Friday, June 24, 2016

The Golden Chance (1915)

Screen capture from Image DVD
WHO: Cecil B. DeMille directed, produced, edited and (with Jeanie Macpherson) co-wrote this film.

WHAT: This is one of my very favorite DeMille pictures, and I even selected it as object of study for a collaborative blogging project several years ago (that seems to have propagated an image to the wikipedia page for Japanese actor Yutake Abe, if nothing else more lasting). Later that year, my friend Laura Horak wrote an article about it and a pair of other Cecil B. DeMille films (as well as one directed by his brother William) released on DVD for The Moving Image journal. Here's an excerpt from her article:
The story follows Mary Denby (Cleo Ridgely), a "Cinderella of the Lower East Side," who escapes from grueling tenement life and her abusive husband, Steve (Horace B. Carpenter), for one magical night. The film is surprisingly explicit about the way money and sex are intertwined. Seeking work as a seamstress, Mary enters Mr. and Mrs. Hillary's "House of Enchantment," where they convince her to play the part of a socialite for a night, unaware that her real purpose is to charm a young millionaire, Roger Manning (Wallace Reid), into investing in Mr. Hillary's business venture. At first, Mary is happy to play her role in exchange for one night of luxurious clothes, shoes, and jewelry but, even after suspecting the nature of the exchange, desperate poverty forces her to accept the money. 
WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at the Edison Theatre in Niles, CA, as part of the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

WHY: The Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, while perhaps not as glamorous or public-transit-accessible (or expensive!) as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, deserves equal consideration from Frisco Bay silent film fans. Its film programming is in many ways just as strong- and for film purists stronger -, its musical accompaniments not as flashy but equally adept and professional, and its extra features, including a walking tour and a train ride, represent a world away from the hustle and bustle of Castro Street.

Additional screenings at this year's festival include rarities and proven favorites from the Essanay Studios which made Niles a movie hub for a few years a century ago, and a pair of films starring the Gish sisters, Nell Gwyn with forgotten Dorothy and a masterpiece (directed by Swedish import auteur Victor Seastrom) The Scarlet Letter with the legendary Lillian.

Of this year's festival screenings, I'm probably most interested in seeing Behind the Front, a Wallace Beery war film whose title seems to refer to the 1919 film that was the big discovery of the SF Silent Film Festival earlier this month for me and for quite a few other festgoers, Behind the Door. Beery played a villain in that, and stole the show out from under Louise Brooks in the festival opener Beggars of Life. I'm especially anxious to see it because it screens with Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret, a 35mm made-in-Niles production released just last year, but still unscreened in San Francisco (it's hard to find venues willing and able to show a modern-day 35mm silent short film). 

If you can't make it this weekend, the July Niles schedule has been announced and includes a Gary Cooper Western, a Clara Bow flapper film, a Lon Chaney circus tragedy, and much, much, much more. July schedules for the Stanford, the Castro, YBCA and BAMPFA are also online, so start planning your month if you haven't already!

HOW: Screens from a tinted 16mm print, along with 35mm prints of 2 Niles-produced shorts Broncho Billy's Wild Ride and Slippery Slim and the Impersonator, all with live keyboard accompaniment from Jon Mirsalis.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Nanook of the North (1922)

Screen capture from Music Box Films DVD of The Story of Film
WHO: Robert Flaherty directed this. He was also a producer and (uncredited) writer and cinematographer on the piece.

WHAT: The last time I watched Robert Flaherty's seminal Nanook of the North I was sitting in on a City College of San Francisco course taught by Ira Rothstein. He introduced the showing with a quote from Jean-Luc Godard on fiction or "narrative" films: that they are "nothing more than documentaries of actors at work."

One might say the same thing about non-fiction or "documentary" films as well (I use quotes around the word "documentary" because the term was not in use at the time Nanook of the North was made). Acting is not just merely a profession, marked by its connection to training facilities and professional guilds.  It's also an action that each of us has learned to perform to make it through the varied situations of the modern world.  And when we are conscious that there is a camera trained upon us, we tend to "act" differently than we otherwise would, whether we want to or not.  If the photographer explicitly asks us to pose or to perform a certain action, we're all the more likely to be pulled out of the actions we would take were a camera not present; we may attempt to conform to the requester's expressed wishes, or else rebel against them, but it becomes difficult if not impossible to act as we would if we didn't know the camera was there.

