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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive


2005 San Francisco Silent Film Festival
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

I've just returned from this years SF Silent Film Festival where I spent delightful weekend watching wonderfully restored movies with an audience filled with silent film enthusiasts.  If you've never had the chance to see a silent film on the big screen with live music, you really owe it to yourself to seek out a screening.  I have a complete run down of this year's festival here.

The big news to come out of the SF event are some details on the long awaited Harold Lloyd DVD Collection.  Susan Lloyd, Harold's granddaughter, introduced the screening of a Lloyd film and said that New Line is planning on releasing a set of Lloyd films in November.  The set will contains 28 restored films (both shorts and features) along with five featurettes about Lloyd.  Included on the discs, presumably worked into one or more of the featurettes, will be some of Harold's 35mm home movies.  No word on what films will be included in this multi-disc set, though Susan did mention that the one-reeler Billy Blazes will be included but there will not be any Lonesome Luke shorts.

There aren't a large number of silent films coming out on DVD in the near future, so I've skipped the table this time around.  The one DVD set of interest that is scheduled for release is the next instalment in the TCM Archive series: The Garbo Silents containing The Temptress, Flesh and the Devil, and  The Mysterious Lady.  It is scheduled for release on September 6th, and can be ordered from Amazon.

Though it won't be to everyone's tastes, on August 2nd Kino will be releasing Avant-garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920's and 30's.  This set of 25 short films over two discs is complied from Raymond Rohauer's collection.  Though I'm not a big fan of Rohauer, this looks to be an interesting collection.  You can read Glenn Erickson's review of the title here.

Next month: With a little luck, we'll have a look at the entire SlapHappy set!  A great PBS show dealing with silent comedies.  Reviews and an overview of all ten volumes should turn up next month.


The 10th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The 10th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival was recently held in the beautiful Castro Theater in down town San Francisco.  Once again this year a series of rare, entertaining, and mesmerizing films were screened with live music on a large screen in front of an appreciative audience.  This is just the way silent movies were intended to be seen and I'm always left feeling that this is much superior to viewing these movies at home, no matter what type of HT set up you have.

This year there were nine films shown, including one of Friday evening.  There was a good mix of comedy and drama, foreign and domestic films.  All of the prints that were screened were good, with the vast majority being pristine restorations that looked as good as when the movies were first released many decades ago.  The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the premier event of this type in the country, and it just doesn't get any better if you are a fan of early film.

The movies presented this year were:

For Heaven's Sake:

The Festival kicked off Friday night with a screening of Harold Lloyd's For Heaven's Sake.  What a great way to start the festival.

This was the first feature Lloyd made for distribution by Paramount, and he wanted to create a good film to please his new partners.  He filled this movie with nonstop gags and stunts that keeps the audience laughing.

J. Harold Manners (Harold Lloyd) is a member of the idle rich.  When his chauffeur wrecks his brand-new car, he walks into a dealer and buys another one.  When that one also gets totaled in short order, the papers have a field day reporting on the spendthrift.

Through a series of accidents and miscommunications, Harold unknowingly supplies the start up funds for a store-front mission to be run by Brother Paul.  It is in the city's poorest and toughest neighborhood and Brother Paul naturally names the mission after his benefactor.   When Harold gets wind the mission and its name, he assumes they are trying to cash in on his prestige and goes down to the mission in a rage.  That is until he sees Brother Paul's daughter, Hope (Jobyna Ralston.)  Then it is your proverbial love at first sight.  Harold falls hard for the poor working girl, but he needs to impress her somehow.  When she mentions that the men in the pool hall down the street never come to the sermons, Harold decides that he'll get the thugs and toughs from the pool hall into the mission one way or another.  This leads to a great chase sequence, the first of two, that left people's sides sore from laughter.

This was a very funny film.  Lloyd liked to alternate character comedies with gag films, and this is one of the later.  This is a gag-a-minute film that has solid laughs all thorough it.  Though the chase scenes are the main attractions there are little gags sprinkled throughout the movie, and many of these are just as funny as the more elaborate jokes.  The expression on Harold's face when he pops a dirty sponge in his mouth thinking it's a treat that Hop has made is great, and the way he gets it out of his mouth even funnier.

While not as famous as Safety Last or The Freshman, this film show Lloyd at his creative and comic peak.  A wonderfully funny film, For Heaven's Sake is looked outstanding with a newly restored print that was sharp and clear.  The prefect way to start off the festival.

