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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive

The 2006 San Francisco Silent Film Festival
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

This month Silent DVD has full coverage of the 11th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival which is held in the middle of July every year.  This is the premier silent film event in the country and a wonderful chance to see some great films.  The festival managed to top themselves once again with screenings of the magnificent Pandora's Box staring Louis Brooks, a beautifully restored Mary Pickford film, Sparrows, and a hilarious trio of Laurel and Hardy shorts, among others.  Read the full coverage starting here.

Now that the SF festival is over, it's time to plan for a trip to Topeka, Kansas for the 11th Annual Kansas Silent Film Festival which will be held February 23rd and 24th, 2007.  This two day festival will present several excellent shorts and features including the Harry Langdon classic The Strong Man, a hand colored version of Cyrano de Bergerac, and a rare Mary Pickford film, Rosita.  All of the films will have live music to accompany them including an appearance by the Mont Alto Orchestra.  Mont Alto are one of the best groups specializing in silent film scores performing today.  They've recorded several excellent audio tracks for silent films on DVD including The Thief of Bagdad and Mary Pickford's Suds.  Seeing them perform live will certainly be a treat.

There are also some rumors of future DVD releases being bandied about, and I hope that they are accurate and come to pass.  The most exciting is that Pandora's Box, G. W. Pabst's masterpiece, is supposed to be released at the end of 2006, and the studio that was mentioned was Criterion. (!)  This film is long overdue for a quality release and I'm sure that if this film gets the Criterion treatment it will be worth the wait.

The other film that I've heard is in the works is Marry Pickford's Sparrows.  This newly restored film looks absolutely fantastic and would make a nice addition to any DVD collection.

As for upcoming silent film releases that aren't just rumors, here are a few titles to keep an eye out for.   Kino is releasing a new two-disc version of Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler and Image is re-releasing the Chaplin Mutual comedies from newly restored prints.  Both of these sets will be reviewed in the next column, about two weeks from now.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2006

The 11th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival was held on July 14-16, 2006 at the Castro Theater in downtown San Francisco.  Once again attendees were treated to a wide variety of wonderful and rare films, all shown from excellent looking 35 mm prints (with the exception of a single short that was in 16 mm) with live music and a very appreciative audience.

On my way back, I was chatting with someone who asked me why I bothered to travel all the way across the continent in order to see some really old movies.  The unsaid question was "why not see contemporary films at your local theater?"

It was a bit odd, but sitting through these films I realized that I was enjoying myself much more than at any mainstream film I had been too in a long time.  Without the benefit of dialog, the actors had to convey their character's emotions and feelings through facial expressions and body language.  In other words they had to act, rather than just read lines with inflection.  Many people think of silent actors as hams who used exaggerated gestures and movements and that their methods are outdated and silly looking by today's standards.  While this is true in some cases, it's not the norm.  Just watch Louis Brooks' amazing performance in Pandora's Box to see how much information can be conveyed with a look.  Though I'll be the first to admit that not all silent movies are great, just as all of the product to come out of Hollywood isn't pabulum, these older films tended to spend more time worrying about the story and plot rather than aiming for the lowest common denominator among the audience.

These films are also part of our heritage.  They mirror the society that created them, and from viewing silent films we can learn a bit about our past; how people lived 100 years ago, their cares and worries, and what they thought was entertaining.  These old movies are a window to the past and eminently enjoyable too.

This year's festival was a little different from previous years since it was commemorating the centennial of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire that devastated the city.  Before most of the features, a vintage newsreel or short was screened that illustrated the tragic event.  Showing these shorts in chronological order, the festival started out with A Trip Down Market Street which was shot by the Miles Brothers, one of the first film producers on the west coast, a mere four days before the quake.  Amazingly this film was quickly sent to their New York offices and escaped being destroyed in the fiery aftermath.  Other films showed the devastation afterwards, the fleeing refugees, and the rebirth of the city.  This special event was concluded with a contemporary newsreel-like silent film of the centennial ceremony that was conducted last April.  This was an interesting and unique look at events that shaped the city, and judging by the audience's reaction, a very popular segment of the festival.

The first feature to be screened was one that I hadn't seen before, and it turned out to be one of my favorites from this year's festival; Seventh Heaven staring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.  This film, directed by Frank Borzage, was very similar in tone, composition and emotional impact to King Vidor's Big Parade.   Not fitting neatly into any one genre, the film started off as a heavy drama, turned into a romantic comedy, and ended with a war sequence.  Though it sounds like a horrible conglomeration of styles, the film worked very well.  Viewers grew to know and like the main characters through the different sections of the film and that accentuated the drama at the end.

