Posts tagged ‘silent films’
Buster Keaton’s The General is one of those movies that are on every cinephile’s best-of list, and with good reason. Elegantly structured, coolly executed, and funny as hell, the film was Keaton’s own favorite, although it was the movie that almost ruined his reputation when it first came out. It took a long time to shoot, was prohibitively expensive, and absolutely did not make bank when it was released—Keaton’s rep as a comedic star took a big hit and his studio reined him in after The General‘s box office failure. The movie was anything but well-received when it was released in 1926, although it’s now considered a classic.
The storyline follows a railroad engineer and wannabe Confederate soldier during the Civil War (nimbly played by the diminutive Keaton) who traces the theft of his beloved railroad engine, named The General, behind Union lines. The movie features some of the most beautifully choreographed stunts of the silent era, involving huge piles of rolling logs, steam engines on collision course, and the spectacular demise of a full-size locomotive. The sight of an actual train engine falling many dozens of feet from a bridge to a riverbed is still amazingly impressive, even in this age of CGI and digitally created special effects. The film is Keaton at his best, with its stripped down, symmetrically structured narrative, its large-scale, dangerous, and perfectly executed stunts, and its underdog hero struggling within a vastly unsympathetic world.
Silent film comedy of an entirely different sort are the Laurel and Hardy two-reeler short films, Two Tars (1928) and Big Business (1929). Two Tars follows a day in the life of a couple of sailors on leave in Los Angeles as they go joy-riding among the California chaparral with a couple of dames. Although Stan and Ollie play sailors, all of the action in the twenty-minute movie takes place on a pair of landlocked Southern California roadways. Featuring Laurel and Hardy’s signature physicality and escalation of destruction, the short also includes some very suggestive digital manipulation of a gumball machine as well as several excellent Stan Laurel pratfalls. The short concludes with an epic traffic jam that would make Godard proud that illustrates the primal allure of large-vehicle destruction, the weaponization of cow pies and rotten tomatoes, and a gal getting a faceful of black ink.
Big Business is even more of a felon’s wet dream, as a small misunderstanding rapidly escalates into complete mayhem, resulting in an entire house vandalized down to its spinet piano and brick chimney. L&H play door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen plying their wares in the sunny, overexposed 1920s Southern California suburbs, which were about as sparsely populated as the high desert at the time. The two get into a scrap with a feisty homeowner and soon the axes are out and windows, doors, and a Model T fall victim to the OTT belligerence of the battling adversaries. The humor derives from the extreme reactions of both Stan and Ollie as well as their antagonist, played with righteous fury by L&H regular James Finlayson.
All three of these comedy classics are screening as part of Silent Autumn, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s one-day event on Sept. 20 at the glorious Castro Theater. Also notable are screenings of new restorations of The Son of the Sheik, starring the beautiful Rudolph Valentino, and the German expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As per usual with all SFSFF events, each program includes live accompaniment, by silent film score maestro Donald Sosin as well as the always innovative Alloy Orchestra. Go here for complete schedule and ticket info.
It’s July, the fog has swamped the city, and the Silent Film Festival (SFF) returns this week to San Francisco. Spanning an action-packed four days, the lineup includes classics, gems, and newly restored discoveries from locales around the world including Bali, Japan, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England, Russia, and the United States. This year’s festival features legendary stars such as Louise Brooks (Prix de Beaute), Greta Garbo (The Joyless Street), Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!) and Douglas Fairbanks (The Half-Breed) and famed directors including G.W. Pabst and Yasujiro Ozu.
In contrast to the high-tone glamor found in the movies above, The House on Trubnaya Square is a sprightly little Soviet comedy that follows the misadventures of a cleaning lady in Moscow. As the cleaning lady rises through the ranks of the workers’ movement, the film satirically exposes the foibles of feudalism, capitalism, and socialism alike. As to be expected from the land of Eisenstein, the movie features great editing, along with excellent camerawork, choreography, and story structure, as well as a cheeky performance by Vera Maretskaya as the cleaning lady swept up in the social movements of the time.
Another notable program is the premiere of the recent restoration of The Last Edition, an entertaining yarn shot in San Francisco in 1924. The movie looks at corruption in the newspaper publishing business, in which an unscrupulous publisher takes advantage of an overly trusting pressman. The populist film sides with the workingman against the corrupt bosses, reflecting the sentiments of the Wobblies and other early 20th-century labor organizations. The movie is especially fun for its local flava, as much of it is shot at the Chronicle Building at 5th and Mission Street and concludes with an exciting chase through the streets of San Francisco, passing by recognizable landmarks including the newly rebuilt City Hall. The film also features huge mechanical presses, typesetting trays, switchboards and rotary phones, and other industrial age machinery that will gun the engines of your inner steampunk.