As one learns when watching Claude Massot's 1988 documentary Nanook Revisited (available on the Flicker Alley Blu-Ray edition of Flaherty's film), Nanook of the North was made with the hearty cooperation of its Inuit subjects.  Indeed Allakariallak, the actor who played the title character (Nanook was not his real name) was delighted to comply with his director's requests, which included: acting as if he had not heard a phonograph record before, when in fact he had, and engaging in a walrus hunt using methods that he and his fellow tribesmen had not employed for years - which Erik Barnouw seems to imply was actually an idea generated by Allakariallak himself, knowing it would be in sync with Flaherty's own aims in encasing in the amber of celluloid film the singular traditions of the Inuits.  

It's often noted that Nanook and its offspring like Chang (Cooper & Shoedsack, 1927) are not "pure" documentaries because the actions of their subjects were not merely observed and captured, but directed by their makers, and because they're edited, with the help of title cards, into a narrative form that distorts fact in the service of adventure and excitement (and, say the cynical, box-office). But is there not documentary value in seeing people perform tasks that, even if they may be obsolete on a day-to-day basis, are still in their living muscle memory? Allakariallak may or may not have ever hunted walrus without a rifle himself, but at the very least he'd known people who'd had no other option, and was a far more authentic choice to do so on screen than any Hollywood actor would have been.  As Barnouw wrote about the Inuits involved in the film: "Unquestionably the film reflected their image of their traditional life."

WHERE/WHEN: Nanook of the North screens today only at the Castro Theatre, at 1:45 PM, presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

WHY: Though I haven't seen the shorts screening as part of the Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema program launching the 21st SFSFF's final day, nor the Hal Roach two-reeler What's the World Coming To?, which plays as part of the Girls Will Be Boys noon program, I've seen all five "feature-length" films screening today: Ernst Lubitsch's I Don't Wan't To Be a Man (the other piece of the aforementioned gender-bending showcase), Nanook of the North, Fritz Lang's haunting Destiny, Rene Clair's final silent Les Deux Timides and the mindblowing Douglas Fairbanks extravaganza (and Victor Fleming's directorial debut) When the Clouds Roll By, though of these only Les Deux Timides in a cinema with live musical accompaniment.  If I could see only one of them again today (and I'm so grateful that this is not so) it would be Nanook. Though I'm excited to finally see the Lubitsch, Lang and Fleming on the Castro screen with an audience, I remember them all (and it's been quite a while, especially for Destiny) as films with incredible scenes rather than as incredible films from start to finish. Nanook is a more consistent, coherent work despite its controversial aspects.

Despite being the most famous of today's films, it also seems the least likely candidate to screen again in a Frisco Bay venue any time soon. I could picture When the Clouds Roll By appearing at the Stanford Theatre, for instance (Victor Fleming seems pretty popular there; his most famous film Gone With the Wind screens July 1-3 to celebrate Olivia de Havilland's 100th birthday). And it's been long enough since the last Lubitsch, Lang, and especially Clair retrospectives at BAMPFA that I wouldn't be so surprised to see their films show up there (though I wouldn't count on it either). Nanook of the North could appear as well, but since it's screening SFSFF as a BAMPFA co-presentation I rather doubt it would be soon.

