Let’s face it, Soviet silent cinema isn’t renowned for its sense of humor. And that’s a shame.
Most of us were introduced to the silent era of Russian film through the dialectic exercises of Sergei Eisenstein, who combined the intellectual and the visceral in such films as Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) or the dazzling montage symphony that is Dziga Vertov‘s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). They are thrilling works with serious themes and a rigorous aesthetic and intellectual approach. But for all their celebration of the proletariat as the collective hero of the great Soviet experiment, the working men and women of the Soviet Union really just wanted to have fun at the movies and the most popular Russian films were indeed light entertainment and energetic comedies. They’ve merely been harder to find than the rousing celebrations of Soviet values and nationalistic displays of great communist victories, films elevated as standard bearers of the era of Soviet Formalism and the editing revolution, at least until recently. In fact, for a long time, the only widely seen example of Soviet comedy was Chess Fever (1925), a comic short spoofing the real-life chess obsession that swept Russia during the 1925 chess tournament in Moscow.
Co-director Vsevolod Pudovkin was one of Soviet cinema’s intellectual heavyweights, a theorist who apprenticed under filmmaking pioneer Lev Kuleshov and helped develop the theories of montage that guided formalist filmmaking in the twenties. He actually applies some of those ideas to this funny and clever short comedy about a chess addict who risks losing his fiancée in his chess obsession. Pudovkin went on to make such serious features as Mother (1926) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927) but Chess Fever is all lighthearted fun, a lark rather than a lesson. And it showed that Pudovkin’s brand of montage was also effective when it came to humor: the perfect cut was just as effective in delivering a punchline as pounding home a political point.
This essay was originally written for the Silent Fall 2014 program presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on September 20, 2014
No silent moviemaker ever engaged with the machinery of modern life as resourcefully as Buster Keaton did. From One Week (1920), his debut as a solo director after his apprenticeship with Fatty Arbuckle, to The Cameraman (1928), his final masterpiece, Keaton routinely sparred with the mechanized world. He could be confounded in his early shorts—sometimes modern conveniences got the best of him—but as Keaton moved into feature films and matured as a filmmaker, his characters persevered in the struggle, thanks to a combination of curiosity, commitment, and ingenuity. Whereas Chaplin waged war against the machines with underdog defiance, Keaton mastered the magnificent marvels of modern engineering to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds. In The Navigator (1924), Keaton tamed an abandoned luxury liner and emerged with one of the biggest hits of his career. After making three features of a more modest scope, The General (1926) marked his return to filmmaking on an ambitious scale. Built around a majestic prop that becomes a character in its own right—a locomotive steam engine—it is still filled with intimate moments. It is a grand achievement.
The story of The General comes from a chapter of Civil War history, a true tale of Union spies who infiltrated the South, stole a passenger train in Georgia, and drove it north pursued by Southern conductors who eventually captured the raiders. According to Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, his reliable collaborator and gag man, handed him William A. Pittenger’s account of the incident as a potential project. Keaton streamlined the story to a deceptively simple structure of two mirrored chases—one north to recapture the stolen engine and another back south—as well as added a love interest and a kidnapping to make the rescue personal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he took on the perspective of the South.
Flicker Alley releases two more collections of classic silent comedies. Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies 1916-1917 (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) collects the greatest run of comedy shorts in Chaplin’s career in newly restored and remastered editions, and The Mack Sennett Collection: Vol. One (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) collects 50 comedies of a variety of lengths (including one feature) from Sennett’s studios, from 1909 to 1933 and his early sound comedies.
The Mack Sennett Collection: Vol. One is the goldmine here. It’s not that it necessarily features superior work to the Chaplin classics (those Chaplin Mutuals are among the greatest silent comedies ever made) but that it rescues so many films either previously unavailable or only available in compromised or inferior editions and it encompasses so many silent movie greats that began their respective careers in his studios and, in most cases, remained to flourish there.
It opens on Mack Sennett as writer and star of The Curtain Pole (1909), a nonsense comedy that sends Sennett (in heavy make-up and absurdly overdone facial hair) on a quest to replace the title object and ends with him literally gnawing on the pole to get it down to size. D.W. Griffith directs in perfectly professional mode, keeping the absurdities going with all due haste, but Mack Sennett takes the helm for the next five shorts, slowly removing himself from the frame and giving the star parts over to Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling, two of his most reliable stars for the next decade.
