Tuesday, July 25


Officially Announcing a Friz Freleng Blog-A-Thon, August 21, 2006

As Jim Emerson of Scanners notes, there's been something of a spontaneous Tex Avery Blog-a-Thon happening in the past few days, started by Peet at Lost in Negative Space, and continued by That Little Round-Headed Boy, Dennis Cozzalio at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, and others. I think all of the cartoons singled out so far are great ones, particularly the ones starring Droopy Dog. But instead of picking out a personal favorite Tex Avery 'toon, I'm going to seize the moment to do something I've been putting off since (gulp) March: officially call for a Blog-A-Thon for Avery's contemporary Isadore "Friz" Freleng, on the day that would have been either his 100th (if you go by his grave marker) or 101st (if you go by his autobiography) birthday: August 21, 2006.

Friz Freleng's career started in his hometown Kansas City with Walt Disney and continued with the longest stint of any director at the Warner Brothers animation studio. But he also made time for a brief, six-cartoon run at MGM in the late 1930s and spent a lengthy period with the Pink Panther and other creations at his own theatrical cartoon studio in the 1960s and 1970s. Freleng's legacy at Warner was enormous, as he directed the studio's first cartoon with a star for the ages, Porky Pig (the film was I Haven't Got a Hat) and was instrumental in developing most of the major Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies stars, especially Sylvester, Tweety, Speedy Gonzalez, Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam. Yet today his reputation among cinephiles seems overshadowed by that of his fellow directors, namely Avery, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones. Is this justified? I hope this Blog-a-Thon can play a small part in contextualizing Freleng's work within the art of animation and the medium of cinema.

But I don't mean to impose lofty expectations on participants. This is going to be fun! I invite anyone, whether animation experts, enthusiasts or newbies, fans of Freleng or not, to watch or rewatch at least one of his cartoons between now and August 21. On that day, post something about Freleng or one or more of his films on your website, and send me the link. You may name the cartoon(s), character(s), or aspect(s) of Freleng's style you want to discuss in the comments section below, or leave it as a surprise for the rest of us.

Many Freleng cartoons are relatively easy to find. There's at least one on almost every single Looney Tunes Golden Collection Disc (and details about November's release of Volume 4 of that series are just starting to come out right now), and others are available as extras on various Warner DVD releases (Bringing Up Baby, for example). All the Pink Panther films (Freleng co-directed the first ten and produced the rest) have been released on DVD as well. And then there are the various LaserDisc and VHS releases, not to mention video search engines. And if you find yourself on Frisco Bay during the next twenty-seven days, you might be able to see a Freleng film on celluloid if you attend the Stanford Theatre, which is playing unspecified Warner cartoons before every 7:30 showing in their summer program.

August 21. That gives you nearly four weeks. Who's with me?

Thursday, July 20


A Silent Film Weekend, Part II

This is the second and final part of my 2006 Silent Film Festival coverage. While I didn't see a film I loved quite as much as Seventh Heaven during the rest of the festival, I saw several more really good ones, and had a wonderful weekend filled with familiar and friendly faces and lively conversations with many fellow movie lovers I hadn't seen in a while. With the right event, the Castro really feels like the movie palace Frisco deserves. And while I still miss the adventurous-minded programming of Anita Monga during the times when a great festival like the SFF isn't using the venue, I get the feeling that each new calendar displays a slightly better understanding of what Frisco audiences want and need: the next calendar will include an eight-film Pedro Almodovar retrospective and a three day booking of Crispin Glover's What Is It? October 20-22.

Back to the festival. If you've never seen it or heard about it before, don't read a plot synopsis of Liberty. Don't even go to the film's imdb page. I've yet to see anything written on this Laurel and Hardy two-reeler that doesn't give away the film's first joke, a real doozy. The rest I can outline without ruining any of the best surprises: the comedy duo have accidentally put on each other's pants, and they spend most of the rest of the film trying to find a private place to change out of the extremely ill-fitting garments. It's inevitable that bystanders chance upon them and come to their own conclusions as to why these two men might have their trousers halfway down their legs at the same time. But once they've been able to make the exchange, they find themselves precariously stranded at the top of a skyscraper worksite, perfect for a lengthy tribute to Harold Lloyd and his "thrill pictures" except probably even more thrilling and hilarious. I had a suspicion that Liberty would be the best of the three Laurel & Hardy films shown on Sunday's morning program, based on the fact that it was the only one shown in 16mm; why settle for a smaller-gauge format unless you're absolutely sure that the audience will be laughing too hard to mind? Sure enough, the two films shown in 35mm prints courtesy of the Library of Congress (the Finishing Touch and Wrong Again) each had a few ingenious moments, but neither was as consistently funny as Liberty was for me. Michael Mortilla accompanied all three on the piano wonderfully, as well as a nostalgic surprise coda: home movie footage of Stan Laurel shot in the 1960s.