Probably the most likely venue to show any of these films again is the most consistent silent film venue around: the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum's Edison Theatre, the same room where Charlie Chaplin watched movies over 101 years ago. Next weekend the Edison will play host to two days and one night full of Chaplin film screenings as well as a Chaplin look-alike contest on Sunday in honor of the annual Niles, CA Charlie Chaplin Days. The following weekend Chaplin's The Vagabond opens a four-film program of comedy shorts also including a Charley Chase film, a Laurel & Hardy, and Buster Keaton's Cops (in case you missed it at SFSFF yesterday), all in 16mm with live piano accompaniment from Judith Rosenberg. And the final weekend of June is given over to the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, whose line-up seems especially strong this time around, with an opening night showing of my favorite early Cecil B. DeMille drama The Golden Chance (RIP Bob Birchard), a Saturday evening show including this year's SFSFF MVP Wallace Beery in Behind the Front, and a Gish-filled Sunday afternoon with Dorothy in Nell Gwyn followed by her better-remembered sister Lillian in the excellent Victor Seastrom adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. Not to mention a plethora of one-and two-reelers shot in Niles and/or other Essanay locations, including the 2015 throwback Broncho Billy and the Bandit's Secret, which was shot in the area by a modern crew using vintage equipment. Diana Serra Carey (the former silent-era child star Baby Peggy) is among the cast members.

But I suspect Niles is not likely to show Nanook of the North in the near future, if only because it just screened there this past February and repeats of that sort are rare for this venue.

HOW: Nanook of the North screens via a 35mm print, with live musical accompaniment from the Matti Bye Ensemble.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Balloonatic (1923)

Screen capture from Kino DVD
WHO: Buster Keaton co-wrote, co-directed and stars in this alongside Phyllis Haver, perhaps the biggest female star he ever played opposite, at least in the silent era. Haver is perhaps best known for playing Roxie Hart in the 1927 silent Chicago, but she worked with many top directors such as John Ford (in 3 Bad Men), Raoul Walsh (What Price Glory), Howard Hawks (Fig Leaves) and D.W. Griffith (The Battle of the Sexes) and retired very shortly after talkies took over in Hollywood.

WHAT: Keaton's penultimate short before making the switch to feature films later in 1923 (tentatively at first, with The Three Ages, which could easily have been broken into short films had it flopped as a feature). He'd revert back into the short film world in the mid-1930s, well into the talkie era.

Without giving away any of the film's gags, it's fair to say that The Balloonatic is not one of Keaton's most inventive films story-wise, but it still features many very wonderful and hilarious sequences, including some of his most physical work to that point in his career. You really get a sense of Keaton battling the elements (quite literally, as he takes on air, water, fire and even earth, in approximately that order).

WHERE/WHEN: Screens this morning at the Castro Theatre, on a San Francisco Silent Film Festival program beginning at 10AM.

WHY: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been gradually working its way through showing all of Buster Keaton's silent films. By my count they've shown the following features over the years: Steamboat Bill, Jr. in 2000, Go West in 2003, Our Hospitality at the February 2009 Winter event, Sherlock, Jr. at the December 2009 Winter event, The Cameraman in 2012, The Navigator in 2014, and The General at the 2014 Silent Autumn event. Which leaves only six more of his eligible features unscreened by the organization (for the record: The Saphead, Three Ages, Seven Chances, Battling Butler, College and Spite Marriage) But then there are the shorts. I believe SFSFF has shown The Cook (in which he's the featured player to Roscoe Arbuckle's star), The Goat, The Love Nest, One Week, The Scarecrow, The Playhouse, and The Blacksmith. Today Cops and The Balloonatic add to that list, leaving another eleven shorts in which he stars, and thirteen in which he features with Arbuckle. At this rate, it'll take the 21-year-old festival at least another 21 years to come close to covering Keaton's entire pre-talkie filmography. It'll be quite a while before they'll have to start scraping the bottom of the barrel, or resorting to repeat showings. Cops is one of my very favorite of his shorts, and The Balloonatic is excellent as well.

They screen this morning along with The Battle of the Century, a Laurel and Hardy short that has not been seen in its complete form in decades. It's no coincidence that pianist Jon Mirsalis makes his long-delayed return to SFSFF playing the accompaniment for this program, as he's the one who found the long-missing reel 2 in a private collector's stash and brought it to public light for the first time (although a very small portion of the film still remains missing- so check your attic!) Also on the program: the delightful/disturbing (can't decide which) French short The Dancing Pig.

