Thursday, July 19, 2012

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 4

The festival's over now. It's all done except the writing...and the catching up on sleep. And I've already done a few days of that (and a bit of drinking,) so now I'll just try to blast through these last films quickly.

Of course, if any on you Bay Area silent film buffs need a little pick-me-up to keep from going through silent film withdrawal, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is doing its thing every Saturday night. And every other Friday the Stanford Theatre is doing their summer silents series with Dennis James on the Wurlitzer.

Anyway, on to the last day full of movies.

We started early in the morning (well, 10:00 is early to people who stayed up late for THE OVERCOAT the previous night) for the swashbuckling classic THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920.) What's not to love about Douglas Fairbanks being heroic and athletic as Zorro and hilariously weak and foppish as his alter-ego Don Diego Vega. But what I didn't know before the introduction by Jeffrey Vance is how much of the iconic Zorro trademarks (especially the famous Z cut with his sword) actually originates with this movie and not the Johnston McCulley story (but then McCulley included it in the sequels he wrote after this movie.) I also knew that a young Bob Kane was a fan and based his most famous character on Fairbank's portrayal of Zorro. The mask, the double identity, even the hidden lair all came from Zorro and became iconic of Batman (so remember that when you watch THE DARK KNIGHT RISES next weekend.) And heck, this movie still totally delivers.

And, of course, helping with that delivery was the brilliant Dennis James rocking the Castro's mighty Wurlitzer organ.

Next up was THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (1928) co-presented by the Film Noir Foundation and introduced by the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller. Josef von Sternberg directs a deceptively simple story about a "stoker" (the muscle-bound George Bancroft) who puts into port for one night, sees a girl (Better Compson) jumping into the water, saves her, and treats her to a wild night at the seedy local bar culminating in marriage. It's very atmospheric, and there is certainly the message that she has a shady past (although exactly what was so shady is never said.) But ultimately it's a sweet story (yeah, Josef von Sternberg made a romance) about a couple of souls who are maybe beyond redemption, but can redeem each other.

Donald Sosin accompanied on the grand piano, and of course was excellent.

Next up, EROTIKON (1920) which confused me a bit because I could've sworn they had played this movie just a couple of years ago at the festival. Here's what I said then:
Then the feature was a Czech classic, EROTIKON. (I's not quite what you think, but it is pretty darn frank). George (Olaf Fjord) has a train to catch, but the rain slows him down, so he spends the night at a local house (once the master of the house sees his fine brandy, he's a welcome guest). That leads to an encounter with the man's daughter, Andrea (Ita Rina). But the next day he's on his train, and although she never forgets him (thanks no doubt the the baby growing inside her), he's soon on his way to other conquests. These lead to no end of complications. Well, Andrea tracks him down to Prague, but their baby (really hers, since he knows nothing about it) is stillborn. Meanwhile he's in all sorts of romantic troubles, dallying about with married women. The plot gets pretty convoluted, but needless to say it does not end well for him (or anyone, but most importantly for him). Of course, the love scenes are nowhere near as explicit as modern film, but it more than makes up with it in evocative sensuality (a simple closeup of a raindrop on a windowpane is actually very impressive).
Wait, that's nothing like what I saw last Sunday! That was the 1929 Czech EROTIKON, not the 1920 Swedish EROTIKON. In fact, what I saw was a comic look at high society revolving around a clueless entomologist who knows more about the sex life of bugs than what his own wife is doing. Or rather, who is own wife is doing. But that doesn't really matter, because he's more interested in his niece (by marriage, his wife's sibling's daughter, not a blood relation, so [SPOILER ALERT! the incestuous ending is not quite as creepy as it could be. END SPOILER ALERT!]) It's an sex farce and high society farce showcasing the eminently practical Swedish high-society approach to affairs.


And The Mattie Bye Ensemble again did a magnificent job with the accompaniment.