This is slapstick at its most basic, all overcharged energy and wild-eyed mania, but Sennett (who eventually leaves directing to others but still writes many of them and produces them all) slowly perfects the genre through the course of the disc, which takes us through the evolution from one-reel comedies to two- and three-reel pictures with slightly more logical plots and creative comic inventions. And they introduce us to the great Sennett stock company: Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chase, Chester Conklin, Al St. John, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy, and a young British comic by the name of Charlie Chaplin.
A Thief Catcher (1914), a proto-Keystone Kops comedy that was thought lost until a print was discovered in 2010, features Chaplin in a supporting role, and he directs and stars in the half-reel Recreation (1914), trying to pick up a girl on a park bench. There are three shorts that revolve around plots involving bombs (the round cannonball type with long fuses, of course), the terrific three-reel Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916, with Sennett’s two greatest stars and Arbuckle directing—he’s the forgotten slapstick master thanks to a career cut short by scandal), and Gloria Swanson and Wallace Beery (as the villain, of course) in Teddy at the Throttle (1917), which ends with Swanson chained to the railroad tracks and her faithful dog rushing to the rescue. It’s ridiculous, sure, but this kind of comedy relies on an internal logic that simply escalates the capers and the desperation of heroes and villains alike. The crazed extremes of this one are really quite charming.
The second disc takes us from 1917 through 1925, with shorts featuring the lively Louise Fazenda (including the 5-reel / 52-minute Down on the Farm, 1920), Chester Conklin (whose cross-eyed smile is one of the most famous images of silent slapstick), Billy Bevan and Sid Smith. The highlight for me, however, is the feature comedy The Extra Girl (1923), a six-reeler starring Mabel Normand at her most charming. Harry Langdon stars on a couple of shorts and Carole Lombard is one of Sennett’s Bathing Beauties in Run, Girl, Run (1928), and the third disc ends on two of the best shorts to come from Sennett’s studios: The Dentist (1932) and The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), both featuring W.C. Fields, who made a brilliant transition from silent buffoon to cranky sound comic. Sennett’s comedies were famed for their orchestrated anarchy but Fields is a force of curmudgeon chaos unique unto himself.
These shorts are restored (and sometimes rescued) from a variety of sources and some are downright scruffy, but the wonders of high-definition digital masters still gives us often crisp images under the noise of damage and that kind of care is at least as important as film restoration. For most of the shorts, however, the quality is quite fine. There are films over 100 years old here and it’s astounding that they’ve survived in viewable condition at all. Each short is accompanied by a lovely original score and almost half of them feature optional commentary by a comedy historian. Other supplements include outtakes, archival behind-the-scenes footage, TV clips, and the complete 1954 This Is Your Life episode celebrating Mack Sennett. A 28-page booklet features a guide to the shorts (including shooting locations) and credits.
The two early Chaplin shorts in the Mack Sennett set makes a fine campanion to Chaplin’s Mutual Comedies 1916-1917. Chaplin called his 18 months at Mutual “the happiest period of my life” and these 12 two-reel comedies remain his finest achievements in short filmmaking: slapstick ballets of distilled Chaplin comic genius. He had unprecedented freedom, an enormously lucrative contract, and a company of creative artists at his personal disposal and he turned the studio set into his creative playground, improvising on film to work out his ideas.
Case in point: The Floorwalker, his first film for the studio. Always one to latch onto the comic possibilities of inventive props, he turned an escalator into the centerpiece of the comedy, where his rapscallion clerk continually incites the store’s crooked manager (Eric Campbell). He takes it further in the solo masterpiece One A.M., where he steps out of the Tramp persona to play an inebriated gadfly at war with his home, battling everything from a staircase to a suit of armor to a resistant Murphy bed, all seemingly set on keeping him from getting to sleep. These shorts become a comic workshop as Chaplin investigates the slapstick possibilities of an array of props and situations while refining his persona as the down-but-not-out everyman.
Chaplin refined his trademark character The Little Tramp with the help of his two key co-stars: burly, barrel-chested Eric Campbell, his hulking physical opposite who forever played the bullying nemesis (often behind a positively demonic beard), and sweet faced Edna Purviance, the alternately demure and plucky innocent he’s forever courting, saving, or simply mooning over. Ms. Purviance is featured in The Vagabond, Chaplin’s third Mutual short, a rural melodrama of a young girl saved from abusive guardians by the resourceful Tramp. Favoring pathos over slapstick, it looks forward to the sentimental melodrama of his features to come. In The Count, Chaplin and Campbell crash a society bash under false identities to woo a rich lovely (Purviance, of course), but Chaplin soon reverts to his impulsive instincts and turns the posh gathering into an anarchic free-for-all. And when the Tramp decides to take The Cure, he comes prepared with a trunk full of alcohol which quickly inebriates the guests and staff of the sanitarium. The revolving door becomes a comic centerpiece (like the escalator in The Floorwalker), which befuddles the inebriated Chaplin and infuriates gout stricken nemesis Campbell. It’s another example of Chaplin spinning a 25-minute masterpiece from little more than a character, a setting, and a situation.