Also screening SFSFF today are Axel Lindblom & Alf Sjöberg's The Strongest and Anthony Asquith's debut Shooting Stars, neither of which I know much of anything about, Black American director Oscar Micheaux's earliest surviving film Within Our Gates, Rene Clair's most famous (but not my personal favorite) silent film The Italian Straw Hat, and finally The Last Warning. This, Paul Leni's final film before his untimely death from an infected tooth in 1929, was the 2016 SFSFF film I was most excited to see programmed when the schedule was initially announced, simply because it was one of the few films that I'd heard of but never seen before. After yesterday's disappointingly corporate-boilerplate-heavy Amazing Tales From the Archives presentation from the Universal team involved in its digital restoration, I'm actually slightly less interested in seeing it tonight than I was before. But I probably will anyway, and am thankful that the other Amazing Tales presentations were strong enough that it was still well worth running out the door early for. The Last Warning will have to be pretty amazing to match last night's late-show screening Behind the Door, perhaps the only silent film that ever made me think of Quentin Tarantino and Abel Ferrara by the end.

HOW: Both the Keaton shorts, the Battle of the Century and the Dancing Pig are expected to screen digitally, with live piano accompaniment from Jon Mirsalis.

Friday, June 3, 2016

That Night's Wife (1930)

Screen shot from Eclipse DVD
WHO: The great Yasujiro Ozu directed this. It's my personal favorite of his pre-1932 work, or should I say, the half of his output from this period that still survives in full or in part. So much of Japanese cinema history of this era is lost to us.

WHAT: When I last saw this on the big screen (at the Pacific Film Archive) I found it so compelling it made my list of best repertory screenings of 2011. But I'll all the more excited to revisit the film after reading Imogen Sara Smith's marvelous essay on the film in the newly-published San Francisco Silent Film Festival program guide. Here's a brief excerpt:
There has been a long-running debate about whether Ozu was essentially a formalist, an experimental filmmaker, as Bordwell argues, or whether, as Donald Richie contends, he was primarily interested in a singular narrative theme, the dissolution of the family. That Night's Wife shows how these two impulses were integrated as one: to tell a story through purely cinematic means. 
WHERE/WHEN: Screens 3PM today only at the Castro, as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

WHY: Thanks to David Hudson for including me in his essential Keyframe Daily round-up of articles about this year's SFSFF. Read all the articles linked there, and listen to Andrea Chase's excellent podcast interview with Anita Monga, and you'll get a pretty complete picture of this festival weekend.

Today is perhaps the day I'm most excited about overall, with the Amazing Tales From the Archives program, two Bay Area-shot features (A Woman of the World was shot in Pleasanton and Mothers of Men was made in Santa Cruz, Berkeley and Sacramento- thanks to Michael Hawley for alerting me to this website highlighting the locations where it was films), and the newly-restored submarine thriller Behind the Door, starring Wallace Beery, who stole the show from Louise Brooks last night in Beggars of Life. I've never seen any of these before. I have seen E. A. Dupont's Variety but only via a very poor VHS transfer, and am excited to watch it on the Castro screen with a 14-piece orchestral accompaniment.

HOW: Carl Martin of the Film on Film Foundation has published a detailed report on all the 35mm presentations at this year's SFSFF, and That Night's Wife is among these. It will screen with live piano accompaniment by Maud Nelissen, who is making her SFSFF debut with this presentation. She is actually the first woman to perform a SFSFF musical accompaniment on her own, unless you count Judith Roseberg's performances for Champagne and Easy Virtue at the festival-produced Hitchcock 9 program three years ago. 

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Beggars of Life (1928)

Screen capture from Criterion DVD
WHO: Louise Brooks features as one of the three lead performers in this film, her first major dramatic role according to the Louise Brooks: Looking For Lulu documentary found on the Criterion edition of Pandora's Box, and which features short clips from Beggars of Life including the one I took a screen capture from for the above image (which doesn't do anywhere near justice to how this film looks on 35mm). I wrote a long-ish essay on Brooks the last time the San Francisco Silent Film Festival opened with one of her films, Prix de Beauté, and don't have much of an update of thoughts about her after less than three years. But read on:

WHAT: Brooks fans who fall in love with her European phase are sometimes disappointed that she plays a less traditionally glamorous role in this film, but in all honesty it's a terrific, if superficially atypical, performance for her. Reportedly she enjoyed making this film more than any other. But it's also a great showcase for Richard Arlen, made after Wings but before Thunderbolt, the Four Feathers and Tiger Shark (to name a few of my other favorite Arlen films), and was in fact sold as a Wallace Beery picture upon its initial release.

