Sunday, August 25, 2013

2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

This post has taken unusually long to write due to other time constraints.  I wish I had time to see all the movies I wanted to.  I also wish I had time to write on this blog about all the movies I've seen in a timely manner.  Of course, if I had time to see all the film I wanted and immediately write about them, I probably wouldn't have a job or the money to see all the movies I wanted to see.

The 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) ran from July 18 to 21 at the Castro Theater.  I saw 13 of the 17 programs.

Prix de Beaute starring Louise Brooks; directed by Augusto Genina; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne; silent with intertitles; (1930)
The First Born starring Miles Mander & Madeleine Carroll; directed by Miles Mander; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne; silent with intertitles; (1928)
Tokyo Chorus starring Tokihiko Okada & Tatsuo Saitô; directed by Yasujirō Ozu; live accompaniment by Günter Buchwald; silent with intertitles; (1931)
The Patsy starring Marion Davies; with Marie Dressler, Dell Henderson & Jane Winton; directed by King Vidor; live accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; silent with intertitles; (1928)
The Golden Clown starring Gösta Ekman; directed by A.W. Sandberg; live accompaniment by Matti Bye Ensemble; silent with intertitles; (1926)
Legong: Dance of the Virgins starring Goesti Poetoe Aloes, Njoman Nyong Nyong, Goesti Bagus Mara & Njoman Saplak; directed by Henry de la Falaise; live accompaniment by Gamelan Sekar Jaya & the Club Foot Orchestra; silent with intertitles; (1935)
Gribiche starring Jean Forest & Françoise Rosay; directed by Jacques Feyder; live accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; silent with intertitles; (1925)
The House on Trubnaya Square starring Vera Maretskaya; directed by Boris Barnet; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne; silent with intertitles; (1928)
The Joyless Street starring Asta Nielsen & Greta Garbo; directed by G.W. Pabst; live accompaniment by Matti Bye Ensemble; silent with intertitles; (1925)
The Outlaw and His Wife starring Victor Sjöström, Edith Erastoff & John Ekman; directed by Victor Sjöström; live accompaniment by Matti Bye Ensemble; silent with intertitles; (1918)
The Last Edition starring Ralph Lewis, Lila Leslie & Ray Hallor; directed by Emory Johnson; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne; silent with intertitles; (1925)
The Weavers starring Paul Wegener; directed by Friedrich Zelnik; live accompaniment by Günter Buchwald; silent with intertitles; (1927)
Safety Last! starring Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis & Bill Strother; directed by Fred Newmeyer & Sam Taylor; live accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; silent with intertitles; (1923)

I didn't see any short films before the features this year.  Prior to The Weavers (or was it Safety Last!?), festival programmer Anita Monga mentioned that someone from the Alloy Orchestra had emailed her about Dziga Vertov's The Eleventh Year.  They screened the trailer for it.  She hinted it may be on next year's program.

Speaking of next year, the SFSFF has moved the 2014 festival from its traditional July timeframe to May 29 to June 1.  I was told by a fellow festival goer that it was because hotel rates are cheaper in May and the SFSFF has to book several hotel rooms for its musicians and other assorted guests.  By July, San Francisco hotels raise their room rates to summer levels.

The Patsy played at 2008 San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  I didn't recognize the title but realized within a few minutes after the start of the film that I had seen it before.

I had just seen Tatsuo Saitô in Sacramento the previous weekend in Every Night Dreams although I did not recognize him or his face in Tokyo Chorus.


Two comedies topped the list of my favorites this year.  I mentioned that I saw The Patsy five years ago but that did not diminish my enjoyment of the film.  Marion Davies was delightful as the long put-upon younger sister.  She showed considerable comedic skills and screen presence.  I wonder how her career would have progressed if she was not William Randolph Hearst's mistress.

