Sunday, August 9, 2015

2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (Part 1 of 2)

The 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) ran from May 28 to June 1 at the Castro Theater.  The festival ran a record five days this year (Thursday through Monday).

I saw 16 feature films.

All Quiet on the Western Front starring Lew Ayres; directed by Lewis Milestone; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; (1930)
Cave of the Spider Women starring Yin Mingzhu; directed by Dan Duyu; silent with intertitles narrated by Lucy Laird; live accompaniment by Donald Sosin & Frank Bockius; (1927)
When the Earth Trembled starring Harry Myers; directed by Barry O'Neil; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne; (1913)
The Last Laugh starring Emil Jannings; directed by F.W. Murnau; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra; (1924)
Ghost Train starring Ilse Bois, Hilde Jennings; directed by Géza von Bolváry; silent with intertitles narrated by Paul McGann; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne & Frank Bockius; (1927)
Visages d'enfants starring Jean Forest; directed by Jacques Feyder; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne; (1925)
The Donovan Affair starring Jack Holt; directed by Frank Capra; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by the Gower Gulch Players with Bruce Goldstein on Piano; (1929)
Flesh and the Devil starring Greta Garbo, John Gilbert & Lars Hanson; directed by Clarence Brown; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble; (1926)
Pan starring Hjalmar Fries Schwenzen; directed by Harald Schwenzen; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald; (1922)
Why Be Good starring Colleen Moore & Neil Hamilton; directed by William A. Seiter; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; (1929)
Norrtullsligan starring Tora Teje, Inga Tidblad, Renée Björling & Linnéa Hillberg; directed by Per Lindberg; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble; (1923)
Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette; directed by Arthur Berthelet; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by the Donald Sosin Ensemble; (1916)
The Swallow and the Titmouse starring Maguy Deliac, Pierre Alcover, Louis Ravet & Jane Maylianes; directed by André Antoine; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Stephen Horne & Diana Rowan; (1920)
The Deadlier Sex starring Blanche Sweet & Mahlon Hamilton; with Boris Karloff; directed by Robert Thornby; silent with intertitles; live accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald; (1920)
Lime Kiln Club Field Day starring Bert Williams & Odessa Warren Grey; directed by Edwin Middleton, T. Hayes Hunter & Sam Corker Jr.; live accompaniment by Donald Sosin; (1913)
Ben-Hur:  A Tale of Christ starring Ramon Novarro & Francis X Bushman; directed by Fred Niblo; silent with intertitles; (1925)

There were a few firsts for this festival beyond its five day length.

The Donovan Affair was not a silent film.  It was a talkie but the sound discs were lost.  At a Frank Capra festival at the New York Film Forum many years ago, the dialog was recreated live by voice actors.  The performance was repeated last year at the Film Forum and this year at the SFSFF.  You can read Bruce Goldstein's (director of repertory programming at the Film Forum) article or an article in the SF Chronicle for more information.

Lime Kiln Club Field Day was abandoned in post-production so it has never been released theatrically.  The Museum of Modern Art acquired the film footage in 1938 and have sat on them until recently.  What was shown at SFSFF was not a film.  It was a long PowerPoint slide about Bert Williams and the making of the film.  That was followed by some footage including multiple takes of the same scene.

Ben-Hur:  A Tale of Christ did not have live accompaniment.  The soundtrack to the film (it may have been a digital projection) was by noted film composer Carl Davis and probably recorded in 1989 with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

Those are three firsts I don't recall from previous festivals.  They screened a talkie, a silent film without a live accompaniment and something that can't be called a film.

I've complained in the past that SFSFF does not allow enough time between programs to allow for any contingencies.  Many films at past festivals have started more than an hour late due to technical difficulties.  This year, the schedule was adhered to like a train schedule in Mussolini's Italy.

Lucy Laird who read the translated subtitles for Cave of the Spider Women is the Operations Director of the SFSFF.  I'm not sure what her experience is with voice overs and voice acting but she had enviable diction and elocution.  I recall that without notes and two months after the fact.

1915 is the 100th anniversary of the Pananma-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE).  An untitled PPIE short film (typically a home movie) screened before each feature.

