Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Jason goes to the Silent Film Festival's Day of Silents

It was weird, in the wake of the Paris attacks, telling people I was going up to the city for a day of silent, and having them think I met "silence." In any case, a full day of silent films, including some gems I'd never seen before.

THE BLACK PIRATE (1926): This one I had seen before, most recently in 2009, when I wrote this:
And then Douglas Fairbanks wowed the crowd with his trademark daring-do--in Technicolor. That's right, all the way back in the silent days (THE BLACK PIRATE was made in 1926), there were some color films. Two-strip Technicolor was the new thing then, although it was very expensive and some projectionists had a hard time with it, so it was released in color and black-and-white prints. We got the color version.
Fairbanks plays the title role (of course), but he doesn't start as a pirate. He and his father are the only survivors of a pirate attack, and are marooned on an island. He swears revenge, and as luck would have it the pirates show up to hide their treasure. But instead of a straightforward attack, he uses his cunning. He joins the pirates, and kills their leader in a test of strength and skill with a sword. To most, he becomes the new leader, but there's a faction that is loyal to the old ways. He wins most over by taking a merchant vessel single-handed (a showcase of his acrobatics). But then when it's discovered that there's a beautiful young lady on the ship, he must protect her--both because of his sense of honor and because of love at first sight. And this leads to more cunning, more acrobatics, and more heroism.

Well, that's okay for a plot synopsis, but it doesn't convey how much fun the movie is. Douglas Fairbanks is still Superman in my book.

AROUND CHINA WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1900-1948): Now this was a fascinating compilation from the BFI's archives. See Shanghai as a major international city. See the gates of the Forbidden City in Beijing. And also see the variety of film techniques in the day (tinted film, static or moving shots...this is a quick argument against anyone who naively thinks all silent films are alike.) And at the end it features some mysterious footage that might just be the oldest film ever shot in China (possibly pre-1900.) Pretty cool.

THE GRIM GAME (1919): One thing I didn't know before getting into silent films was that Harry Houdini was, in fact, a movie star. This movie, like his others, is an excuse to put him in one ridiculous escape scenario after another. In this one he plays a newspaper reporter with rich, miserly uncle who hates him. Houdini comes up with a strange plan to increase newspaper sales--frame himself for his uncle's murder. Not only will it drive up sales, but when the uncle shows up alive after a vacation in the country, it will totally discredit the idea of "circumstantial evidence"--the paper's cause célèbre. Unfortunately his boss and his business associates have their own plans--actually kill the uncle, frame Houdini, and steal the money. So Houdini has to go through one daring escape after another--and even an airplane stunt--to prove his innocence and catch the bad guys. Not the most nuanced of plots, but as a device to get Houdini from one escape to another, it serves pretty well. And his charisma does come across on screen.

THE INHUMAN WOMAN (1924): The we got to the real major treat of the day, a movie I want to own more than any other (and will be coming courtesy of Lobster Films and Flicker Alley in February!) It's beautifully constructed, with wild expressionist sets and architecture that out-Metropolis METROPOLIS four years before it was made. The story centers around a famous singer and her parties that attract artistic and intellectual elites from around the world--really any important person must be invited to her parties at least once. Of course all the men try to woo her, but all are rebuffed. Most importantly, a young engineer and inventor, who after being rebuffed drives off in a hurry and crashes over a cliff into the sea. She is blamed for the suicide, but goes ahead with her next concert anyway (where the extras in the audience include Picasso, Man Ray, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound...not to be a name-dropper.) The story takes increasingly bizarre, fantastical, science-fiction turns, and is just an absolutely amazing masterpiece, which apparently caused quite a controversy when it was first released.

PICADILLY (1929): And finally, we ended the night with Anna May Wong at her finest. Wong is still a favorite, especially in the Asian-heavy demographics of the SF Bay Area. And after getting nothing more than stereotypical dragon-lady roles in Hollywood, she moved to England for this film. She plays Shosho, a scullery maid in a popular London club. There her dancing is distracting enough to cause problems--a dirty plate makes it to the restaurant table. She's fired, but shortly after so is the club's star dance attraction. So the club manager finds her and decides a little exotic charm might be just what the club needs. Multiple love triangles ensue, and since she comes from the tough part of town (the Limehouse district) you just know someone's gonna ended up all murdered. Wong is perfect as a femme fatale with childlike sweetness...if you treat her right. A character straight out of the best of film noir, and this movie serves as a great bit of proto-noir.

And that was the Day of Silents. Looking forward to the whole long weekend of silents back at the Castro next June!

Total Running Time: 439 minutes
My Total Minutes: 412,295

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