Next up was a classic I'd heard so many things about and had never actually seen. STELLA DALLAS (1925) has been recommended to me as the saddest movie ever. And when Eddie Muller introduces it by describing how many "out there" movies he watches without being disturbed but how he can't make it through STELLA DALLAS without breaking down and tearing up a bit...well, that's making quite a statement.

And the movie is indeed very sad, but also an excellent story and character study. In fact, it's the only movie Samuel Goldwyn produced and then remade (in 1937, with Barbara Stanwyck--a version I now need to see.) Stella (Belle Bennett) is a small town girl who dreams of bigger things, and gets them when she marries Stephen Dallas (Ronald Colman.) Stephen is only in the small town to escape his father's scandal and suicide, he really loves Helen Morrison (Alice Joyce.) But while Stephen's away Helen marries another man so Stephen settles for Stella. Whew! This is already getting too complicated, and I haven't even introduced the most important relationship yet. That would be Stella and her daughter Laurel (Lois Moran.) See, Stella still has a lot of that ill-bred, small town girl spark in her, and that doesn't sit well with Stephen's society friends. In fact, just because she's friends (nothing explicit happens) with a rather vulgar Ed Munn (Jean Hersholt) she is shunned and Laurel is removed from her private school. Ultimately, the tragedy is all about the sacrifices a mother makes for her child. And it's pretty sad, but I have to admit I did not cry.

Here's the thing, I think the sadness was oversold. Maybe I'm just kind of a cynical bastard, but I'll admit when I cry at a movie. So I couldn't help but analyze why I didn't cry at STELLA DALLAS. And without giving too much away, I think it comes down to two things. First, giving the sacrificial choice she made, things worked out exactly as Stella wanted them to. So while the ended isn't all sad, it's bittersweet--her sacrificed worked. And second, her daughter didn't actually want her to make that sacrifice. Given the choice, Laurel would've stood by Stella (despite a moment of weakness earlier in the film.) Maybe I'm just selfish, and admittedly I've never been a mother, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have made such a sacrifice--especially not for a child who didn't want me to. But given all that, it's still a pretty sad story and it's pretty well told.

And it was expertly accompanied by Stephen Horne on the grand piano.

And finally, we got to the last show of the festival, which started with a short that was an absolute treat--the actual color version of Georges Méliès' A TRIP TO THE MOON (1902.) I've seen it many times before, and it was featured in HUGO last year, but only recently was a badly deteriorated hand tinted and toned color version found and painstakingly restored by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films (the DVD, which I haven't watched yet, comes with an hour long documentary on the restoration which I've heard is pretty extraordinary.) Anyway, this is  Méliès' most famous film, a story of astronomers who travel to the moon in a shell fired out of an enormous cannon. They meet the moon men (who are brittle enough to destroy by smacking them with an umbrella) have a bit of a fight for escape, and finally return to earth with a moon man in chains to show off to everyone. The colors are excellent, and this show was also aided by Paul McGann reading the narration originally written for the movie by  Méliès himself.

And then we ended the night with the Buster Keaton classic THE CAMERAMAN (1928.) What can I say, this is Buster Keaton being a comic genius. It's also the first film he made for MGM, and the start of him losing control over his own films--something he later called his worst mistake in his life. But he's still great in this as a humble tin-type photographer who sees a pretty girl (Marceline Day,) finds out she works at an MGM newsreel office, and decides to clear out his savings account to buy movie camera, get the great footage, and really impress her. He just has a bit of a learning curve. But with his stone-faced gumption and a very clever monkey, he saves the day. It also includes a hilarious public pool sequence that is surprisingly risque for the time. Hilarious, and I just had to wonder how the cameramen on the movie felt about the scene showing a monkey could do their job.

And, of course, the accompaniment was excellent as always, this time once again from The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

And that's it, Silentfest 2012 is done! And I got it written up just in time, Jewfest North starts tonight.

Total Running Time: 465 minutes
My Total Minutes: 291,681
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