SFSFF 2013 Premieres: ‘The Half-Breed’ and ‘The Last Edition’

I surveyed the 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival for Fandor a few weeks ago, covering the highlights and landmarks in brief. But it was always my intention to explore the films, and my experience with them, in a little more detail, time permitting. As it turns out, time has not permitted much opportunity, so I’ve carved a few hours out of a weekend to collect my notes and my thoughts over a few of the films.

The San Francisco International Film Festival has been expanding its size and its mission from the very beginning, when it was a single film showing with live music. Since then, it has expanded to four days, playing new restorations and rediscoveries, bringing in the finest silent film accompanists from around the world, commissioning original scores, and offering presentations from archivists walking us through their latest projects.

This year marks the latest and most exciting expansion of their mission: the world premiere of two new restorations undertaken by the SFSFF in collaboration with international film archives.

Douglas Fairbanks in ‘The Half-Breed’

Allan Dwan’s 1916 The Half-Breed, a California frontier western starring Douglas Fairbanks in the title role, has been available before in a largely complete but partially re-edited 1924 re-release held by the Cinématèque Française (that version was released on disc a few years ago in Flicker Alley’s marvelous Douglas Fairbanks box set). Rob Byrne set about attempting to reconstruct the original, longer 1916 cut with the help of an incomplete (and very damaged) print of the original release held by the Library of Congress and a radically re-edited reduction print found by Lobster Films in France. Research into the scant documentation verified a few incomplete sequences and a couple of completely missing scenes, which Byrne, collaborating with Cinématèque Française, was able to reconstruct with the additional prints. (At the “Amazing Tales from the Archives” presentation on Friday morning, Byrne presented a step-by-step look at the process of not just finding footage, but doing detective work into finding the original titles, the original narrative, and the editing as seen on the original release; it was the most detailed presentation I have seen on the work and research that goes in to restoring a silent film.)

The result is not necessarily one of Fairbanks’ best films, but the restored film shows a more nuanced and interesting drama than heretofore seen, a conflicted portrait of racism and prejudice through the filter of history that decries intolerance without defying it (the film can’t let even as noble a half-breed as Fairbanks walk off into the sunset with a white woman), yet vividly lays out the hypocrisy of prejudice and white superiority in scene after scene. The film was adapted from a Bret Harte short story by Anita Loos, whose distinctive wit is evident in the surviving original intertitles (most of them are lost and the difference between the deft language and satirical edge of Loos and the bland writing of the rewritten titles of the reissue is unavoidable).

One of the pleasures of film festivals like these are the unanticipated connections and contrasts that you make from otherwise unconnected films. This year brought Victor Sjöström’s The Outlaw and His Wife (1918), a Swedish production shot just two years later. What a contrast in national style: where Sjöström shows the vastness of the wilderness with compositions that show it reaching back forever, seeing far back into the distance, making the landscape an integral part of the elemental power of his vision, Allan Dwan suggests the vastness of the Redwoods in just a few medium-long shots, returning to the same perspectives and set-ups over and over again, more like a stage backdrop than an untamed wilderness. It’s curious given Dwan’s use of deep focus in the church scene, looking down the pews and through the door from the pulpit to see the congregation arrive and a fight break out on the street behind them, recognizing the easy communion between the sacred and the profane of this frontier town. Maybe they took those locations for granted, or simply didn’t find the landscape as important as the drama played in front of it, but both Dwan and Fairbanks would become far more sensitive to location and setting by the 1920s.

The local connection comes with The Last Edition, a 1925 independent feature directed and produced by Emory Johnson and shot largely on location on streets of San Francisco and in the press rooms of the San Francisco Chronicle. Rob Byrne, SFSFF board president and an independent film archivist and restorer who initiated and oversaw the project after finding nearly complete materials at the EYE Film Institute Netherlands, introduced it as a “meat and potatoes” film. The writing and plotting is pure dramatic melodrama cliché, with all the tropes tossed in, all sorts of complications and extraneous characters introduced (some to be completely forgotten by the end), and not one but two chase sequences in the race to the finish, which involves a fire at the newspaper as well as a race to catch the bad guys and clear the name of our young hero. Given that, it’s remarkably entertaining, with a swift pace, likable characters, and great SF locations, and it received its premiere with the most appreciative audience it will surely ever get: a sold-out hometown crowd at the Castro cheering every yesteryear landmark. Not to slight the contribution of accompanist Stephen Horne, the piano score just pounded away the runaway final act, helping the audience whisk past every continuity glitch and sloppy narrative distraction. They didn’t matter, everyone was having too much fun.

Ralph Lewis and Tom O’Brien in ‘The Last Edition’

Ralph Lewis stars as the paternal old press man, a twenty year veteran who keeps the presses rolling with loving attention and mechanical know-how, every inch a newspaperman in his own way, and overlooked for promotion as a flashy, big-talking jerk is hired on for the “new blood” the failing sales demand. His son an earnest young attorney working for the corrupt Assistant District Attorney (clearly not to be trusted by virtue of his natty mustache), his daughter is dating the paper’s hotshot young court reporter, and both boys get tangled in the crooked dealings of an untouchable bootlegging crook. Lewis’ wisdom and loyalty serves as the film’s moral compass, even when he has to sabotage his own presses to save his son (competing with the explosive sabotage concocted separately by the bootlegger’s henchman) and the confusing plotting suggests there may some footage missing… or maybe it just got lost on the whirlwind of competing stories.

Where it really shines is in the process sequences, in the first a search through the archives for background on a bootlegger, followed through to where the clippings are delivered to the reporter, the second a race to get a scoop to the front page with 20 minutes to press time for the next edition. We follow the story as it is written, a new front page built and set type, tested, copied, a plate made, and then set in the press and the last edition is printed off. Not only is it an interesting look into process at a particular time and technology, it’s a nicely-executed sequence from director Emory Johnson, who produced this film independently and shot it on a budget lower than the Hollywood studios would give him. It’s not documentary, but it is an amazing document and this sequence in particular has a dedication to process with a race-the-clock urgency: good drama and great history. The San Francisco audience packed the place and gave it the greatest reception it will likely ever get. They knew that the real star of the film is old San Francisco.

Rob Byrne documented the process of restoring the film on a website dedicated to The Last Edition. Check it out; it’s a terrific project and a great introduction to elements of film restoration written for a general audience.