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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

The 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival
This was the tenth year in a row that I have attended the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the event hasn’t lost any of its luster in that time.  If anything it keeps on getting better each year.  For 2013 the staff of the festival put together some excellent examples of early cinema and matched the films with outstanding musical accompaniment.  There are only a few places that regularly screen silent movies and there are even less that offer world-class musicians to play along with the films, so it’s well worth the trip.  This year the musical guests included Stephen Horne, one of the absolute best solo musicians working with silent films today, The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, an outstanding group who have played all over the country, the Swedish quartet the Matti Bye Ensemble, newcomer to the festival Gunter Buchwald and many more.  The lineup of both movies and musical talent make this the premier showcase for silent cinema in the United States.
This year attendees were presented with a wonderful mix of films.  From popular classics to obscure gems, melodramas to comedies, Hollywood productions to films made around the globe and even the world premier of two new restorations, there was something for every taste and interest.
This year’s festival included:   
Prix de Beauté:  This film was the last time that Louise Brooks starred in a full length feature.  Seen today, it’s quite surprising that the talented and gorgeous star had trouble finding work after burning her bridges in Hollywood.  She’s bubbly and alluring in this tale of a secretary who finds herself the toast of Europe after winning a beauty contest she entered on a lark.  While she’s delighted with the night life and glamour, her finance thinks the whole thing is immoral.  Director Augusto Genina filled his film with lovely images including several close-ups of Brooks that gives the film a wonderful look.  Although Brooks was apparently hard to work with on this shoot, showing up on the set drunk of hung over from the night before, you’d never know watching the film.  She’s delightful and charming and it’s just too bad that she didn’t have the chance to sart in more films.

The First Born:  Miles Mander wrote, directed, produced, and starred in this British film that revolves around the troubles a young upper class couple encounters when the wife doesn’t become pregnant and the lengths that they’ll both go to ensure the bloodline.  Unfortunately Mander’s script is a bit of a mess.  Not only does it contain not one but two deus ex machine endings, but the movie doesn’t hang together very well.  Mander’s character, Sir Hugh Boycott, comes across as thoroughly repugnant, and viewers are left wondering why his wife is trying so hard to please him.  What’s worse, the film drags for much of the running time.

Tokyo Chorus:  Most people point to this film when discussing exactly when director Yasujiro Ozu developed the film style that would make him famous around the world.  This tale of family life in Japan starts out as a bit of a comedy, focusing on a slacker in high school who eventually gets a job selling insurance.  Things take a turn for the dramatic when the man looses his job after protesting the unjust firing of a fellow worker.  Touching, funny, and gorgeously composed, this is an amazing film that fans of the director should seek out.


The Patsy:  Marion Davies is best known as being the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, which is a terrible shame.  She should be known as one of the best comediennes of the silent era, as this film aptly illustrates.  Davies plays the younger daughter who has fallen for her older sister’s fellow, and tries to spend as much time with him as she can, much to the sister’s annoyance.  When the older girl starts seeing a rich playboy, Davies sees her chance, but first she has to make herself charming and desirable.
King Vidor directed this hilarious film and filled it with great actors.  Davies is absolutely hilarious through the entire film, but the must-see moment comes when she tries to get a rise out of a drunken youth.  She dresses up as series of movie stars (Mae Murray, then Lillian Gish, then Pola Negri) with hilarious spot-on impersonations.  It’s a classic scene that showcases Davies comedic talent.  Not only does Davies shine, but she’s supported by the incomparable Marie Dressler who plays her overbearing mother.  Dressler is the definition of ‘formidable’ and she plays her role wonderfully.  Her career was on the skids when she was offered this role, and afterwards Dressler was in high demand.

