The Freshman (1925) Our festival opened in rousing style with this classic comedy, which finds Harold Lloyd playing Harold Lamb, an naively optimistic young man who goes to college with the sole aim of becoming the big man on campus - a status only pretty Jobyna Ralston believes he can achieve. He sees his chance when he ‘joins’ the football team - as a lowly waterboy. Do things turn out his way? Well, what do you think? The funniest sequence has Harold literally falling out of a cheap suit, and it has all the snap and craftsmanship we expect from a Lloyd picture. This was the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra’s third appearance at the festival, and their first as the opening night attraction. Seven young composers each adopted a reel - the result being a peppy varsity-style score that was very effective.
Amazing Tales From The Archive
Always one of the highlights of the weekend, this year’s installment comprised of three excellent presentation. George Willeman of the Library of Congress brought us the story of the Kinetophone, Thomas Edison’s ill-fated early attempt at marrying sound to film. We were treated to two Kinetophone features, the second of which, Jack’s Joke, derived from a crystal-clear original camera negative from 1913. To see a person both move and speak to us from a century in the past is a special experience indeed - as is that of spotting the first known incident of a microphone (or in this case, a sound horn) popping into screen view!
Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi of the Netherlands’ EYE Filmmuseum gave an enlightening answer to anyone who ever asked “Who exactly was the ‘Desmet’ of the ‘Desmet Collection’? The answer is that he was an early Dutch showman and entrepreneur whose collection of over 1,000 pictures from all over the world and extensive documentation of his business dealings is now an internationally recognised treasure trove of early film.
As good as these were, it’s fair to say that the show was stolen by Heather Linville’s presentation on the extraordinary Aloha Wanderwell, a tall and charismatic itinerant filmmaker who, along with future husband Walter Wanderwell, travelled the world documenting her adventures on a series of films that have only recently been assessed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Remember the name - as if you could forget it! I predict we’ll be hearing a lot more about this young lady in coming years. The Academy are proposing to recreate Wanderwell’s film presentations in the near future, and based on the extraordinary buzz that this presentation generated, it will be something to look forward to.
Get Your Man (1927) and Now We’re In The Air (1927 fragment)
Three recently rediscovered sequences from the otherwise missing Paramount feature Now We’re In The Air were hotly anticipated, thanks to the identity of its leading lady - Louise Brooks. The twenty minutes that survive give the impression of an enjoyably silly knockabout comedy in the vein of the other surviving Raymond Hatton/Wallace Beery military satires. Though only one sequence features Louise, and she has little to do but look beautiful, it was a thrill to see the photos of Louise in her iconic black tutu come to life!
Get Your Man is a definite competitor for the most purely entertaining picture of the festival. The storyline is Paramount late-20s twizz, with Buddy Rogers as a suspiciously Americanised French aristocrat and Clara Bow as a freewheeling American who turns plans for Buddy’s arranged marriage upside down when they fall in love. Some particularly snappy intertitles (apparently uncredited) and the charisma of the cast push this into a higher category than the material otherwise might have warranted. Clara radiates as only Clara can, always superior to her material but never condescending to it. Approximately twenty minutes of lost footage has been replaced with stills, but only a fun looking sequence set in a waxwork museum after hours is badly missed and the recreation is effective and unobtrusive. There is no further significant decomposition until the final reel, a sad reminder of the fact that even a creature as vital and alive as Clara Bow was ultimately ephemeral. I hope to see this one come out on DVD, it’s a real treat.
Photo by Camille Scaysbrook
The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916) Long unseen, the newly restored The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), the only feature film of ballet legend Anna Pavlova, was highly anticipated but received a somewhat mixed response amongst those I talked to. Pavlova plays the title character, the mute sister of fisherman and freedom fighter Massaniello (Rupert Julian), whose love for a nobleman sees her fall victim to his callous abandonment and her brother’s revolutionary ambitions.
