Friday, January 20, 2017

Jason goes to a Day of Silents

We started with something a bit near and dear to my heart, a program of Chaplin at Essanay. This was his second studio, after one year at Keystone. And included a stint in the town of Niles, now part of Fremont, CA, where there is a silent film museum dedicated to the Essanay studio...and it happens to be my new hometown (I timed it, it's an 18 minute walk from my apartment to the museum!)

HIS NEW JOB (1915): The main Essanay studio was actually Chicago, and this is the first movie Chaplin made for Essanay and the only one he made in Chicago (a combination of weather and the business demeanor of studio co-head George Spoor drove him back to California.) Starting out at Lockstone Studios (a sendup of his former employer, Keystone) Chaplin makes a typically hilarious mess of things backstage. It also features his first appearance with famous cross-eyed comedian Ben Turpin (allegedly the first person to ever take a pie in the face for comedy) and an early background appearance by Gloria Swanson (who auditioned for the female lead but was rejected by Chaplin.)

A NIGHT AT THE SHOW (1915): Chaplin plays dual roles, based on his pre-film days in the Fred Karno music hall troupe. As Mr. Pest, he's a well-to-do drunken lout, stumbling and annoying everyone. As Mr. Rowdy in the balcony, he's equally if not more drunk, and causing even more mayhem. Incidentally, Chaplin's "inebriate" acts were inspired by his own father, who died of alcoholism. Like many comedians, his comedy often came from a dark place. Anyway, as a parade of awful, awful acts come across the stage, Mr. Pest and Mr. Rowdy cause hilarious havoc on the performers, the audiences, and even each other.

THE CHAMPION (1915): Made right in Niles, this is Chapin's early boxing picture (way before CITY LIGHTS) where he uses the old horseshoe in the glove to go from a hungry tramp to knocking out the champ. It includes the pairing with his pet bulldog Quapaw Lord Orry and a cameo by G. M. Anderson (The "A" to Spoor's "S" that gives the studio the name Essanay, and most famous as Broncho Billy) as a fan ringside during the title fight. Excellent.

And the Day of Silents Continued...

SO THIS IS PARIS (1926): Ah, Ernst Lubitsch and the Lubitsch touch. Georgette lives in Paris with her effete actor husband Maurice. Across the street is the stuffy Dr. Paul Giraud and his wife Suzanne. Suzanne spends all day reading romance novels about Arabian sheiks. When she catches a glimpse of bare-chested Maurice in costume, she is smitten, but plays it off to Paul as being offended. When Paul goes over to give them a piece of his mind, he finds that Georgette is actually an old girlfriend. And so mutual affairs begin, each hiding from the other. Each finding proof of infidelity, but each unable to confront the other without exposing their own infidelity. A hilarious comedy of manners and cheating partners that nobody--nobody!--can do better than Lubitsch. It's exactly what he's famous for.

And the Day of Silents Continued...

STRIKE (1925): Just before he made BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, Sergei Eisenstein made this fiery political film about oppressed factory workers under czarist Russia. But not just the strike, it's about the underhanded spies working on behalf of management who sow discord and riots. The initial excitement over presenting communal demands grows into tiring starvation and infighting. It's not just a story of the excitement of revolution, but the exhausting, fractious work of keeping it going. Eisenstein was definitely a fan of the crowd as the hero, so to western audiences used to a singular protagonist, it can be a little hard to follow. But it's still fantastic.

And the Day of Silents Continued...

First up, Flashes of the Past: A review of historic events from 1910 to 1925. From Pathé News, it's exactly what it sounds like, a compilation of news stories spanning 15 years.

DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS (1919): This is a truly remarkable film, and a revelation. A pro-gay rights story from 1919. From the work of Prussian doctor Magnus Hirschfeld, it's a direct rebuke to Germany's Paragraph 175 law, which explicitly forbid male homosexual acts as well as other perceived sexual aberrations. Paul Körner (Conrad Veidt, just before he became an international star with THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI) is a famous violinist. His same-sex attractions are stirred by his new adoring student Kurt Sivers (Fritz Shulz.) Their relationship is chaste, but affectionate, and does not go unnoticed by Paul's former lover Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schünzel) who blackmails them to keep it a secret. Magnus Hirschfeld makes an appearance as a doctor and sexologist, imploring that their relationship is natural and nothing to be ashamed of or to punish them for. But that's not enough to stop this from being a sad, sad story.

And the Day of Silents Continued...

THE LAST COMMAND (1928): Josef von Sternberg, Emil Jannings, what more needs to be said? Jannings plays a former Russian general, now defeated and living in poverty in Hollywood trying to get work as a movie extra. His director (William Powell) happens to be a former revolutionary who defeated him. Powell recognizes him, but Jannings does not. And the film set will be a continuation of his torture, punishment, and humiliation. But will also lead to one of the most brilliant portrayals ever on film, even if it kills him.

And the Day of Silents Continued...

SADIE THOMPSON (1928): We started the day with a tiny cameo of Gloria Swanson, and ended with her in the starring role. Sadie is a prostitute, on the run from the law (from San Francisco, in fact!) and arriving in Pago-Pago to start a new life...or to continue her old one. She's of course popular with the local Marines, and especially with Sergeant Tim O’Hara (Raoul Walsh.) But she's less popular with the local missionary and reformer Davidson (Lionel Barrymore.) That is, until his hypocrisy reveals itself. Wonderful acting, and beautiful rain-drenched cinematography (it was based on Somerset Maugham's novella "Rain.") A great way to end the night!

And the Day of Silents...finally ended.

Total Running Time: 497 minutes
My Total Minutes: 439,166

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