The following "formal" short films screened during the festival:

Modern China; documentary; (1910)
A Trip Down Market Street; documentary; (1906)
A Canine Sherlock Holmes starring Spot the Urbanora Dog; directed by Stuart Kinder; (1912)

Modern China preceded Cave of the Spider Women.  A Trip Down Market Street A Canine Sherlock Holmes preceded When the Earth Trembled.


Flesh and the Devil was my favorite film of the festival.  That was due, in no small part, to Greta Garbo's screen presence.  21 years old at the time of filming and in the midst of a legendarily torrid affair with her co-star John Gilbert, Garbo shined on screen like few have before or since.

The film is a romantic triangle with Gilbert as Leo and Lars Hanson as Ulrich.  Best friends since childhood, Leo & Ulrich are junior army officers who return home while on leave.  Leo quickly catches the eye of Felicitas (Garbo) a countess new to the area.  It would be too simplistic to call Felicitas a femme fatale.  She is an undeniably appealing woman who is aware of her charms and not inclined to hide her light under a bushel.  As in real life, Leo & Felicitas engage in a passionate affair but in the film, it is interrupted by the unexpected return of the Count, Felicitas' husband.  The Count challenges Leo to a duel but has one condition.  In order to protect the reputation of everyone involved, they will claim that their disagreement is over a card game.  Leo agrees; he is an officer & a gentlemen...albeit one who knowingly cuckolds another man.  Leo has kept his affair with Felicitas a secret from everyone (including Ulrich).

Leo wins the duel, leaving Felicitas a widow.  For the scandal of killing a man in a duel, Leo is transferred to a remote outpost in Africa.  Before leaving, he makes Ulrich promise to look after the Felicitas under the ruse that he is so upset at making her widow.  In reality, he wants Ulrich to scare off any suitors but unfortunately he is not explicit enough in his instructions.  Upon Leo's return from Africa, he finds that Ulrich has married Felicitas.  Ulrich is still unaware of the truth about Leo's duel with the Count or even Leo's feelings about Felicitas because she has forgotten to mention it.

Before long Leo & Felicitas are at it again.  Leo feels tremendous guilt due to cheating with his best friend's wife but not enough guilt to stop.  Felicitas is more dispassionate about the affair and its effect on Ulrich.  Although she is conflicted about her actions, her cool demeanor is easily interpreted as toying with the affections of both men.  Unable to commit to either man, her faltering actions lead the men to an unavoidable conflict.  I won't give away the ending except to say the film is a tragedy.

As I mentioned, Garbo is luminescent in the film and her love scenes with Gilbert stand out.  Hanson has the unenviable task of being third banana.  That's not because his character is less developed but even the brightest light would be eclipsed by the star power Garbo & Gilbert.   I also notice that Flesh and the Devil was accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble.  I think that of the musicians that regularly play SFSFF, the Matti Bye Ensemble best evoke pathos & tragedy with their music.  Despite the passion Felicitas inspires in the men in her orbit, ultimately tragedy befalls all whom she bestows her attention.   It as if she is modern day Helen of Troy except more willfully active in the discord she causes.

Flesh and the Devil is one of the best silent films I have seen. After a few years of being less than enthused by the silent films at the festival, Flesh and the Devil reminded me of when I first came to love silent films.


If Flesh and the Devil re-energized my affection towards silent films, there was an unusually strong  program of films which almost daily reinforced the feeling.

All Quiet on the Western Front - I remember seeing the sound version of this film as a boy (most likely the Family Film Festival).  I also remember a TV movie with a memorable performance by Ernest Borgnine.  I always thought the 1930 film was a European production but it was a Hollywood film.  AQOTWF was made on the cusp of the transition between silent films and talkies.  The silent and talkie versions were filmed simultaneously.

In the opening days of WWI, a group of German college classmates enlist in the army.  We watch as this cohort of men go through basic training and combat.  Along the way, their ranks dwindle due to casualties.  The group of younger men are assigned to a squad led by a grizzled combat sergeant (Louis Wolheim).  In the 85 years since AQOTWF was released, its general plot line has been repeated to varying degrees of success in other films.  In a nutshell, young men are disabused of any romantic notions of warfare and either become that which they initially scorn or ridicule or retain their initial humanity.  Paul (Lew Ayres) has a pacifist tilt and is the most reluctant of his classmates to enlist.  The most psychologically harrowing scene involves Paul and a French soldier whom he has bayoneted.  Heavy shelling keeps Paul trapped in the foxhole while the French soldier slowly dies before his eyes.

