Saturday, July 11, 2009

Jason goes to the Silent Film Festival--opening night.

The 14th San Francisco Silent Film Festival (or (SF)2 Fest) started Friday night, and we jumped right into the action with a gorgeous restored print of Douglas Fairbanks in THE GAUCHO. Although one part that hasn't been completely restored is the two color (red and green)Technicolor scene of Mary Pickford as the Virgin Mary. It was in black and white in the film, but we were treated to a 6 minute reel of two color Technicolor outtakes of the scene. Mary Pickford standing tall looking divine with a rotating ring of pliable metal stick blasted by a floodlight creating a holy aura around her (not, as an early critic surmised, a penny sparkler behind her head).

Anyway, on to the movie, which takes place in the city of the Miracle. It is so named because when a young shepherd girl fell from a cliff rather than dying she saw a vision of the Madonna (Pickford) and was unharmed. Moreover, her prayers could heal the sick. They built a shrine, and then a city around it where pilgrims would come to donate their gold and pray (and, of course, be healed). However, as the shrines coffers (used to aid the poor) grew, a usurper named Ruiz seized control, demanding that every transaction be done through his agents.

Enter the Gaucho, a dashing Douglas Fairbanks who showcases his athleticism just as much as his skill lighting a cigarette (there's not a move he makes that doesn't flash somehow). He's an outlaw, but an incredibly popular one. When he rides into a mountain town with his gang, he ends up disarming the local authority, getting a round for everyone at the bar, and signing his own wanted poster. He also gets a new girlfriend, his ardent admirer played by the spitfire Lupe Velez. When she isn't fast enough finishing dinner, he hitches his men's horses to the floorboards and drags half the bar with him, creating (I suppose) the world's first mobile home.

Back to the city of the Miracle. Ruiz's troops are in control, but with a little daring-do, The Gaucho changes that and seizes power. Although he's an outlaw, he doesn't tolerate one of his men attacking the priest of the Shrine. It's not about religion, he's just against beating up an old man. But he's intrigued by the padre's decision to forgive his attacker, so he insists the padre attend a feast he's throwing that night.

Anyway, I don't want to recap the whole plot. There's some double-crossing, some black doom (a slow, lingering death), and a showdown with Ruiz. The Gaucho decides to follow the padre's holy book, and I decide I want to be Douglas Fairbanks when I grow up.

The Gaucho is a distinctly darker story than most of Fairbanks' other swashbucklers (although Fairbanks keeps it pretty light, clowning through the movie with ease and grace up until the Black Doom gets him), and Lupe Velez, the Mexican Spitfire, is a more spirited heroine than just about any other actress (no damsel in distress, here). All this makes for a film that is definitely still enjoyable for modern audiences (you could even argue it works better now than it did when it was released--to more or less mixed reviews).

The film was accompanied live by a brand new score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and afterwards they (and the film) got a standing ovation. Awesome opening, can't wait for the rest of the festival.
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