Harold Lloyd is indisputably a comic genius and Safety Last! his masterpiece.  One of the most iconic images of Hollywood films is that of Lloyd hanging from the hands of a large clock several stories above the street which is the capstone of Safety Last!.  Although there are several amusing scenes before the grand finale, it is the extended sequence where Lloyd is forced to climb the exterior of a building which elevates the film to the spectacular.  The audience at the Castro went crazy for the gags; both laughing uproariously and gasping in fear that Lloyd would fall.

Prix de Beaute was a showcase for Louise Brooks.  More so than any other silent film star I am familiar with Brooks is a phenomenon unto herself.  Her radiance is spellbinding in all the films which I have seen her in.  I'm racking up quite a collection of her greatest films - Pandora's Box, Diary of a Lost Girl, Beggars of Life and A Girl in Every Port.  I won't say that the bloom is off the rose after seeing Prix de Beaute but I will say that if you look closely, Brooks seems to look older than her 24 years of age.  That's not surprising given the life she lived but her appearance combined with the knowledge that this film was her last hurrah give Prix de Beaute a bittersweet quality.  The film ends badly for her character which only reinforces the tinge of melancholy throughout.

Brooks plays Lucienne "Lulu" Garnier, a typist with dreams of competing in the Miss France beauty pageant.  Her boyfriend Andre (Georges Charlia) is adamantly opposed to beauty pageants so Lulu submits her application and photos in secret.  Eventually she wins the title and must travel to compete in the Miss Europe contest.  Andre finds out and rushes to stop her at the station but just misses the train.  Lulu goes on to win the Miss Europe title and begins to socialize with the rich and famous.  All the while Andre is tracking her down and when he is finally able to confront her, he gives an ultimatum.  Despite her doubts, she chooses him and settles back into a life of domesticity.  When one of her previous admirers appears with an offer of a film contract, Lulu is once again irresistibly drawn to the limelight.  Sadly, when Andre track her down once again, he ends the relationship permanently...with a bullet in Lulu's back.

I was surprised at how the depiction of Andre highlighted several hallmarks of abusive spouses - the apologies, the controlling nature, the need to isolate, etc.  I thought these signs were categorized years after the film was made but I guess even in 1930s France, they knew an abusive husband when they saw one.

I don't want anyone to believe I didn't enjoy film.  It was quite good although Brooks plumbed darker waters in Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. If anything, my knowledge of Brooks' life distracted me from the film itself.  If Brooks didn't look like a million bucks (as she had in her previous films), she certainly lit up the screen Prix de Beaute as few others ever have. 

The Golden Clown was a Swedish tragedy.  Gösta Ekman, whose son and grandson are prominent Swedish actors, plays Joe Higgins (an oddly Anglicized character name).  Higgins is the star clown in a small travelling circus.  He is in love with Daisy (Karina Bell), the circus owner's daughter.  Soon after their engagement, Higgins receives an offer to perform in Paris.  With his new wife and parents-in-law, Higgins settles into the high life of Parisian society.  A critical and financial success, Higgins is living the good life until his wife falls prey to a philandering couturier.  Her affair destroys their lives and leads to her death.

I have noticed that the Matti Bye Ensemble excels in mood music to accompany misery and tragedy.  Their accompaniment of The Golden Clown was the musical highlight of the festival.  Ekman has a memorable scene where he is performing musical number with identically dressed clowns (they look like Pierrot) on a steep staircase.

Gribiche was a fun film about a young boy, eponymous Gribiche (Jean Forest) although that is his nickname.  Raised by a single mother in a modest neighborhood, Gribiche's honesty attracts the attention of a wealthy American dowager (Françoise Rosay, the director's wife).  She proposes to Gribiche's mother that she take guardianship of the boy and to the mother's surprise, Gribiche agrees to the arrangement.

Most of the film depicts the boy as a fish out of water.  Awed by the lavishness and wealth of his new surroundings and overwhelmed by the structured studies which are forced upon him, Gribiche begins to reconsider his choice.  It doesn't help matters that Rosay's character begins to embellish the circumstances of Gribiche's former life.  Gribiche becomes a badge of her altruism to her friends and corroboration of her theories on social hygiene although Gribiche's previous station in life was not so debased.  Gribiche was a pleasant if not particularly memorable comedy about class differences.