The Golden Clown:  There’s a very good movie hiding in this Danish film, it just needs to be edited down a bit to reveal it.  The clown in a small traveling circus, Joe, is offered a job in Paris and jumps at the chance, bringing the owners of the circus and their daughter, Daisy, with him.  Joe and Daisy marry before they head off, and in the big city he quickly becomes a star, and fabulously wealthy.  Joe’s very happy with his life, but Daisy’s eye goes wandering and she eventually runs off with a fashion designer that nearly ruins the clown and turns him into an alcoholic.  It’s a decent plot, but the film really drags in places.  At one point, Joe is in his third floor apartment and has to leave the building quickly.  He’s shown running down all of the flights of stairs only to discover that he forgot his key to unlock the front door, so we get to see him running up all those stairs again, grab his keys, and then run down them one more time.  Not really gripping drama.  As it is the film is decent, but maybe not as the last program of the evening, as it was here.

Winsor McCay: His Life and Art:  Academy Award winning animator John Canemaker presented this wonderful collection of animation by the groundbreaking and influential cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay.  Canemaker gave a wonderful overview if McCay’s contribution to animation as well as presenting four of his works, Little Nemo, How a Mosquito Operates, Gertie the Dinosaur, and The Sinking of the Lusitania.  While Gertie is easily his most famous cartoon, the final short of the program was his best.  It was wonderfully animated and well before it’s time. 
The Half-Breed:  The SF Silent Film Festival has set up a preservation fund, and this Douglas Fairbanks feature is the first movie that they’ve restored.  When thinking of Fairbanks, most people recall his action flicks and some fans of early cinema will remember that before the spectacle films he acted in comedies.  In this 1916 movie he plays a dramatic part, and does it quite well.  When an Indian woman gives birth to a son after being betrayed by the white man that she was seeing, she gives her child to a reclusive scientist to raise and commits suicide.  Years later, the half –breed (Fairbanks), now an adult, deals with discrimination and intolerance among the residents of a local town.

This film was incredibly interesting, and not just because Fairbanks was in a dramatic role.  It was surprisingly subtle in the way that it dealt with discrimination, and it also ended on an ambiguous note, something that didn’t happen often in the second decade of the last century.  There’s also a glimpse of the swashbuckling Fairbanks thrown in for good measure when he runs through the forest in order to loose a posse that’s looking for a woman he’s taken under his wing.
Legong: Dance of the Virgins:  A drama filmed in two-strip Technicolor on location in Bali.  The plot is pretty simple, a young dancer falls in love with a musician who has eyes for the dancer’s younger sister, but the location and color photography make it enjoyable to watch. The score was provided by not one but two musical groups:  Gamelan Sekar Jaya and the Club Foot Orchestra.  In all there were over 20 musicians, half of them playing percussion, which beautifully accompanied the film and really created a wonderful atmosphere. 
Gribiche:  This French film directed by Jacques Feyder revolves around a young boy who aides an older wealthy American in a store.  The heiress is so taken with the charming child that she convinces his mother to let him move in with her, so that she can raise him to be a proper gentleman and try out her rigid educational theories.  It’s a decent drama that plays well on the big screen.

The House on Trubnaya Square:  This was the find of the festival.  I’m a big fan of Russian cinema, but I have to admit that Soviet comedies aren’t really funny.  They may be amusing or delightful, but I never find myself actually laughing.  That’s not the case with this comedy set in Moscow from 1928. It’s hysterical.  A young woman from the country comes to Moscow in search of her uncle (who, it turns out, had headed back to the country).  She gets a job as a maid in possibly the worst apartment building in the city where she’s overworked and underpaid.  That all changes when she’s elected to the Moscow City council.  Then the people in the building can’t do enough for her.  Not only was this outrageously funny, but it was a showcase for the catalog of Russian film techniques from the period. It’s available on DVD and highly recommended.

The Joyless Street:  I had seen a version of this movie a couple of decades ago, and I really didn’t understand why people said it was an important piece of cinema.  It seemed disjointed and most of the characters seemed to do things at random.  It turns out that the version I saw all those years ago was very heavily edited.  The restoration that was screened during this festival was 150 minutes and it played like an entirely different film.

