Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Jason goes to the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival at the Niles Film Museum

I'm really becoming a big fan of my local silent film theater (the only one in the country--that I know of--that plays silent films on a regular weekly basis). Well, last weekend was their big event, the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

The theme this year was the works of the studios of the early Motion Pictures Patents Company. I made it to two of the three days (Saturday I was busy drinking heavily, but that's another story). Here's the rundown:

Friday, opening night, featured the films of the Edison Studios. Edison, of course, was the big man with most of the patents and in short the Motion Pictures Patents Company was a compromise to keep him from running everyone out of business.

They showed possibly the most famous one, "The Great Train Robbery" starring G. M. (later Broncho Billy) Anderson. It wasn't the first film or even the real first western, but it was the first blockbuster that made movies the American institution they are today. Still exciting, even if the actors in New Jersey don't know how to ride a horse.

"The Passer-By" is a sad tale of an old man invited to the empty chair at a bachelor party dinner. He tells his life story, centered around the woman who jilted him and ruined his life, only to find that's the grooms mother!

"The Simp and the Sophomores" is a funny little flick about a poor little nerd just off to college. All the Sophomores pick on him. So he enlists the help of boxing instructor Arm. Strong, who gives them a good licking. Oh yeah, and Arm. Strong happens to be a very young Oliver Hardy (before he teamed up with Stan Laurel).

Then, after a brief intermission, the feature film "The Salt of the Earth". A humorous drama about gold mining. Sinful John and Snowshoe Sam are old 'pardners' panning for gold. The evil businessman Hyde swindles their buddy Pyrite by "salting the earth"--planting gold dust on a worthless claim and then selling it to him, even as Hyde's son is courting Pyrite's pretty daughter. Years later, Pyrite is dead, his daughter is working as a nurse, and Sinful and Snowshoe have a plan to swindle Hyde back.

And that was Friday. As I said, I was drunk on Saturday, on the annual Caltrain pub crawl. I (and about 100 other drunkards) got a day pass and rode up the peninsula from Palo Alto to Burlingame, stopping at bars every few stops and drinking heavily. In fact, from Fremont I took a bus to San Jose, another to Palo Alto, Caltrain up the peninsula, and BART back home. So I ringed the Bay, drunk 80% of the way, all on public transit. What fun!

Okay, back to the movies.

I was still a little hungover at 1 pm on Sunday when they started in to the Lubin studio program. Lubin is an interesting story, because he was mostly a pirate that they included in the Patents Company because it would be easier than trying to crush him. He made his own "Great Train Robbery" (called "The Bold Bank Robbery") and copied tons of Melies films. He even fled the country for a few years when Edison had the law bearing down on him. Nevertheless, the Lubin studio of Philadelphia did make some films, launched some silent film stars, and is included in this program.

"The Beloved Adventurer Episode Eight: A Partner in Providence"--a one-reeler detective story, highlighted by a freakin' amazing train crash (really, it was awesome!)

"Until We Three Meet Again"--3 college chums vow to meet again in 10 years time. But by then, they've taken different paths. One has fallen on hard times and actually unwittingly robs another one.

"A Man's Making"--A feature length film about a young college football star with a wealthy businessman father. He's always asking for more money, until he decides to go off and prove himself without his father's help. Starting with honest work, he works his way up to become a local leader of enough esteem that he can help his father out when business rivals have a go at him.

Next up were the films of the Biograph company. The Biograph camera was invented by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, and was actually a completely different design from Edison's camera. It had larger film (68 mm vs. 35 mm) and a faster speed, resulting in clearer images and--more importantly--freedom from Edison's patent control. Actually, Dickson had also invented Edison's camera so he knew exactly how to build one that wouldn't infringe on the patents. As a result of the higher quality film, and because much of their surviving prints were donated to the Museum of Modern Art, many of the best prints from that era are of Biograph Films. Biograph in it's heyday also employed some of the greatest stars and directors, like D. W. Griffith, Mack Sennet, and Lillian Gish (and her sister Dorothy).

"Their First Divorce Case"--directed by Mack Sennet, a funny little comedy about private eyes hired by a wife to follow a cheating husband. They get the goods--too bad the husband and wife had patched things up and she was the girl they "caught" him with.

"The Lonedale Operator"--directed by D. W. Griffith. An exciting short about a woman who works as a telegraph operator at a train station. Her father is ill, and she wires for help. The next train in contains the payroll for a mining company, and also some guys trying to rob it. She has to hold them off until help arrives.

