Monday, July 14, 2008

Jason goes to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Okay, I'm getting backed up on this blogging thing. So I'm going to make this a brief rundown of the weekend festival. But I do want to preface it by saying that the silent film fans in the SF Bay Area (at this festival and every week in Niles) are some of the coolest, funnest, most intimidatingly knowledgeable film fans I've ever met, and the staff has a sense of fun and showmanship unparalleled in any festival I've seen. I've wanted to make it to this festival for a few years, and now that I've been I'm hooked. Can't wait for next year.

Now, with that out of the way, on to the poorly-written capsule reviews:

The festival opened Friday, with a short from a familiar face. "Broncho Billy's Adventure". First I should mention that all the shorts this year were all restored by students from the L. Jeffrey Selznick school of film preservation sponsored by George Eastman House. In this film Broncho Billy rides into town and stays at the local inn. The innkeeper's daughter is the local beauty, and all the men in town are vying for her hand. So much it overwhelms her father, who insists that he can't lose her. He's so protective he chases away her love, turning the townsfolk against him. Broncho Billy has to play both cupid and peacemaker, getting the young lovers together, getting her father to give her some freedom, and keeping the townsfolk from lynching him.

The feature was a Harold Lloyd comedy, "The Kid Brother". But first it was introduced by a short conversation with film critic/silent film festival advisory board member Leonard Maltin and Harold's granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd. I have to make a minor digression before I review the movie. First, I'm a "Futurama" fan and I've always liked the tribute character Harold Zoid, Dr. Zoidberg's distant uncle who was one of the early silent hologram stars (I love the idea that when movies go 3-D, they had to start again with silents). Well in real life Harold Lloyd was a huge fan of 3-D stereoscopic photography, taking hundreds of thousands of pictures, including many "cheesecake" shots of his famous neighbors (like Marilyn Monroe). So I like to think that making Harold Zoid an early 3-D film star was a little sly nod to that.

Okay, enough digression, back to the movie. "The Kid Brother" is a hilarious movie in which Harold Lloyd plays the youngest brother in a family of manly men. His father is the local sheriff, his brother's are two strapping lads, and he's a little pipsqueak, but a clever guy who thinks differently (like washing the clothes in the butter churn and hanging them to dry on a kite string. His family picks on him, especially when a local medicine show comes to town and he accidentally gives them permission to perform. But when the towns dam money (money for a dam) is stolen and his father is framed, it becomes his time to shine, and like in every Harold Lloyd movie, he saves the day and gets the girl. And a good time was had by all, helped out by the wonderful live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Well then on Saturday I skipped the film festival. Instead I watched my beloved Quakes tie in a mediocre soccer game, then drank wine and hung out with my friends in San Mateo. A good time was still had, but not at the festival so we'll just move on.

On to Sunday morning, starting out with an animation program.

The short "The Bottom of the Sea" is a simple, funny line animation of a car that turns to a boat that turns to a submarine and sees a bunch of animals at the bottom of the ocean. Only a fragment exists, the ending is missing.

And then the feature, "The Adventures of Prince Achmed", which is the oldest known animated feature-length film (a good 11 years before Walt Disney made "Snow White", the first color animated feature with sound). This was made by a German woman, Lotte Reiniger, who as a little girl was always interested in cut-out silhouettes. And so she animated (with the help of several assistants) a sweeping adventure epic. The evil African Sorcerer tricks Prince Achmed into taking a ride on his flying horse so he can seduce Achmed's sister. His adventures take him to the magical land of fairies, where he falls for fairy Princess Peri Banu (after romping about with all her attendants!) In far-off China he has to rescue her with the help of the Witch of Fire Mountain and then return home to battle the African Sorcerer. An amazing achievement.

Next up, the great film historian David Shepard was given the Silent Film Award. My readers may remember him for presenting the George Melies program at Niles a few weeks back.