In Germany between the wars there were two distinct classes: the haves and the have-nots.  While the wealthy stay out all night and enjoying themselves, the poor queue up all evening hoping for a chance to buy some meat or butter the next morning.  The film is a stinging incitement of the huge gap between the classes, and it plays just as well today as it must have back in 1925.  It’s the movie that made Greta Garbo a star, and it’s easy to see why.  Though she’s featured in the film along with actress Asta Nielson (who was a much bigger name at the time) Garbo is magnetic as the poor secretary who tries to feed her family while keeping her virtue in tact.  She can convey bone-deep fatigue with just a look.  It’s no wonder Hollywood came calling for her.
Kings of (Silent) Comedy:  A quartet of hilarious shorts:  a Felix the Cat romp, Felix Goes West, Charley Chase’s best short, Mighty Like a Moose, Buster Keaton’s Love Nest, and the classic Chaplin short The Immigrant.  They were all wonderful and had the theater laughing.  

The Outlaw and His Wife:  I want to give mention to the sponsor of this film, Fandor.  It’s a pretty cool streaming site that has an impressive amount of early cinema (as well as some excellent foreign films) in its lineup.  Cinephiles who are looking for more breath and variety than is available on Netflix or Amazon should check them out.  (Fort the record, this is an unpaid and unsolicited recommendation.)
You can read my full review of this Victor Sjöström film here. 

The Last Edition:  This is another film that was restored by the festival.  It was preserved from the only surviving copy, an old nitrate print, which was held in the Dutch National Archives.  It’s a ‘meat and potatoes’ flick set in the newspaper world of San Francisco.  When a young attorney is charged with building a case against a local bootlegger, the crook’s mole in the DA’s office frames new lawyer.  It’s up to an intrepid newspaper reporter and the man’s father, who happens to work at the same paper, to clear his name.  The low budget movie was fun and entertaining, and a great example of the type of product Hollywood churned out week after week.  Not a lost classic, but good, solid entertainment.

The Weavers:  A 1927 German film, this was another great discovery.  The movie relates the events of the 1844 revolts of cotton weavers in Peterswald, which became a rallying cry for revolutionaries in the following years.  The weavers were very poor people who took yarn from a merchant and turned it into cloth.  They barely made enough to survive but when mechanized looms were introduced and the price of fabric plummeted, their wages fell drastically.  When a local man who ran off to join the army years before sees the state of his town, he rallies the weavers to storm the house of the rich merchant who has been oppressing them and then march on to the next city and destroy the looms that were killing their livelihood.
This was a powerful film, one filled with fascinating scenes and some gloriously designed intertitle cards.  Added to that was the magnificent musical accompaniment by Gunter Buchwald.  A German native, Buchwald introduced the film with some words placing the film in its historical context as well as singing, and translating, the weaver’s song that’s featured in the movie.  A folksong that would have been well known in 1920’s Germany, I had never heard of it and Gunter’s explanation really added a lot to the film.  This was his first appearance at the SFSFF, and I hope it won’t be the last.

Safety Last:  I’ve seen this film several times, but you just can’t beat watching it on the big screen with an appreciative audience and great live music.  This is a classic of the silent era, and includes one of the most iconic images from early cinema, a bespectacled man hanging from the face of a clock high up on the side of a building.  Harold Lloyd, one of the three biggest comedians from the silent era, stars in this hilarious ‘thrill film’ that centers on a man who has moved to the big city to make his fortune.  Though he’s only a clerk in a department store, he’s been telling his girl back home that he’s wonderfully successful.  When she shows up unexpectedly, he’s forced to go to extreme measures to climb the corporate ladder:  climbing the side of a building as a publicity stunt.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanied this film, their first time doing so, and their score was fun and energetic.  It really made the film come alive.  What was even more enjoyable was the audience.  It’s great to hear hundreds of people gasp when Harold slips or looses his balance while trying to get a mouse out of his trouser leg.  This was a great film to wrap up another wonderful film festival.  


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