There is also a memorable scene where a pair of high quality boots are worn by soldier after soldier as each one is killed in combat.  The camera focuses on the soldier's legs until the man falls.  The viewer doesn't know who is killed as the soldiers become interchangeable like it was in WWI where endless waves of men were ground up by machine guns and artillery shells.

Maybe the plot is no longer new or surprising because of subsequent films but the impact remains powerful.  This group of  young men are decimated by the war and the survivors are left broken in body & spirit.  Director Lewis Milestone and Lew Ayres capture the futility of war and the lasting effects of combat on the soldiers after the fighting as stopped.  AQOTWF remains a powerful film.

The Last Laugh - over the years, I have become quite a fan of Emil Jannings.  His performances in The Last Command and Blue Angel are among my favorite.  I can add The Last Laugh to that list.  Jannings plays the chief doorman at a luxury hotel.  I don't believe any of the characters in the film were ever given names.  Like other Murnau films, it has few intertitles.

Jannings takes great pride in his position.  He has a uniform that looks like something an army general would wear.  He literally struts around the neighborhood in it.  He is esteemed by his neighbors in no small part due to his grand uniform.  He is glimpsed by the hotel manager on a rainy night while struggling with heavy luggage (the younger porters are unavailable).  The manager decides the position of chief doorman is too much for the aging Jannings.  He is demoted to men's room attendant and forced to relinquish his prized uniform.  Unable to face his neighbors, his daughter or her in-laws, Jannings steals the overcoat and wears it home as if nothing has changed.

The charade continues until Jannings' in-law sees him at the hotel (and shrieks in horror).  News of his reduced stature quickly makes the rounds.  When he returns home, he is mocked by his neighbors and his daughter & in-laws shun him.  He is left a broken man...until Murnau inexplicably tacks on a happy ending where Jannings wins the lottery.  A title card apologetically sets ups the ending which is played as a farce.  You can almost sense Murnau's reluctance to film the footage.  I've read that Jannings requested the ending or that the German studio requested it.  I've also read that Carl Mayer (the screenwriter) had the ending in his original script.

The Last Laugh is only partially marred by the ending and Murnau softens the blow by way of an introductory intertitle card and the broad farcical overtones.  However, the film is memorable for Jannings performance and the innovative camera movements.  It was based on the critical and box office success of The Last Laugh that Murnau was signed by Fox Studios (pre-merger with 20th Century Pictures) and made Sunrise and the lost film 4 Devils.

When I read the title of The Swallow and the Titmouse, I first thought "Exactly what is a titmouse?"  I thought it was type of mouse - a house mouse, a pack rat, a field mouse and a titmouse.  It turns out that a titmouse is a bird.  My second thought was the film title sounded like something a porno film would be called.  I'm glad that my taxonomic ignorance, shameful affinity with exploitation films and the late showtime did not deter me from seeing The Swallow and the Titmouse.

It has been noted that The Swallow and the Titmouse bears a strong resemblance to L'Atalante, a Jean Vigo film made in 1934.  I enjoyed L'Atalante very much.  The titular Titmouse is the name of a river barge and its sister ship is the Swallow.  The film is a chamber piece set on the two barges with a generous serving documentary like footage of the life of a bargeman.  There are four primary character in the film.  Pierre (Louis Ravet), the owner and captain of the barges, Griet (Jane Maylianes), Marthe (Maguy Deliac) who is Griet's younger sister and Michel (Pierre Alcover) who is Pierre's new first mate.  The four of them live on the barge as it travels between Belgium and France.  The pace of the film is very much in tune with the pace of the barges - deliberate and unhurried.

The film focused so much on the landscape and barge operations that the producer of the film refused to release the film.  The film sat unedited for over 60 years until la Cinémathèque française found it and assembled it in the 1980s.  Given that provenance, any similarities between The Swallow and the Titmouse and L'Atalante must be coincidental.

