“Beggars of Life,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The just concluded Twenty First Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival featured a strong weekend of thoughtful and powerful films and music from all over the world. The diverse lineup revealed the deep emotional impact of well made, visually impressive silent films, motion pictures that still speak to the spirit today.
The Louise Brooks classic “Beggars of Life” opened the Festival Thursday, June 3. This spare but compelling William Wellman film speaks as much to today as it did the late 1920s, particularly with its hobos desperately looking for food and work. A simple line of dialogue gives the film its apt and effective title, describing how we all are “beggars of life.”
“The Last Warning,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Friday, June 3 opened with the traditionally fascinating “Tales From the Archives” free program, revealing the details in rehabilitating and restoring many classic films. British Film Institute archivist Bryony Dixon previewed the BFI’s restoration of the behind-the-scenes movie story “Shooting Stars” by showing three bonus extras from the recently Blu-ray release of the film which revealed the day-to-day operations of British studios. “Opening of British Instructional Film Studio” revealed employees walking to the studio from the trains. Excerpts of the odd short “Starlings of the Screen” showed female “winners” of a contest making tests in hopes of landing acting jobs at the studio. These women had faces all right, the faces of Dale Fuller or ZaSu Pitts, rather than the beauty of WAMPAS Baby Stars. “Meet Jackie Coogan” documented young American superstar Coogan visiting the Cricklewood Studio in 1924.
Universal archivists followed, describing the restoration of Paul Leni’s last American film, “The Last Warning” as part of Universal’s 5-year program to restore many of its classic films in a salute to the company’s Centennial. Georges Mourier, archivist of the Cinematheque Francaise, is supervising the six-and-a-half hour restoration of Abel Gance’s masterpiece “Napoleon” from the original camera negative. Every previous restorer – Henri Langlois, Kevin Brownlow, Miriam Meyer – all assumed only one negative survived, but both negatives of the two entirely different Opera (4 1/2 hours) and Apollo (9 hours) survive in some fashion along with the original continuities and other paperwork. This restoration will be the most complete “Napoleon” ever seen since its original release at the Apollo Theatre in Paris.
Pola Negri in “A Woman of the World,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The Pola Negri feature “A Woman of the World” (1925) was the day’s first feature, a typically absurd romantic comedy lifted by Negri’s charismatic performance. A European countess retreats to her cousin’s home in a typical Midwestern small town (Pleasanton, California) after betrayal by her love interest. Cosmopolitan, a smoker, and tattooed, she is everything a priggish, older District Attorney campaigns against. Bland Holmes Herbert seems too old for romantic lead, but the film features some fine visual images, gentle humor from the likes of Chester Conklin, and a touching performance from Charles Emmett Mack. Donald Sosin added some pleasing and cheeky kick and punch to proceedings.
Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu’s “That Night’s Wife” (1930) followed, which lived up to its description of “cinema as haiku,” contemplative and dreamy. Spare and visually stunning, the film was obviously influenced by American crime films with its nighttime shots of lean, mean city streets lit by hazy street lamps. Its tone poem of images was enhanced by Maud Nelissen’s delicate dream-like music, echoing the moody atmosphere of the night story. American posters for “Lady of the Pavements,” “Broadway Stories,” and for Walter Huston decorated a wall of the lead couple’s home.
The newly restored “Mothers of Men” (1917) played next, a loving salute to Santa Cruz where it filmed and a prescient take on current political matters regarding mudslinging, women in politics, and the yellow press. It is an improbable but effective tale of a strong woman serving her community and her family at a time when very few women had the right to vote, revealing both the positives and negatives of independent filmmaking. It featured lovely tints and a warm, classically inspired score by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, playing actual cues from the period, adding some heft to proceedings.
“Variete,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The German 1925 film “Variete” featured some gorgeous German Expressionist/noirish style elements, lighting, and story, telling the story of a doomed acrobat in flashback. Director E. A. Dupont captures the sweep of passion through both subtle editing and fine, moving camerawork, focusing on the eyes of his participants. Lya de Putti’s flirty, impassioned eyes speak volumes, while Emil Jannings’ blank stares grow wearying. While some loved the score created by students of the Berklee School of Music, I found it monotonous and overbearing, as subtle as a Roy d’Arcy leer or a Gustav von Seyffertitz’ arched eyebrow. Instead of easing from a major into a minor key or using hemiolas, change in rhythms, or doublets against triplets to suggest tension or threat, they go straight for the jugular in putting across any mood with music.
“Behind the Door,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
I missed “Behind the Door” but it seemed to have impressed virtually everyone who saw it with its strong implied violence and message.
