Wings (1927) This much anticipated new restoration was an ideal choice for opening film - a model for the modern action blockbuster, but a reminder that such films are nothing without heart. William Wyler Jr was on hand to explain why Paramount took a chance on his father, an untried talent, and the movie showed why they made the right choice. Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen underplay their parts; Clara Bow is radiant and heartbreaking as the scrappy little girl next door. And then there are the magnificent flying scenes, which must have knocked a 1927 audience off their feet and are just as impressive today.
The Mont Alto Orchestra’s score was quite audacious in its heavy use of Foley - two upturned pushbikes figured amongst their equipment. This worked particularly well in some of the flying sequences, where Foley took over almost completely, and was performed so effectively as to be indistinguishable from the real thing. The legendary sound designer Bob Burtt was responsible for this impressive feat. Prior to Wings, we had an extra special, unannounced treat: five minutes of Clara Bow’s hitherto completely lost film, Red Hair! For a brief, wonderful moment, we all wondered whether the film had been rediscovered in full. No, this is all that has turned up - but what a thrill to see Clara in colour, even for that short time.
Little Toys (1933)
The first full day of the festival kicked off with an interesting talk on the restoration of ‘Wings’ and the growing precedence of digital film and projection, and the Chinese film Little Toyswas the first feature. It is not the best of the great Chinese star Ruan Lingyu’s starring vehicles - in fact, it might better be described as an ensemble piece. There is a nice chemistry between Ruan and her real-life daughter, and the vivacious Li Lili, as the same character in young adulthood, almost steals the show. Ruan is excellent nonetheless, as she has been in everything I’ve seen her in. Richard J. Meyer’s scholarly introduction gave some useful context on the film’s main purpose as a Chinese nationalist propaganda piece.
The Loves of Pharaoh (1922)
Ernst Lubitsch's The Loves of Pharoah was clearly influenced by the mass spectacles of Cecil de Mille, and probably also the early Italian historical epics such as Cabiria (1914). Emil Jannings is the Pharoah of the title, and turns in a performance that is not as scenery-chewing as I feared it might be, although the performance of Dagny Servaes as the put-upon Greek servant girl Theonis is the closest the film gets to subtlety.
A few short sequences are reconstructed with stills, but otherwise the images are sharp enough to have been shot yesterday, and show off some high production values. There was certainly skill on show here, it’s just not self-evidently the skill we associate with Lubitsch. The organ accompaniment by Denis James helped a great deal to lift the slower moments.
I’ve seen a few reviews dismiss Mantrap as excessively light, and perhaps it might be if anyone but Clara Bow was the star, or anyone but Victor Fleming was the director. Clara has a way of filling every scene she’s in, drawing every eye to her nuances, and most importantly for a story like this, making us forgive her entirely for being an incorrigible flirt. Ernest Torrance is lovable as Bow’s slow-thinking hillbilly husband. In the hands of Victor Fleming, its lightness becomes its strength. I found it a well-crafted, super snappy little comedy, and enjoyed every minute.
The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna (1929)
Brigitte Helm, most famous for her dual roles of labour leader Maria and robot doppelganger in Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), gets to wander around looking seductive and gorgeous as a world-weary kept woman who tires of being a plaything and is charmed by a feckless young soldier, played by Franz Lederer. It certainly looked beautiful, and I couldn’t fault the performances, so I’m not sure what it was that I found lacking - perhaps the familiarity of the story. There were some problems with the projection of the intertitle translations which had us clinging on to the plot with our high school German for the early part, so perhaps it would reward another viewing.
Leonard Maltin introduces Felix the Cat. Photo by Camille Scaysbrook.
The morning’s presentation of early Felix the Cat cartoons, introduced by Leonard Maltin, was wonderfully entertaining. Donald Sosin shared accompaniment duties with Toychestra, a band which, true to the name, makes use only of toy instruments.
It could have been gimmicky, but it was very effective, especially in the more surreal cartoons such as Felix Trips Thru Toyland. ‘Trips’ is right - forget the famous urban myth about the suicidal Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz, Felix’s toyland features a clown hanging from a noose in a tree! I love to observe the evolution of film vocabulary in early film; here, you could see the same processes taking place for cartoons.
The Spanish Dancer (1923)
I was very much looking forward to the newly restored The Spanish Dancer, and it was everything I’d hoped - a terrific, lavish period romp, styled with reference to Velasquez (who even makes a few appearances as a character in the picture). Pola Negri is a plucky gypsy heroine who wins the love of a dashing rogue, well played by Antonio Moreno, and also becomes entangled in the affairs of the Spanish royal family.
The picture quality ranges from very good to fairly poor in a few 16mm-sourced sequences, but everything appeared intact and coherent without the need for reconstructions. The Spanish guitar-inflected accompaniment led by Donald Sosin was a nice touch. I hope this one makes it to DVD.
The Canadian (1926)
The Canadian was a festival highlight for me. What a beautifully crafted, subtle piece of work. On paper, the story is simple; like a non-comedic riff on the same theme as Mantrap: a snooty but penniless city girl (played by Mona Palmer) comes to live with her farmer brother, and thereby encounters his silently brooding workman (Thomas Meighan). Lovely performances all around and direction make it so much more than the bare synopsis indicates. This is a little gem that everyone needs to rediscover.
I was very proud to watch South and to see my countryman, the great Australian cinematographer Frank Hurley, receive his due. Hurley travelled with Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition of 1914-16 to capture the footage displayed in South, and quite rightly returned home a national hero. There were audible gasps around the cinema both at the images and the extraordinary story of the Shackleton expedition.