Equal parts class clown, downtrodden social outcast, and sentimental softy, Chaplin’s continued appeal lies not merely in his comic invention but his dogged defiance of authority, class, and convention, and these classic shorts preserve the edginess he smoothed out in later features. As a lowly menial in The Fireman, Chaplin is cheerfully oblivious to chaos he causes to the ordered firehouse and still manages to emerge a hero. The Pawnshop shows the Tramp in a more aggressive role than we’re used to, goofing and playing practical jokes on his coworkers, The Rink puts him on roller skates for a burlesque ballet on wheels, and The Adventurer makes him an escaped convict who hides out in a high society party crawling with cops. Behind the Screen thumbs a nose at the movies in general and Mack Sennett (Chaplin’s old boss) in particular with a lampoon of the studios that concludes with the invention of the pie fight (“I don’t like this highbrow stuff,” comments one victim). His Little Tramp is settling into final form by now—equal parts class clown, sneaky bully, downtrodden social outcast, and sentimental softy.
As he neared the conclusion of his contract he became increasingly more ambitious and mixed his tried and true comic formula with social commentary for two of his most enduring works. Easy Street is Chaplin’s most successful mix of social issues and slapstick comedy. As a rookie cop in the city’s toughest neighborhood, a slum overrun with bullies, drug addicts and gangsters, the goodhearted Chaplin isn’t above a little unconventional policing—when his Billy club proves ineffective on gargantuan Eric Campbell’s thick skull he resorts to gassing him with a compliant street lamp. And The Immigrant finds the Promised Land less than rosy for peasants herded like cattle on the ship and wandering the streets of New York looking for work and food, but the Tramp’s ingenuity and resilience becomes a symbol of hope for the future as well as a comic riposte.
The five-disc set features each and every short and supplement on both Blu-ray and DVD, collected in a sturdy steelbook package. These short have all been released on DVD in fine editions from Image. These new editions, all remastered from 35mm elements from the Blackhawk Collection and Film Preservation Associates, have a more nuanced gray scale than the earlier DVD release, which has a more pronounced contrast (which helps cover the imperfections). The clarity of this set reveals the imperfections in the source prints but the added definition also reveals previously unseen or obscured details and offers a sharpness unseen in the earlier release. They are truer to the originals and to the archival source materials and give viewers something approaching a 35mm experience at home. These digital masters look like film prints.
Each short features a new original score performed by small combo or small orchestra (many of them recorded from live theatrical performances), with Carl Davis’ 1995 score for One A.M. carried over from the Image DVD release. I miss the Carl Davis scores from the previous disc and some of these new scores are a bit out of synch with the film (I actually didn’t notice while watching them the first time through but was alerted by the keen-eyed viewers on various home video forums and found that yes, it drifts on The Floorwalker, for one; to be honest, it’s not as important to me as the image quality). The new scores, however, are marvelous in their own right and there’s an alternate improvised piano score for each film as well.
It also features the American home video premier of the documentary The Birth of the Tramp, directed by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange, and the 1996 documentary Chaplin’s Goliath, Kevin Macdonald’sloving portrait of the burly Scottish comic Eric Campbell, Chaplin’s giant nemesis in 11 of his 12 classic Mutual shorts. He was one of the most famous screen comics in the world when he died in 1917, yet is almost forgotten today. The accompanying booklet features an essay and notes on each short by silent film historian Jeffrey Vance, updated from the essay in the Image DVD set, plus credits for the restoration, music and archival sources.
Too Much Johnson, the Orson Welles film (or rather film project) that was long thought lost (the last print was reportedly destroyed in a fire in Welles’ Spanish home in 1970), was found a few years ago and restored. It’s not a feature or even a short, per se, more of an experiment shot to accompany a production of the theater farce “Too Much Johnson,” but at least the first section plays just fine on its own as a tribute to silent slapstick comedy with Joseph Cotten doing Harold Lloyd antics and Buster Keaton chases as a serial philanderer pursued by a jealous husband. The film was unfinished but mostly complete and you can watch both the workprint and a “reimagined” version with the outtakes removed at the National Film Preservation Foundation website. An HD version of both are available through the subscription streaming service Fandor.
