This year’s Twentieth Anniversary edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival kicked off with a film that is best known as a talkie - a theme of the interaction between silent and sound that was carried throughout the festival - Lewis Milestone’s remarkable All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
It is a pity that Erich Maria Remarque’s classic autobiographical novel did not appear until nearly a year after the cataclysm of The Jazz Singer(1927). To watch late silent classics such as Sunrise (1927) or Seventh Heaven (1927) along early talkie efforts is to witness a dismaying temporary regression. The sound version of All Quiet of the Western Front has much to recommend it, including stunning visuals, a well-realised story and an unflinching dedication to emotional truth, but like many films of its time, it is also marked by superfluous dialogue and performances that sometimes hang awkwardly between silent and sound modes. We can be glad that the film was made before the enforcement of the Production Code, which would have neutered so many of its more subversive aspects and its graphic depiction of warfare. Nevertheless, for a story whose most profound moments deal with things for which there are no words to miss the silent era by such a small margin seems a great shame.
That is why it is such a blessing that a silent cut of All Quiet, made for foreign markets not yet wired for sound, has survived. We are able to gain some impression of what might have been a great - perhaps the great - silent war film.
All Quiet on the Western Front tells thestory of a young German student, Paul Baumer (Lewis Ayres) who, whipped into a patriotic frenzy by a school teacher, decides to join his friends in enlisting for World War I. Malnourished and ill-treated even before he reaches the battlefield, Paul watches the first of many comrades die of injuries, and soon realises that the glory of war is nothing but a patriotic illusion.
The way the story is told from the German perspective lends a particular poignance to our perception of it. Even in the bleakest of war films, we find ourselves taking sides, allowing ourselves to feel triumph when a battle is won, and to console ourselves that such dreadful loss of life must surely have some meaning.
There is no such respite in All Quiet. The soldiers we see mown down in endless cascades of machine gun fire are the ones from ‘our’ side. There is nobody to cheer for, nobody to hiss at. Death is marked not by glory, but by the bureaucratic communique that provides the story with its title: ‘Im Westen nichts Neues’ (literally, ‘Nothing new to report on the Western Front’. The current title, by the way, was provided by Arthur Wheen, an Australian veteran of the battles of Gallipoli and Fromelles and later a Rhodes Scholar, who contributed the first English translation of the novel).
Source: Internet Movie Database.
There are no victors, no lessons to be learned, no justification, and absolutely no notion of ‘Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori’ (’It is most sweet and just to die for one’s country’) to cling to. We already know that the Germans are doomed - that their attempts to bolster their cause with young recruits will end in a failure that ensures the whole tragedy will play out again within a generation. All Quiet on the Western Front is quintessentially about moment that occur in silence - contemplation, realisation, regret, death - and these are the ones that are the most profoundly and movingly registered here. The young soldiers marching off to battle, glancing backwards at a life that is about to change forever. Paul first railing at, and then apologising to, the French soldier who dies before his eyes. Even the gramophone skipping over the final groove as the men disappear with their French sweethearts. But especially, the famously tragic final shot that takes place as war has robbed Paul Baumer of everything, including his ability to return to normal civilian life. Dialogue could not, and does not, add anything to such scenes.
Silence also allows the central performances to find their correct register. Lew Ayres, without reams of dialogue to recite, becomes a more compelling presence. The always enjoyable Louis Wolheim, in one of his final roles, is perfectly cast as the Second Company’s cheerful mentor. Lewis Milestone’s stunning visuals are allowed their full expression - the great sweeping tracking shots across the front lines, the beauty of the French countryside contrasted to the brutality of war.
The maturity of silent storytelling is permitted to take over, trusting us to find our own meaning within images rather than telling us what to think or feel. The dialogue of the sound version is distilled down to its essence, making for a much tighter film. The Mont Alto Picture Orchestra’s effective score imparts silence when necessary - and at other times, nothing but the boom of distant bombs, or the whistle of bullets overhead.
Occasionally, we are still reminded that this is a talkie rendered silent rather than a fully conceived silent film. Certain scenes and situations might have been covered differently, leaving whoever compiled this version to rely on what footage they had. We do not meet the characters in large, individualising close-ups as we probably would have, meaning it is initially difficult to distinguish one of the young men we meet from another. These are small quibbles when we see how much more effectively silence renders the vast majority of the film. This All Quiet on the Western Front allows us a glimpse of what might have been the greatest and most tragic of all silent war movies, and makes for a deeply affecting experience.
Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films. Photo by Camille Scaysbrook.
Day 2 of this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival began with the always popular Amazing Tales from the Archives presentation, which included four different segments. Rob Byrne discussed the restoration of the recently rediscovered (and highly anticipated) Sherlock Holmes (1916). Jennifer Miko showed newly restored early Technicolor Process 2 footage shot at William Randolph Hearst’s Cuesta Encantada. Though we saw Hearst and his architect, Julia Morgan, there was no sign of Marion Davies - though more footage apparently exists, so we can hope.
Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg told us the hair-raising story of obtaining the legendary collection of a cantankerous French collector. Once finally secured (in the middle of a snowstorm, no less) the haul proved to contain Bardelys the Magnificent (1926) amongst other formerly lost treasures. A new restoration of one of the recovered films was shown, Eclair’s one-reeler Figures de Cire (Waxworks) (1914). Though no great masterpiece, this story of a man who accepts a bet to spend a night in a wax museum, directed by future major director Maurice Tourneur, is suitably creepy in parts, and also features some eye-catching Parisian fashions.
The most substantial of the four presentations was given by the British Film Institute’s Bryony Dixon, focusing on the sinking of the HMS Lusitania by German forces during World War I. We saw actuality footage, including of relatives waiting for news, the burial of victims, and the vandalism of German-owned businesses, as well as an evocative cartoon by Windsor McCay, purporting to show the sinking in accurate detail, but in fact containing a large dose of anti-German propaganda. Paul McGann provided an accompaniment, reading eyewitness accounts of the disaster over the images.
The Cave of the Spider Woman (1927)
Most Australians know the famous Chinese folk epic Journey to the West(1592) thanks to Monkey Magic, a popular television adaptation that screened during the 1980s. The Cave of the Spider Woman adapts a chapter of the same epic, and I suspect that not having some knowledge of the story and its anthropomorphised animal-spirit characters would have made this a bewildering experience. The virtuous monk Xuanzang, on a quest to recover priceless scriptures from India, falls into the clutches of the Spider Woman (Yin Mingzhu) and her glamorous handmaidens. She soon falls in love with the monk - or perhaps she hopes to feast on his flesh, which confers immortality on the eater - and he must be rescued by his comrades, the Pigsy, Sandy, and the redoubtable Monkey.
Like Monkey Magic, it is not the story but the humour, spectacle and sheer outlandishness that captures our attention here, especially the elaborate costumes. Both the first reel and another late section are missing, and explanatory titles to bridge the gap would have been helpful, but this was still an interesting and rare relic of the Shanghai Photoplay Company.
Supporting this film was a recently restored actuality short, Modern China (1910), which gave us an intriguing glimpse of the nation just prior to the revolution of 1911. As was the case with many presentations this year, a short vignette of footage shot at the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition was also shown.
When the Earth Trembled (1913)
This Lubin three-reel feature might be considered an early ancestor to Titanic (1997), winding a complicated romantic plot around a famous disaster. In this case, there’s corporate intrigue, family estrangement, concealed identities, a shipwreck - oh, and incidentally, an enormous earthquake that destroys San Francisco.
The entertaining tale moves along at a swift pace and is easy to understand - not always a given in features of this age - while the earthquake itself is impressively rendered, largely avoiding a reliance on grainy actuality footage in favour of convincing practical effects. The newly restored print from the EYE Film looked great.
This showed with two supporting features - a mesmerising short, A Trip Down Market Street, shot a mere four days before the famous earthquake, and a very amusing British animal novelty, A Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912), starring a clever little crime-solving pup who stole our hearts immediately.
The Last Laugh (1924) I’ve previously seen this high-quality F.W. Murnau feature about the mental disintegration of a hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) who is deprived of his beloved job and all the prestige it entails, and only caught the last portion - but this was enough to admire the exemplary job done by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, a group of young performers who each composed a different section of the score. The results of such well-meaning initiatives can sometimes be uneven - but in this case, their work was extremely impressive. I understand that moves are already underway to invite them back next year, and I certainly look forward to it.