Also part of the festival is a presentation by John Canemaker on well-known newspaper cartoonist Winsor McKay that includes of illustrations from Canemaker’s bio on McKay as well as a screening of several of McKay’s brilliant animated films. Best known for his long-running comic strip Little Nemo, McKay’s animations are masterful, deft, and magical, ranging from the whimsical Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur through the dramatic, realistic Sinking of the Lusitania. My personal favorite is How A Mosquito Operates, in which a prodigious bug repeatedly sinks its very sharp stinger into a sleeping man’s nose, its protuberant abdomen swelling with blood after each bite.
The Silent Film Festival is a rare opportunity to see these movies in all their big-screen glory, and it’s markedly more fun than watching DVDs by yourself at home. As per usual, all SFF screenings (at the gloriously appropriate Castro Theater) include live accompaniment.
July 18-21, 2013
429 Castro Street (near the intersection of Castro and Market Street)
San Francisco, CA 94114
Summer is nigh, and to whet your appetite for the upcoming Silent Film Festival (July 19-21), the Castro Theater and the SFF are showing the Hitchcock 9, the British Film Institute’s series of nine recently restored silent films by the master of suspense. While some are significant mostly to completists bent on viewing every film in Hitchcock’s oevre, the series also includes classics such as Blackmail and The Lodger, which are required viewing for British film followers, silent movie aficionados, and Hitchcock fanciers alike.
The series opens with the silent version of Blackmail (1929), which Hitchcock simultaneously directed as a talkie. Although Hitchcock had only began his directing career 1923, Blackmail is a fully formed Hitch film complete with transference of guilt, significant objects (knife and glove), expressionistic lighting, and a climactic chase scene at a landmark location, here the British Museum of Art, as well as the first of many Hitchcock cameos that would follow in his career. Demonstrating the director’s growing mastery of the cinematic language, the first half of the film has very few intertitles, as Hitchcock confidently reveals the narrative through evocative compositions and lighting, unusual camera angles, and other filmic devices. Every scene is a gem, utilizing vignetting, mirrors, shadows, and camera movement to underscore plot points or to emphasize a character’s state of mind. At one point, after the heroine has wandered the streets in a dazed fugue, she spies a neon sign that subliminally changes from a cartoon of cocktail shaker to silhouette of a stabbing knife. In another scene, Hitchcock tightly frames three pairs of hands in a pantomimed exchange, followed by a tilt up to the characters’ faces, thus underscoring the trio’s fraught relationship. The film’s climax at the museum includes an iconographic shot of a man descending a rope next to a huge sculptural face, presaging the Mount Rushmore chase scene in North By Northwest. It’s pretty impressive to see the progress in visual and thematic style between earlier films in the BFI series and Blackmail, as Hitchcock demonstrates that he was well on his way to mastering the cinematic form.
The Ring (1927) includes more early Hitch shenanigans. The story involves a love triangle between two pugilists and a carny girl and the film also includes familiar Hitchcock motifs such as the significant object, here a heart-shaped arm bracelet, plus lots of fun camerawork, double-exposures, and other tricksy manuevers that foreshadow Hitchcock’s later cinematic virtuosity. Set in the world of carnivals and circus people, the milieu recalls Hitchcock’s midcentury classic, Strangers On A Train, with its fascination for the macabre underbelly of the amusement park. Also illustrating a theme that would reappear in Hitchcock’s later work, The Ring explores the all-consuming power of lust, passion, and jealousy as the two rivals pound on each other in the boxing ring, thus externalizing their overwhelming desire for the female object of their affections.
The series also includes more obscure work such as the rom-com Champagne, and the Noel Coward adaptation, Easy Virtue. As is standard for Silent Film Festival presentations, all screenings will include live accompaniment.
June 14-16, 2013
I love a good film festival and this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival was one of the best. Held at the legendary Castro Theater, the festival showcased several brand new or recently restored prints of classic and obscure films from Germany, China, the U.S., Sweden, and beyond. Probably due to the popularity of The Artist, winner of last year’s Best Picture Oscar, the festival was packed morning, noon, and night.