"A Dash Through the Clouds"--another Mack Sennet comedy. Chubby loves Josephine, but she's keen on Slim, the local aviator. He takes her up in his plane, while Chubby is left on the ground where he runs afoul of an angry mob. So Josephine and Slim have to save him from the airplane.

"An Unseen Enemy"--another D. W. Griffith drama. The servants attempt to steal the inheritance of two young sisters, played by Lillian and Dorothy Gish in their screen debuts.

And then the feature "Judith of Bethulia" by D. W. Griffith. A biblical epic and the movie that ushered Griffith out of Biograph (basically, the cost of feature films broke up the Patents Company studios). Bethulia is an ancient Jewish city, guarding the entrance to Jerusalem. One problem--the local well is outside the city gates. That's all fine and well, until the Assyrians come and lay siege to the city. The citizens are starving, when Judith, a local beloved widow, hears the voice of God. She undergoes a ritual cleansing, dresses in her finest clothes, and goes out to present herself to the Assyrian general Holfernes. The plan is to seduce him and then murder him. As she gets to know him, her passion is slightly aroused and she has some doubts. But luckily her resolve is strong!

And finally, the festival had to end with the films of the Essanay Studio. Founded in Chicago by George Spoor and Gilbert Anderson (later Broncho Billy), the name was a combination of their initials (S & A = Essanay). Their primary studio was in Chicago, but they opened a west coast studio in Niles, where Anderson shot their westerns (he was allegedly fond of saying he could walk off the set and right into the scenery). In fact, Broncho Billy himself came for this show. It's true I have photographic proof!

Although not in this program, for one year Essanay also employed a young comedian by the name of Charlie Chaplin, and he shot a handful of films in Niles, including "The Tramp". That wasn't on the program, but here's what was:

"The Madman"--unfortunately, the end of this film is missing, but what exists shows a madman who's also a master of disguise. He escapes from the asylum, and seeks out his father. He's a little obsessed with his father--with killing him, to be precise. He breaks in, ties up his father, and steals his identity (master of disguise, remember). He's discovered and runs away, hopping on a hot air balloon. Allegedly in the end, he's pushed out of the balloon and falls to his death, but that part was missing.

"Broncho Billy's Christmas Dinner"--Good ol' Broncho Billy is going to rob a stagecoach. Trouble is, the driver is missing and the coach is out of control (the horses got spooked at a rest stop). So Billy chases it down and stops it, and happens to save the lady passenger. She's on her way home for Christmas dinner, and invites Billy along. Her father happens to be the sheriff, and with all the loving law-abiding folks, Billy is ashamed and confesses--and is pardoned. And a delicious Christmas dinner was enjoyed by all.

"Alkali Bests Broncho Billy"--Alkali Ike (Augustus Carney) was a staple of Essanay comedies. A goofy little guy with a big hat. In this one, everybody (including Broncho Billy) is competing to take the boss's pretty niece to the dance. Billy looks like he'll win, until Ike points out that his banjo is providing the music, and unless he gets to take her, there's no dance. Billy is left with nothing.

"The New Church Organ"--A romance between an organ salesman and the minister's daughter.

"The Shotgun Ranchman"--A heartwarming comedy shot in Niles, about a gruff old ranch owner who won't let women-folk or children on his property. That is, until the little girl who lives next door befriends him, turning him into a caring person.

"Sophie's Hero"--this is the oldest surviving Snakeville comedy from Niles. Sophie wins the attention of all the local men. Alkali Ike, being a weakling, doesn't have much of a chance. But when he puts on a bearskin and scares them all away, he wins!

"Broncho Billy and the Claim Jumpers"--Shot in Niles, an exciting adventure/race of Broncho Billy trying to file a claim before some claim jumpers can. The claim jumpers get a local bartender to drug Billy's stagecoach driver. So the driver's daughter has to drive the coach while Billy shoots at the crooks from the back of the coach. Shot in beautiful Niles canyon, and if you know the area you can tell it.

And finally, "Versus Sledge Hammers" is a Snakeville comedy also shot in Niles. Sophie has inherited a million dollars. The Count hears of it, and decides to seduce her and marry her for her money. But her sweetheart Pete, the local blacksmith, won't give her up without a fight. Who do you think will win, in this battle of pompous aristocracy versus sledge hammers?

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