The Ghost Train (1927)
This German-British co-production tells the story of a group of strangers who, having missed a connecting train service, find themselves stranded at an abandoned station with a very strange past. 43 years ago, a conductor died as he attempted to close a the nearby swing bridge, sending a train full of passengers to their doom. Now, a ghost train is said to travel the same tracks, causing instant death to anyone who sees it. Is this phantom engine the one they are destined to catch? Amongst the appealing mixed British and German cast, the clear stand out is the Berlin cabaret actress Ilse Bois, who gives a bravura comic performance as Miss Bourne, a prim temperance campaigner who briefly (and accidentally) loses her dedication to the cause. Astonishingly, this was Miss Bois’ final film role after only a handful of screen appearances, her career derailed when, as a German Jew, she fled her home country in 1933. It is a shame we are not able to see more of this very funny lady. Director Géza von Bolváry introduces a few touches of German expressionism to the visuals, along with some effective animation and special effects. Though it was not always as scary or amusing as it aspired to be, The Ghost Train was a very fun way to end the day’s viewings. Paul McGann narrated, translating the original German titles.
John Bengtson and Suzanne Lloyd introduce 'Speedy'. Photo by Camille Scaysbrook.
Day 3 opened in peppy fashion with Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), prefaced by a brief Q&A between John Bengtson and Harold’s grand-daughter Suzanne.
Here, Harold plays an impetuous young man who races from job to job while his girlfriend’s father fights to save the slowest form of transport in New York City - the last horse-drawn tram in town. You’d think a stint as a cab driver would be an ideal calling for ‘Speedy’, but all sorts of complications intervene, including a job ferrying Babe Ruth to Yankee Stadium for the big game! The film moves by as swiftly as its title implies, and every moment’s a delight, as Harold Lloyd’s films always are before a large, appreciative audience.
This new restoration looks stellar, showing up the New York locations to their best advantage, especially the sequences set at the long-gone Coney Island amusement park. It’s safe to assume that this will become the third Harold Lloyd feature to be released on Blu-Ray in the near future. Look out for it - you’re in for a treat!
Visages d’Enfants (Faces of Children) (1925)
This beautifully made film from French director Jacques Feyder tells the story of a little boy (Jean Forest) who is having trouble dealing with the death of his mother. His father, preoccupied with his own grief, turns a deaf ear to the son’s pain, and their alienation increases when he remarries. Jean and little sister Pierrette (Pierrette Houyez) are joined not only by a substitute mother but a new half-sister (Arlette Peyran). Tension arises between Jean and this interloper, and the boy’s sadness curdles into cruelty as matters reach a potentially tragic head.
The picturesque Swiss countryside makes an evocative setting, but the main delight is in the sympathetic performances that Feyder has drawn from his juvenile cast, and none more than the remarkable Jean Forest (who many might recognise from Gribiche, made by the same director). Pierrette Houyez and Arlette Peyran are also very good, and the fact that none of these actors did much else is a great loss. Their interactions are so natural that it’s like looking over the shoulders of real children.
A few people I talked to felt the film was too slow, but I enjoyed every minute. For those with an eye for beauty and an appreciation for a simple, heartfelt story, this sensitive film will reward your patience. Stephen Horne provided a characteristically effective accompaniment.
This screening was preceded by the presentation of the 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award to Serge Bromberg, and it’s difficult to think of a more deserving winner.
The Donovan Affair (1929)
This attempt to revive an early Frank Capra talkie by substituting live voices for the lost soundtrack seeks not to recreate an early sound film as closely as possible, complete with flat delivery and murky sound effects, but to create a more theatrical experience. The result is an awkward amalgam, an outsider’s view of what an early talkie might be like grafted on to the actual thing. In burlesquing what occurs on screen, the presentation sometimes resembles one of those silent accompaniments that makes cheap jokes at the expense of the visuals. As an attempt to create a credible ‘film’, it cannot be judged a success.
Beneath the self-parody, it is difficult to detect the tone Capra was aiming for, though it is safe to say that even if it survived in its complete form,The Donovan Affair would be considered a pretty unremarkable whodunnit that adds little to his prestige. As my friend over at Strictly Vintage Hollywood points out, there may be a good reason that Capra did not bother to keep a copy of the script, which had to be painstakingly recreated using lip reading and censorship records.
Perhaps there was some anthropological interest in hearing audiences react to unexpected sounds with the same baffled laughter that probably greeted those early talkies, or in hearing Agnes Ayres of The Sheik(1921) and The Son of the Sheik (1926) in a short snippet of surviving audio. Otherwise, this programme did not really belong in a silent film festival.
