot, I was able to concentrate more on the original It Girl and boy did she have It!  Unlike Louise Brooks' sensitive and soiled sensuality, Clara Bow was a bundle of energy packaged in effervescent roles.  Playing a more mischievousness and cuckolding role Mantrap, it seems clear that Bow's élan vital was not going to shine through regardless of the role.  Clara Bow was the best thing about Wings and Mantrap; both of which had a lot to admire but space and time prevent me for elaborating.

Little Toys also seemed similar to a film I've seen before.  The gulf of 79 years and different cultures keeps me from fully appreciating the Ruan Lingyu film...or for that matter, Ruan Lingyu herself.  Too overtly melodramatic for my tastes, Little Toys is the final film I found worthwhile...not fully satisfying but still special in that how often are Ruan Lingyu performances screened?


The Loves of Pharaoh (directed by Ernst Lubitsch)and The Spanish Dancer were bid budget epics which left me mostly bored.  I will say that seeing the European actor Emil Jannings (best known as the professor in Blue Angel) playing an Egyptian pharaoh was a bit of hoot.  Completely missing from The Loves of Pharaoh was the famed "Lubitsch Touch."

The Overcoat is the third adaptation of the Gogol short story which I've seen in the past few years.  My favorite was an ACT production set to music without any spoken dialog.  Although seven years ago, I can still recall it.  My second favorite was a 1952 Italian film from an Italian Neo-realism series at the PFA  in 2010.  This silent version was my least favorite.  Disjointed, replacing the surreality of the  plot with the surreality of the images and not least of which starting more than an hour late, I dozed off but even when awake, I could not engage with the film.

Finally, Erotikon was a comedy I found lacking.  I can't say I actively disliked the film but I didn't laugh much.  If I had it all to do over again, I wish I would have skipped The Overcoat and Erotikon.  The "other" Erotikon was my favorite film on the 2009 SF Silent Film Festival and this year's Erotikon was one my least.

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