Silents Please! The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2009 (Part 2)

27 July, 2009 (17:16) | by Sean Axmaker, Film Festivals, Silent Cinema | By: Sean Axmaker

Bardelys the Magnificent

The most anticipated event at any silent film festival is the premiere of a “lost” film, rediscovered and restored. Bardelys the Magnificent, the 1926 swashbuckler starring John Gilbert and directed by King Vidor, was long thought lost for good but for a brief glimpse in Vidor’s Show People. Then a single surviving print, in poor shape and missing a reel, was found in France in 2006. An exhaustive digital restoration was undertaken by Serge Bromberg (of Lobster Films) with David Shepard (of Film Preservation Associates) and others and the results are thrilling. Apart from a very effective reconstruction of the lost reel through stills and shots from a surviving trailer, it looks superb.

This was the last of five collaborations between Vidor, one of the class acts of the silent cinema, and Gilbert, at that time one Hollywood’s greatest stars. Both are at the top of their game; from the opening scenes they walk that fine line between swashbuckler and spoof with sure footing and unflagging confidence. Gilbert is the Marquis de Bardelys, an an infamous womanizer and the kind of character that John Barrymore did well, the arrogant aristocrat lover and rogue. Gilbert plays it with more dry wit and insouciance than Barrymore ever did. He’s helped immensely by the pithy gems of the intertitles written by Dorothy Farnum (this film features the finest and funniest intertitles of the festival and is a reminder of the often overlooked art of silent movie title writing), but his performance sells the lines. Within seconds of the opening images, he’s suddenly engaged in a fencing duel with the husband of his latest conquest (which he treats as rather familiar sport) and ends the scene by reconciling the two and driving them both out the front door, still tossing off dryly witty lines as it has all been a mere inconvenience. The story, adapted from the novel by Rafael Sabatini, turns on a challenge from a rival aristocrat (Roy D’Arcy, looking like an over-coiffed villain from the Richard Lester The Three Musketeers) to woo the stubbornly resistant Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman), who already rejected the vain aristocrat. Boardman (who soon became director Vidor’s wife) is a modern presence in this costume picture of flamboyant manners. With minimal make-up and a direct, unshowy performance style, she stands in contrast to the rituals and elaborate shows of affection and outrage. It’s not hard to see how the frivolous Bardelys, a man who could marry any woman he wanted to (if, in fact, he wanted to), is smitten and transformed by this unpretentious, unspoiled, unfailingly honest beauty.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanied the SFSFF screening with a compilation score by pianist/leader Rodney Sauer for the film’s resurrection, and it’s a perfect fit with the sly humor and sassy approach of swashbuckling action. To date, this film it exists only in digital form. As David Shepard noted in his introduction to the screening, there simply isn’t the money to strike a new print from the digital master. At least not yet. In the meantime, this beautiful restoration is now available on home video through an excellent DVD from Flicker Alley, a label dedicated to preserving the legacy of silent cinema, complete with that terrific score.

Underworld

Rarely revived and never available on home video, Underworld (1927), the third feature by Josef von Sternberg, is another exhibit in the case for Sternberg as one of the great directors of silent cinema. This proto-gangster film doesn’t look much like the films that blasted through the throes of the early sound era, the rise and fall tale of a street hood with Tommy gun and a Shakespearean story arc. Gangland legend Bull Weed (George Bancroft) is no mob boss but a loner pulls off jobs solo and Rolls Royce Wensel (Clive Brook, later to reappear in Sternberg’s Shanghai Express) is a one-time lawyer turned fulltime drunk who witnesses his escape from a bank robbery. This loose end soon becomes an associate and trusted friend. Feathers McCoy (Evelyn Brent), an elegant jazz baby, is Bull’s loyal girl whose suspicion of Rolls Royce turns to attraction. Where it really anticipates the classic gangster story is the underworld network of criminals, the attitude, and especially the cast of street thugs in society dress, appropriating the dress of the upper class while twisting the manners and mores into a warped reflection of high society. It’s all very Hawksian, before even Hawks had become fully Hawksian style, and even anticipates some of the dynamics of Rio Bravo – a drunk who recovers his self-respect with the support of a gunman who sees the potential under the alcohol, a thug who tosses money into a spittoon to see how far the drunk will go, a girl named Feathers – but the parallels end there.

