Saturday, August 31, 2013

You Have the Right to Remain Silent

In the week after the 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) ended, I saw two additional silent films.

The Oyster Princess starring Victor Janson & Ossi Oswalda; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; silent with intertiles; live accompaniment by Rodney Sauer & Britt Swenson; (1919)
Battleship Potemkin; directed by Sergei Eisenstein; silent with intertiles; live accompaniment by Cameron Carpenter; (1926)

The Oyster Princess was preceded by a short film.

Cops starring Buster Keaton & Virginia Fox; directed by Edward F. Cline & Keaton; silent with intertitles; (1922)

Rodney Sauer & Britt Swenson are two-fifths of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.  Sauer plays electronic keyboard and Swenson plays violin.  The Oyster Princess played at the Smith Rafael Film Center the day after the SFSFF ended.

Battleship Potemkin played at Davies Symphony Hall the weekend after SFSFF ended and was presented by the San Francisco Symphony.  Carpenter played the pipe organ in Davies Hall.  It was the first time I had heard the organ or seen a “film” in Davies although I'm 99.99% certain they screened a DVD.  I should also mention I received a discount (50%?) on the ticket price from a San Francisco Independent Film Festival (Indiefest) promotion.

The subtitle for The Oyster Princess was “a grotesque comedy in 4 acts.”  Actually, on IMDB, the film is listed as My Lady Margarine.  The director of the film, Ernst Lubitsch, was known for the “Lubitsch Touch.”  That phrase means many things to many people but for me, the closest definition comes from  Roger Fristoe.  I quote from The Cinema of Ernst Lubitsch:  “A subtle and souffle-like blend of sexy humor and sly visual wit.”  If “a grotesque comedy” seems incompatible with "a subtle and souffle-like blend of sexy humor and sly visual wit," that's because it was.  Oyster Princess was made in 1919 and I can only assume Lubitsch was not yet aware of his touch.  He would go on to direct films for an additional 30 years after Oyster Princess.

The plot deals with caricatures of American wealth & avarice and a case of mistaken identity.  Mr. Quaker (Victor Janson in a flashy, over-the-top performance) is the obscenely rich American businessman who made his fortune in canned oyster. That makes his daughter, Ossi (Ossi Oswalda, aka The German Mary Pickford), the titular Oyster Princess - spoiled, sheltered and single.  When Ossi reads that a friend of hers has married a count (in real life, Oswalda was married to a baron), she demands from her father, a prince for her husband.  Through a matchmaker, they find Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke) who is deep in debt.  He is anxious to marry when told his potential fiancée is incredibly wealthy.  He sends his friend Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to act as his intermediary.

When Josef arrives at the Quaker mansion, he is mistaken for the prince.  Ossi is in such a rush to top her friend, she drags Josef to the altar and she won't let him get a word in edgewise (even “I do”).  Ossi marries “Prince Nucki” and returns home to inform her father who is “not impressed.”  That is Mr. Quaker catch phrase throughout the film.  Hosting a lavish but hastily arranged wedding reception, Quaker reluctantly introduces his son-in-law, Josef gets drunk and Ossi seems to have little interest in consummating her marriage.  Meanwhile, the real Prince Nucki become restless waiting for Josef and goes out with his friends where he proceeds to get drunk as well.

The next morning, Ossi hosts a breakfast for Multi-Millionaires’ Daughters Association Against Dipsomania.  Dipsomania was the medical term for alcoholism at the time.  Nucki, still inebriated, shows up at the Quaker mansion where the women assume he is a dipsomaniac in need of treatment.  Ossi literally wins a fistfight with the prize being the privilege to treat the handsome, young dipsomaniac.  Ossi decides to begin treatment in her bedroom.  Although mightily attracted to each other, Ossi takes her wedding vows seriously and Nucki doesn't want to risk his nuptials with pre-marital infidelity.  At this point, Josef rouses from his alcohol induced slumber and notices a stranger in his wife's bedroom.  When he realizes it is Prince Nucki, he lets them in on the his true identity and makes the legally dubious claim that Nucki & Ossi are already married since he signed the marriage license under Nucki's name.  Later, Nucki & Ossi sneak off to assert their conjugal rights.  Later, the ever curious Mr. Quaker checks in on his daughter in her bedroom and finally exclaims, “Now I'm impressed!”