The Laurel and Hardy program began a day nearly filled with silent comedies. In addition to the three Leo McCarey-directed shorts, there was a Boris Barnet's the Girl With the Hatbox, apparently made to promote the sale of Soviet lottery tickets (I had no idea there was such a thing as a Soviet lottery in 1927; the concept sounds rather un-communistic, doesn't it?) The film stars the so-promoted "Russian Garbo" Anna Sten, who I first spied opposite Fredric March in 1934's We Live Again. Seeing her before she'd been exposed to the Hollywood glamour mill was a treat: she displays a natural beauty quite convincing in its ability to hypnotize a humble ticket-seller, in a scene that uses the unreality of silence to increase the amusement of cutting between a railway station filled with angrily shouting babushkas and the face of a young man tuning out everything but the cause of his private daze. And closing film Show People was a delightful slice of King Vidor Americana. Marion Davies spoofs herself on the way to pounding the stuffing out of Hollywood artifice and pomposity, all with a smile, of course.

Wedged in between Sunday's comic features was the Lon Chaney vehicle the Unholy Three, a Tod Browning-directed investigation into the dark fringes of civilized community in which a criminal gang led by Chaney's Professor Echo enacts an elaborate burglary scheme involving cross-dressing, parrots that don't talk, Harry Earles in a baby get-up a la Little Man, a pickpocket played by Mae Busch, and even a pre-King Kong giant gorilla. It's ironic that, though this film's 1930 remake is the only talking picture Chaney was able to complete before his death of throat cancer, sound is something of a liability to the story. As impressive as it is to hear the Man of a Thousand Faces also display a versatile array of voices as the ventriloquistic Echo in the remake, there's no way a talkie could end as well as the silent version does. While the silent trial scene is intensely gripping, it is so because we can suspend any potential disbelief in the Professor's virtuosic voice-throwing. The solution the 1930 version comes up with ultimately robs the film of the poignant ending in which Echo realizes that the more he tries to prevent Busch's woman-of-her-word from marrying the man she really wants, the more it only proves the strength of her love for the guy. It's a quintessential example of the formula that made Chaney such a unique star: somehow he finds the inner goodness of an embittered, discarded specimen of the human species. This is mere speculation on my part, not any kind of a hunch, but wouldn't it be great if the 2007 edition of the festival, set to start Friday the 13th of July, opened up with a good Chaney horror film that hasn't been shown in Frisco in a while?

But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. After Show People, the festival's Artistic Director Stephen Salmons advised us to be on the lookout for the festival's second annual winter season program on December 10. And silent comedy fans should note that our local Symphony Orchestra will be screening Charlie Chaplin's City Lights with three live performances of the score he composed for its original release just over 75 years ago, this November 22, 24 and 25. When the Silent Film Festival played a Chaplin feature (my personal favorite one, the Circus) a few years back, they had to make an exception to their usual policy of presenting films with live music. The Chaplin estate requires all screenings of his films to use either the soundtrack supplied with the film, or else an orchestra with too many pieces to fit in front of even the Castro screen. Well, the Symphony certainly has enough musicians, and though Davies Hall wasn't built expressly for movies it does a fine job projecting them on occasion.

Other Frisco silent film screenings of note include, at the Balboa, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in October and a Louise Brooks centennial program (presumably to include the one film that filled every seat in the house for its Silent Film Festival screening, Pandora's Box). The Stanford starts its biweekly summer silent film series with Erich Von Stroheim's the Merry Widow tomorrow night accompanied by Dennis James, who so ably played for Show People last Sunday, in front of the organ. The PFA will have pianists Judith Rosenberg or Jon Mirsalis (who was in top form with the Unholy Three) at select Borzage, Gaynor and Winsor McCay screenings. And then there's the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, which handed out flyers of its upcoming programs running through September at the Castro all last weekend. I accidentally left mine under my seat after the last film Sunday. I seem to recall Raoul Walsh's Regeneration scheduled at some point, but I can't with certainty say anything more than: shorts this Saturday and Rin Tin Tin next Saturday. Oh, and that the 100th anniversary of the Essanay Studio will be celebrated next June 25 through July 1.