Sternberg’s direction is both classical and modern, with an expressive approach to storytelling and his distinctive visual style already apparent (as in the streamers filling the screen in a party scene). But it’s his direction of actors that defines the film: measured, underplayed, full of long, measured looks and half smiles that communicate trust, loyalty, disdain, suspicion and understanding, with a dynamic contrast between Bancroft and Brook that perfectly captures their character. Bancroft, a street thug who has become a big shot, guided by a code of behavior but no real social manners, is big and broad. You can practically hear the guffaws as he opens his mouth to laugh like a braying donkey. By contrast, Brook is reserved, a man who has seen most everything and gotten drunk to forget but can’t. Where Bancroft’s emotions pour out of his entire body, Brook holds himself in check at all times, his every move deliberate and measured. He bows ever so simply to offer his thanks and his respect and he just barely cracks a smile to signal his affirmation and appreciation. He’s elegant even as an alcoholic bum, but as he insists, he may be a bum but he’s no squealer.

Erotikon

The opening scenes of Erotikon (1929) could be a variation on the old story of the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter. In this case he’s the traveling gigolo and she’s the railroad man’s daughter, but once the seduction begins, it’s no joke, simply one of the most sensuous portraits of physical ecstasy of sex ever put on screen. It should come as no surprise; director Gustav Machatý is most famous for his notorious Ecstasy (1933) with the nude Hedy Kiesler (soon to be reborn in Hollywood as Hedy Lamarr) in the throes of passion. Yet surprised I was at the sophistication of the filmmaking, the maturity of the story and the formal evocation of emotional and physical sensation. George (Karel Schleichert), an urban sophisticate who missed the train out of a sleepy little village, practically seduces the father himself with gifts of whisky and a fancy cigarette lighter and secures a bed for the night as a storm rages outside. Ita (Ita Rina), the small town girl and virginal daughter, is nervous around George but also curious and attracted. It’s apparent that her attraction to him is what scares her the most. When she emerges into the living room in the middle of the night to answer the phone, he sidles up to her and overcomes her defenses with a practiced technique. Machatý splits the perspective between the two as he brings the bodies together, but once they connect the experience is all about the charge and pleasure of her first time. It was surely a scandal, even as it suggests great intimacy and sexual contact without showing any nudity. We see his lips on her neck, her legs squirming in pleasure, her eyes drifting toward the heavens, her mouth quivering in unheard moans, her face radiant in ecstasy… it’s the cinematic equivalent to the love scenes of Lady Chatterly’s Lover. In the final shot of the sequence, two raindrops on the window merge into one, a visual metaphor that suggests not merely coupling, but a physical merging, as well as evoking the sweating passions in the room.

To give credit where credit is due, power of the scene at this screening was enhanced immeasurably by the original score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. The love theme that builds from when their eyes first meet to Ita’s first sexual experience with the handsome traveler evokes her ecstasy with a lush explosion of deliriously romantic music. The score is never again that exciting or emotionally stirring, which perfectly matches her story. Ita ends up pregnant and runs off to the city, but this is no Griffithian melodrama of the wronged woman and the shady cad. When they meet up again, Ita is married to a kind, generous businessman, Hilbert (Theodor Pistek) and George is in a tangled in an affair with a married woman whose husband is getting very suspicious. The embers of passion are fanned back to life when Hilbert befriends George and invites him home to meet his wife, but now it’s merely physical attraction with echoes of the elation of her first experience that are never recaptured, and never could be.

So’s Your Old Man

Of all the films scheduled for the event, none excited me as much as So’s Your Old Man (1926), directed by Gregory La Cava and starring former vaudevillian and then-rising comedy star W. C. Fields. They only made two films together, but on the strength of Running Wild (1927), which I saw years earlier on a Paramount VHS release, I knew that these two were a magnificent match. So’s Your Old Man cinches the case and shows Fields to be a born silent comic. It’s hard not to hear his jaundiced drawl in your mind’s ear while watching the film, but this Fields is not the blowhard curmudgeon or the spiteful sourpuss we’re used to. He’s a put-upon schlub inventor happy to be rummaging around his comfortably ramshackle life, oblivious to the appearance he puts on to the world and utterly unconcerned about his social standing or his reputation, much to the consternation of his would-be social climbing wife. Samuel Bisbee is happy to spend his days in the basement, inventing shatter-proof glass and getting drunk with his buddies.