The documentary was originally presented by Shackleton himself, reading from his diaries and letters from the expedition. Actor (and, we discovered, genuine silent film afficionado) Paul McGann (above) took Shackleton’s place, and combined with Stephen Horne’s sensitive piano accompaniment, this method of presentation brought the images to life in a way that most viewings of early documentaries, stiff as they sometimes can be, could simply not do. Another highlight.
The glorious Castro Theatre marquee ready for 'Pandora's Box'. Photo by Camille Scaysbrook.
Pandora's Box (1928)
There was a huge sense of anticipation for the new restoration of Pandora’s Box, and by the time the doors finally opened forty minutes late due to a technical problem, it had reached fever pitch.
Despite the rumours, there was no new footage - the extra ten minutes was due to speed adjustments. Lulu’s dance with Countess Geschwitz was the only section that seemed noticeably slower to me, and even that could be my extrapolation. What I remembered as a nervous little fox trot now seemed a more sensuous tango.
The image quality was pristine; given the lack of original film elements, this is likely to be the best looking Pandora’s Box we will ever get. The early scenes in particular were like watching the film anew, full of things you never noticed before. According to the introduction, some repairs involved digitally compositing two separate sources to get the best qualities of each.
The Matti Bye Ensemble’s accompaniment was also debuted, and while there were effective sequences, especially in the closing act of the film, it felt a little unformed and repetitive, and might benefit from more work. This variety of score, which provides atmosphere without actively punctuating the action, can sometimes have the effect of ironing out some of the subtleties, which was occasionally the case here.
Photo by Camille Scaysbrook.
The Mark of Zorro (1920)
The final day of this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival opened with a splendid showing of Douglas Fairbanks' classic The Mark of Zorro.
It's a mark - no pun intended - of Fairbanks' forward thinking that the pacing and characterisation of Zorro feels so contemporary. We've since seen the formula duplicated countless times - famously, the film was a primary inspiration behind Batman - but Doug's effortless charisma and athleticism makes it as fresh as the day it was made.
It really felt like a proper old-style Sunday matinee, with another rousing Denis James Wurlitzer accompaniment - a perfect presentation for a rollicking Fairbanks film.
The Docks of New York (1928)
Josef von Sternberg's moody late silent showed me once again why I prefer his silent work to his talkies, with their stunning visuals but baffling stories. Betty Compson is terrific as a hard-boiled girl from nowhere who charms the hard-bitten stoker who rescues her from a watery (but gorgeously shot) suicide.
I think I will need to watch this Swedish comedy from Mauritz Stiller again. I could feel a frothy little sex comedy struggling to get out, but I just couldn’t connect with it. A rather dour accompaniment from the Matti Bye ensemble contributed to this feeling - it was musically interesting, but not in keeping with the playful atmosphere I think the film was trying to project.
Stella Dallas (1925)
I knew little of Stella Dallas but its reputation as a tearjerker; even a potboiler. Every expectation was swept away, and I found a film exemplary in almost every detail. Again, we begin with a simple story - poorly brought up Stella marries above herself. Estranged from her husband, she brings up their daughter Laurel alone. Soon, she soon finds her lack of refinement is holding Laurel back, and she must act to preserve her daughter’s dignity.
It is in the exquisite attention to detail that the film comes alive. Each performance is pitch perfect, but Belle Bennett’s, as the redoubtable Stella, stood out from them all. It would have been all too easy to drift into the realms of caricature or grotesquerie, but Bennett does not condescend to her character. She makes her lovable, vulnerable, achingly real. It’s a courageous, unforgettable performance.
Almost as good is Lois Moran as Stella’s daughter, Laurel. I was all ready to praise the second actress who played Laurel at the age of 10, only to discover that the two were one and the same. What a marvel of performance and costuming! I really can’t say much else except to add that Ronald Colman, Alice Joyce and Douglas Fairbanks Jr are all excellent in their smaller roles, and to note that the film left everyone emotional wrecks. To coin a cliche, there truly was not a dry eye in the house.
Frank Buxton and Leonard Maltin introduce Buster Keaton's 'The Cameraman' (1928). Photo by Camille Scaysbrook
Buster Keaton's The Cameraman (1928) finds Keaton at the height of his powers, in a film so beautifully constructed that it was screened to prospective comedy writers at MGM Studios for many years as an exemplar of what they should aim for.
Buster plays a tintype photographer who stakes everything on becoming a newsreel photographer - and getting the girl (an appealing Marceline Day). Keaton's stint at MGM may be much maligned, but there is no sense of artistic fatigue in his debut feature for the company. I thoroughly enjoyed this closing night showing which, as is always the case with silent comedy, benefits from a huge, appreciative audience. They don’t get much huger or more appreciative than this one. Mont Alto again provided a note perfect, highly entertaining score (I will never think of ‘The Beautiful Blue Danube’ in quite the same way again.)
The Cameraman was proceeded by a showing of the wonderful new colour restoration of George Melies’ A Trip To The Moon. This was the ideal way to see this very early masterpiece - with Melies’ original narration (provided again by Paul McGann) and with a playful accompaniment by the excellent Stephen Horne.
The Castro Theatre marquee. Photo by Camille Scaysbrook.
In between times I managed to spend a small fortune on books, and have great conversations with writers Donna Hill (Rudolph Valentino: A Life In Pictures), Thomas Gladysz (director of the Louise Brooks Society and editor of the Louise Brooks edition of The Diary of A Lost Girl), Michael Sragow (Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master), Jeff Codori (Colleen Moore: A Biography of the Silent Star) and John Bengtson (author of a number of excellent books on locations used in early comedy).
There wasn’t a single movie I didn’t enjoy on some level - bravo to the organisers, and I can’t wait to come back next year.