Sunday, June 16, 2013

Easy Virtue (1927)

WHO: Alfred Hitchcock directed this, and appears in one of the first of his famous cameos, "strolling past a tennis court" according to Patrick McGilligan.

WHAT: Based on a Noel Coward play, Easy Virtue was Hitchcock's fifth film completed as a director, and it may have been the last time he directed a film based on a work written by someone more famous than he was. The program book for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentation of the "Hitchcock 9"- the director's nine surviving silent films- says of Hitchcock's contribution: 
he excels himself in Easy Virtue. As he had in The Pleasure Garden and Champagne, he opens the film with an innovative trick shot. A giant mock-up with mirrors was used for the shot of the judge looking through his monocle, refelcting the actor standing behind the camera leading into a perfectly-matched close-up of the prosecuting counsel.
WHERE/WHEN: Today at 2:30 PM at the Castro Theater and Friday, August 30th at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

WHY: Following up on yesterday's post discussing this weekend's Hitchcock 9 screening formats, I recognize there are divisions among silent movie fans about the best way to see a 1920s motion picture. Some prefer screenings that employ essentially the same technology cinemas used in the era these films were made: the 35mm projector and print, with the accompanying flicker and other characteristics of celluloid, including any dust, scratches or other marks on the frame left by previous runs through the projector. Others prefer the un-degradable, completely steady image projected by a high resolution video projector sourced from DCP (Digital Cinema Package) drives.

What practically every silent cinema aficionado agrees upon is that the best way to see these films is with a professional musical accompanist. Of the DCP projections I've seen at the Castro this weekend so far, I found Blackmail's and The Ring's to be a bit distractingly smooth for my tastes. But while watching The Manxman (probably an overall inferior film to either of the others) I was barely bothered by the digital quality while watching. Perhaps this is because more care was taken to create a film-like digital restoration and transfer. Or perhaps it's simply because I was too pulled into the story and its accompanying moods by the music to notice.

British pianist/flautist/accordionist Stephen Horne performed the music for The Manxman last night, with an assist from Diana Rowan on harp. He incorporated traditional Manx melodies beautifully into his own romantic playing style; at one point his arpeggiations brought to my mind Michael Nyman's celebrated score for Jane Campion's The Piano, but for most of the performance the music felt entirely connected to Hitchcock's film, and it alone. I expect I will have trouble being able to enjoy watching The Manxman with any other score, this one felt so close to definitive. I can't wait to hear his performances for The Farmer's Wife and The Pleasure Garden today, and his five accompaniments planned for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in July; Horne's scores are always among the sonic highlights of a SFSFF event in which they are featured.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra takes a fundamentally different approach to its scores, as we learned during the delightful digital slide presentation shown during the intermission of last night's performance of The Ring. Compared to Horne's approach, Mont Alto's is arguably more authentic to the historical record we have of what might have been performed by a chamber group at a silent movie house in the 1920s, and perhaps a bit more conducive to a more academic, less emotional, appreciation of a film's direction, editing mechanics, etc. (And perhaps the print quality as well.)  I really liked what they cooked up for Blackmail on Friday night, and was very impressed with their ability to shift between the classical tradition and jazz-style dance music for party sequences in The Ring.  They will perform for The Lodger this evening to close the weekend.

But I'm also excited to hear Judith Rosenberg perform for Easy Virtue today. Coming out of the world of dance accompaniment, she's a regular silent accompanist at the Pacific Film Archive (where in August she will perform for all nine of the Hitchcocks showing at the Castro this weekend) and the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (where in two weeks she will perform for a set of European animated films as part of Frisco Bay's next big silent movie event, the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.) But this weekend marks her debut at the Castro Theatre. Since I had to miss her performance to Champagne yesterday, I realize I've never heard her accompany a silent picture on a grand piano before! (Both the PFA and Niles are outfitted with uprights.) What's more I believe her appearance at the Hitchcock 9 marks the first time a SFSFF-presented event has featured a woman as solo accompanist for any of its films. (There are plenty of women who have performed at SFSFF as part of an ensemble, such as Britt Swenson and Dawn Kramer of Mont Alto, or who have joined with another performer like Rowen did with Horne last night.)

When the festival showtimes were first announced in March, Easy Virtue was to have been accompanied by an (at the time undetermined) organist. Within a few weeks, this plan had been changed because of the current physical condition of the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer, a problem which the theatre's regular organist David Hegarty is trying to raise funds to solve. While I love hearing the organ accompanying silent films, it's certainly true that not all films have an aesthetic quality that matches its timbral range; as I said to Anita Monga in our interview last week, A Cottage On Dartmoor would not work so well with organ accompaniment, while The Mark Of Zorro fits with the Wurlizter perfectly. Monga had this to say about the Silent Film Festival's use of the organ: 
We can't use organ at all this time because of vagaries with the people who own the organ and are going to be out of town. The organ needs major upgrading. We're not able to use it for the Hitchcocks. We have one show in the summer, with the proviso that if something happens we're able to switch to piano. 
When I followed up with a question about the likelihood of the Castro Wurlitzer being able to handle more SFSFF shows by July 2014, Monga replied:
We're just waiting to hear, but the Taylors are the family that own the organ, and they're retiring. It's really too risky for us to use it when they're not around. I've been at the Castro when the "oboe A" got stuck on, and no one can do anything. It's not like you flip a switch. You have to go up into the organ loft. That would be a disaster for us.
As much as I miss the organ, I'm very pleased that its disappearance from the Hitchcock 9 line-up made room for Judith Rosenberg to join the SFSFF rotation of musicians.

HOW: Easy Virtue screens from a 35mm print accompanied by Judith Rosenberg at both shows.

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