On some days, I think Beggars of Life is my very favorite film in which Louise Brooks appeared (noting that I have yet to see a few important ones, including her screen debut The Street of Forgotten Men). It's a constantly surprising train thriller with great performances all around-- only one character's arc (Blue Washington as Black Mose- a very interesting character undermined in his last reel) is a disappointment. And the filmmaking is frequently astonishing- some of director William Wellman's best work, deploying multi-exposed frames as a storytelling engine with a boldness unparalleled in narrative cinema until the the 1960s, unless I'm forgetting something.

If you want to read more about Beggars of Life you can't go wrong with Laura Horak's essay originally published in the 2007 SFSFF program guide. (Much more on that in a bit.) This was the last public screening of the film in a Frisco Bay cinema, according to Thomas Gladysz of the Louise Brooks Society, who has posted a comprehensive list of all local theatres that ever advertised screenings of the film, going back to 1928. He's also prepared a collection of international screening ephemera, and I might as well also link to his review of the 2007 Castro showing.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens 7PM tonight only at the Castro Theatre, opening the 21st San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

WHY: Writing this post inspired me to pull out one of the program guides I saved from the 2007 SFSFF, in which Beggars of Life also screened. It put me in a wistful mood, so let me recount my full history with the festival, something I've never done on this blog before. 

I first learned about SFSFF in 1999, while attending a Truffaut double-feature at the Castro and seeing flyers out for the 4th annual program, which was to screen Wellman's Oscar-winning Wings among other films (I hadn't heard of the others before at that time: Love, By the Law and a set of short animations). I was intrigued but already had river rafting plans that weekend, so filed the event away for future investigation. I missed the 2000 festival because I was living abroad, but upon my return I made sampling the 2001 SFSFF a priority. Out of the four programs that July Sunday I selected the Italian Maciste all'inferno to attend, and was simply blown away, not by the film itself, which was rather mediocre, but with the enthusiasm of the costumed crowd around me, and the presentation itself, which included a surprise Koko the Clown short beforehand, an enlightening introduction, and of course a tremendous musical accompaniment, in this case by pianist Michael Mortilla. I regretted not having planned to attend the whole day of screenings, though in the meantime I've since caught up with the other three features shown that day. (Peter Pan and It in cinemas, and thus far Within Our Gates only on Turner Classic Movies; I'm excited to finally have another chance to see it at the Castro this Saturday!)

In 2002 & 2003 I caught half the programs, attending a full day of showings each year (the festival had just doubled in size) but having to work the other weekend day. These were my first experiences seeing Cecil B. DeMille, Harold Lloyd, and King Vidor films on the big screen, and I knew I was hooked. In 2003 I was able to volunteer for the festival as an usher, making the financial sting a little easier on my struggling wallet. In 2005 I volunteered in the festival office a couple days, got to meet the friendly folks who put on the event, and signaled my interest in joining the volunteer research committee, which prepared the information-packed festival essays and slideshows for each program. In early 2007 (after covering the festival as press on this blog in 2006) I was invited to join that group, which was and still is one of the biggest honors of my movie-loving life.

It was quite an experience for a humble blogger with lots of passion for silent film but only a short history watching it and no formal training or expertise, to sit down at a table with the other members of the group, which included SFSFF board member (now president and film restorer) Rob Byrne, TCM writer and editor extraordinaire Margarita Landazuri, the brilliant David Kiehn of the Niles Film Museum, and rising star scholar Laura Horak (who will present the Girls Will Be Boys program at the festival on Sunday, in conjunction with her newly-published book of that title about gender-fluidity in silent cinema). At that time there were still few enough programs, determined far enough in advance, for a group of nine of us (the amazing Shari Kizarian contributed to and edited the program book and slideshows from her home abroad) to discuss our research and writing ideas around a table of snacks in the festival office for months before the program needed to be printed. I learned so much, not only about silent film, but about writing and being edited, from being allowed in that group. No other single experience as a writer has marked my cinephilia in such a profound way.

