Sunday, June 5, 2016

Jason goes to Silentfest--Day 3

Another huge day at SFSFF, starting with a show of Comedy restorations courtesy of Lobster Films.

BATTLE OF THE CENTURY (1927): This was the headliner, discovered recently by Jon Mirsalis (who also accompanied all the films on the piano) the famous lost second reel of this legendary Laurel and Hardy film, featuring an epic pie fight. The two reels oddly pretty much stand on their own as separate films, with Stan as a prize fighter and Ollie as his coach in the first reel, and the second reel starting with them walking down the street after buying some accident insurance. Then some hijinx with a banana peel, and we're off to the pie fights. You'd think the gag of hitting people with pies would grow old...and you'd be wrong. It was fantastic.

COPS (1922): A Keaton classic. Buster accidentally steals a wallet (from a cop) and "buys" a truckload of furniture to prove he's a good businessman and win his girl. But wacky hijinx ensue (including a particularly famous boxing glove gag, and a reference to "goat glands" treatments.) And it culminates in all of the L.A.P.D. chasing him all over town. Hilarious.

THE BALLOONATIC (1923): Buster Keaton again, with the sort of wacky hijinx only possible in cartoons (or in Buster Keaton's world.) Surprisingly, very little ballooning occurs in the movie, mostly serving to transport Buster from his crazy mishaps in an amusement park to the wilderness where he tries to survive and romance Phyllis Haver. Then it shows up again in a gag at the very end. It's not a very coherent story, even by silent short comedy standards, but it's a good collection of gags that makes your head spin.

THE DANCING PIG (1907): Completely bizarre. A pig invites a girl to dance. She strips him naked and dances with him. And then it gets weird. Those eyes...that tongue...that mouth.

Okay, I needed a break and a palate cleanser after that pig, so it was time to go to Sweden with THE STRONGEST (DEN STARKASTE) (1929.) The stark nature vistas are a character in themselves in this film. Skipper Olsen of the hunting ship Viking has a beautiful daughter, and a farmhand Ole who's sweet on her. But his son-in-law must be strong enough to take over as captain of the Viking some day. So next spring, he takes on with a rival ship, Maud, and becomes their best gunner, hunting seals. But an accident leaves him stranded on an ice floe where the Viking picks him up and rescues him. It turns out his rival for the daughter is there, and he must prove he's not just the strongest but also an honorable, good man to win the hunt and win the daughter. Some scenes of hunting (seals and polar bears) which appear to feature real animal kills tend to upset modern audiences, but I thought overall the film was magnificent and amazing.

Matti Bye Ensemble provided the soundtrack, which played as the tense heartbeat of the film. I'm running out of superlatives for the musicians.

Next up was SHOOTING STARS, a back-lot comedy-drama from England. Mae Feather (Annette Benson) and Julian Gordon (Brian Aherne) are a married acting team. Andy Wilkes (Donald Calthrop) is the studio's bushy-mustached comedy star. Unbeknownst to Julian, Mae no longer loves him and has been having an affair with Andy. So when they all get invited to make films in America, she is eager to go there with Andy, but not as much with Julian. The middle part drags somewhat...or maybe it was just me succumbing to exhaustion. But it ends with a surprising shift in tone, as the more comic tone of the first half gives way to a deadly serious dramatic turn, and a post-script that's a downright depressing statement on the fickleness of fame.

Stephen Horne was a one-man band on piano, flute, and accordion providing an excellent score for the film.

Next up was WITHIN OUR GATES (1920,) the oldest known surviving film made by an African American director (Oscar Micheaux) and something of a direct reaction to BIRTH OF A NATION (1915.) A complex and unflinching look at race in both the American south and the north, where the hatred isn't as prevalent but lynchings are not unheard of. It's a complicated plot going back and forth from the north to the small southern town of Piney Woods, where Sylvia tries to help a reverend keep his school for black children open. Actually, that part of the story is pretty straightforward. But it's complicated by her mysterious past, an anti-negro politician, his Uncle-Tom servant, a philanthropist, a murder, a frame-up, a lynching, etc. I need to watch this again with a little more rest, so I can follow all the threads. It's a smart, multi-layered movie with good and bad characters of all skin tones.

The excellent accompaniment was courtesy of a new score by Adolphus Hailstork, performed by Oakland Symphony musicians and members of the Oakland Symphony Chorus, conducted by Michael Morgan. The music was beautiful, and I was most impressed with the frequent use of silence, like the music made you feel, but this is a film that also requires some quiet moments to think, as well.

And then it was time for a comedy masterpiece, THE ITALIAN STRAW HAT (1928.) Building comedy layer-upon-layer based mostly on how articles of clothing can fail you. Cravats slip, shoes are too tight, pins stick in your back, an ear trumpet gets clogged, and then there's the business of the titular hat. A groom is on his way home to get married, when he drops his riding crop. While he fetches it, his horse wanders off and takes a big bite out of a rare hat made of Italian straw hanging from a nearby tree. It turns out that belongs to a woman who is just off in the woods with her boyfriend...who is not her husband. And if she comes home with the straw hat destroyed, her husband will know something is up. And the boyfriend--who is also a soldier--will do what it takes to make sure that doesn't happen. So the groom has to sneak away from his own wedding and find a replacement hat. And wacky hijinx ensue. What's so wonderful about this is the setup is ripe for slapstick zaniness, but director René Clair imbues it with subtle playfulness instead, with little side jokes that whimsically build on each other, so that it all feels like a perfectly natural, elegant comedy of errors and manners.

And the Guenter Buchwald Ensemble did a fantastic job complementing the comedy, after Guenter himself introduced the film.

And finally, we ended the night with THE LAST WARNING (1929.) I was tempted to skip this, as I had seen it recently back in Niles, but was intrigued by the new restoration by Universal. Here's what I wrong when I saw it last Halloween:
THE LAST WARNING (1929): Paul Leni's funny/scary backstage murder mystery, and much like his CAT AND THE CANARY established all the clichés for haunted house movies, this does the same for backstage murders (well, I guess Phantom of the Opera did a lot of that first, but still...) The opening scenes set the stage (pun intended) brilliantly. Famous actor John Woodford dies on stage during a performance of his play "The Snare." Chloroform poisoning seems to be the cause, murder is suspected, and the leading lady Miss Doris Terry (Laura La Plante) is the prime suspect. And then...the body mysteriously disappears before the coroner can conduct his autopsy. Flash forward five years, the theater has been closed, the cast has gone their separate ways. And now a new producer wants to open it up, putting on a new production of "The Snare" with the original cast (minus, of course, Woodford.) And soon after a phantom-like character appears to torment the cast with warnings and more. A nice mix of humor and suspense that Paul Leni was great at (too bad he died shortly after making this film) and an effective reveal at the end. Good film.
All still true, and still a great film. And the restoration is pretty clean, although I have it on good authority there was more source material (including a little color) that they could've used. Still, a great way to end a great and exhausting day at the festival.

Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius were the fantastic accompanists for the film.

Total Running Time: 535 minutes
My Total Minutes: 430,442

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