Kevin Brownlow introduces 'Flesh and the Devil' (1926). Photo by Camille Scaysbrook
Flesh and the Devil(1926)
Flesh and the Devil (1926), which I’ve seen many times, is one of those films that can play completely differently depending on how the audience perceives it. To some, it is the emotionally charged tragedy of two best friends (John Gilbert and Lars Hanson) torn apart by their love for the same woman (Greta Garbo), featuring some of the most intense love scenes in all of silent film - heightened by our knowledge that Garbo and Gilbert were scarcely acting.
Tonight’s audience decided that it was the second Flesh and the Devil they were seeing - a campy black comedy about an over-the-top temptress whose machinations drew joyful hisses and gales of laughter. Ironically, the moment that sometimes prompts grim laughter in even the most respectful viewers - (spoiler) when Garbo falls to her death through an icy river, leaving nothing but a trail of bubbles (end spoiler) -initially caused gasps of genuine horror amongst this audience, though the laughter soon returned.
This is one way to enjoy the film, I suppose, but it’s not the way I prefer to enjoy it. Kevin Brownlow’s introduction to Photoplay’s print was typically eloquent and informative, but the Matti Bye Ensemble’s accompaniment seemed lacklustre compared to the Carl Davis score I am used to hearing.
There are two ways to approach Pan (1922), based on the Nobel Prize winning novel by Norwegian Knut Hamsun, about a former soldier who falls in love with a girl of a higher station - as an intellectual, or as a filmgoer.
In retrospect, I can see that it was an attempt to place a Dostoevsky-style narrative on the screen, rendering the rhythms of this kind of literature in a visual form. A noble intellectual aim, to be sure, but the result only seems to prove that such stories are best left on the page. As a filmgoer, I found Pan an impenetrable, obtuse, and sometimes baffling film. Like a foreign sound film without subtitles, I could figure out what was happening, but I couldn’t figure out why. Had I missed some crucial detail? Would it all come together in the end?
It was a particularly late screening at the end of a long days’ cinemagoing, which did not leave the audience well disposed to an intellectual challenge. Very little was revealed about its storyline in the program notes or introduction. Certainly, it is a story that is nearly impossible to sum up - even its director stated that it is basically plotless - but a greater explication of the approach, the themes, or even a warning that this is in no way an ‘easy’ film, might have led to a greater appreciation. As it was, I am yet to find anyone who really enjoyed it. It can be said that the spectacular scenery of Norway is beautifully rendered, Hjalmar Fries-Schwenzen plays his Nietzschean anti-hero effectively, a long sequence set in Algeria is of visual and anthropological interest, and Guenter Buchwald’s accompaniment was perfectly good. Otherwise, this was a frustrating viewing experience.
Source: Internet Movie Database
The Amazing Charley Bowers
One of the great revelations of recent years is the rediscovery of a number of silent comedians who have sat in undeserved obscurity for decades. Thanks to many fans and scholars - Steve Massa, Brent Walker, Bob Birchard and Richard E. Roberts, just to name a few - we are now beginning to appreciate the comic pioneers whom film history has largely neglected. The amazing Charley Bowers is an exemplar of this breed.
Physically, Bowers resembles Buster Keaton, and his contraption-based humour will put you in mind of The Electric House (1922) or The Navigator (1924) - but while Keaton imposed a personal rule that nothing should occur in his comedies that could not occur in real life, Bowers takes the opposite approach, packing his movies with delightful and bizarre invention that sometimes reaches a Monty Python-like level of sheer absurdity.
Serge Bromberg presented four Bowers shorts, three early-career and shot on the East Coast, and one later work for Hollywood’s Educational Pictures.
A Wild Roomer (1926) provides an ideal taster, with Charley forced to prove the worth of a bizarre contraption he has invented, in order to claim an inheritance. Bowers, a former cartoonist and animator, was responsible for the delightful stop-motion sequences, which are achieved with great flair and evident care.
Now You Tell One (1926) is also well suited to Bowers’ style, with Bowers called on to compete at a meeting of the Liar’s Club with a room full of world-class fibbers. Is his invention of a special grafting formula that can grow anything a lie or truth? You decide! Once again, this is full of invention and animation, as is Many A Slip (1927), which finds Charley attempting to isolate the ‘slippery germ’ in order to perfect the non-slip banana peel (Patent Applied For).
