Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Disney Before Mickey (and more)

The San Francisco Film Society has just put on its 4th Annual S.F. International Animation Festival as part of its fall season of mini-festivals of various themes. There was French Cinema Now and Taiwan Film Days before it, and now it's in the midst of its long-standing New Italian Cinema series, which closes Sunday with Marco Bellocchio's Vincere. Coming up is the first winter presentation of KinoTek, in recent years a mainstay of the Film Society's biggest annual showcase, the San Francisco International Film Festival. 2009's KinoTek programs were cut back at the SFIFF this past Spring, so the upcoming December 12-13 event, a "multimedia dance, theater and projected video performance" by Catherine Galasso entitled Lightning Never Strikes the Same Place Twice, is welcome.

This year's Animation Festival presented Frisco Bay premieres of a couple of anticipated theatrical releases, Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox (opening later this month) and Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar's a Town Called Panic, coming to Landmark Theatres in January. It also screened numerous shorts and features with more uncertain futures in local theatrical venues. I caught a pair of programs: the opening night celebration, in which local avant-garde animation master Lawrence Jordan participated by showing his 1960s film Ein Traum Der Liebenden while improvising the frame rate to sync with the live musical accompaniment by Pale Hoarse, and a matinee program of silent-era Disney shorts at the Embarcadero.

Many Disney fans have only in recent years started to fully appreciate the importance of the studio's pre-Mickey Mouse creative output to the foundation of the most ubiquitous animation company of all-time. From 1923 through 1927, Disney's premier character was not a cartoon at all, but a little girl named Alice (not to be confused with the Lewis Carroll creation, though her first film played on the association in its title Alice's Wonderland.) A live-action girl placed in a cartoon world, she was played by four different young actresses over the years, starting with 4-year-old Virginia Davis. Seven of the Alice Comedies, as they are often called, have been collected on a DVD in the Walt Disney Treasures collections of shorts. Unfortunately, though there were indications that the line-up for the festival had not been locked down until shortly before the screening, as it turns out the program for this matinee was comprised entirely of the seven shorts on the DVD. I suspect the digital projection was in fact sourced from the DVD as well, as it the image quality was a far cry from the last hi-definition digital presentation I viewed at the Embarcadero several weeks ago, Passing Strange. It's more than the difference between a digitally-shot feature from 2009 and celluloid creations from over eighty years ago; there were tell-tale horizontal lines in the image that had nothing to do with film's tendency to degrade and everything to do with resolution of the digital image.

Despite the disappointing picture quality of the presentation, the event was still enjoyable. The selections from the DVD showcase each of the four Alice actresses, though the majority feature Davis, including Alice's Wonderland, Alice's Wild West Show, and Alice Gets In Dutch. One film, Alice in the Jungle, cobbled together footage shot of her for previous films to create an entry in the series completed well after her contract with Disney had ended. Showing the films in chronological order, with in-person commentary from Disney researchers Russell Merritt and J.B Kaufman (some of it during the film, quasi-benshi-like), gave a real sense of how the Alice films progressed stylistically over the years. The earlier cartoons feature extensive live-action prologues before whisking Davis into the animated universe, for example, while the later films dispense with this conceit, focusing more on pure animation. They even go so far as to relegate Alice to a supporting role in some instances, while the antics of a Felix-esque cat named Julius takes center stage. Also Felix-esque is the tendency toward increased elasticity and mutability of objects and body parts as the shorts progressed chronologically. The biggest laugh of the program was found in Alice Gets In Dutch, when Julius inhales some "Cheyenne Pepper" and sneezes his face right off, onto the floor.

The most thematically fascinating of the films was one I hadn't watched before: Alice's Egg Plant, which features Alice (played by Dawn O'Day) and Julius as management of a chicken farm under Bolshievik revolt. In the film, striking chickens are shown to be under the influence of a Russian agent, purely a caricature of Communism. When a pair of roosters begin fighting, Alice and Julius get the idea to bust the union by bringing the combatants into an indoor boxing ring and charging their hens an egg a piece for admission. Knowing Walt Disney's later opinions on unions (especially after his own workers went on strike in 1941), I couldn't watch this sequence without wondering if he ever saw mass entertainment, or the distribution of his cartoons in particular, as a kind of "tax" motion picture companies could "levy" on workers needing a release from a day on the factory (or picket) lines. Russell Merritt, when asked about this cartoon in the q-and-a following the screening, said that Walt was at this point in his life "spectacularly non-political," for what it's worth.

J.B. Kaufman expressed that a program of other Alice shorts will play an unspecified future date at the Walt Disney Family Museum, this time with live musical accompaniment. I don't believe I've mentioned here on this blog before that this museum, which opened in October, has a charmingly decorated screening room with daily digital screenings - the venue is not at all equipped for 35mm projection, and Merritt in fact believes such a distribution method to be inferior in picture quality to a Blu-Ray transfer taken directly from the negative. Currently, the Walt Disney Family Museum is showing Sleeping Beauty on Blu-Ray daily; I'll reserve judgement until I see it for myself, but I'm sure it at least will look much better than the non-HD copy of Fantasia I watched there last month.