Animation Rarities:

Saturday morning was traditionally the time when TV stations broadcast cartoons for their younger viewers, and the Festival borrowed that tradition by showing a series of rare animated shorts.  There were a wide variety of films shown showcasing the different styles of comedy and animation that were produced in the silent era.

This series started off with a trio of shorts that Hearst produced.  When the publishing magnate discovered that Windsor McCay and Bud Fischer were making money with cartoons based on their comic strips (Little Nemo and Mutt and Jeff respectively) Hearst started his own animation studio International Film Service (IFS.)  Its purpose was to animate some of the Hearst Paper's more popular comic strips.    Screened this year were some shows based on a comic strip by Thomas A. Dorgan (who signed all of his work TAD.)  These surprisingly funny and cutting cartoons involved a typical social or domestic situation, to which a cat and stick figure would make barbed insults.  The jokes, about a mother-in-law's cooking or a woman who insisted that her foot was five sizes smaller than it actually is, were stronger than I was expecting and that made them all the more humorous.

There was an Alice Comedy (Alice Rattled by Rats), a series that Walt Disney started before he came up with the mouse that made him a household name, A Felix the Cat short (Felix the Cat Weathers the Weather) and an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon (Sick Cylinders) another character created by Walt Disney.

Some of the highlights of this program include Jimmy Gets the Pennant, a stop action animated featurette involving dolls playing baseball.  While the animation technique was a little crude, the common place looking dolls playing ball were oddly grotesque and a little eerie.

The reel of unidentified cartoon fragments was quite interesting too.  Included was an early color cartoon that looked pretty good, and some amusing Mutt and Jeff sections.

My favorite cartoon that was shown is easily Koko's Earth Control, a cartoon by Dave Fleischer.  In this short Koko the Clown and his dog Fritz get into trouble when they find the control room for the Earth.  A funny cartoon with a surprising ending.

Sangue Mineiro:

There were two foreign films screened at this year's festival, and the first was Sangue Mineiro (1929) from Brazil.  It features Brazilian star Carmen Santos and was directed by Humberto Mauro.  This rare film had Portugese intertitles which were translated by a narrator in the theater.  The musical accompaniment was by Mauro Correa and the Latin American Chamber Music Society.

Carmen (Carmen Santos) was the adopted daughter of a rich industrialist, and is in love with Roberto.  At a party celebrating Carmen's sister's, Neuza, return from school, Carmen discovers Roberto and Neuza alone in a compromising position.  She is so distraught by this, she tries to kill herself but fails.  A local family discovers her unconscious body and nurses her back to life.

Carmen can't face going back to live with her adopted family, so she moves in with the poor family that found her.  As luck would have it, this family has two sons about Carmen's age, Christoma and Maximo, and they both fall in love with her.  Carmen is no longer infatuated with Roberto, but he admits that he loves her, although Neuza is in love with him.  This tangled romantic plot goes through a couple of fist fights, several arguments and a lot of crying before it all gets resolved.

This was one of the weaker films at this year's festival.  The direction was adequate, Correa used a nice mix of medium, close and long shots, but it wasn't anything spectacular.  There were several shots that didn't work at all, which I chalk up to cultural differences.  For example when Carmen moves in with her new family, the camera shows Maximo and Christoma smiling wildly and stays on them for a bit too long.  This made them look like sexual predators and it elicited a good laugh from the audience.

The translation didn't help the picture either.  A fairly literal translation was read in a very flat and neutral voice which drained a lot of the emotion from the scenes.  The actual dialog was very stilted and unwieldy, which caused some unintentional humor as well.  Lines like "Could our runaway have expressed herself though writing?" do not sound natural or realistic.

The one saving grace that this film had was the live music.  Mauro Correa and the Latin American Chamber Music Society did a fantastic job with the score that Correa wrote for the film.  Though I wasn't impressed with the movie, I would buy a copy of this on DVD if this fun and lively music accompanied it.  A simply wonderful piece that was scene specific and did a great job of underlining the emotions in the film.  Unfortunately this music isn't available on CD.  I'm not a big fan of chamber music, much less Latin American chamber music, but this group was truly outstanding.  If you ever get a chance to hear them play, don't pass it up.

