Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Jason finishes the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

All right, it was another lovely day in the Castro. And a light day, just 5 movies.

First up was a presentation of OSWALD THE LUCKY RABBIT cartoons. This was Walt Disney's character before he started his eponymous company and created that mouse character. At the time the films were distributed by Universal Pictures, who held on to the rights and distributed the original silent films with new sound as well as producing new cartoons. But what we saw Sunday morning were the original silent cartoons produced by Disney and drawn by Ub Iwerks, introduced by Ub's granddaughter Leslie Iwerks (who is also a documentary filmmaker who made THE HAND BEHIND THE MOUSE: THE UB IWERKS

A lot of gags were re-used throughout the films, and really it doesn't make a lot of sense to recap the plots, since a lot of it is just free-wheeling, not-quite narrative logic fun. So I'll just list the films (from the program guide)

ALL WET (1927)

Donald Sosin accompanied the films on Piano, with his wife singing, his son doing vocal sound effects, and the audience joining in as instructed. For example, for ALL WET, we'd make ocean noises, for TROLLEY TROUBLE we'd be a clanging trolley bell, for OH TEACHER we'd be a school bell, etc. Lots of fun, and a good pick me up to start a long day of film.

For the next show, we started with a short that took us all the way back to 1900, THE BARBER'S QUEER CUSTOMER. A man sits in a barber shop chair, but before the barber can shave him, he turns into a monkey. And every time the barber turns around, he changes to a different face.

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).

The Mont Alto Orchestra once again provided the music, and I can just repeat what Dennis James said--they were perfection!

Next up was the Director's Choice, where the festival invites a famous director to choose a silent film to play in the festival. The director this year was Terry Zwigoff (GHOST WORLD, BAD SANTA), and he chose a W. C. Fields classic (interesting to see Fields without hearing that famous voice. Other than in my head, that is).

But first a short, THEIR FIRST DIVORCE CASE, which I had seen at the Broncho Billy Film Festival last year. Directed by Mack Sennet, it's 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 feature was SO'S YOUR OLD MAN, and showcases classic Fields as a good natured, rough-edged drunk. Although he's also a genius glazier, who has invented an unbreakable glass windshield which will make him a fortune. But for now, he's a rough-edged drunk, much to the chagrin of his wife, who comes from a high class family but now has no social life between the laundry and the stove. However, that might all change since the son of the classiest family in town has his eye on their daughter. But then Fields meets the snooty, stuck up mother, and of course that destroys any chance. In the meantime, Fields goes to Washington for a meeting of auto makers to show off his windshield. The windshield really is unbreakable, but his car is towed and he accidentally smashes the windshields of a couple other cars, both destroying his deal and leaving him running for his life. On the train home, he contemplates (and comes close to attempting) suicide. Finally thinking the better, he meets a bored woman and talks to her (seeing a bottle of iodine labelled "poison", he thinks she had the same idea). Turns out, she's the princess of Spain, and is sad because she's bored and feels useless. Turns out helping Fields is just the pick-me-up she needs. To bad their close talking is witnessed by busybody ladies from his town, so by the time he gets home his 'philandering' is the talk of town. But when the princess shows up to visit him, suddenly the snobs who would cross the street if they saw him coming all want to be his best friend. Hilarious, ending with some fantastic physical hi-jinks on a golf course (with a caddy who really doesn't like him).

The film was accompanied by the always excellent Dr. Phil Carli on piano.

Next up was THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER. The original preceding short was supposed to be GETTING EVEN (1909, D. W. Griffith, Mary Pickford), but the print that arrived was 16 mm, and the Castro does not play 16 mm. So pianist Stephen Horne had a bright idea, play the abstract surrealist short THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER (1928 by James Sibley Watson). Of course, no time to get a film print, but it's on the DVD set Treasures from American Film Archives. Ummm...I couldn't tell you what happened, it's far too abstract. But it was beautiful.

Oddly the feature THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, was made the same year by Jean Epstein in France, and is considered a classic of surrealist cinema (Luis Buñuel was assistant director until Epstein fired him...let's say for "creative differences"...and told him to stay the hell away from surrealism). Odd that this one was made by the famous surrealists, because it was far more straightforward than the American short version. It takes quite a few liberties with Poe's story (Madeline Usher is Roderick's wife, not his sister, and they both actually survive the fire and collapse of the house), but it keeps a creepy, dreamlike (that's surrealism for you) look, feel, pace, and logic throughout.

Stephen Horne (now an unofficial assistant festival programmer) accompanied again on the piano.

And finally we came to the last show of the festival (12 movies crammed into one dense weekend).

First the short, THE LESSER EVIL. Again, a Griffith Biograph short, and like so much cinema of any era, it showcases a girl and a chase. The girl is Blanch Sweet. The chase comes because she's kidnapped by smugglers when she accidentally overhears their plan. Her boyfriend and the police are chasing them, but on the boat the crew is eager to have a little fun with her. But the captain will have none of it (making him, I suppose, the titular lesser evil). Interesting that while her boyfriend and the police finally catch up and arrest the smugglers, it's the captain who fended them off and really saved her. In thanks, she keeps him hidden and lets him escape (presumably totally reformed, never to break the law again).

And the final feature, LADY OF THE PAVEMENTS, brought us back to the leading lady of the opening film, the Mexican spitfire Lupe Velez, this time teaming with director D. W. Griffith. It also brought us to 1929, the year when all studios were transitioning to sound. Griffith shot this as a silent, but then had to go back and shoot a little dialogue and record some songs to make it a "partial-talkie". About half the songs are lost, but one--Irving Berlin's "Where is the Song of Songs For Me?"--is well known (and was sung by Lupe Velez herself for the soundtrack). Problems with the sound recordings made this film a flop on the initial release, and caused UA chief Joseph Schenck to issue ultimatums about the technology for sound recordings in the future. The version we got thankfully had no recording glitches, because all the sounds were live, provided by Donald Sosin on the piano with Joanna Seaton singing the few of the songs that are known (including, of course "Where is the Song of Songs For Me?")

The story is about Karl (William Boyd), a German diplomat in Paris, who is engaged to the height of Paris social circles, Countess Diane des Granges (Jetta Goudal). When he catches her cheating on him, he'll have none of it, even if she's cheating on him with the Emperor of France himself (which she is). He calls off the wedding and insists he'd rather marry a girl from the streets than her. So she arranges just that, hiring cabaret singer Nanon del Rayon (Lupe Velez) to pose as an aristocratic lady and make Karl fall in love with her to teach him a lesson. Her plan works perfectly--too perfectly, as both Karl and Nanon fall for each other (in no small part due to the song she sings). Diane lets it go way too far before she reveals her trick in the cruelest manner possible. But, to no one's surprise, love conquers all. The final scene, where she's singing "Where is the Song of Songs For Me?" and all the bar customers are turning into Karl is really quite beautiful.

And that's the way SF2F ended. it was just one weekend, but still a really exhausting, intense festival. On the one hand, I'd love it to get so huge that it plays a full week or more. On the other hand, I don't think I could survive that.

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