The director André Antoine cast non-actors in the main roles to better achieve sense of realism or naturalism.  The plot of the film is simple but multi-layered.  Pierre makes some money under the table by smuggling items across the border.  Michel spies Pierre accepting a package from a diamond smuggler and quickly applies for the job of first mate.  The audience is aware of Michel ulterior motives but the character only slowly begin to suspect something is amiss.  Marthe is immediately attracted to Michel and Pierre approves of their budding relationship.  Griet is more circumspect of the new sailor.  As the film progresses, I wondered how Michel would reconcile his feelings for Michel with his desire to steal the diamonds (he does not know where the diamonds are hidden).

Antoine adds a final layer to the plot.  While alone, Michel makes clear his attraction to Griet which forms a love triangle that complicates the interlocking relationships.  Michel never wavers from his goal of having the diamonds for himself.  I won't give away the ending but will say that Pierre handles the situation in a phlegmatic manner which suggests that no matter what the tragedy or obstacle, he will continue with his life undeterred...tote that barge, lift that bale.

The Swallow and the Titmouse clocked in at an appropriately spare 79 minutes but the film achieved an oversized emotional impact on me.  For such a lean film with long segments on the river (Rivet & Alcover must have had experience working on a barge), I was strangely drawn into the plight of the four characters.  It's a sign of a superior film that despite all the reason to be underwhelmed by the film, I find it mesmerizing.  I find the most surprising films are inexplicable.


Visages d'enfants starred Jean Forest who was the star of Gribiche at the 2013 SFSFF.  Forest plays Jean, a young boy whose mother has recently passed.  He and his father settle into a routine in their small village in Switzerland.  Sensing that Jean would be content living with just the three of them (Jean has a younger sister), Jean's father embarks on a surreptitious romance with the widowed neighbor Jeanette (Rachel Devirys).  Eventually Pierre sends Jean off on a multi-week journey with his godfather who is a priest.  The trip is a ruse as Pierre plans to marry Jeanette during Jean's absence and it is decided the priest will break the news to Jean prior to their return.  I thought that was a cowardly thing to do and would be resentful myself if that happened to me.

Although's Jean's initial intentions are to respect his father's decision, he quickly butts heads with his new stepsister and resents his stepmother's actions which he considers disrespectful of his late mother.  The blended family's dynamics deteriorate as time passes.  The nadir is reached during winter when Jean tosses his stepsister's beloved doll from a moving sled without her noticing.  When they arrive home that night, she is upset.  Jean tricks her into sneaking out of the house to find the doll.  She gets lost and eventually trapped in a old chapel after an avalanche.  Eventually, Jean's guilt gets the better of him and he admits his transgression to his father.  Although the girl is rescued, Jean receives the silent treatment from his family.  He decides to kill himself by drowning but just as he jumps into the river, his stepmother rescues him.  The film ends with the impression that the family has turned a corner and will live more harmoniously in the future.

I was drawn to the film and Jean's situation more than I would have imagined.  There was something about Forest's portrayal of the boy's grief and misguided resentment that struck a chord with me.   I think the film was more complex given the way the marriage was hidden from Jean.  He had reason to be resentful as his father made a decision without informing him.  I think it is important to make the distinction that Pierre certainly did not need his son's approval to re-marry but he owed his son the courtesy of telling him of his decision rather than leaving it to someone else and giving his son no time to prepare for the change.  The  film covers this decision with a scene between Pierre and the priest.  I'm not sure if the decision was consistent with the era's thinking or if the screenwriters decided to make the plot choice to add some depth to Jean's character.  I'm beginning to think the latter.  Regardless, this was key to the story because without it Jean would have been a petulant boy unable to get over his mother's death.  In fact, in the sequence where the stepsister is lost in the snow, Jean seeks solace from his mother's painting which has interacted with the boy in his imagination.  At this crucial moment, the image is faded and nearly vanished which symbolically represents Jean's self-awareness at a subconscious level that he cannot use his mother's death as an ongoing excuse for his bad behavior.  This is a crucial step in Jean's grieving process; albeit he nearly killed his stepsister to reach it.

Visages d'enfants turns on Forest's performance.  Forest deftly walks the line between sympathy and resentment.  In this regard, he plays off fine performance by Rachel Devirys & Arlette Peyran as his stepmother and stepsister, respectively.  Combined with his performance in Gribiche, I have to think that Forest was the preeminent French child actor of the silent era.  Although he lived until 1980, the majority of his IMDB credits occur in the 1920s between the ages of 10 and 15.  He has no credits after 1935, the year he turned 23.

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