Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Golden Chance and other silents

My first post on Cecil B. DeMille's the Golden Chance is now up at the Film of the Month Club. I say "first" because there is a lot more I'd like to write on this film, and if I can carve the time out of my busy schedule this month, I certainly will. That's a pretty big "if", of course; hopefully there will be plenty of other discussion about the Golden Chance occurring once more Film of the Month Club members have watched the DVD for themselves. If you find yourself interested, I encourage you to sign up, or else participate through leaving comments or writing on your own blog.

Speaking of the DVD, I figure it's worth a few words on why, after writing again and again about how compromised home video viewing is, especially for watching silent films, I have elected to focus so much of my attention on a silent DVD. It's true that I consider theatrical screenings of 35mm prints of silents, backed with live musical accompaniment, the ne plus ultra silent film viewing experience, with 16mm screenings with music coming a close second. And I have a long list of silent films I've never seen before, that I'm holding off on viewing until provided with just such a theatrical opportunity. But from my observation, Cecil B. DeMille is currently one of the most unfashionable famous directors of the silent era, and opportunities to see his films on the big screen are particularly rare, especially in the face of how many of his films survive (as far as I'm aware, he was one of the first directors to take a strong interest in preserving his film legacy, and the result is that only a few of his films are considered "lost".) I'm not harboring illusions that the discussion at the Film of the Month Club is likely to suddenly make his early work fashionable, but I'd rather share a DVD I found fascinating, than wait around for it to be programmed at a repertory theatre before mentioning it.

As rarely-screened as they are, Cecil B. DeMille films are part of the current Stanford Theatre summer schedule. The original 1927 silent version of Chicago, which DeMille produced but was not credited with directing, and that Robert S. Birchard has reason to believe is a DeMille film by any other name, plays with Jim Riggs at the organ on July 23rd, and the 1956 unsilent version of the Ten Commandments closes out the summer program over Labor Day weekend.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened DeMille's the Godless Girl last summer, so they're leaving the director alone this time around. But this year's festival schedule is up, tickets are available on-line, and starting tomorrow will be available at the festival box office as well.

The Frisco Bay venue I'd be least surprised to see book the Golden Chance or any other DeMille silent these days, is the Niles Essanay Film Museum, which programs a weekly Saturday silent screening with little apparent care to the whims of cinephile fashion- this weekend they're screening an Edison feature called the Royal Pauper, directed by the obscure Ben Turbett and starring the equally obscure Francine Larrimore. Next Saturday June 21 it's another little-known Edison film, the baseball comedy/drama One Touch of Nature. And the following weekend, June 27-29, is the venue's 11th annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

This year the Broncho Billy Festival celebrates the centennial of the Motion Picture Patents Company, and offers a slate of films from each of seven film production companies that banded together in this trust. The opening night Edison program includes the Great Train Robbery in its slate of films, and the Sunday afternoon Biograph program includes some relatively familiar D.W. Griffith one-reelers as well as his first feature-length Biblical epic Judith of Bethulia, filmed three years before Intolerance. But many of the films being shown are completely unknown to all but the most devoted silent film researchers. I've been tipped off that Playing Dead, a little-known 1915 five-reeler playing on the Vitagraph program Saturday night of the festival, may prove to be a highlight of the weekend program.


  1. It's kind of you to lower your well supported standards for viewing silents, Brian. I'm glad you chose a film available on DVD because those of us in the club who may have no other way to see it can watch and join in the discussion. Though I can't replicate a theatrical print screening maybe I'll provide my own live musical accompaniment on acoustic guitar when I view it this weekend? :)

    Great choice of film. I nearly overlooked DeMille (as we've discussed before) when I trod through the silents at my blog so I'm really looking forward to the discussion over at the FotMC.

  2. Thanks, Thom! I'm very curious to learn how others react to this film- both silent cinema novices and people like yourself who have proven to be astute commentators on the silent form.

  3. Have you seen Chicago before. If not, you're in for a real treat.

  4. I have, actually- about a year and a half ago it played in San Francisco. But I agree with you; it's a treat! And it's playing with its remake- no, not the Oscar-winner with Zellweger, but Ginger Rogers in Roxie Hart.

    The silent Stanford program I'm most hoping I can make it down the peninsula is Broken Blossoms- I've never seen it and it doesn't come around that often.

  5. I have recordings of many of my accompaniments to De Mille films from the retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image in NYC some years back. Titles include THE GOLDEN CHANCE, CHIMMY FADDEN, THE GODLESS GIRL, TEN COMMANDMENTS, and a few more. The Criterion DVD of KING OF KINGS has my score as well. All best wishes, hope to see you at the Castro in July, where I will be accompanying Mikael, a wonderful Dreyer film, and the fabulous ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED by German animator Lotte Reiniger.

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Donald. I'm not a religious sort, but I'd love to see the silent the Ten Commandments one of these days, especially with its Frisco setting for the modern story (it used the construction of one of the city's most famous churches as a backdrop) - that one I am trying to save for a big screen experience if I can (I missed a chance at the Stanford with Clark Wilson five years ago).

    I did watch the Criterion DVD of King of Kings a while back and remember your score (perhaps more fondly than the film itself!) More recently I have enjoyed your DVD scores to Passing Fancy and Tokyo Chorus in the Ozu Family Comedies box set. I haven't watched the I Was Born, But... DVD yet, as I saw it in 35mm at this year's Cinequest.

    Definitely looking forward to your scores to the Dreyer (which I've never seen) and Reiniger (which I've never seen on the big screen) films.