Stage Struck:

Every year there are one or two films that surprise me.  There are always a couple of excellent silent films that I've never heard of, much less seen, that are screened and I'm always astounded that they are not more well known.  One of this year's surprise films was Stage Struck, a 1925 film staring Gloria Swanson and directed by Alan Dwan.

Jenny Hagen (Gloria Swanson) is an overworked waitress in a diner in a factory town.  Her dream is to marry the short order cook, Orme (Lawerance Grey), who is a master at making wheat cakes.  She'd love for him to take her away so they could open up their own little place, but it's not to be.  Orme is fascinated by actresses.  He cuts their pictures out of magazines and fills his walls with them.  He doesn't even look at Jenny.

When the show boat comes to town, they have a new actress in their troupe, Lillian Lyons (Gertrude Astor).  Orme is taken by Lillian of course, and manages to talk her into a date.  Jenny isn't going to take this laying down though so she decides to dress and act like the thespian.  When that fails, she realizes that the only way to win her true love is to get on the stage herself.

This was a delightful film.  The movie was very funny and a real treat.  Swanson is terrific as the waitress with a lot of spunk and really makes the film.  The scene where she alters all of her clothes with a pair of scissors so that she'll look like Lillian (with disastrous results) is worth the price of admission alone.  Astor also gives a splendid performance as the dashing and fashionable actress.

The print which was restored by the George Eastman House was up to their usual high standards.  The beginning and end of the film are in color, and these sections look marvelous.  (It's also interesting to note that the opening color scene is a dream, which could imply that the ending is a dream too.)  The print was nearly free of defects and was very sharp and clear.  An outstanding looking print.  Michael Mortilla provided the accompaniment on piano and did an excellent job.

The Big Parade:

Saturday's program was concluded with the headlining film of the festival, The Big Parade.  One of the most powerful antiwar movies made in Hollywood, The Big Parade turned matinee idol John Gilbert into a superstar and established King Vidor's reputation as a director of serious film.  This film was also one of the grossing movies too.  It played an incredible 96 straight weeks at the Astor theater in New York City, and was the highest grossing film until Gone with the Wind.

James Apperson (John Gilbert) is the idle son of a rich industrialist.  When the US enters WWI, his girlfriend Justyn Reed (Claire Adams) encourages James to join the Army.  He has no intention of doing that until he sees an enlistment parade.  Taken up in the heat of the moment by the cheering crowds and patriotic music, James signs up.

He goes through training quickly and is sent to France where his unit is billeted in a family's barn in a small town.   The daughter of the family, Melisande (Renee Adoree) is a cheerful and lively girl and James and Melisande soon find themselves falling in love.

All good things come to an end though and after a short amount of time in the village James and his unit are sent to the front.   They set off in trucks, and then are left to walk the last few dozen miles to the fighting.  Strafed by planes and being set upon by machine gun nests, soldiers are dropping left and right.  The men have their orders and keep on advancing though the resistance becomes more sever.  Finally James and his buddies are pinned down in a shell hole by a German machine gun unit and have nowhere to go.  Trapped, they stay in the muddy hole in the ground until they receive an order to take out the enemy machine gun emplacement.

This is an amazing and powerful film, thanks in part to John Gilbert for his amazing performance.  Gilbert, a tall handsome man, was portrayed as neither a pacifist nor a great patriot.  He was just an average man who was caught up in events that were bigger than he was.   The transformations he goes through, from an eager rookie to disillusioned veteran, are realistic and believable.  This movie shows what an outstanding actor Gilbert was, proving that he was more than just a pretty face.

A lot of the credit for this film goes to King Vidor for his thoughtful direction.  He structures the film in such a way that the antiwar message comes through loud and clear, but the film never becomes preachy.  The movie is broken into two parts, with the first section playing like a romantic comedy.  When James and his unit are first in France there are a lot of light moments.  Some of the biggest laughs were obtained when Gilbert is trying to get a large wine barrel back to his camp so he can make a shower, and when he is trying to woo Melisande only to have his comrades try to move in too.

When his unit is transferred to the theater of combat though, things change quickly.  James experiences the horrors of war first hand and up close.  It is no longer the glorious and exciting event that the people back home thought it would be.  The mud and blood and death are all the more horrific and shocking when compared to the light tone of the first section of the film.