I wrote an essay on the film for Keyframe: “This would all be interesting but academic if it wasn’t also entertaining and Too Much Johnson is a hoot. The prologue was designed to open the play, introduce the characters and situations, and set the racing pace for the stage scenes with a wild slapstick chase through the streets of New York to the ship that carries the story to Cuba. It plays just fine on its own (with an assist from intertitles added by NFPF), like an open-ended Mack Sennett farce that races through German Expressionism and Russian Formalism on the way to the docks. The subsequent sequences, both much shorter and apparently incomplete, are not as self-contained or coherent but they do feature some eye-opening moments for Welles fans.”
The third wave of Amazon Prime Instant Video Pilot Season shows will be available to sample on Thursday, August 28. As in previous waves, Amazon has made the pilot episodes of five new shows available to all Amazon customers (you don’t have to be a Prime member to watch them), and they will decide which shows move forward to full series based on audience feedback.
This time through, they have enlisted some interesting directors to create for the small screen. Whit Stillman heads to Paris for The Cosmopolitans, a continental romantic comedy, David Gordon Green (director of Pineapple Express and HBO’s Eastbound and Down) stays home in New Jersey for Red Oaks, a coming-of-age comedy set in 1985 (it’s produced by Steven Soderbergh), and Jay Chandrasekhar offers the sitcom Really, about a tight-knit group of married couples in Chicago. Each of these are in the half-hour format.
There are also two hour-long shows: Marc Forster (World War Z) takes the helm on Hand of God, starring Ron Perlman as a judge of dubious morals who goes vigilante after receiving messages from God, and writer / producer Shaun Cassidy delivers Hysteria, with Mena Suvari as a neurologist faced with virtual virus spread through social media.
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the slapstick stylings of Orson Welles, the boy wonder of Broadway!
Not exactly how we think of Welles, is it? We know he had a rich career both on radio and on the New York stage before he made Citizen Kane, but the few comedies he made were far outnumbered by the dramas and the thrillers and the literary adaptation. Yet after his first attention-getting success with Voodoo Macbeth for the WPA, Welles took a sharp turn to farce with his follow-up, Horse Eats Hat, which also had the honor of presenting Joseph Cotten in his first starring role.
There is no film record of Horse Eats Hat or any of his stage comedies and, though he had developed a few proposals for screen comedies, no producer ever took him up on them. So apart from a few cheeky supporting roles, a couple of TV appearances and fragments from unfinished projects, the record shows Orson Welles as a grand artist of serious subjects and baroque tastes.
That alone is reason enough to hail the discovery, restoration and presentation of the long-thought-lost Too Much Johnson, a tribute to the silent slapstick shorts of Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. It is an unfinished project in its own right but is nonetheless complete enough in this “The Films Reimagined” form to reveal a side of Welles so rarely exhibited to the public. That it was made three years before Citizen Kane makes it an invaluable find, a glimpse of the artist exploring the new medium of film with a natural affinity for the possibilities inherent in cinema. But that’s a matter of historical scholarship. What matters to the rest of us is that Too Much Johnson is funny, clever, cheeky, inventive and genuinely accomplished, which makes it worth watching on its own modest yet playful merits.
Stage and screen legend John Barrymore took on the good doctor and his vicious alter ego from the famous Robert Louis Stevenson novel in this silent horror classic, adapted as much from the stage play by Thomas Russell Sullivan as from Stevenson’s original book. It wasn’t the first adaptation of the story but it became the most celebrated until Fredric March took on the role in the sound era, and it helped elevate the respected actor into a major big screen attraction.
As Dr. Henry Jekyll, the moral, religious man who keeps company with society gentleman who find Henry more than a little self-righteous, Barrymore takes on a theatrical nobility: quiet and subdued, he stand tall and stiff and favors his great profile to the camera. He runs a free clinic (called “the human repair shop,” a phrase that inadvertently brings to mind Frankenstein more than Hyde) that his friend Sir George Carewe (Brandon Hurst) sneers at. “You should live–as I have lived,” he advises the sheltered Henry. Sir George is the father of the proper young lady Millicent (Martha Mansfield), who admires and loves Henry, a seeming contradiction that he explains to Henry thusly: “I protected her as only a man of the world could.” After a visit to a seedy nightclub, where Sir George invites dancing girl Miss Gina (Nita Naldi) to get Henry all hot and bothered, Henry decides that maybe it’s time to let his baser desires out for a romp. But rather than sully his soul (or his reputation) he concocts a potion is release the evil buried inside (the original sin?), essentially releasing the id from his dominant superego, to take a Freudian approach
The theme of Master of the House, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1925 screen adaptation of Svend Rindom’s play Tyrannens fald, is better captured in the film’s original Danish title Du skal ære din hustru: Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife. Viktor Frandsen (Johannes Meyer), the master of the house himself, is indeed the central character of this domestic drama, but his journey is all about learning to appreciate his wife Ida (Astrid Holm), who he has driven to illness with his ill temper.
