Sunday, November 25


Time for a list

Ten reasons to come to the Silent Film Festival's winter program at the Castro Theatre this Saturday, December 1st:

1. To experience three completely different facets of silent-era Hollywood in a single day. D.W. Griffith's Intolerance demonstrates the outer possibilities of feature filmmaking in 1916, when Hollywood was being built. Flesh and the Devil just might represent the quintessence of star-system filmmaking in 1926, when studios like MGM had grown into the same basic form they'd remain in for decades to come. And the Vitaphone Vaudeville program showcases silent-era experiments in audiovisual motion pictures.

2. Live musical performances from incomparable organist Dennis James for both Flesh and the Devil and Intolerance. The latter will also be accompanied by a second sort of live "performance" in the projection booth as Patrick Stanbury of Photoplay Productions monitors the changing film speed for the tinted print that will make its national debut at the event. Intolerance is, it must be admitted, too often thought of as an academic heirloom, but the unique conditions under which it's being screened on Saturday seem likely to maximize the film's entertainment value.

3. See the history of vaudeville in a theatre that began as a part of that history. Like the Golden Gate and the Warfield Theatre, I understand that the Castro was originally built in 1922 to showcase both movies and vaudeville acts. Watching these movies that are our best remaining preservations of those acts in a genuine former vaudeville venue- can you ask for a combination more natural?

4. The program can serve as the centerpiece of a whole winter season of watching silent films on Frisco Bay. It's a perfect warm-up for the Castro Theatre's retrospective of Charlie Chaplin films December 2-12, also currently ongoing at the Pacific Film Archive. The night before the event, November 30th, there's a screening of Harry Langdon in the Strong Man as part of the Stanford Theatre's Frank Capra tribute. The Rafael Film Center is hosting a December 6th evening of the Films of 1907, two hours of centennial-celebrating shorts including Pathé's the Dancing Pig, which played on the SFSFF's Retour de Flamme program in July, and the Red Spectre, which didn't. The 13th Berlin & Beyond Film Festival will show an as-yet-unannounced German silent during its festival in January. The Balboa has announced it will celebrate its annual birthday bash with a February 27 screening of the Black Pirate. And of course the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont continues its Saturday evening screenings, even during the holiday season while many local specialty screening venues are closed. In particular, here's a chance to see Intolerance at the Castro precisely two weeks before Buster Keaton's spoof on Griffith's film, the Three Ages, plays at Niles December 15th.

5. From the imdb credit listings for Intolerance: Douglas Fairbanks plays a "Man on White Horse." Tod Browning plays "a Crook." W.S. Van Dyke plays a "Wedding Guest." Eugene Pallette plays "Prosper Latour." Wallace Reid is a "Boy Killed in the Fighting." King Vidor and Frank Borzage have uncredited, unidentified extra roles. And that's just a sampling of the names familiar to cinephiles, who it will be fun to try to spot on the screen. Relatedly, I've recently been skeptically reading Anthony Slide's Silent Players, which is packed with gossipy mini-biographies of silent film stars who were a big deal ninety years ago, playing major roles in Intolerance and other films, but are all but forgotten today: Elmer Clifton, Miriam Cooper, Howard Gaye, Robert Harron, Seena Owen, Constance Talmadge, etc. Even Mae Marsh is not spoken of often any longer but gets a nice profile in this book. Which reminds me, the festival's Booksmith table is always a tremendous place to find relevant reading during the event.

6. For the listologists: three of the films playing are part of the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. Intolerance was among the first 25 selections for the registry back in 1989. The George Burns & Gracie Allen Vitaphone short Lambchops made the list in 1999, and Flesh and the Devil was inducted just last year.

7. 2007 marks the 80th anniversary of the Jazz Singer, and the year has seen a cameo role for the film in Indiewood's upcoming the Savages, its first-ever DVD release, and an ensuing debate about blackface and the film's relevancy today. One thing's for certain: the Jazz Singer could not have been the sensation that it was had there not been a sufficient number of theatres wired for sound before its release. It was the increasing popularity of Vitaphone shorts that paved that way. Most of the selections on the Vitaphone Vaudeville program were made after the Jazz Singer, but you should be able to get a good sense of the genre from the varied set. Though a selection of Vitaphone shorts were released as extras on the Jazz Singer DVD set, only three of the films playing on Saturday are among them; the other six have never been released on DVD or VHS. A few were released on LaserDiscs which are now highly sought-after.

8. Greta Garbo's face, which was never intended to be seen on a television set, not even a discounted Black Friday HDTV set. No, it was photographed by William Daniels to be seen dozens of feet high and wide on a screen like the Castro's. If you've ever wondered exactly what the big deal about Garbo was/is, here's an opportunity for the answer.

9. In an age when major Oscar nominations and wins are going to films like Crash and the Hours, which unite superficially disconnected stories together under a single theme, it seems a particularly good time to look at the most ambitious experiment along those lines: Intolerance. What would Griffith have thought of Babel, I wonder? (And perhaps just as pertinently, what would Edward Said have thought of it?)

10. And of course, in order to obtain the customary program guide with in-depth essays on the films, and to see the informative and entertaining slideshows, all written by my fellow members of the Silent Film Festival research committee. Several of the points in this post sprouted from seeds planted in my head during our discussions over the past few months.

Of course this list is by no means exhaustive. Any suggestions for #11?

Superb entry, Brian. You've convinced me to be there or be square. I'm sure it will be an experience to sponsor an eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth reason.
I'll see you there, Michael!
I've never been this excited about a festival I won't be able to attend. Nice job here, B. For #11 how about: "so you can tell the blogosphere all about it afterwards?" :P
what a warm-up for those end-of-the-year lists

you've pretty much covered it, brian. i can only add that i tried to watch INTOLERANCE at home but the copy was so bad i took it off shortly after the opening credits. a new print would be a treat. i'm only going to be able to make the garbo flick, and possibly not even that. would be a great day to sit and watch it all.
I wish all my blog-friends could be there!

Anyway, here are some other great previews of the event.

David Jeffers is filled with relevant facts. I didn't realize that Flesh and the Devil made its Frisco premiere at the Warfield!

Gregg Rickman's angle is similar to my point #1, only more eloquently expressed.

Robert Avila has detailed reviews of Flesh and the Devil and some of the Vitaphone shorts.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?