Finally, in There It Is (1928), the most surreal of the four, Bowers plays a detective from Scotland Yard (though not the one you might think!) who comes to rid a house of a bizarre whiskered phantom. You will recognise the leading lady as Buster Keaton’s co-star in Sherlock Jr and The Navigator, Kathryn McGuire.
Dramatic coherence is not the strong suit here, but Bower’s surprise-filled universe is too much fun to worry about it. It is interesting how Educational became a clearing house for great talents who didn’t quite make it, its lower-tier status perhaps affording them a freedom they may not have had at larger studios, but also the obscurity that has seen them left out of film history until their current renaissance - and long may it continue.
This programme was preceeded by a newly restored Max Fleischer Tales from the Inkwell cartoon whose misogyny reminded me of the less pleasant aspects of Robert Crumb’s work.
I skipped Avant Garde Paris for lunch with friends, but I heard good things about Ménilmontant.
Why Be Good? (1929)
Colleen Moore was called ‘The Perfect Flapper’, and yet her most characteristic flapper movies have been largely unavailable until recently. Why Be Good (1929) was united with its original Vitaphone soundtrack with the collaboration of historian Joe Yranski and The Vitaphone Project’s Ron Hutchinson, and is now making the festival rounds, gaining a whole new generation of Colleen fans.
Cari Beauchamp, substituting for an ill Leonard Maltin, introduced the show with an anecdote that appears in her terrific new book, My First Time in Hollywood. As a teenager, Colleen left empty pages in her film star scrapbook, confident that they would soon be required for articles about herself. Off screen, she was no ‘perfect flapper’, but a very savvy lady.
On to the film, which certainly does not disappoint. It’s a jazz-age confection about Pert Kelly (Colleen Moore), a vivacious cutie who, like Joan Crawford’s character in Our Dancing Daughters (1928), has a dark secret: she’s not really a good-time girl. She’s good! It’s all very well to keep up the ruse for her circle of friends, but when she meets a man who really matters, handsome businessman Neil Hamilton, it’s time to come clean and convince his stern father that she is no floozy. You might feel a little exhausted as you watch Colleen Charleston her way through some gorgeous Art Deco sets, but it’s all great fun.
There was some controversy over the fact that a live score was used in place of the Vitaphone recorded score, but the Mont Alto Picture Orchestra’s accompaniment, which I understand used some but not all of the cues from that version, was as good as ever.
Like last year’s Girl in Tails (1926), this Swedish film contained a good dose of feminism. Following an unhappy love affair, the sad-eyed Peg (Tora Teje) joins the ranks of the working-class ‘army of blouses’ to support herself and a younger brother. Poorly paid and pestered by an apparently lecherous boss, she moves in with the ‘Northgate Gang’ (the ‘Norrtullsligan’ of the title), a group of women with little means of support besides each other. We learn of their struggles in love and work, including a vivid attempt to unionise which ends in disaster. Thanks to Peg’s appealingly sardonic first-person narration, none of the film’s important messages come across as preachy. If only the film had not moved oh so slowly … a hypnotic and rather repetitive accompaniment did not help in this regard. A pre-Hollywood Nils Asther appears in a brief but amusing supporting role.
An audience of Sherlock Holmes fanatics assembles to see the recently rediscovered William Gillette film. Photo by Camille Scaysbrook.
Sherlock Holmes (1916)
The excitement was palpable as the theatre was cleared for the Baker Street Circle, members of which had come from all over the country for the American debut of the legendary lost film adaptation of Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette, whose stage portrayal was integral in shaping perceptions of the famous detective. Long considered a holy grail by Holmes fans, its discovery in France only a year ago caused a sensation.
It is easy to see why theatregoers found Gillette such a compelling presence. Slow of movement, strong of profile, Gillette’s Holmes is supremely imperturbable and quietly self confident - as Russell Merrit puts it in his programme notes, a low G to the high E of the more highly-strung Holmeses of later origin. In a hybrid cast formed partly of Gillette’s stage players and partly of Essanay veterans, it is the former who do the subtler work. Edward Fielding makes a good Watson, but is largely absent, the convention of using the pair’s friendship as the bedrock of the story still in the future.