This year's festival had a palpable theme of class warfare.  The Joyless Street was set during the post-WWI deprivations in Vienna.  In a poor neighborhood, the two wealthiest people are the butcher who gouges people for his meat and the owner of a fashion boutique who runs a speakeasy/whorehouse in the back.  The film follows two poor women from the neighborhood - Asta Nielsen and Greta Garbo.  Their plotlines are not tightly interwoven.  Nielsen resorts to prostitution and witnesses a murder.  Garbo's father loses his pension in the stock market and Garbo makes nice with an American Red Cross worker (or was he an US Army officer?).  The plot was difficult to follow (perhaps due to the film be edited so many times) and what I could follow didn't make great use of Nielsen and Garbo's screen presence or acting skills.  The butcher and his large dog were the most memorable characters in the film which summarizes what I didn't like about The Joyless Street.

The Weavers was heralded as the German Potemkin (reference to Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin).  That's quite a stretch.  I saw Potemkin prior to the festival and I saw Potemkin a week after the festival and Potemkin has an unmistakable grandeur resulting from the crowd scenes and the scenes upon the battleship.  The Weavers is cut rate agitprop by comparison.  The eponymous weavers are Silesian (where the heck is Silesia?) weavers who sell the cloth fabrics for sustenance wages.  The weavers' wages are forced down because of machine looms.  They rise up in revolt, smash the looms, send the wealthy scurrying before their enraged mob and stand up to the Army troops who are sent to quash them.  There are obviously parallels to today's economic conditions but the film was told with its political message preeminent and character development lagging far behind.  I was never able to empathize with the characters and the film's cinematography did not impress me.  The Weavers left me bored.

The Outlaw and His Wife was directed by and starred Victor Sjöström.  His real-life wife, Edith Erastoff, was the female lead.  Sjöström plays Ejvind, a stranger who is looking for work. He gets a job at Halla's sheep ranch and farm.  Halla is a wealthy widow being courted by her portly brother-in-law who also happens to be the local constable.  Ejvind is a fugitive and when his identity is discovered, he makes a run for it.  Halla, who has fallen in love n Ejvind, decides to accompany him.  They take refuge high in the mountains and make a happy life for themselves; even having a child together.  The isolation, the harassment from the police, filicide, a love triangle and the bitter cold have negative effects on Ejvind & Halla.  Eventually, they freeze to death which mercifully ends their suffering as well as the audiences'.  Whereas The Joyless Street was ponderous and difficult to follow and The Weavers was boring, The Outlaw and His Wife had its share of strong scenes.  The plot was difficult to overcome.  Sending Halla & Ejvind up the mountain and isolating them stopped the film dead in its tracks.  The plot has them living up on the mountain for 16 years and Sjöström extends the film to tortuous length to depict their lives on the mountain.  The film ran over two hours but would have been much more palatable at closer to 90 minutes.

Frankly, I don't recall much about the plot of The House on Trubnaya Square.  A woman comes from the countryside to a big city to find her uncle or something.  She brings her duck or chicken for some reason.  Eventually, she finds work as a maid in a dilapidated tenement building which by any objective standard should be condemned.  Eventually she gets elected to some Communist Party committee but its someone else with the same name?  I don't know.  The House on Trubnaya Square was a Soviet film which so alien to me that I couldn't comprehend what I was seeing.  Combining Gogol-esque absurdist humor with slapstick comedy; director Boris Barnet doesn't quite eschew plot like Vertov but does seem more interested in the visual images.  While watching the film, I kept thinking about Russian humor or Soviet humor.  If you can make a joke out of waiting in line for 7 hours in winter to get a roll of toilet paper, then I suppose The House on Trubnaya Square is a Soviet comedy.


I enjoyed the remaining films to varying degrees.