Coming after the naturalism of Weber’s intimate Shoes (1916), Portici feels like something of a step backwards. Performances vary widely in their broadness, and there is a palpable sense that Weber is struggling with the larger canvas of an epic feature. Aside from a few moving camera sequences, and a particularly lovely tracking shot towards the end of the film, the crowd scenes are muddled and the story occasionally difficult to follow.
Pavlova remains compelling in spite of a nearly insurmountable challenge - that of playing a mime of a mime. It would have been a hard task for even the most experienced actor. Ultimately, she remains an actorly dancer rather than a dancerly actor, who sometimes seems to be performing at a different pitch, in a different film, to her co-stars. The few sequences of straight dance which open and close the film make us yearn for a project more suited to her talents, and provide a glimpse of the fragility and expressiveness of her art that made her so revered.
The Informer (1929)
This atmospheric proto-noir and late silent from British International Pictures unites a cast including the Swedish Lars Hanson, Hungarian Lya de Putti and Dutch-Englishman Carl Harbord in a Irish story that will be familiar to those who have seen John Ford’s 1936 adaption. Freedom fighter Francis (Harbord) is on the run after accidentally shooting a policeman, allowing his impulsive former comrade Gypo (Hanson) to seek some twisted revenge for what he perceives as his girlfriend Katie (de Putti)’s transgressions. Performances are uniformly good, especially Hanson in a potentially unsympathetic role, and the film is visually exciting, with director Arthur Robison’s obvious debt to German expressionism contributing to its pan-European feel.
Photo by Camille Scaysbrook
Magic and Mirth: A Tribute to David Shepard
Day 3 of this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival began with a program that was as eclectic, unique and humorous as the man from whose collection it derived (and for that matter, the longtime friend who presented it - Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg) - David Shepard, the legendary film preservationist whom we lost earlier this year.
Amongst the more memorable of the ten shorts featured were two stunningly beautiful stencil-tinted 1906 Pathe-Freres pictures, La Peine du Talion (Tit for Tat) and La Pecheur de Perles (Down in the Deep), and a jaw-dropping hand-colored 1906 George Melies short, La Fée Carabosse (The Witch), an incredibly rare survivor of Melies’ famous destruction of his inventory in the 1920s. Special mention should go to First Prize For Cello Playing (1907), a mysterious short about the world’s worst cellist, which plumbs almost Monty Python-like levels of surreal hilarity.
Undoubtedly, the most touching film of the session was a short 1942 home movie of a very recognisable two-year-old David Shepard. His insight and generosity will be enormously missed by film historians and the international film preservation community.
A Strong Man (1929)
This interesting but sometimes impenetrable Polish drama tells the story of ruthless and untalented author Henryk Bielecki (Grigorij Chmara), whose lust for fame is such that he hastens the demise of a dying author in order to steal his manuscript, The Strong Man, and make a success of it both as a novel and a stage play adaptation. Bielecki soon learns the limits of his new ubermensch personality when he falls in love with an actress (Maria Majdrowicz) appearing in his stage play, and his charade begins to falter.
The film’s modernist visual style, use of Russian-style montage, and the evident influence of German expressionism make it most attractive to look at. A sequence in which Bielecki’s play makes its debut - complete with a nightmare-inducing chorus of girls wearing masks on both the front and back of their heads - is especially effective, but I would have liked to see more of Agnes Kuck, as Bielecki’s long-suffering girlfriend. Image from Wikipedia
Filibus would be a run-of-the-mill early serial in the Fantomas mold if it were not for its anti-heroine (played by Cristina Ruspoli) - an intriguing rogue who uses three identities to rob a wealthy art collector: that of the beautiful Baroness Troixmonde, the dapper Count de la Brive - who shows no compunction in seducing the collector’s beautiful sister - and Filibus, a mysterious, gender-bending criminal mastermind whose preferred mode of transport is an airship that can convey her to or from a crime scene with minimal fuss!