Then the feature, "The Silent Enemy". Doomed commercially by being designated an "educational" film, this movie shows the lives of the Ojibwa tribe of northern Canada. Particularly, during one particularly dire winter (the silent enemy of the title is hunger), when old chief Chetoga dies and the evil Medicine Man Bagwan makes a power play against the mighty hunter Baluk so that he can marry Neewa, Chetoga's daughter. Nowadays the educational aspects seem dated and questionable (could they really keep bear cubs as pets? Especially after killing the mom and only using the fur?) But the politics of tribe dynamics is actually pretty interesting and makes for an exciting story. Perhaps now this will be rediscovered (by more than just me and a Castro-full of silent film fans) and be recognized as the solid entertainment it always was and no longer be doomed to the fate of an "educational" film. Of course, it's got a double uphill climb as a silent educational film.

The next show started with a restored very rare screen test of Mary Pickford in Technicolor. That's right you losers (unless you were there), I've seen Mary Pickford--the original America's Sweetheart--in freakin' color! I've seen the red of her lips, the green of her dress (and eyes, but that might have been an artifact of the early Technicolor process), the slight pink-white of her face. It was awesome!

Then the feature was a Colleen Moore comedy, "Her Wild Oat". Colleen Moore was a famous silent film star, and practically defined the "flapper" look in "Flaming Youth". "Her Wild Oat" was thought to be lost until it showed up recently in the Czech republic, but more on that later. In this movie she plays an orphan who has grown up to run a little diner stand. One night, a rich aristocrat is mugged. Penniless he stops at her stand for a cup of coffee, and she takes some pity on him (allowing him to work off his bill washing dishes--which he promptly breaks). She advises him to get a job instead of being such a bum (she doesn't know he's so rich). He later pays her back, telling her he got a job as a driver for a rich man, and they're going away for a couple of weeks of leisure. This puts ideas into her head, so she dips into her savings for a couple of weeks of vacation herself. But she just doesn't fit in at the rich people's resort, until a writer friend spots her and makes her up as the fake Duchesse de Granville (yes, they use the french spelling instead of Duchess, more on that later). Little does she know that that's actually the name of her rich friends' new stepmother and hilarious hijinx ensue, ending with a happily ever after (even for the doggies!).

Then the movie was followed by a brief talk from a film preservationist about the reconstruction of this movie. You see, when lost silents are discovered in foreign countries, they usually have inserts and intertitles in the native tongue, and this was no exception. Creating new English intertitles can be tricky, as it's not just a simple translation job (often they were poorly translated from English to begin with). However, with "Her Wild Oat" they were blessed with the original English script. Problem is, they were blessed with many working versions of the original script, and no way to know how it ended up. But it's fascinating how they pieced together clues as to how it was originally presented. For example, the spelling of "Duchesse" with the "e" I mentioned above. That's not correct English, but it was in the script. More importantly, a contemporary newspaper account complained about just this mistake. So while you might suppose that "Duchesse" is a poor translation from Czech back to English, in fact it was that way in the original English version. Fascinating, and doesn't distract one bit from a charming, funny film.

Next up was the experimental program of the festival. First the short "Kaleidoscope", a completely abstract early Technicolor test using prisms. Pretty cool.

And then there was "Jujiro", the movie that convinced me that the Japanese have made fucked up movies from the very beginning. A lowly japanese man drinks and gets into fights. He has a crush on a beautiful "lady of the evening." He gets into fights, loses his money, and has to be bailed out by his very patient sister. When he's blinded by ashes in yet another fight, things go from bad to worse. But beyond just the story, the visuals are as stunning as anything you'd see today. Absolutely amazing.

And finally (I really lived up to my opening promise to be brief, aren't I?) the final show of the weekend.

First a short travelogue, "Lost-A Yodel" about winter life in the Swiss Alps. Cool fun in the snow.

And the final feature, the comedy "The Patsy" starring Marion Davies and directed by King Vidor. Marion is Patricia Harrington, the little sister of the Harrington family, ruled by a domineering mother (Marie Dressler, also awesome) who clearly prefers her big sister Grace. Pat is more of a daddy's girl, problem is daddy can't stand up to ma. Pat has eyes for Grace's boyfriend, who doesn't even know she exists. Grace is a big flirt and starts canoodling with the local rich playboy, leaving her former beau in the dust. Eventually he actually figures out that Pat is interested, but not before wacky hijinx and uncomfortable mix-ups. And loads of tom-foolery by Davies, including a famous scene of her impersonating other famous female screen legends of the time, that had the house roaring with laughter. An excellent way to end the festival on a high note.

And that, my friends, is that. Finally.

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