In this age of DVDs and online streaming the SFSFF understands the need to offer a value-added film viewing experience. All of the shows at the fest had live accompaniment, ranging from glorious piano and Wurlitzer stylings to full-on ensemble performances from crack film orchestras. Wings, the opening night film, was screened not only with live music but with a live foley setup providing sound effects in the theater as the film unspooled. The screening of Georges Melies’ classic short, A Trip To The Moon (recently featured in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo), included live narration by Paul McCann from the director’s notes on the film, adding a droll note to the whimsical film.
I started my long weekend o’ film viewing with Little Toys (1933), starring the legendary Chinese performer Ruan Lingyu, who died by her own hand at the tender age of 24. Between 1927 to her death in 1934 Ruan appeared in nearly 30 films during the golden age of Chinese filmmaking, famously playing lovelorn prostitutes, and other down-and-out characters. In Little Toys she’s a toymaker in rural China who is swept up by the events of the day, including the Sino-Japanese War, the advent of capitalism, and the urbanization of China. The film, by left-leaning director Sun Yu (who ironically was later denounced by Mao Zedong), is an interesting critique of the inhumanity of war and the ways in which ordinary people are harmed by violent political conflict.
The festival also included films featuring two very different silent era actresses. Mantrap (1926), starring the awesome Clara Bow, screened with impeccable live accompaniment by Stephen Horne on piano, flute and accordion. I’d never seen Clara Bow in action before and, as directed by her then-inamorato Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz; Gone With The Wind) she’s fun and charismatic, with darting eyes and a sly, impish grin. The pre-code storyline of a notorious flirt who dazzles her husband and his friend, as well as most of the other men in the movie, is refreshingly non-judgmental—as Michael Sragow observes in the program notes, “the film doesn’t punish the character for her sexual independence, it salutes her for it.”
Saturday night’s centerpiece film featured another silent-screen goddess, the ever-stunning Louise Brooks starring in Pandora’s Box. The festival screened a gorgeous new restoration that confirmed director G.W. Pabst’s mastery of light and shadow, emphasizing the moody chiaroscuro that makes this film a classic. We’d meant to attend the 10pm show of The Overcoat immediately following Pandora’s Box, with music by the surprise-a-minute Alloy Orchestra, but delays in loading in the Mattie Bye Orchestra for the Pabst film pushed The Overcoat’s start time past 11pm. With plans to see the 10am show the next day we regretfully took a pass on the Russian expressionist movie and headed for home.
Sunday morning bright and early, less than ten hours after the late-night screening of The Overcoat, a full house turned out to see Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro (1920), as the mild-mannered Don Diego who turns into the sexy crime-fighting Zorro. As noted by Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance, Zorro’s underground hideout, his dual identity, and his form-fitting all-black outfit, cape and mask were a clear influence on Batman creator Bob Kane. In Zorro, Fairbanks of course flaunts his toned booty, fencing chops and parkour skills—more surprising are his well-honed comic chops as the foppish Don Diego. The film isn’t very cinematically innovative but once Fairbanks gets going the movie picks up steam. The climatic chase scene, with Fairbanks running, jumping and climbing his way across the scenery, is a lot of fun.
Capping the weekend’s screenings was Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), his last great feature film and his first as an MGM contract player. As a UCLA undergrad I was crazy for Buster Keaton, seeing all of his independent features and several shorts. I even watched The Navigator on a flatbed at the UCLA film archives since, back then at the dawn of time, Keaton’s movies weren’t available on home video. I’d never seen The Cameraman, though, so I was happy to that it was part of this year’s festival. Although MGM’s dictatorial studio brass was already on its way to fatally hampering his career, Keaton turned out a near-perfect movie in The Cameraman, which follows a callow young photographer in his attempts to break into the newsreel business. Along the way he woos a pretty girl, shatters many windows, leaps effortlessly onto moving vehicles, and gets caught in the middle of a full-scale tong war. Unlike many movies from the era, the film’s portrayal of Chinatown and its habitués is fairly unsensational, though I wonder if the tongs really would have had several full-on machine guns to go with their machetes and six-shooters.
All in all the festival was quite fun and invigorating. It’s always a treat when vintage movies get the royal treatment, and the SFSFF displays the utmost care and sensitivity in presenting its programs. In an age when media is often made to be watched on a cell phone, it’s great to see films produced for and projected on the all-mighty big screen.