An entertaining and visually interesting trifle, it was generally agreed amongst those who saw it that this was better in concept than in execution, though it is always difficult to judge a serial seen in its entirety, rather than in the short segments intended by the maker. The fact that this product of Italy’s short-lived Corona Films survived at all is a small miracle. Outside the Law (1920) This excellent recent Universal restoration of a Tod Browning feature unites Lon Chaney, Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman in a fast moving tale of the seedy San Francisco underworld. Priscilla is ‘Silky Moll’, daughter of a prominent crook who goes into hiding with ‘Dapper Bill’ (Oakman) after the pair are involved in a jewellery robbery. Who will get to them first - gang leader Black Mike (Lon Chaney), the authorities - or the adorable little scamp who lives across the hallway (Stanley Goethals), who may convince them that the straight and narrow path might not be such a bad option after all?
Chaney is great as the sinister Black Mike but rather cringeworthy as the stereotypical buck-toothed Chinaman Ah Wing, who seems to have been part of a foreshortened subplot - but the real revelation is Priscilla Dean, whose insouciant portrayal of another bad girl I enjoyed in Browning’s The Wicked Darling (1919) at Cinecon several years ago. A teenage Anna May Wong is also seen in a small role. A small amount of decomposition in the last reel does not significantly detract from the film, and the rest of the footage looks very good indeed.
Photo by Camille Scaysbrook
The Doll (Die Puppe) (1919) Master director Ernst Lubitsch sets out his intentions early as we see him construct a toylike world in which his fantastical characters soon come to life. Wealthy milquetoast Lancelot (Herman Thimig, resembling a more effete Willy Wonka), startled by the prospect of marriage, seeks refuge at a monastery full of some very fat and self-satisfied monks, who concoct a crazy solution to his problem. Why not buy a realistic talking doll and marry her instead? The one he selects happens to be a replica of the dollmaker’s daughter Ossi.
When the doll is broken, the real Ossi (the hilarious and exuberant Ossi Oswalda) steps in to replace her, and madcap hilarity - along with a generous dose of unapologetic sexual innuendo - ensues. As you might expect from Lubitsch, it’s a well-handled, inspired piece of entirely entertaining silliness, and one of the funniest films of the festival.
The productions of Cecil B. DeMille’s short-lived PDC Productions of the late 1920s can be quite uneven - on one hand, there’s the excellentChicago (1927) and Eve’s Leaves (1926); on the other, there’s forgettable fare like Hold ‘Em Yale (1928) and Midnight Madness(1928). Happily, Silence, recently rediscovered at the Cinematheque Française, is one of the better productions, a well made and glossy melodrama from The Phantom of the Opera helmer Rupert Julian.
Though the storyline would win no awards, it’s lifted by the always likeable H.B. Warner as a man whose girlfriend (Vera Reynolds) adopts a more suitable candidate as the ‘father’ of her illegitimate daughter. When the ruse is uncovered by a slimy conman (Raymond Hatton), the now-grown daughter (also played by Reynolds) takes matters into her own hands, with potentially tragic consequences. The Mont Alto Picture Orchestra provided a particularly good and at times unusually percussive accompaniment that greatly contributed to the suspense of the early scenes. Given how many of these DeMille productions have been rediscovered in only the past decade, there may be plenty more treats lying in wait for us.
Terje Vigen (A Man There Was) (1917)
This Swedish film is a lyrical tone-poem of a feature, with a storyline just strong enough to move you but not so complex as to distract from its vivid imagery of the Scandinavian coastline. Based on a well-known poem by Henrik Ibsen, it tells of the tragic impact of the British blockade of Norway during the Napoleonic Wars upon a simple Norwegian sailor (Victor Sjöström, who also directs) and his impoverished family.
If you’ve seen Sjöström’s Hollywood classics such as He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and The Wind (1928), you won’t be surprised by his deft handling of such delicate material, but you will also find him a fine and subtle actor, conveying grief more eloquently with a single agonised glance than any amount of histrionics. To my mind, this was a far more successful experiment in capturing the rhythms of a piece of Scandinavian literature than Pan (1922), shown at the festival a few years ago. The Matti Bye Ensemble provided a suitably atmospheric accompaniment.
