Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Valley Of The Giants (1927)

WHO: This was directed by Charles Brabin, who made over a hundred films in the silent and early sound era, most of them forgotten, and is now best-remembered as the husband of Theda Bara. At least his films have a higher survival rate than hers, which are mostly lost.

WHAT: The Valley of the Giants was one of the real unearthings of the 2007 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. A rip-roaring adventure film made with its married-couple stars Milton Sills and Doris Kenyon on location amidst the redwoods of Humboldt county, it's a wonderful film to behold on the big screen- which is the only place you're likely to see it, as it has yet to become available on home video. David Kiehn wrote an outstanding essay on the film for the SFSFF program book, from which I shall now extract the introduction (in the hopes that you will be intrigued enough to follow the link to read on):
It’s often lamented that only ten to twenty per cent of films made in the silent era still exist. So whenever a coveted film thought lost suddenly turns up, it’s just cause for celebration. But what of the many worthy films no one is looking for, their directors neglected, their stars forgotten, which may be sitting on a shelf in an archive, waiting to be shown? Given the sheer number of silent films produced – 10,000 features and 50,000 short films, conservatively speaking – one could theoretically see a silent film every day for thirty years without repetition. Of course, for many films just one viewing would suffice, but at the other end of the scale there are still wonderful rediscoveries; The Valley of the Giants is one of these, preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive from an original nitrate print in 1989.
WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Theatre in Fremont, on a bill starting at 7:30 PM.

WHY: David Kiehn programs and projects silent films in Niles every weekend of the year, except for one: the third weekend in July, when the entire silent film world casts its attention on the SFSFF at the Castro Theatre, which has become the premiere North American event for archives around the globe to showcase hidden treasures and new restorations of films from the pre-talkie era. From almost the beginning of the 17-year-old festival, the SFSFF has made room for the silent movie-making traditions from all corners of the Earth, screening films not only from the well-known foreign industries (Germany, France, Italy, the Soviet Union) but also from more unexpected lands: China, India, Mexico, Brazil. Since Anita Monga took on the artistic directorship of the event in 2009, the international component of the festival has grown tremendously, and with the newly-announced 2013 edition (given a fine rundown already by Meredith Brody) the international programs, with films made in nine different countries, actually outnumber the American ones. As the festival will come on the heels of a special June weekend showcase of Alfred Hitchcock's earliest films made in the United Kingdom, might it be time to add a letter to the festival acronym and call it SFISFF?

I'm all for this expansion of international selections at the festival, as some of the very best films screened each year are from foreign industries. Last year's The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna from Germany is a perfect example of a masterpiece that I'd barely even heard of before its Castro presentation. This year I've seen only two of the foreign selections before: Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Chorus and Victor Sjöström's The Outlaw and his Wife. Others, such as A.W. Sandberg's The Golden Clown (the first feature made by the robust Danish silent film industry to screen at SFSFF), are completely unfamiliar to me. But I should note that this expansion hardly comes at the expense of the festival's tradition of presenting well-known classics and little-seen obscurities made by Americans. If you count the Indonesia-set Legong: Dance of the Virgins, as it followed the lead of Nanook of the North and Chang in being filmed outside the U.S. but for an American production company (Constance Bennet's) and an American audience by an essentially American crew, there will be seven programs (the other six of them not at all "borderline") of U.S. films at this year's festival. This is no fewer than have screened at any SFSFF event except for last July's, when there were nine programs of American films. 

Though there are several relatively well-known titles among these seven, including closing night selection Safety Last! starring Harold Lloyd and The Patsy with Marion Davies and Marie Dressler (the festival's only feature being repeated from a prior festival, as it closed the 2008 festival on a high note), there are also films along the lines of The Valley of the Giants in that they're as yet unseen even by the most devoted fans of American silent cinema. Both The Half-Breed starring Douglas Fairbanks (shot in the redwoods of Santa Cruz County) and The Last Edition starring Ralph Lewis (shot in San Francisco) are newly restored by the festival itself in partnership with the European archives that held the only known prints of these American films: respectively, the Cinémathèque Française (which will also awarded the annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award at a screening of Jacques Feyder's Gribiche) and EYE Film Institute in Holland.

These partnerships reflect the fact that the silent era had the potential to be the most internationally cross-pollinating of all eras of film history, and in many regards it was. Watching a European or Japanese film with translated intertitles is barely any different from watching one made in the U.S. or U.K., and this made multi-continental careers all the more possible for the era's stars. So although for the first time ever the SFSFF opening night feature is a foreign one (the French Prix De Beauté), its star is the American Louise Brooks. Likewise Germany's The Joyless Street screens in the prime Saturday night slot (hopefully not as delayed a screening as in certain previous years) but stars a Swedish actor who is best known today for her Hollywood films: Greta Garbo. It's great to have a showcase like the SFSFF that intermixes films from Hollywood and from countries around the globe, letting us realize how universal the cinematic medium can feel.

The Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum has a reputation for focusing the majority of its attention  on American silent film history, as is appropriate for an organization founded to particularly celebrate the legacy of the filmmakers who lived and worked in Niles itself. And indeed, by comparison only one of the six programs in next month's Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival (named for cowboy star "Broncho Billy" Anderson, who made films at and around his Niles studio precisely 100 years ago), is made up of films from abroad. But there's been an international flavor to the history of cinema since Britain's Eadweard Muybridge started photographing horses in motion in California in the 1870s. The most famous star to work at Niles was Charlie Chaplin (subject of his own Charlie Chaplin Days festival in Niles next weekend), who was of course British himself. And even a thoroughly American picture like The Valley of the Giants was directed by a man from Liverpool: Charles Brabin was born there and didn't emigrate to American until his was 18.

HOW: The Valley of the Giants screens on a bill with two shorts: Jimmie Adams and Doris Dawson in Swiss Movements and Charley Chase with Dog Shy, all in (I believe) 16mm prints, with Judy Rosenberg accompanying on piano.


  1. Brian, I couldn't stay for the press conference, so I wonder if anybody got an answer to the question "Why no Dennis James, why no Donald Sosin?"

  2. I couldn't stay for the whole conference either, but I did get a partial answer to your question, and it seems to involve the fate of the Castro organ. I'm still trying to gather information and plan to discuss the musical selections for the festival in a future post.