The story, with a nod to A Scandal in Bohemia, finds Holmes tangling with a criminal gang who have kidnapped a beautiful young woman (Marjorie Kay) in an extortion attempt over some compromising letters her late sister has exchanged with a European prince. The film admirably circumvents its stage origins, and moves at a pretty good pace towards its conclusion. Canon it is not, but it would be a hard-hearted fan who rejected it on this basis.
All in all, this was a much better film than might be expected, given that it comes from Essanay’s leanest period, and the Donald Sosin Ensemble’s suspenseful accompaniment helped to paper over the occasional slower moments that are inevitable in a production of this age. This handsome restoration will shortly be released on DVD, and it is a must for Holmes fans.
The Swallow and the Titmouse (1920)
How to describe this beautiful and strange film? Its story contains some of the simplicity and brutality of the venerated Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). Its semi-fictional, semi-documentarian nature anticipates works such as Robert J. Flaherty’s Man of Arran (1934). Its naturalism and use of non-professional actors is reminiscent of the Italian neo-realists of the 1940s and 50s. And yet it is not quite like any one of these.
The title refers to the two river barges operated by Dutch boatman Pieter, his wife Griet, and her younger sister Marthe, who drift back and forth along the canals of France and Flanders, bringing cargo - not all of it strictly legal. The crew is soon supplemented by a quiet young sailor named Michel. While Marthe is clearly attracted to him, it’s not quite clear whether he reciprocates - or whether he is everything he seems. Like the river barges, the story drifts gently and inexorably to its conclusion. When a cataclysm arrives, the water is briefly disturbed, settles down, and closes over. The barges move on. André Antoine, better known as a seminal stage director, demonstrates a surer grasp of film narrative than many of his screen-trained contemporaries, which gives L’Hirrondelle et la Mésange, to use its French title, a timeless quality. It is not hard to see why this unusual work never received wide release in its day. Reconstructed from the original rushes by the Cinémathèque Francaise, it now finds a time and place in which its innovations can be fully appreciated. The Swallow and the Titmouse was one of the highlights of the festival, and I am only sorry that the audience for it was not larger. Perhaps, anticipating another ponderous Pan, many decided to give it a wide berth. This is a shame. Stephen Horne and Diana Rowan’s accompaniment was every bit its equal, incorporating piano, harp, and accordion.
Our last day of this year’s extra long festival began with So You Think You Know Silents, an entertaining and occasionally challenging trivia quiz hosted by Bruce Goldstein. I think I didn’t do too badly, but my inferior knowledge of film monkeys and the oeuvre of Dinky Dean let me down in the end.
The Deadlier Sex (1920) This fun film provides Blanche Sweet with a much sassier role than you’d expect if you’re more familiar with her work with D.W. Griffith. When her railroad magnate father suddenly dies, she finds herself in charge of the family business - right in the middle of a crucial corporate takeover battle. She is happy enough to sell, but only after the young head of the other company (Mahlon Hamilton) abandons his worship of the almighty dollar.
Does she attempt to seduce her rival into acquiescence? Far from it. At heart, Blanche is an outdoor girl, and she sets about kidnapping him and dumping him in the one place he can’t buy himself out of trouble: the Californian wilderness. With a bit of help from a very young Boris Karloff as a slightly sinister trapper, he begins to see things her way.
Its outdoor setting and fish-out-of-water comedy sometimes puts you in mind of Mantrap (1925), while the ‘wow, there’s a woman in charge’ theme, so often played for uncomfortable laughs, is treated with a refreshing lack of condescension. While there’s never a doubt as to where the story is headed, it matters not the least, and both Blanche and her overt anti-capitalist message received cheers from the audience.
Bert Williams’ Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913)
Ron Magliozzi’s detailed introduction took us through the discovery and resurrection of Lime Kiln Club Field Day, shot in 1913 but never released. A decade of research was required even to identify many key players, and much remains to be discovered about this intriguing film which stars the black stage actor Bert Williams.
No continuity or title cards have yet been located, and what has been assembled is a work in progress - raw footage arranged into a loose narrative order. Slate markings remain, wraithlike crew members appear fleetingly in the frame, different versions of the same scene are sometimes played out several times, and actors mug at the camera between takes.
What emerges is extraordinary - a dispatch from a more enlightened alternate universe than the one that gave us the barely human caricatures of Birth of a Nation only two years later. This staggering juxtaposition was driven home by a series of clips from that film prior to the feature.
