Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Ten Commandments (1923)

WHO: Cecil B. DeMille directed and produced this.

WHAT: Though DeMille's 1956 The Ten Commandments is frequently referred to as a "remake" of this film he made twenty-three years earlier, in fact the Technicolor epic starring Charlton Heston as Moses (and which I finally saw for myself earlier this year, on 35mm at the Stanford Theatre) revisits and expands upon the Old Testament story that makes up the first half of this 14-reel silent film. The second half of the film is a modern-day (for its day) parable intended to make the Bible relevant to a Jazz-age audience, and even includes a short setpiece recreating a moment from the New Testament (unused in the 1956 film) as part of its lesson.

For Frisco Bay audiences, and many others, the most impressive and exciting scene in the 1923 Ten Commandments is probably not one of the Biblical sequences at all, but a sequence shot in San Francisco, atop the actual scaffolding being used to rebuild (after its 1906 destruction) the Saints Peter and Paul Church across from Washington Square Park in North Beach.  It's a stunning, cinematic scene about hubris, corruption, and denial, made all the more effective by its use of an authentic location.

Saints Peter and Paul Church would go on to be used in quite a few other films after its completion in 1924. Jim Van Buskirk and Will Shank identify it in What's Up Doc?, FearlessNine Months, and several other films, mostly romantic comedies. It's also visible in Dirty Harry, but is perhaps most famous as the site of Joe DiMaggio's wedding. He was married here, to his first wife Dorothy Arnold, but was denied the chance to marry his second, Marilyn Monroe, because his divorce was not recognized by the church. That didn't stop the couple from taking a photo in front of the church after their City Hall ceremony, however.

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at 7:30 at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

WHY: Few Frisco Bay theatres show Biblical epics these days, perhaps equally for their length as for their polarizing subject matter. But they are a significant piece of our cinematic heritage and there's nothing else quite like them. (I say this as someone who attends a Unitarian-Universalist church about once a year at Christmastime and is otherwise pretty much areligious, unless you count cinema as a spiritual practice).

The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's Edison Theatre, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of its founding last month, and which will celebrate its tenth year of operation since re-opening after decades dormant next month, is one of the few venues that still includes Biblical epics in its programming rotation. Of course, when it plays a film like The Ten Commandments it dispenses with its usual tradition of screening one-reel and two-reel shorts before the feature. Fourteen will be plenty. But for those who prefer shorts to features, there will be many opportunities to see them at the Niles theatre in the coming year. Their December 28th show includes a pair of Christmas-themed shorts starring Charley Chase (There Ain't No Santa Claus) and Laurel & Hardy (Big Business), as well as a film apiece by Buster Keaton (The Scarecrow) and Charlie Chaplin (Easy Street). 

The last of these is a 1917 film, but prefigures an exciting project the Niles Edison Theatre will host all next year: a chronological presentation of all thirty-eight of the Keystone short films made by Chaplin in his first year of filmmaking, 1914. One of these will screen before every feature film shown on a Saturday night at the venue, giving loyal audiences a chance to celebrate an approximate centennial of every one of the films he released during the year that saw his rise from obscurity to superstardom. It will be like following along, one hundred years later, with the building career of one of the cinema's most important- and entertaining- figures. All the screenings will be sourced from film prints. 

I haven't seen a schedule yet, but by my calculations, this means that perhaps my favorite Chaplin film from this era, his second film Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. will screen on January 11, providing a cruel fork for a Chaplin fan who also might want to attend the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's (unfortunately all-digital) day of Chaplin screenings at the Castro. I have learned that the following week at Niles, January 18th, will have a 35mm print of Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro as its feature attraction, and the Chaplin short (presumably Mabel's Strange Predicament) will be joined by a showing of a more-complete version of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum short production Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret, a neo-silent filmed last year using vintage cameras and equipment. This program marks 10 years of weekly silent film screenings with live musical accompaniment at the venue, and hopefully kicks off the countdown to another ten years!

HOW: The Ten Commandments screens via a 16mm print with Jon Mirsalis accompanying on his Kurzweil synthesizer.

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