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.

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