The story of Lime Kiln Club Field Day, so far as it can be ascertained, is a simple one. Bert is a young dandy, competing with two rivals for the love of a local girl. After tricking his fellow members of the Lime Kiln Club into thinking he has discovered a spring that issues gin instead of water, it looks like he has won the girl and made a good deal of money - until the ruse is discovered.
None of this would be remarkable were it not for the all black cast and the warm comic romance that is completely devoid of the regressive stereotypes of its time. Williams reveals himself to be a funny and engaging screen presence, as does the beautiful Odessa Warren Grey, who is thought to have contributed the gorgeous costumes and millinery.
It is interesting to contemplate the audience for which this film was intended. Perhaps an inability to answer that question is what led to it being left on the shelf until the present day. As it stands, Lime Kiln Club Field Day is already an artefact of enormous cultural importance. We can hope that further research will allow it to be restored to something like its intended complete form.
Photo by Camille Scaysbrook
This year’s festival ended as it began twenty years ago - with Photoplay Productions’ restoration of Fred Niblo’s great 1925 epic, Ben-Hur - the story of a Jewish man, the lost friendship of his Roman best friend, and the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ. Given its well documented production troubles, it would have been so easy for Ben-Hur to become a muddled mess. Instead, its multiple moving parts are handled by screenwriter June Mathis and director Fred Niblo with a deftness that might have provided a lesson to many of Ben-Hur’s ‘swords-and-sandals’ successors, which so often suffer from self-importance and leaden pacing.
There can be no such accusations here. At over two hours, Ben-Hur is a lengthy silent, but it does not lag for a second. The iconic chariot sequence is still one of the most thrilling in film history - partly, it must be said, for its horrifying sense of veracity. Watching it in a theatre such as the Castro, we get a sense of the sensation it must have caused amongst its original viewers. It was exciting enough for a jaded twenty first century audience to give heartfelt cheers.
Ben-Hur is not an actor’s film as such, but Mathis and Niblo ensure that the characters are not subsumed by the scale of the story. Ramon Novarro makes a much more sympathetic Judah Ben-Hur than his overwrought successor, Charlton Heston, and casting all round is top notch. As beautiful as she is in her brief role as the Virgin Mary, it is only a shame that the talented Betty Bronson does not get more to do.
In a departure from tradition, a live accompaniment was eschewed in favour of Carl Davis’ monumental recorded score. This did not detract in the slightest from our enjoyment of the film - in fact, it would be difficult to think of anything less than a full symphony orchestra doing justice to the such an epic production.
As Kevin Brownlow commented, a new restoration of Ben-Hur is well overdue. Photoplay’s own photochemical restoration, state-of-the-art in its time, is now a warhorse in its own right, and is showing its age. Trusting that a restoration does happen, it will be fascinating to see what today’s digital tools can do for the radiant Technicolor sequences and crowd scenes. Will we finally spot Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in the audience at the Circus Maximus? Probably not, but it sure will be fun to try. This is pure cinema, a rip-roaring delight. This is silent film at its height - purely visceral, purely experiential. Hooray for Ben-Hur!
Serge Bromberg interviews Kevin Brownlow ahead of 'Ben Hur' (1925). Photo by Camille Scaysbrook.
I will leave the last word to Kevin Brownlow, whose interview with Serge Bromberg preceded this showing.
What can be said about Brownlow that has not already been said? He is a giant of film preservation and film appreciation - as important to silent film as his idol, Abel Gance. Suffice it to say that Kevin’s love of cinema, kindled in the postwar era via collectors and aficionados, remains undimmed today. He is humble about his achievements, and endlessly helpful to fellow scholars. Much has been said about the decline of the 35mm showing in favour of digital presentations, and it was this thorny issue that Serge put to Kevin as his last question. His answer was enlightening. What could be more exciting, he said, that the idea of being able to carry all of Napoleon (1927) in your pocket?
It must always be about the films. Writing about them, researching them, talking about them, theorising about them - these are all good and valuable things, but ultimately, the film itself is what is most important. We must do everything in our power to preserve them, but they must not merely be known by reputation. More than anything else, we must watch them! Anything that facilitates our ability to do that can only be of benefit in the long term. On another note, this year’s extended festival provided some much appreciated longer breaks between films, turning the whole event into less of a marathon than it can sometimes be. I had a wonderful time catching up with many friends, old and new, all united in our love of the silent art form. I’m already looking forward to next year.