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.

Brian--I wish I had your talent for synopsizing an entire festival within one or two posts. I rattle on so. As it is, I always feel like I get to say one or two things and then have to move on to the next festival, the next screening, the next interview. I only go back on days of leisure, which are becoming fewer and fewer between.

Thanks again for helping me relive all these wonderful movies.
Well, thanks for your kind words, Michael. Your "rattling on," as you call it, gives the films you cover a much fairer shake than I usually am able to put together. The differences in posting styles is one of the things I like so much about reading other film bloggers.
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