The festival was able to obtain a fantastic looking print for this presentation.  The original negative of the film was thought lost for many years, and all prints of this movie that have been shown are from a 1931 reissue that included sound effects and a music track.  It turns out that Eastman House did have the original camera negative, and the print that was shown was restored from that negative.  It looked absolutely wonderful of course.  The lines were tight and the level of detail was amazing.  An outstanding looking film.

The presentation was enhanced immensely by the musical accompaniment by Chris Elliot on the Castro Theater's Mighty Wurlitzer organ.  He used the film's original score which weighs in at 242 pages, and tirelessly played it with feeling and precision.  He did a great job and really make the screening of this film an exciting event.

The Sideshow:

Sunday morning started off with another film that was really surprising, Columbia Pictures film The Sideshow from 1928.  In the late silent era, Columbia was a low budget studio located on Poverty Row.  They cranked out B pictures and barely managed to stay afloat.  Their product was usually made in a hurry, without stars or high production values, and it rarely rose above the mediocre.  The Sideshow was one such rare film, a much better movie than it has any rights being.

Billy Rhodes, a little person who would later play the barrister Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz, stars as P. W. Melrose, the owner of a circus.  His number two in command is Ted (Ralph Graves) who manages the sideshows.  As the show is about break its winter camp and start out on tour, Melrose is busy negotiation contracts with the hands and making sure everything is ready.  He hires a couple of new performers, including Queenie (Marie Prevost) a young girl who grew up in the circus but found herself without a job when her father became too old to preform.

Before they leave, a representative of a competing circus tries to buy Melrose out, but he's not selling.  Melrose started out in the sideshows and rose in the ranks until he managed to buy his own circus, and he's not about to let it go.

As the circus travels from town to town, accidents start occurring.  A trapeze wire is filed through causing a fatal accident, and the pay wagon burns down among other things.  Everyone knows that there is a saboteur traveling with them, but they can't figure out who.

As the tour progresses, Melrose mistakes Queenie's kindness toward him as affection.  He finds himself drawn to the girl, even though she and Ted are growing very close.

The astounding thing about this film is how sophisticated and ahead of its time it is.  Rhodes' stature isn't used for gags or to make him a tragic figure.  He plays a sympathetic character, and at the end of the movie, though you feel for him, he's not pitiful.  He does a great job in this straight dramatic role, and is able to convey a large range of emotions with just a look.  It is a tragedy that he didn't have the opportunity to act in more straight roles due to his size.

The film had several touching moments that were emotional but never stooped to the level of melodrama.  In one such scene Melrose sits on a bale of hay after he learns that a trapeze artist has been killed in an accident.  Knowing that if he had sold the circus the tragedy would have been avoided, he feels partially responsible and morose.  The high wire artist's young daughter, not knowing that her father has been killed, sees someone who's sad and goes over and comforts him.  It is a heart-rending scene.

The print that was shown looked excellent.  After its initial run in 1928, the movie was returned to Columbia's vaults and forgotten.  Sony eventually bought the Columbia catalog of films and discovered this gem there.  The film was restored, but not much work was needed since the movie hadn't been shown since the late 20's.  This movie was never shown on television, so it was complete and in an unedited form. Though there were a couple of instances of early stages of nitrate disintegration, these were very few and only lasted a few seconds.  The Festival really unearthed a gem with this film.

Prem Sanyas:

The Silent Film Festival features movies from all over the world, and this year's second foreign offering is an Indian film, Prem Sanyas (1925.)  India currently has the most active film industry in the world, producing even more films than Hollywood, and several of their more popular films have been released theatrically in the US.  Prem Sanyas was the first Indian film to get an international release.

This movie tells the story of Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the man who would gain enlightenment and become Buddah.  As a young man, Prince Gautama knew no sadness or distress.  There was a prophesy that the prince would one day renounce his throne and willingly become a pauper.  To avoid this, his father, the King, gave the prince every luxury he could think of.  The prince grows up happily, and even marries a young beauty, Gopa.  The two newlyweds live in a "golden prison," a magnificent palace set in a lake where the wilted flowers were plucked off of the plants every evening and no sorrow was allowed.

Even though he was quite content in his palace, Gautama became dissatisfied.  He decided to take a tour of the local city.  Though all of the beggars, ill and old people were ordered off the street, Gautama left his carriage and discovered an old man who was sick and dying.  Having never encountered illness or advanced age, he was astounded to discover that this was an aspect of life.  Realizing that all people were fated to age and die, Gautama pondered this situation and finally made the choice that was predicted years earlier.  He left his wife and palace, gave up all his worldly possessions and lived the life of a beggar.  He wandered for a time, and eventually sat under a tree for 40 days and nights until he attained enlightenment.