The Lost World (1925)
Most silent film fans would be familiar with this property, but who can say they’ve actually seen the film? Almost nobody living, thanks to the purchase and destruction of all available prints in the late 1920s. David Shepard and Serge Bromberg spent years examining surviving footage of variable quality and completeness to assemble this, the closest thing we may ever see to the original ten-reel version.
In this restoration, The Lost World finally reveals itself as a fully realised precursor to the action blockbusters of the current day. Jurassic Park (1992) is the obvious comparison, but there are also moments that evoke everything from the Indiana Jones series to the disaster pictures of the 1970s, to the current cycle of effects-driven superhero films.
Wallace Beery is perfectly cast as the eccentric Professor Challenger, who leads a ragtag expedition to prove the existence of dinosaurs on an isolated South American outcrop. The world of the movie, and especially the love affair between Bessie Love and Lloyd Hughes’ journalist character, are more satisfyingly fleshed out than in previous truncated versions. It’s absurd, it’s sometimes cheesy - but it’s a whole lot of fun. The Alloy Orchestra’s stark, unorthodox score was one of their best and a great match for the picture, with the dinosaur’s cries chillingly rendered.
Two Days (Dva Dni) (1927) Any film that begins with the callous death of a puppy and only becomes more depressing thereafter is not going to be a laugh riot, but for those with sufficient intestinal fortitude, this bleak Ukranian film has much to recommend it. After an aristocratic family flees the Bolsheviks, their faithful servant (Ivan Zamychkovskyi) remains to guard their valuables. He soon finds himself torn between his worship of his son (Sergey Minin) despite his allegiance to the boorish Bolsheviks who take command of the house, and that of the son of his employer (Valeriy Hakkebush) who, when the tables turn, reveals himself no less thuggish than the invading enemy.
There’s shades of Emil Jannings’ downtrodden doorman from The Last Laugh (1924) in Zamychkovskyi’s performance, and while the film’s brutal, uncompromising vision makes it hard to love, its central message - that extremist ideology of any stripe is capable of distorting minds and destroying families - is undoubtedly a timely one.
The Three Musketeers (1921)
Like The Mark ofZorro (1920) before it, Fred Niblo’s epic starring vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks is the origin story of a hero. The supreme egotist in real life, Doug’s artistic ego was sure enough to know that you don’t need to be on screen every moment to still be the star of the show. It is only after a good deal of set-up about palace intrigues involving France’s King Louis XIII (Adolphe Menjou), his Queen (Mary MacLaren) and the treacherous Cardinal Richelieu (Nigel de Brulier) that Fairbanks’ character of D’Artagnan even makes his first appearance, beginning the story as a rather crude country youth. It takes an allegiance with the legendary Three Musketeers (Leon Barry, George Siegemann and Eugene Pallette) and his involvement in a plot to clear the Queen’s name to earn his status as a national legend.
Doug is as effortlessly charismatic, athletic and humorous as always, and the multiple moving parts of a storyline that easily might have sprawled into confusion are deftly handled, painted with broad enough strokes to be easily understood, but containing enough detail to gain an immersive sense of the period, which is lavishly rendered. The image quality for this new restoration is top notch, derived from Fairbanks’ own print that was deposited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1930s. Don’t let its lengthy two-hour running time act as a deterrent - it all passes in the blink of an eye, without a moment’s drag. What a rip-roaring way to end the festival!
Photo by Camille Scaysbrook.
As always, I had the opportunity to catch up with a number of friends and fellow film bloggers both new and old, including Pamela Hutchinson, whose excellent Silent London website is well worth your time; Thomas Gladysz, director and founder of the Louise Brooks Society, Mary Mallory of The Daily Mirror, the indefatigable Donna of Strictly Vintage Hollywood, Beth Anne Gallagher of Spellbound by Film, and FilmRadar’s Karie Bible - most of whom have penned their own recaps of the festival that I urge you to read. The silent film community is full of passionate and wonderful people who are dedicated to keeping this art form alive, and I’m proud to be a part of it. Thank you to all who contributed to another wonderful weekend of silents!