Saturday, July 15


A Silent Film Weekend

The 11th Annual Silent Film Festival is well underway! I've already attended two outstanding programs. I'm reminded again why, once you've enjoyed 35mm prints of these films on the Castro Theatre's towering screen with live musical accompaniment by some of the best in the business and a very appreciative audience, it's hard to be satisfied by a home video silent film experience. To make the comparison even less fair, each festival program is as packed with as much value as a DVD filled with extras. There are special guest appearances, book signings, a fact-filled program guide and slide shows, and short subjects. This year, being the centennial not only of two of the festival's featured stars (Janet Gaynor and Louise Brooks) but also of Frisco's Great Quake, the festival is showing actuality and newsreel footage related to the event before several of the screenings. Last night's audience for Seventh Heaven was treated to a cable-car-cam view of The City's main thoroughfare, a Trip Down Market Street.

I'd seen this before several times, most memorably at a wonderful outdoor event last September which was supposed to be in honor of the film's centennial. However, according to the above link and the SFF program guide, it seems the footage was shot by the Miles Brothers mere days before the catastrophe. This information made the film (which is one long tracking shot heading towards the ferry building) suddenly seem all the more poignant. Along with Michael Mortilla's piano accompaniment, Market Street Railway president Rick Laubscher narrated an informative commentary, leaving plenty of space for the audience to hiss at the mention of Justin Herman Plaza, cheer the concept of a contact-wire-less Market Street, and to laugh heartily at the reckless drivers on the screen. Apparently automobiles had been hired by the filmmakers to make what was usually a street full of cable cars and horse carts seem more sophisticated, but until I heard that tidbit it just made me think that the Frisco of that day was home to some insane road hogs (just like it is today). This morning's screening of Bucking Broadway was preceded by a newsreel about the quake and fire, and tomorrow's screenings of Laurel and Hardy two-reelers and the Unholy Three will also contain vintage Frisco footage. And before the closing film, King Vidor's Show People, the world premiere of a "Neo-Silent" film called Triumph Over Disaster will be shown.

Then there are the feature films. Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven (which was introduced by Robin Adrian, son of Janet Gaynor and the renowned costume designer who provided his surname) was a perfect Bastille Day selection, filled with stirring French patriotism and even a crucial scene with the Eiffel Tower on the backdrop. I nurture a strange soft spot for Hollywood films made about Europeans; how many times have French filmmakers had the gall (if you'll excuse the pun) to make a film set in America featuring no French characters? Such productions seem a little less hubristic in the silent era for obvious reasons, and European transplants to Hollywood like Von Sternberg, Lubitsch and Borzage kept the tradition alive into the talkie era, where it still thrives in films like Marie Antoinette. But if you couldn't tell the national origin of Seventh Heaven by the presence of Gaynor or other visual clues, you'd be pretty certain after experiencing the "Hollywood ending". The religion-bathed finale seems to be the main sticking point for the film's few modern detractors, but I was fascinated by the idea that it might be possible for characters to openly renounce faith in both God and love, and yet experience a miracle. Everyone I talked to after the screening was bustling with excitement about the upcoming PFA retrospectives for Gaynor and Borzage.

One of the films in the Gaynor retro will be the Shamrock Handicap, directed by the man who, according to biographer Joseph McBride, also directed some of the World War I footage in Seventh Heaven: John Ford. A beautiful tinted print of his Bucking Broadway was the first program of the day today, and it was followed by a delightful on-stage conversation between McBride and Harry Carey, Jr., who acted for Ford in the 40s, 50s and 60s as his father had in the 10s and 20s. Harry Carey père stars in the 1917 Bucking Broadway, my first experience with a Ford silent. The first half of the film showcases the budding romance between a strong but sensitive ranch hand named Cheyenne Harry and his employer's daughter Helen (played by one Molly Malone, whose face slightly resembles Barbara Stanwyck's). When Helen encounters a hiss-worthy villain named Eugene Thornton, he easily seduces her away from the ranch to come with him to New York City.