The simple plot sends him to Washington D.C., where a demonstration of his invention goes disastrously wrong (apparently he completely forgets what his car looks like and ends up “testing” the windshields of other parked cars), and into a friendship with a sad European princess who takes a liking to Bisbee and gives him a social boost with a surprise visit. Bisbee, innocent that he is, thinks she’s putting on an elaborate masquerade for his benefit, which is part of the charm of this Fields persona. It’s also a brilliant showcase for his talents as a silent comedian, whose gift is not in his bluster but the nonchalant grace of his unrefined physicality, whether it’s dressing in his living room while a society lady visits or teeing up to a golf ball at the local country club. Fields and La Cava spin a basic situation into ten minutes of physical comedy so perfectly choreographed and modulated that the planning never shows. It made for the single funniest sequence of the weekend. La Cava had a real gift for deflating pretension without falling into lampoon but it’s his affection for Bisbee and the bond between Bisbee and his daughter, who rejects her beau when her beau’s mother snubs Bisbee, that makes the shuffling Bisbee, whose reflexive wincing and shrinking suggests a lifetime of cowering, matter. It was remade in the sound era as You’re Telling Me! (1934), with Fields back in the lead but without the grace or comic flair of La Cava’s direction.

San Francisco-based filmmaker Terry Zwigoff (director of Ghost World and Bad Santa and unabashed Fields fan) introduced the film and Philip Carli accompanied the film on the grand piano – without a score or a cue sheet. I asked him about his preparation for the film when the screening was, if he had prepared themes or simply had an encyclopedic repository of cues in his head, and he said that he simply improvises. “That’s how I do it,” he quite modestly confessed. Now that is some kind of talent.

In short:

Time prevents me from a thorough appreciation of each program, so here are some brief notes of a few other favorite programs:

There’s very little from the vital era of China’s silent cinema available to us in the West (thank you Richard Meyer for your efforts to help change that), but Wild Rose (1932) is the best of what I’ve had the opportunity to see and a marvelous glimpse into the lush quality of the Shanghai studio films of the silent era. While the film has a tendency to slip into a nationalistic fervor (Japan had already sent troops into Manchuria and full-scale war was in the offing), it’s an otherwise sophisticated piece of filmmaking directed by Sun Yu and featuring superstars Wang Renmei (as the mischievous country girl of title, kind of Chinese child-woman in the Mary Pickford vein) and Jin Yan (China’s answer to Valentino, according to the program notes). Donald Sosin accompanied the film on the grand piano.

A beautiful print of The Wind (1928), the last Hollywood feature by Victor Seastrom (who returned to Sweden and his original name, Victor Sjostrom, soon after) and a magnificent melodrama that sadly spelled the end of Lillian Gish’s clout as a leady lady. The expensive production was a financial failure for MGM but the tremendous power of the filmmaking lives on. The organ score by Dennis James (playing the Castro’s house Wurlizter) was accompanied by not one but two wind machines (not the fan but the hand-turned percussion instrument used for stage and orchestra effects).

Jean Epstein’s expressionist classic The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), the first (barely) full length feature to rise from the poetic impressionism of the French avant-garde, takes unusual liberties with Poe, making Roderick and Madeleine Usher man and wife (which removes the suggestive perversity of father/daughter relations) and stirring in elements from other Poe stories. A strange mix of Gothic design, modern austerity, expressionist angles, graceful camerawork and surreal effects, it’s an atmospheric classic that becomes increasingly more surreal as Roderick, obsessed with a portrait of his wife that drains her life force like a vampire as he completes it, faces the ominous storm that blows through is empty, decaying castle. Don’t know that Poe would have gone with the happy ending, though. The film was preceded by the American experiment adaptation by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber that came out the same year, both accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano.

All of the programs were preceded by introductions and most of the features were preceded by Biograph short subjects featuring Mary Pickford (most, if not all, directed by Griffith). Russell Merritt’s introduction to Lady of the Pavements, a real history lesson, and Leonard Malin on The Wind, full of great background and love of silent film, were my favorite introductions of the festival, with an honorable mention to Eddie Muller for his lively and entertaining exegesis on Underworld and its place in the pre-history of film noir. How can you go wrong when you quote the wit and wisdom of Ben Hecht?

The complete line-up (including programs I didn’t write about) can be found at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival homepage here.

Part one of my festival coverage can be found here.

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