This movie was popular in England and Germany when it was first released, but I wasn't as thrilled with it.  Maybe if I was a Buddhist, I would have made more of a connecting with the film, but as it is, I had a hard time relating to it.  I was never drawn into the story.  There wasn't any scene where I could relate to what the characters were feeling or how they were acting.

As for the acting itself, I thought it was fairly stiff.  The main characters had a wooden feel to their performance that harmed the overall picture.

This was an expensive film that had a lot of spectacle, which was enjoyable to watch.  The parades with numerous elephants and camels along with jewel draped horses were something that was nice eye candy.

The musical accompaniment was preformed by a trio of talented musicians playing traditional Indian instruments; the sitar, sarode, and tabla.  This music meshed very well with the film and made it easy to forget that you weren't actually in India.   A fine production, it is too bad that the film wasn't a little more striking.

The Scarlet Letter:

This film based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel of the same name, The Scarlet Letter was a film that stars Lillian Gish had to fight to make.  While the novel was popular, many church and civic organizations didn't think the subject matter was suitable for the silver screen since it dealt with adultery.  Under contract with the newly formed MGM at the time, Louis B. Mayer was uncertain of the project.  He wanted significant changes made to the story to make it more palatable to the critical groups, and even suggested doing away with the letter "A" that Hester had to wear.

Gish convinced Mayer that she could win over the objections of church leaders and he okayed the production.  The script was written by Frances Marion wasn't scandalous and after reading it and meeting with Gish, the objections were dropped and the film went on to a successful release.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to attend the screening of this film.  It was the only one I missed, and I wish I had a chance to see it.  As it is, I can't comment on the film directly, though everyone later in the day was raving about it.

It:

I was a little surprised that they chose Clara Bow's most famous film, It, to close out the Festival this year.  The film, while good, is fairly ubiquitous for a silent film.  It has been shown on cable stations on a regular basis for years, and there have been quality releases on VHS and DVD.  Both Milestone and Kino, two of the best producers of silent film on DVD, have excellent editions out.  I was hoping for something a little harder to come by, but was still glad to see this film up on the big screen.

Betty Lou (Clara Bow) is a counter girl in Waltham's department store.  When she first sets eyes on the founder's attractive son, Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno), she declares "Santy Claus, bring me him."  By enchanting Cyrus' friend Monty (William Austin) with her charm, she manages to get introduced to the young heir and he's soon under her spell too.

Things are looking good for Betty until some social workers come to take her roommate's baby away from her because she's sick and doesn't have a job.  To save the child, Betty states that the baby is hers, and that since she's healthy and employed they have no reason to remove the toddler.  Monty overhears this and tells Cyrus.  Thinking his girlfriend is a fallen woman, Cyrus breaks it off with Betty which devastates the poor girl.  She soon finds out the source of the misunderstanding though, and gets mad.  Cyrus didn't even ask her or give her the benefit of the doubt.  So she dreams up a plan to get even.

This is the film that turned Clara Bow into a big star and sex symbol, and it's easy to see why.  She has a lot of screen presence, and her character's bubbly personality really comes alive on the screen.  Her upbeat attitude is infectious and whenever she's on the screen the movie is captivating.

The film is very funny too.  The intertitle cards have some good lines, and some of the gags are amusing.  Since this is a romantic comedy, it isn't as funny as a straight comedy like For Heaven's Sake, but it is still amusing.  A fun movie that all silent film fans should make a point of seeing sometime.

This year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival was another wonderful event.  Though I didn't enjoy the two foreign films this year as much as I did in the previous year, the other features were wonderful.  Both The Sideshow and Stage Struck were much better films that I was expecting, especially the former.  There are so few places to see excellent prints of silent films accompanied by live music that everyone who is interested in early film should at least try to attend one year.  Silent DVD will give details about next year's festival as soon as they are available.

I'd also like to thank DVDTalk regular Damifino for his assistance.  Thanks Rick!

Next month: A look at the entire SlapHappy set!  A great PBS show dealing with silent comedies.  We'll have a look at all ten volumes next month.



Comments?  Suggestions? Feel free to send me an e-mail.

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