Janet Gaynor was outstanding in her role as an honest but scared street waif who falls in love with a sewer worker.  With the slightest gestures she could convey what minutes of dialog couldn't.  A powerful actress, she won the first Oscar for Best Actress in 1929 for this film (along with Sunrise and Street Angel; she is the only actress to earn an Academy Award for multiple pictures in one year).  Director Frank Borzage also did a masterful job weaving the film through varying story types and making an engrossing and touching whole.  He also was awarded an Oscar for his work on this film.

Saturday morning started off, appropriately enough, with a B–western, the 1917 John Ford film Bucking Broadway staring Harry Carey.  The legendary western actor stars as a Montana farm hand who travels to New York in order to save the woman he loves from an unscrupulous suitor.  More of a light romance film than a real western, this movie wasn't very remarkable.  The ending was a lot of fun though, involving a group of cowboys riding their horses through New York City and up to a fancy hotel and then starting a brawl with the villains of the picture.

Afterwards Harry Carey Jr., a western star in his own right (3 Godfathers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) and a member of John Ford's stock company was interviewed on the stage.  He talked about his father, working with John Ford and John Wayne, and thoroughly entertained the audience with his amusing anecdotes.  Now in his mid-80's, seeing this actor in person was a real treat.

The award for the film that started the most discussions this year was easily won by the French film Au Bonheur des Dames.  It was directed by Julien Duvivier, a director who was a favorite of both Ingmar Bergman and Jean Renoir, and from this film it is easy to see why.

The plot involves a young lady Denise Baudu (Dita Parlo) who was recently orphaned and goes to live with her uncle, who runs a small fabric store in Paris.  When she arrives, he tells her that he can't afford to house her.  A large department store, Au Bonheur des Dames, has opened up right across the street.  They are selling their stock at less than cost to drive out the competition and the old man is nearly out of business.

Having no other choice, Denise gets a job at Au Bonheur des Dames as a fashion model.  Here she has to not only put up with sexual harassment, but by being ostracized by her fellow models when she spurns the manager's advances.  The manager leaves her alone when Octave Mouret (Pierre de Guingand), the owner of the entire store, starts noticing the new employee.  Denise is flattered by the handsome man's attention until she discovers that he's the evil man who is trying to ruin her uncle.

Mouret has bought up all of the bankrupt businesses across the street from his store in order to expand.  The only parcel he hasn't been able to buy belongs to Denise's uncle, so he starts construction figuring that the fabric store won't last long.  The dust and noise from the constant work causes the family to suffer.  Denise's niece, Geneviève (Nadia Sibirskaïa), comes down with TB, the constant struggle strains her relationship with her fiancée, and the uncle nearly goes mad from the noise.

Spoiler Warning.  If you don't want to know how the film ends, skip down the here.

At the end, Geneviève's fiancée leaves her, and she dies of her illnesses brought on by the construction.  As she dies, the family is evicted from their store and this causes the uncle to go mad.  Taking a gun, he goes to Au Bonheur des Dames intending to kill Octave Mouret.  While he isn't able to do that, he does kill an employee and some shoppers in the store.  Fleeing the establishment, he is hit by a truck (owned by Au Bonheur des Dames, naturally) and dies.  Mouret emerges to see what happened and encounters Denise with whom he has fallen in love.  Denise screams at him, blaming him for the deaths in her family and declaring that she hates him.

A few days later the Baudu's store is vacant and ready for demolition.  Mouret has lost his will to work since the woman he loves rejected him, and is in danger of losing his giant store.  Walking across the street, the businessman encounters Denise and breaks down in front of her, acknowledging that he was wrong to treat people like chattel.  She looks up at him and states that she loves him, she always has, and that she and her family were wrong.  They stood in the way of progress and people shouldn't do that.  Reinvigorated, Octave and Denise go on to build a bigger store than they had dared imagine, one that dwarfs the city of Paris itself.

End of spoilers.

It was the conclusion that caused so many people to talk about it afterwards.  When Denise gives her concluding speech, the audience laughed in shock and surprise.  Totally unexpected as it was, there were many theories as to the meaning and reasons.

Aside from the conclusion that I found weak and unsatisfying, Duvivier crafted a beautiful and thoughtful movie.  The editing was magnificent, filled with montages that are masterful and very powerful.   Duvivier would frequently intercut between two scenes to create tension and underline his point, and this technique worked very well.  Another amazing effect in the film was the way he was able to control crowds of people.  The swarming throngs were almost a character themselves, showing how easily people were led.  Even thought the story was a bit on the melodramatic side, the way it was filmed made up for many of its faults.

