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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive


The 2008 San Francisco Silent Film Festival
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

Last weekend, as I write this, the SF Silent Film Festival was in full swing and I had a great time once again.  Read my full report on this years festival down below.

There have been a good number of silent films being released on DVD recently, and it doesn't look like things are slowing down much.  In a couple of weeks (7/29/08 to be exact) Kino is going to put out a pair of discs with four films by and about the Swedish director Victor Sjöstrom.  A Man there Was and Ingeborg Holm will be featured on one while the second one will have The Outlaw and His Wife plus the 1981 documentary Victor Sjöstrom.  They should make for interesting viewing and I hope to have reviews soon.

Flicker Alley isn't resting on their laurels either and they are working on an impressive set of Douglas Fairbanks films.  This set, which does not have a release date yet, will contain eleven films on five DVDs including the features When the Clouds Roll By, The Mollycoddle, The Mark of Zorro, and The Nut.  Should be a fun set.

As I believe I mentioned last time, Flicker Alley is also going to release Abel Gance's 1919 anti-war film J'Accuse.  The disc will also include a bonus short Paris Pendant Le Guerre (Paris During the War) (1915.)

Next week (with a little luck) I'll have another column, this time covering Kino's third wave of Slapstick Symposium releases.  This time they've released another two disc compilation of Stan Laurel films, including a favorite of mine, Frauds and Frenzies, a pair of Langdon films, the last two features he made which still exists, and a disc containing Mable Normand's last feature.  I'm also hoping to have a review of Flicker Alley's Perils Of The New Land: Films of the Immigrant Experience (1910 - 1915).  That should keep me off the streets.


The 2008 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Once again I made my annual pilgrimage to the City by the Bay for the 2008 SF Silent Film Festival, and it was well worth the trip.  The cost and inconvenience of traveling across the country (I live in Florida) was small compared to the benefits of seeing wonderful (almost always restored) 35mm prints of excellent silent films in an old movie palace with an appreciative audience.  I know I've said it in previous years, but there really is no comparison.  It is so much more enjoyable watching these films on the big screen with live music.  I have a nice set up at home, but the festival has really spoiled me.

The fest started off on a very high note on Friday night with a screening of Harold Lloyd's The Kid Brother accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.  One of Lloyd's funniest films (it was his favorite) with music by the best music combo that specializes in silent movies - an unbeatable combination.

The movie itself is a gag-filled piece about the youngest, and weakest, son (Lloyd) in family of rugged law-men back in the old west.   When a large amount of money left in the father's care is stolen, the town thinks their sheriff has taken it and they are ready to string him up.  It's up to the youngest, and wiliest, of the sheriff's sons to save the day.  Lloyd had eight gag men working on the script (in addition to himself) and it certainly shows.  The jokes come fast and furious and the audience was laughing through the entire film.

Saturday was a long day, though entertaining.  With the doors opening at 9:30 and the final movie finishing well after midnight it was a tad longer than I would have liked, but I have to admit that I enjoyed it all.  The program started out with an informative talk on restoration in general and the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation in particular.  More than just a sales pitch for the school, two students presented their work and discussed the technical aspects of restoring an old movie.  The Festival presents a talk like this every year and I always find them fascinating.

The rest of the morning was taken up with a variety for films.  William Desmond Taylor's Souls of Youth (available on the Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film boxed set) was screened followed by the French farce Les Deux Timides (Two Timid Souls) staring Rene Clair.  I'm not a huge fan of French comedies and this one, while amusing, had a lot of the problems I associate with the genre.  The gags were stretched out a bit too long and were repeated too often.  In one case the main character walks up to a house that his antagonist doesn't want him to enter.  The villain puts a handkerchief over his face and runs out holding a gun to scare the man off.  They repeated the gag four times with only slight variations, one right after another.  By the end the joke had worn out its welcome.

Mikaël (Michael) by the Danish master, Carl Theodor Dreyer was up next.  This was the second time I've seen the film, and it's not my favorite work by Dreyer.  (Read my review of the DVD here.)  A lack of sympathetic characters makes it a bit hard to really get into, though there is a lot to think about.





The look for Batman's nemesis
The Joker was patterned after Conrad Veidt's make up in The Man Who
Laughs
.
 

Things kicked back into high gear on Saturday night with two excellent films:  Paul Leni's The Man Who Laughs staring Conrad Veidt followed by the Todd Browning/Lon Chaney classic The Unknown.  The first, about a man (Veidt) in medieval England who was purposefully disfigured as a child so that he would always have a smile on his face, was masterful.  With strong emotions and magnificent performances this is a great film.

The Unknown was presented by Canadian director Guy Maddin who gave an entertaining speech in defense of the melodrama and also read the French intertitle cards that were included in the print that was shown. This movie, about a murderer (Chaney) who hides out in a circus disguised as an armless man is one of the films that made the actor so famous.  It's a very eerie and effective film, and there are scenes in this film that will chill even today's most jaded horror fan.  It was wonderful watching the movie on a big screen and the piano score by Stephen Horne added a lot too.