Miles Mander was memorable in The Pleasure Garden which played at the Hitchcock 9 in June.  He plays a similar character in The First Born which he also directed.  Alma Reville was credited with half the screenplay.  In fact, I noticed the pre-screening slideshow recycled a lot of material from the Hitchcock 9.  You would have thought Hitchcock directed The First Born.  Anyway, Mander is once again a cad as he was in The Pleasure Garden although he doesn't kill anyone in The First Born.  Madeleine Carroll (who would star in Hitchcock's The 39 Steps) plays Mander's long suffering wife.  The plot is pure melodrama and there is a tidy ending involving Mander's illegitimate son which cheapens the film a bit but for the most part The First Born is an opportunity for Mander to strut his stuff front and center instead of in supporting role.  Mander has more than enough acting skills to carry the film.

Yasujirō Ozu is the director of Tokyo Chorus but it doesn't feel like an "Ozu film."  In 2011, the SF Silent Film Festival screened Ozu's I Was Born, But... (1932).  I was impressed with that film but Tokyo Chorus (1931) was not quite as impressive.  Ozu relies more on humor than his later film and the humor feels forced.  His trademark pathos isn't quite as evident in Tokyo Chorus. Tatsuo Saitô performance as the strict school instructor cum restaurateur throws off the pacing of the film.  There is a scene where Reikô Tani as the company CEO and Tokihiko Okada as protagonist match each other, movement for movement, with hand fans which was amusing.  The young children are also present to serve as a foil and conscience for Okada as their father.  I can't say I disliked Tokyo Chorus but I wish I had seen it before I Was Born, But...  The latter film shows a natural progression for Ozu when compared to Tokyo Chorus.

Legong: Dance of the Virgins was advertised as a pseudo-documentary shot on location in Bali in present-day Indonesia.  Accompanied by the Club Foot Orchestra and the enormous Gamelan Sekar Jaya (they must have had 30 people or more on stage), the Castro was packed for Legong.  Rather than having the detachment of a documentarian's lens, I though Legong was closer to a Paul Gauguin paining.  Director Henry de la Falaise appeared to have a great affection for the Balinese people which mixed the exotic with a vague sense paternalism.  The plot centered on a young man in a gamelan.  A young maiden is in love with her but he has eyes for her half-sister.  Why they bothered to make that distinction is beyond me.  Many of the characters had the same name as the "actor" portraying them so maybe the two women were half-siblings.  This love triangle has a backdrop of the daily minutiae of Balinese life.  In one scene, one of the women rhythmically and gracefully pound grain or rice with a staff and it was hypnotic to watch.  Legong is a tragedy so by the end, someone dies.  Legong was far from a great film but the exotic location and arresting score were enough to keep my interest.  There were several scenes of young women (and girls) topless.  Rather than exploitative, the scenes depict the lifestyle which existed in Bali at the time.  Actually, there is not time reference which I recalled so the film may have been set in contemporary times or centuries ago.  The score began to grate of my ears as the film went on.  It was a constant cacophony of noises which although pleasing at times, became mildly annoying at the end.  More variation in the score would have suited my tastes better.

The Last Edition was also a sellout...undoubtedly due to its being filmed in San Francisco.  If it were set anyplace else, I think I would categorize the film lower.  The plot involves a young lawyer in the San Francisco DA's office and his father who works the printing presses at the San Francisco Chronicle.  The younger man is framed for a crime he did not commit and a Chronicle reporter helps him clear his name.  It was a run-of-the-mill film with a plot that has been used many times before and since.  The attractions were the exterior shots in San Francisco and recognizing the locations.  The scenes where the paper is being "put to bed" were also interesting to me.  Apparently, the Chronicle's masthead hasn't changed in 80+ years.


This year's festival had an odd dynamic for me.  From opening night through Saturday afternoon, I enjoyed seven consecutive films.  Then it was quite a slog to get through four of the next five films and even the exception (The Last Edition) wasn't really that good.  It was because I had not enjoyed those films that I stayed for Safety Last! which proved to be my favorite of the festival.  Typically, the films I like and dislike are more evenly spread out through the festival.

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