Saturday, June 4 opened with an archival program of newly restored comedies. Silent film historian Jon Mirsalis provided rollicking accompaniment to the films, including Laurel and Hardy’s previously half lost 1927 film “Battle of the Century,” featuring the largest pie fight on camera. Mirsalis discovered the missing second reel of the short in a large film collection he had acquired. The full fight only fills out the reel, with many of the best reaction shots already existing in the shorter previous version. Comedian Lou Costello can be glimpsed as an animated extra sitting on the front row of the boxing arena near Laurel in the first reel. Two Buster Keaton shorts followed: the thoughtfully arranged “Cops” (1922) and the series of stunts “Balloonatic,” (1923) cutting between Los Angeles, Tahoe, and the Iverson Ranch. The marvelously surreal “The Dancing Pig” from (1907) closed out the program, featuring various humorous jigs by a man wearing a large pig suit switching between male and female dress, gleefully sticking out and twirling his large tongue at the audience.
The 1929 Swedish film “The Strongest” was a slow burn, growing emotionally powerful once in the frigid waters of the Arctic. Subtle but artfully staged, the film featured fine performances by the two male protagonists. Nature becomes a forceful character in the film, revealing the primal fight to survive. The Matti Bye Ensemble provided a sturdy, emotional anchor for the film, evoking the vast loneliness, isolation, stillness, and danger of the icy waters with rolling chords, whistles, and creative sound effects.
“Shooting Stars,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
I most enjoyed the 1928 British film “Shooting Stars” which followed, a gorgeous behind-the-scenes movie story blending German Expressionism and noir elements into a thought-provoking powerful film, full of multilayered texture. Everything from exquisite lighting to gorgeous camerawork to sharp script to creative mise-en-scene blended into a meaty whole. Double and triple layers refer to a multitude of items, including the title. The story of be careful what you wish for, it reveals the strained love and work lives of a couple in the British film industry. Stephen Horne’s piano score was thoughtful, lush and romantic one minute, full of witty in-jokes and touching elements the next.
Rene Clair’s 1928 “The Italian Straw Hat” followed. I saw just a touch of the lighthearted comedy, backed by a festive, energetic score by the Guenter Buchwald Ensemble. I missed the restoration of “The Last Warning,” having already seen the film before.
Sunday, June 5 opened with “Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema,” featuring quick bursts of vividly colorful dreams and epiphanies of light, tiny films featuring elegant hand painted color, tinted, or toning. In many of the films worms transformed into fantastic butterflies or other elements, magical effects tricking and seducing the eye. A Dutch short featuring the actual torching of a windmill featured elegant camera work and lighting, beautifully composed work. Donald Sosin once again provided lyrical accompaniment to match the gossamer wings of the shorts.
“I Don’t Want to Be a Man,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The “Girls Will Be Boys” program complimented Laura Horak’s new book under the same name, revealing how women dressed as men throughout early cinema helped popularize films as well as educate people on gender fluid or lesbian identities, usually resolving everything into safe heterosexual relationships. The 1926 Hal Roach short “What’s the World Coming To?” revealed nothing new, though supposedly set 100 years in the future when men were more like women and women more like men. A couple is about to marry, a blushing groom Clyde Cook, all mince and flirty eyelashes, and manly dressed bride. The worst film of the weekend, it featured the tired comic elements of a mouse in people’s clothing or wigs or other silly gags. The 1919 Ernst Lubitsch film “I Don’t Want to Be a Man” blended energetic comedy with insouciance in a pleasing manner. A young girl attempts to break traditional rules by smoking, drinking, flirting, and going out. Watched over by a guardian, she sneaks out to a ball dressed as a tuxedoed young man but finds how difficult it is to copy their roles. She and her guardian end up drinking, flirting, and kissing, before ending the possibility of same sex attraction when she gleefully returns to her female attire and everything is resolved by the sanctity of heterosexual marriage. Maud Nelissen’s le jazz hot score added some nice pizzazz.
“Nanook of the North,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and Niles Museum.
Robert Flaherty’s 1922 “Nanook of the North” artfully composed the dangerous life of Eskimo Nanook and his family into the first recognized documentary. The Matti Bye Ensemble’s evocative score enhanced the difficult, lonely life of the Arctic with creative sound effects like wooden xylophone, balalaika, bells, whistles, and moving piano, though the jarring sound beaten pots and pans seemed a little out of place.
I only saw a small part of what looked like an emotionally powerful folktale, Fritz Lang’s 1921 “Destiny,” in which love tries to conquer death. The lavish spectacle involves a young woman making a deal with death to try and win back her love by rescuing three souls across history. The Stephen Horne Ensemble’s foreboding work enhanced the gorgeous cinematography, thoughtful story, and pleasing mise-en-scene. I missed the last two films to return to Los Angeles.
This year’s programs revealed deep sorrows, struggles, and joys overwhelming humanity through intelligent, forceful filmmaking and moving, sensitive accompaniment. The enriching programs left plenty of sensual food for thought, showcasing the emotional depths of great silent filmmaking.