Sunday started out with the early animated feature the Adventures of Prince Achmend.  This Arabian Knights fantasy was told through animated cut out silhouettes.  It sounds very limiting, but the effects that director Lotte Reiniger was able to produce really brought the story to life.  One of the most pleasing things about this year's festival was that there were several people who brought their children to see this film, and they all seemed to enjoy it.  Pianist Donald Sosin encouraged audience participation by telling everyone to caw when the evil birds attack and to make thunderous noises during the storm.  This worked very well (I admit I was a little nervous that some kids would be making sound effects through the whole picture) and not only made the movie a lot of fun for the kids, but for the adults too.

David Shepard, a man who has done so much for silent film preservation over the years, was the winner of this year's Silent Film Award.  This was presented just before the screening of his copy of The Silent Enemy, a docu-drama about the lives of Native American Indians.  Using an all Indian cast, the portrayed what life was like in times of famine.  As with Nanook of the North, this wasn't a documentary as we think of them today, but it was very interesting to see the way people might have lived back in those days.

Every year there's one film that really blows the audience away.  Last year it was Cottage on Dartmore (read the review of the DVD here) and this year it was Her Wild Oat staring Colleen Moore.  I'd never seen one of her films before and this was an outrageously funny farce that had the whole audience reeling.  Moore plays Mary, the owner of a lunch wagon who dreams of bigger things.  She decides to spend her savings on a week at an expensive luxury resort frequented by the rich and famous.  When a reporter friend spots her there, he starts the rumor that she's the Dutchess de Granville, a name they came up with from looking at the restaurant's menu.  Now the talk of the hotel, Mary is moved to an executive suite and things are looking good, until she discovers that there really is a Dutchess de Granville, that she's about to arrive, and that she's the new step-mother of the man she has her eye on.

With hilarious title cards and wonderfully understated acting by Colleen Moore this film, considered lost until discovered mis-labeled in a Czech film archive a couple of years ago, was the highlight of the festival.  A true comedy classic that will hopefully find its way onto DVD soon.

The most interesting movie this year was the 1928 Japanese film Jujiro (Crossways).  Having only seen a couple of Japanese silent shorts, I was eager to see this film by Teinosuke Kinugasa ("A Page of Madness").  An avant-garde film with some similarities to The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, this movie was very different for Hollywood's output at the time.  Told with distorted architecture, double exposures, and a very subjective camera this tale of a man who falls in love with a prostitute who isn't interested in him has a lot of unexpected twists and turns.  When the lad goes to proclaim his love for the working woman, another of her customers fights him and, throwing ashes in his eyes blinds him.  He lunges at the other man with his sword who falls, and the poor blind youth runs home with the cry of "murderer" in his ears.

That isn't true however.  The rival wasn't dead or even wounded.  He was just playing a gag on the boy.  Convinced that he's wanted for murder, the man hides at home with his sister.  When the story leaks out the local constable promises the sister that her brother will be safe, if only she'll accept his amorous advances.  This tragic story was enthralling and very unique and well worth seeking out.

I was a little apprehensive about the musical score for this film.  The program said that Stephen Horne would accompany the film on piano, and I wasn't sure how that would fit with an Eastern film.  I knew that traditionally kabuki and noh plays had traditional Japanese music to accompany them, and that Western films often had a benshi and piano, but I wasn't sure (nor could I discover... I asked a lot of people at the Festival too) what a Japanese film would have been screened with back at that time.

In any case I needn't have worried.  Stephen Horne did an absolutely phenomenal job with the score.  Not only did he incorporate traditional Japanese themes into the score, but he really thought outside the box in order to give the score an oriental flavor.  He started the film off playing the flute, and then added the piano in a little at a time.  Yes, he was playing both the piano and a flute simultaneously, each with one hand.  He also had the top of the grand piano removed so he could pluck the strings with his fingers and create a sound similar to a Japanese shamisen.  During the chaotic dream sequences he would run his fingers over the exposed strings to make a whirlwind of sound, and in the more subtle parts he blew threw the flute, onto the piano strings to create a unique sound.  There was a mic under the piano to pick it up.

Not only was this score creative, but it matched and accented the emotion and drama on the screen.  A bravura performance that was astonishing to experience.

The festival wrapped up with a wonderfully amusing film, The Patsy staring Marion Davies and directed by King Vidor.  This fun piece features Marion as Patricia, a young girl who is in love with her older sister Grace's (Jane Winton) boyfriend, Tony (Orville Caldwell.)  Poor Patsy tries to woo Tony, but he sees her as just a kid and doesn't realize that Grace doesn't really love him.  Davis was comic gold in the film, especially the sequence where she tries to impress a man by impersonating all of the actresses whose pictures are tacked up on his wall.  A very gifted mimic, these performances were often scene at the parties she and Hearst would throw at San Simeon and it was great to see them immortalized on film.  The person who steals the show however is Marie Dressler as Patsy's mother.  The cruel and overbearing Dressler does a wonderful job.  This film reportedly gave her career a jump-start and it's easy to see why.  She has such personality on the screen that it's hard not to notice her.

I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record by this time, as I say it every year after the Silent Film Festival, but anyone who has an interest in silent films should really make an attempt to attend.  The first time I attended I thought it would be a one time deal.  That it would be a nice experience, but not something that I would go to frequently.  This was my fifth consecutive year though and it seems to get more and more exciting each time.  Once you attend you'll be spoiled, and realize that there's no substitute for seeing a silent classic on the big screen with live music.



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

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