The Mary Pickford film Sparrows was shown with a gorgeously restored print.  The film, about a plucky little girl who helps a group of orphans escape from a ‘baby farm’ where they are being used as slave labor, is a typical dramatic Pickford film and tugs at the heart strings as much as it makes the audience laugh.  This film was the last time Mary Pickford played a little girl.  She was 34 at the time, and even with a lot of make-up and overly large sets, it was hard to see her as being only 12 or 13 years old.  A solid film, though it wasn’t one of Pickford’s best.

One of the best films screened at this year’s festival was the 1929 G. W. Pabst masterpiece Pandora’s Box.  This film made a superstar of Louis Brooks and she would ever afterwards be identified as Lulu, the role she plays here.

Set during the Weimar Republic in Germany, a time of cultural and social freedom, Lulu (Louise Brooks) is an attractive high-priced prostitute who is used to getting what she wants, no matter what it is.  When one of her best clients informs her that he is to be married, she decides to marry him herself and uses her wiles to trap him.  Soon after the wedding though, she grows tired of the much older man and manipulates events so that she shoots and kills him and also seduces his son.  Running form justice, Lulu and her group of friends hide all over Europe, destroying people’s lives whereever they go.

This tale of self-indulgence and immorality is just as stunning as Louis Brooks in beautiful.  I could go on and on about Brooks’ exquisite acting, Pabst’s near perfect direction and the wonderfully twisted story that works so well.  Instead I’ll just recommend that everyone see this masterpiece for themselves.  It is well worth the trouble of tracking it down.

Sunday morning’s programming started off with something unusual but very welcome; a discussion of film restoration with Patrick Loughney of George Eastman House, Mike Mashon of The Library of Congress, Mona Nagai of Pacific Film Archive and Peter Limburg of Haghefilm Conservation.  This knowledgeable group discussed the problems and challenges of restoring old film, the processes involved, and presented several before and after examples.  This was a very interesting lecture, and I was happy to discover that technology has advanced to a state where film that would have been considered unsalvageable even a decade or two ago is being saved and restored.  An excellent presentation that I wish could have gone on longer.

Next up was a series of three Laurel and Hardy shorts that kept the audience in stitches.  It started off with The Finishing Touch (1928), where the boys will get a $500 bonus if they can finish a house that is partially built in less than a week.  As luck would have it they are across the street from a hospital and a policeman (played by Edgar Kennedy) is always on hand to see that they stay quiet.

Next was Liberty (1929), a ‘thrill picture’ in the style of Harold Lloyd where the stars play escaped convicts who end up on top of a skyscraper that is being built along with a crab who has managed to fall into Stan’s pants.  A great short that stands up well even 75 years later.

This program wrapped up with a personal favorite, Wrong Again (1929).  In this comic escapade Stan and Laurel are farm hands who mistakenly believe that a horse they are taking care of, Blue Boy, is really stolen.  In reality it is the painting Blue Boy that has been stolen.  When the boys show up at the house where the painting was stolen from with their horse and inform the distracted owner that they have his Blue Boy, he tells them to bring it inside.  Things get worse when they ask where he wants it, and the owner tells them to “just put it on the piano.”

After these shorts it was mentioned that they had a hard time locating 35mm prints of these films, and that they had to settle for a 16 mm print for one.  While these generally looked good, they were a bit disappointing, especially Wrong Again which is missing a couple of important scenes including the setup for a running gag.  The versions included on both The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy Volume 5 and the R2 21-disc boxed set of Laurel and Hardy films have the missing scenes.  (Thanks to Rick Andersen for the R2 information and tracking down which volume of Lost Treasures that Wrong Again appeared.)

The Girl with the Hatbox, an early Russian comedy, was up next.  Natalya is a hat maker who lives with her grandfather in the rural countryside.  Every week she travels to Moscow to sell her hats to a particular store.  The store owners have Natalya registered as living in one of the bedrooms in their house, so that they can use it as an office.  This arrangement works out well until Natalya runs into a poor student, Ilya, sleeping in the train station.  He can't find any apartments for rent, and is forced to sleep whereever he can find the space.  Natalya feels sorry for him and comes up with a bright idea: they will claim to be married so that he can live in her room in the hat shop.  Well, as you can imagine, that doesn't go over well with the shop owners.  They don't like having a strange man living with them and stop buying Natalya's hats.  Instead of paying her for the last delivery, they give her a lottery ticket instead, which she leaves with Ilya.  But when the ticket turns out to be worth 25,000 rubles, there's a mad dash to try to get the slip and the fortune it represents.