My first encounter with the Alice films was at the 2003 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), where Virginia Davis was present on the Castro stage to talk about her participation in the series, and six 35mm prints of Alice films were shown alongside a few other early Disney shorts, all accompanied by live music by the accomplished pianist Michael Mortilla. The SFSFF has long considered animation an important piece of its presentation mission; in fact the first film I ever attended at that festival back in 2001- an Italian silent favored by Frederico Fellini called Maciste In Hell, was preceded by one of the Fleischer Brothers' Out Of The Inkwell shorts that influenced Disney's creation of Alice. As returning readers may know, since 2007 I've been on the SFSFF's research & writing committee, tasked with creating educational materials for the festival: program book essays and informative, fun slideshows for each program screened at the festival. I haven't written on an animated program for the festival. (yet?)

Silent-era Disney returned to the 2009 summer festival back in July, most prominently in the form of a kid-friendly matinee tributing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the character Walt Disney lost creative control of in 1928, inspiring the birth of Mickey Mouse and of Disney's long tradition of aggressively protecting its subsequent intellectual property, even to the point of successfully lobbying for corporate welfare through endless extensions to federal copyright laws. I also made mention of Mickey Mouse in my own slideshow and essay accompanying Douglas Fairbanks As The Gaucho, noting that Disney selected this adventure film to spoof for Mickey's second-ever cartoon, The Gallopin' Gaucho.

After the summer festival, I had time to write about The Gaucho presentation as part of my partial SFSFF wrap-up here at Hell On Frisco Bay, but couldn't get around to Oswald or the rest of day three at the festival before my life began busying again. My quick-and-dirty version: the Oswald program was interactive fun, as pianist Donald Sosin encouraged the audience to join his family in vocalizing sound effects for the Lucky Rabbit's loopy adventures, though I could tell that some of the children in the audience (SFSFF tickets are always free to attendees under 12 years of age) grew restless from the verbal introductions to the films. The rest of the day was terrificly diverse, with an excellent Czechoslovakian drama Erotikon rubbing elbows with W.C. Fields in So's Your Old Man, two experimental versions of Edgar Allan Poe's Fall of the House of Usher, and my favorite new discovery of the festival, D.W. Griffith's Lady of the Pavements, a criminally underrated tearjerker again with Sosin providing accompaniment. (My favorite revisitation being Lillian Gish in the Wind, which I'd never quite appreciated before but was a thrilling masterpiece with Dennis James behind the Wurlitzer organ.)

The SFSFF's annual Winter Event approaches --this year it falls on December 12-- and it promises to be equally diverse and rewarding. The day opens with Sosin playing for Merian C. Cooper and Ernest P. Shoedsack's Chang (the Thai word for 'elephant' rhymes with Kong), a pseudo-documentary filmed in rural Nan Province, on the border of Northern Siam (now Thailand) and Laos. Its frames filled with stampeding elephants, prowling big cats, and a comic-relief gibbon dubbed "Bimbo", this film is more than just a warm-up for Cooper & Shoedsack's 1933 pictures starring an iconic stop-motion giant ape or two. It's a grand entertainment in its own right, and ought to look splendid on the Castro Theatre screen. I'm particularly excited to see Abel Gance's World War I epic J'Accuse as I've never watched a complete film by the legendary French director, whose films have not screened on Frisco Bay in many years. This one is the U.S. Premiere of a new restoration. The J'Accuse score will be a keyboard arrangement of the orchestral score composed by Robert Israel, who will make his first SFSFF appearance with his performance at the Wurlitzer. Dennis James musically handles the final two programs of the day-long event: Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. paired with the Goat, neither of which I've seen on the big screen before, and Tod Browning's West of Zanzibar, which I caught in a Guy Maddin-programmed series at the Pacific Film Archive a few years back.

It's West of Zanzibar, starring Lon Chaney in another of his delectable misfit roles, and featuring supporting turns by Mary Nolan, Warner Baxter and Lionel Barrymore (making his first SFSFF appearance) that I've spent several weeks researching and writing program notes for this time around. Chaney and Browning are already quite familiar to loyal SFSFF audiences, so I elected to focus less on their partnership than on the climate of film censorship in the late 1920's; West of Zanzibar was a rare adaptation (from Broadway, of all places) for the Browning/Chaney duo, so its production was affected by "The Formula", a set of censorship guidelines Hollywood had in place several years before the Hays Code was put into place in the early 1930s. One might consider West of Zanzibar as a silent-era "pre-Code" film, in fact, thanks to the themes of the play (addiction, miscegenation, etc.) that were dialed down only somewhat for the film version.

This post has grown to a monstrous size, but before I press 'publish' let me mention a few more events connected to classic film and the Castro Theatre: Citizen Kane and the Magnificent Ambersons play there today. This weekend features a new print of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon. December 2-10 the theatre holds a tribute to the producer Samuel Goldwyn, including a healthy number of William Wyler films and a Howard Hawks double-bill. From December 16-23 the space is given over to a Alfred Hitchcock series that includes many of the usual favorites from the director, as well as a few that haven't been spied on a Frisco screen for quite a while. And though the Berlin & Beyond festival of German-language film has been postponed until Fall 2010, January at the Castro will feature another beloved festival, the eight edition of Noir City, which has also revealed its lustful, larcenous program on its website.

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