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?

When did you find the time to write all that???!! Does anybody ever sleep in this town? Heh. As ever, a wonderful write-up, Brian.
I thought "Seventh Heaven" was amazing. I heard some know-it-all type in line saying that Farrell was not a good actor and his performance marred the film. I could not disagree more. Such wonderful chemistry and true artistry from Borzage.
Jeff, thanks so much for the comment. I agree with you, not the know-it-all. In my opinion, the worst thing you can really say about Farell in this picture is that he plays a character so self-assured that he's a little hard to like. I sometimes wondered why Gaynor's character put up with him, momentarily forgetting just how damaged her character's self-esteem is in the film. This situation was somewhat reversed in Bucking Broadway where you have to wonder a little why Cheyenne Harry is so willing to go after his girl after such an unceremonious dumping. (There the solution is to remember how unappealing ranch life is supposed to be for women in 1917).

Michael, I was typing this while you were watching the Duvivier and Beaudine films. I actually got plenty of sleep this weekend!
Brian, I don't say this often enough, but thanks for all your sleuthing. I keep pretty close tabs on the local film scene, but you always, always, uncover a bunch of stuff I haven't heard about.
Oops, I meant to post that comment here.
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