This was an enjoyable movie though not outstanding.  There was a little slapstick, a few word jokes, but mainly it was a situational comedy.  Most of the jokes worked well, and the movie had a few laughs.  The troubles poor Natalya's grandfather has to go through to get a paper was amusing, and a scene with Natalya and Ilya in front of the Housing Committee were also funny.  The gags weren’t set up as tightly as they would be on an American slapstick film.  A lot of jokes were telegraphed in advance and some just didn’t work very well.  I had seen this film before, and it didn’t get as many laughs as I thought it would.

One thing that I enjoyed about this movie was seeing what life was like in Moscow over 80 years ago.  The idea of having a government official come into your house and tell you who would be living with you (rent free) is almost inconceivable.  These authorities were not portrayed as evil or mean, just people doing their jobs.  (It was also interesting to note that the shop owner was using an abacus to balance the books.)

Lon Chaney was the star of the next movie to be screened, The Unholy Three.  Directed by Tod Browning, this is the third time that Chaney had worked with the director, and the first of their string of films dealing with the bizarre and eerie.

Chaney plays Echo, a ventriloquist working in a side show selling joke books.  At least that appears to be his source of income.  In reality he’s a thief, having his girl Rosie O'Grady, (Mae Busch), pick the pockets of the people attending the show.  That’s small potatoes though, and Echo has bigger plans.  He recruits another couple of sideshow acts, Hercules the strong man (Victor McLaglen) and Tweedledee the midget (Harry Earles) and together they leave the circus.

The three set up a bird store and sell parrots to rich people who want to amuse their friends.  Echo dresses up as an old lady, and Tweedledee as a baby to fool the customers.  While Echo is around, all of the parrots talk, but when people bring them home, they mysteriously stop.  That gives Echo and his cohorts a good excuse to scope out the houses and rob the richest ones.  When a rich banker and his daughter are killed in a robbery though, the police take notice and start closing in.

This was a wonderfully dark and strange film.  Chaney did a fantastic job as an old woman and a ruthless thief, and Browning’s direction brought a sense of the bizarre to the movie.  They certainly don’t make them like this anymore.

The festival wrapped up with a Marion Davies vehicle, Show People.  Davies is best remembered as the mistress of William Randolph Hearst who was portrayed as a talentless shrew in Citizen Kane.  This characterization of the star was far from the truth as this film illustrates.  Davies was a talented and gifted comedienne who made some memorable movies.

Peggy Pepper (Davies) travels to Hollywood with her father Col. Pepper to break into show business and become a great dramatic actress.  Getting their foot in the door is a little harder than they thought it would be, however, until they meet Billy Boone (William Haines) in the studio cafeteria one day.  He gets Peggy a job with his studio, a Keystone-type outfit that churns out two-reel comedies, without her knowing exactly what she’s going to be filming.  Her honest reactions to the mayhem that goes on around her are priceless and she soon becomes one of the studio’s biggest supporting actresses.  Her talent doesn’t go unnoticed, however, and she soon signs with a big studio, leaving Billy and her friends behind.  Now the toast of the town, Peggy forgets her roots and starts playing the prima donna.  She throws fits on the set and isn’t willing to see her old friends anymore until something happens that brings her down a few notches.

This was a wonderfully witty send-up of Hollywood culture that is just as true today was it was back then.  Directed by King Vidor, this film really makes Davies shine.  The expression that she plasters on her face after becoming famous is wonderfully outrageous.  To make the film even more enjoyable, it is sprinkled with cameos of many famous silent stars including Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, John Gilbert and Marion Davies and King Vidor themselves.

The only complaint I have is that the print, while good overall, was not as nice as the version that has been shown recently on TCM, which had significantly less damage.  Even so, Show People is a wonderfully enjoyable film that was a great ending to the festival.

This film fest is really a wonderful event for people who enjoy silent film.  I fly across the country (at my own expense) each year to attend and find it well worth the trouble.  The music, which I barely commented on in this review, is always excellent and adds much to the experience.  The people you meet in the audience are also quite enjoyable, and watching these movies with people who laugh in the right spots and really get into the movie is much better than screening it in the privacy of your own home. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is a wonderful opportunity to see early cinema the way it was meant to be seen.  I highly recommend attending.

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


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