Friday, July 13, 2012

Jason goes to Silentfest--Opening Night

All, right, the most intense weekend of cinephilia of the entire year in the entire SF Bay Area started last night. I always tell people that I'm more spent at the end of one (extended) weekend of the SF Silent Film Festival than I am after two weeks of the SF International or Cinequest. At least other festivals can have a bit of a break between films, but from now until the end of Sunday it will be silent film non-stop from 10:00 am until approximately midnight every day. And I love it!

We started the night, after a few opening comments and thank-yous with a clip from RED HAIR, the only surviving clip of this rare example of Clara Bow in color, showing off her red hair as she wins over an "old bird"--by which the film means an actual pelican. Funny, and just a cool way to see Clara Bow in glorious 2-strip Technicolor (tm). And thank you to Stephen Horne for the accompaniment.

Then for the main event, celebrating Paramount's 100th birthday (100 years to the day of their first released film) with their (and anyone's) first best picture winner, WINGS, introduced by the director's son William Wellman, Jr. He gave a nice, brief introduction giving just a taste of what it took to get the film made (including a $16 million in-kind contribution by the U.S. military in the form of men, tanks, artillery, planes, etc.) and the effort to convince Zukor and Lasky to take a chance on a young "Wild Bill" Wellman (their only director with aviation combat experience) over such esteemed names as Cecil B. DeMille or Victor Fleming. Well, needless to say, it all worked out for them. 

This was the second time I'd seen WINGS on the big screen. The first time was at the Niles Essanay Film Museum for the 80th anniversary of it winning the best picture (actually, "Most Outstanding Production.") Let's see what I said then: 
last weekend my favorite local spot, the Niles Film Museum did a special presentation on the 80th anniversary of the very first Academy Awards. On that night 80 years (and one week) ago, William Wellman's WINGS won the first award for "Most Outstanding Production" (next year changed to "Best Picture"). Not only was it the first winner, it's still (and I think safe to assume always will be) the only silent film to win.
So the Niles Film Museum played WINGS. The original aviation picture that spawned a genre, and a story of war, heroism, friendship, and romance. First the romance: Jack Powell (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) and David Armstrong (Richard Arlen) are both smitten with Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), but Mary Preston (Clara Bow) is in love with Jack, but to him she's just the girl next door, nothing special.
Now the war: WWI, and Jack and David join the Air Force. Meanwhile,unbeknownst to Jack, Mary joins the Women's Motor Corps as an ambulance driver (she knows a lot about cars, helping Jack on his hot rod). In boot camp, Jack harasses David since they're still rivals, but eventually the pressures of war turn them into true friends (with the help of an ill-fated ace, a cameo by then little-known Gary Cooper). Oh yeah, that's the friendship part, and the aviation scenes (which are still thrilling) provide plenty of heroics, in particular saving an entire town from a bombing attack.
But enough of plot summaries, I'll just say I teared up a bit at the end, and I was far from the only one. They don't make 'em like that anymore.
Okay, obviously I have to take back that line about how it's safe to assume no other silent film will win Best Picture. Congratulations again to THE ARTIST and thank you for making me look foolish. Other than that, I'll stick by that review, although I have to mention that since I knew the ending I didn't actually tear up this time (although I was kinda close.) 

I also, for some reason, paid more attention to the comic relief of the character Herman Schwimpf (Ed Brendel) a super-patriotic Dutch-American with a Stars-and-Stripes tattoo on his arm. And at the same time I focused more on the horrors of war (especially the soldier dying of shell shock.) And, of course, I was even more in love with Clara Bow this time, and was a bit more annoyed when she was cast aside (although I loved the Paris bubbles scene that led up to it) and didn't appear again until the end. But more than anything, I noticed it could be seen as an early example of queer cinema.

Now I don't want to read too much into it. Maybe it's seeing it through different eyes in a different time and a different place (it's certainly easier to pick up on gay subtext in San Francisco than anywhere else.) But there is an early nude scene in the recruiting office (recruits are seen through a door getting their physicals and naked man asses show up on screen.) The central relationship--more than any of the "romantic" relationships--is the friendship of Jack and David, and the death scene turns into a full on embrace between the two. Even the awards scene where the heroic soldiers are kissed on the cheek by the French general is a little suspect. Again, I don't want to read too much into it, but it's there for what it's worth.

I also have to thank the magnificent Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra for performing the score, and also multi-Oscar winner Ben Burtt for orchestrating his team to provide sound effects at appropriate moments (mostly in the aviation dogfight scenes.) I have to admit that the first plane crash and the accompanying bass drum crash made me jump a bit. The only issue I had was with myself--sometimes I was so curious about where the effect came from that I'd look around at the effects artists instead of watching the film.

Anyway, after the film we made our way down to the after party at the McRoskey Mattress Company. A little nosh, some drinks (including a deadly punch with gin and Prosecco) and a good time hanging out with other silent film geeks. And then, just as we were ready to head out, we got a ride from the President of the Board of the SFSFF and all-around nice guy Rob Byrne back to our car in the Castro. Oh, I guess I should say that "we" are myself and my friend Phil. And I should thank Phil for the ride home--saved me at least a half hour on BART.

Total Running Time: 141 minutes

Now I need to explain something here. For the most part, I count minutes as what is listed on IMDb or the festival program or wherever I can find an "official" running time. The issue with silent films is they can be played at different speeds and their running time will change. Sometimes there is no listed running time, so I'll estimate based on the number of reels and always try to guess low. But from now on, I will try to remember to actually use a stopwatch and time the silent films I see. The festival program actually listed WINGS as 142 minutes. I times both WINGS and RED HAIR (which was just over 2 minutes) and they came out to a total of 2:20:39. I rounded up to 2:21 or 141 minutes. See, without doing that I would've granted myself an extra undeserved minute! So from now on, if I see a silent film and actually successfully time the minutes I spend watching it, I'll list the minutes exactly. If I forget to time the exact minutes, I'll list them as "estimated." I can't change what I saw and counted as minutes in the past, so all the silent films I've seen so far used "estimated" minutes.

My Total Minutes: 290,287

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