There are several scenes from this film which stand out in my memory.  Most of them have to do with the wealth and excesses of the Quakers.  They have an army of servants and at one point, a regiment of maid bathe and dress Ossi like a factory assembly line.  As I mentioned, Victor Janson seems to be having a ball as the crass, cigar chomping, fat cat.  Curt Bois who lived to be 90 and whose final film appearance was in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire turns up as a Cab Calloway-like band leader whose toe-tapping music induces "a foxtrot epidemic" at Ossi's wedding reception.

There was humor in the film but I came in expecting “The Lubitsch Touch” and this was anything but that in my opinion.  I won't say I disliked the film but will say I was disappointed.


I saw Cops at the Red Vic in 2010 when Dennis Nyback came to town.  Dennis Nyback seems to have gone silent as his blog has not been updated since last year.  I recall that program at the Red Vic and enjoyed it although I didn't say anything about Cops in my post at the time.  I recall some of the scenes when I watched it the second time but I don't feel Cops is one of Keaton's better two-reelers.  The most memorable scene involves Keaton being chased by hundreds of policemen and was impressive for the number of extras used in the scene.

I guess once again, I've seen too many films for my own good.  Compared with the three Keaton films screened by the SFSFF in February at their winter event, Cops came up short. It's the same set of characters - Keaton's porkpie hat character, Virgnia Fox as the girl, Joe Roberts as the foil and co-director Edward F. Cline but Keaton in Cops did not inspire the same sense of empathy or sympathy as the February films.  In addition, the gags weren't as funny.  Oh well...even a subpar Buster Keaton film is worth a trip to San Rafael.  I'd much rather see Cops a third time than many of the films I've seen since starting this blog.


Battleship Potemkin was the first film I have seen at Davies Symphony Hall.  As I mentioned, I'm pretty sure it was digitally projected.  What the medium, the picture quality was not very good.  However, organist Cameron Carpenter was quite entertaining.  Sporting a partially grown-out mohawk and a sequined jumpsuit, Carpenter looked more like a rock star.  Carpenter isn't your father's silent film accompanist.  Compared to the Castro or Stanford, the Davies organ appears to have more foot pedals.  Maybe it was because the organ was elevated so that you could clearly see Carpenter's movement.  At the Castro & Stanford, the organ descends into the orchestra pit so it's clear what the organist is doing with his feet.  Carpenter's feet were move frantically and the sequins were reflecting light during the opening piece which did not accompany the film and I do not recall the title or the composer.

After a short introduction which focused on the musical pieces and during which Carpenter admitted to not knowing much about the film, the grainy images of Battleship Potemkin commenced.  I've seen Battleship Potemkin before.  It was a very memorable night as the screening was hosted by the San Francisco chapter of the Freedom Socialist Party.  The music from the DVD gave the scenes on the battleship a certain grandeur.  I originally likened it to Victory at Sea.  The scenes didn't seem so memorable this time.  For all of Carpenter's showmanship, his performance fell short of the standard set by SFSFF.

At SFSFF screenings, the music truly accompanies the film.  The change in tempo or volume is timed with the images on the screen.  Carpenter was simply playing a set piece with the film images seemingly an afterthought.  The music was primary and the film secondary.

Battleship Potemkin stood up well to a second viewing.  The number of extras used in the filming is staggering.  Essentially revolutionary propaganda, Battleship Potemkin makes little effort to personalize the characters.  In contrast, The Weavers at the 2013 SFSFF spent more time humanizing the revolutionaries.  However, Battleship Potemkin has a crucial advantage over The Weavers - Eisenstein's genius with imagery and montage editing with the highlight being the Odessa Steps sequence.

After seeing Battleship Potemkin at Davies, I'm not sure if I'll see additional films presented by the SF Symphony.

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