The second half of the film is devoted to Harry's mission to find his sweetheart and save her from her unhappy fate in the big, bad city, but the Searchers this is not; the fate of Western civilization doesn't seem to hang in the balance like it does for John Wayne's virulently obsessed man-on-a-mission in that film. Instead it's mostly an opportunity to showcase Carey's ample talent as a comedian as he finds himself a country mouse in a city mouse maze of hotel rooms and swank parties. The culminating brawl scene at one such party slightly reminded me of Playtime (coming to the Castro Aug. 22), in its usage of every square foot of screen space to display a kind of hilarious long shot chaos that I can't imagine transferring well to a screen much smaller than the Castro's. But after the film the younger Carey related his experience from the making of either Two Rode Together (which I can't remember very well) or Cheyenne Autumn (which I've still never seen) which puts Ford at the opposite pole from an intricately choreographed director like Tati: when Ford was shooting one of his trademark brawls he wouldn't really direct the actors. Instead he, in Carey's words, "just said 'Fight' and that's it," leading to real bloodied noses and other minor injuries among the John Ford Stock Company. Because what is art without a little sacrifice?

Wednesday, July 5


Did you know ...

(With sincere apologies to Jonas Mekas)

Did you know the Rafael Film Center has put out its latest calendar? That they're playing Roberto Rossellini's beautiful the Flowers of St. Francis for four days in early August? Did you know that Guy Maddin's latest short film, a tribute starring the neorealist's daughter Isabella called My Dad is 100 Years Old, will be paired with the 1950 classic at each screening?

Did you know the Rafael is showing American Graffiti for free this Saturday at 11AM? And that it's the Frisco Bay venue for both the indieWIRE: Undiscovered Gems series and the Sundance Institute Art House Project? Did you know that the Sundance Institute is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and that they're bringing to the Rafael prints of films like Allison Anders's Gas Food Lodging this July 9, Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger July 23, and Rob Nilsson's Heat and Sunlight August 2nd?

Did you know the Rafael also hosts the Mill Valley Film Festival October 5-15? And that they're warming up with a series called Global Lens starting September 21? And that they're also one of the venues for the Jewish Film Festival? Did you know that Israeli director Amos Gitai is receiving an award from the SFJFF this year? Did you know that I've never seen a single one of this Cannes regular's films? Or that I'll have a chance to remedy that situation on July 23 when the Castro plays House, News From Home/News From House and Free Zone, with several other opportunities to see those films in Berkeley, San Rafael and Mountain View in the subsequent weeks?

Did you know that the Silent Film Festival will be hosting a free event called Amazing Tales From the Archives on July 16th at 11AM, just before the 12:30 Castro screening of three Laurel and Hardy films directed by the entirely underrated Leo McCarey? Did you know that film archivists are my personal heroes, and yours too if you like seeing beautiful (or even halfway decent) prints of our cinematic heritage? Did you know that children 12 and under are admitted to all SFF events this July 14-16 for free?

Did you know that the Stanford Theatre is almost as wonderful a place to see a silent film as the Castro is? And that they're playing four silent films on Friday evenings as part of their newly-announced Summer schedule packed with Hollywood classics? That one of them is G.W. Pabst's second film made with Louise Brooks, Diary of a Lost Girl on August 4? And, of course, that this is the perfect compliment to the July 15 SFF screening of that pair's first collaboration, Pandora's Box, which will be preceded by rare trailers for lost Brooks film the American Venus?

Did you know that the Balboa Theatre is hanging onto the print of Jean-Pierre Melville's Army of Shadows for at least one more week? But that tomorrow is the last day to see Iron Island at the Roxie or the Death of Mr. Lazarescu or Lady Vengeance at the Lumiere? Did you know that I consider the latter film the most fascinating of Park Chan-wook's vengeance trilogy, combining the emotional trial-by-fire of Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance with judicious flashes of Oldboy-style narrative and visual gimmickry, with a final reel or two both shocking and self-critical?

Did you know that Artists' Television Access has all sorts of interesting-looking programs coming up? That the makers of the extremely controversial 9/11 documentary Loose Change will be at the Four Star July 13 to show the film and, hopefully, answer audience questions? That the Lark Theatre will be broadcasting the World Cup Final between France and Italy this Sunday at 11 AM? Or that the Edinburgh Castle will be as well? Did you know that the latter will also be the venue for a screening of a set of road movies by Frisco filmmakers on Monday, July 24? That it's free?

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