I ultimately wrote seven 1200-word essays for the festival between 2007 and 2011, about films (sort-of) spanning five continents: Miss Lulu Bett (North America), Jujiro (Asia), Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans (set in an undetermined location, filmed in North America but based on a European story), The Gaucho (Hollywood-ized version of South America), West of Zanzibar (Hollywood-ized version of Africa), Man With a Movie Camera (Europe) and I Was Born, But... (again Asia). By the last couple years, however, the festival had expanded to four days and it became impossible to fit all the program book writers around a table in the festival office, or to lock in all the programs with enough advance notice for amateurs in the group (mostly I mean yours truly) to work at the pace we'd been accustomed to. The program book is more than an oversized pamphlet now, but a glossy publication, and the essays have stepped up a notch or three to match; now they're written by some of the leading silent film scholars, critics and journalists around (including some of the same folks who I was so honored to share a table with nine years ago-- I can't wait to read what David Kiehn has to say about the Wallace Beery submarine thriller Behind the Door when I pick up my program tonight!)

But thumbing through that old "oversized pamphlet" provides a stark reminder of some of the many changes to San Francisco over the past nine years, through the ads alone. In 2009 the booklet started placing them in the back, but in 2007 they were interspersed throughout the 48 pages. The inside front cover has an ad for KDFC, which still exists but has moved down the dial to the 90.3 frequency that my old favorite community radio station KUSF occupied until 2011. Film Arts Foundation, advertised on the same page as Kizirian's wonderful Hal Roach essay, completely dissolved into the San Francisco Film Society in 2008 and nothing really has emerged to fill some of its most important shoes (support for experimental work, providing access to equipment, etc.) An ad for the region's best source for rare movies on VHS and DVD, Le Video, sits between Landazuri's essay on Camille and Horak's on Beggars of Life; it shuttered late last year and although Alamo Drafthouse announced plans to integrate its collection into that of Lost Weekend Video, which as of this past April now occupies part of the New Mission lobby, I've yet to hear any indication that this will actually happen anytime soon. Turn the program guide page and there's an ad for Booksmith, which changed ownership in 2007 and jettisoned its once-incredible silent film book section; now SFSFF partners with Books, Inc. for its amazing line-up of Castro mezzanine book signings. Perhaps the hardest of them all is the loss of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which is advertised underneath Richard Hildreth's barnstorming essay on DeMille's The Godless Girl; this weekly paper had by far the best film, arts and politics coverage of any local print newspaper, and it pressed its last issue in 2014.

As sad as it is to contemplate all of these losses over the past near-decade (and as sad as losing a vital institution is, it cannot compare to the human toll change has taken on San Franciscans; it was such an irony that the SF Chronicle published an article praising Wellman's quasi-remake of Beggars of Life on the same day another of its cruel campaigns against homeless people succeeded) makes it all the more heartening that an institution like the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has thrived and grown in these years. Now in the business not only of presenting films in the best possible way, it also undertakes restorations of important classics and forgotten gems, like this year's record FIVE re-premieres: Mothers of Men, Behind the Door, The Italian Straw Hat, What's the World Coming To and Les Deux Timides. That all five of these are finished on 35mm ought to gladden celluloid purists who might take note that although there's a slightly higher proportion of digital presentations in this year's festival than ever before, SFSFF will still screen just as many all-35mm programs as it did back in 2007 when there were ten programs not counting "Amazing Tales From the Archives" (which still exists as a major part of the festival, and is still free, although donations are becoming more emphasized). 
And although the festival is noted for annually showcasing many of the world's most-anticipated silent film restorations, it's very nice to know that the 35mm print of Beggars of Life set to screen tonight is the same one, I'm told by festival director Anita Monga, that showed on Saturday night of the 2007 festival, the first and last time I and maybe a thousand or more people ever saw it on a big screen. The musical accompaniment, which I recall was wonderful last time, will be the same as well. In a world in which the new so frequently threatens to pave over the old, there's something very comforting about that kind of consistency.

HOW: 35mm print from George Eastman House, with live musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Just like in 2007, as noted above.