While the opening intertitles of the film, a sentimental paean to the overlooked and underappreciated work of the mother and housewife, leave no ambiguity about the drama to come, Dreyer is far less obvious in his direction. The film opens with Ida’s morning ritual, a routine that Dreyer observes with the patient care of a documentarian and the delicacy of a painter. Ida is never still as she makes breakfast, cares for the children, and sacrifices her own meager luxuries to give Viktor a little extra butter on his bread, but neither is she rushed or harried. There is a grace to her toil and a pride and satisfaction in the work she does. Her confidence and clarity unravels, however, when Viktor emerges for breakfast, complaining with his first steps into the room that coffee is no waiting for him on the table.
Harold Lloyd was the collegiate kid to Chaplin’s underdog tramp and Keaton’s earnest social misfit, the young, modern guy full of energy and spunk taking on the world with the ambition of a go-getter and the smart-aleck attitude of a city boy. Yet for a young man who epitomized the up-and-comer in the modern urban world, he only made one film where he played a college kid: The Freshman, which became his biggest box-office hit of all time and the definitive college comedy of the 1920s.
Lloyd had tried out a number of personae over his career but when he put on those round glasses and flashed that smile, he created the incarnation that made him one of the biggest stars of the twenties. He referred to that creation as “the glasses character” but in the movies he was invariably called Harold. In The Freshman he’s Harold Lamb, a small town boy preparing to go to college by watching movies and practicing his elaborate greeting, a little jig of a dance step followed by an extended hand and a slogan of an introduction: “I’m just a regular fellow – step right up and call me ‘Speedy’.” (Fans of Yasujiro Ozu may recognize that bit from his Japanese college comedies like I Flunked, But… , an example of life imitating art; where Harold copies it from a fake movie, Ozu’s students pick it up from their love of Harold Lloyd comedies.) He’s convinced himself that the movies and the dime novels about campus heroes are an accurate portrait of college life and he studies them like textbooks. In fact, he studies them instead of textbooks. The Freshman is a college film where no one attends a class, goes to the library, or crams for a test. “Tate University – A large football stadium, with a college attached,” reads the title card for Harold’s arrival on campus, and the film makes good on the joke.
Lon Chaney was the most unlikely of Hollywood superstar actors. Talented and ambitious, he fearlessly took on roles of tortured victims, twisted villains, and misshapen outcasts, parts that he brought to life with a mix of elaborate make-up, physically demanding incarnations, and emotionally intense performances. In some ways, you could see him as the De Niro of the silent era, sinking himself into each role so deeply he loses himself in it, at least as far as the viewer in concerned. In an industry that celebrates physical beauty and charisma, Chaney won over audiences by playing characters that looked or acted like monster while communicating their inner drives and torments with his eyes and his face and his body language. The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1923 was his first major production, a lavish period drama based on a classic novel and created at a cost of over $1 million by Universal, at the time a second-tier studio with ambitions to compete with the majors in the blockbuster realm. It made him one of Hollywood’s biggest screen stars.
This adaptation largely hews to the narrative of Victor Hugo’s novel. Chaney plays Quasimodo, the horribly misshapen, deaf and half blind bell-ringer at Notre Dame, nominally raised by Don Claudio (Nigel De Brulier), the Archdeacon of Notre Dame.
In the rapid evolution of film style in the first twenty years of cinema, from the earliest shorts by the Lumieres, the Edison Studio and Méliès to the narrative storytelling of D.W. Griffith, editing is king. It is, we are told, the foundation of film grammar. It gives the filmmaker a tool to direct our attention, brings us from the general to the specific with cut-ins, provides point and counterpoint with cross-cutting, provides intimacy, slows the action down to let us absorb the emotional content of a scene or build suspense, and speeds it up to increase anxiety and tension in action sequences.
As Griffith created more sophisticated narratives with increasing reliance on editing and varying shot size, the old tableaux style of static cameras and scenes played out in full, with the frame akin to the proscenium arch of a theatrical stage, began to look old fashioned, like the primitive efforts of early cinema and the elephantine grandeur of the Italian epics of the early 1910s. But even as American and British cinema was developing its grammar of film editing, in Paris, Louis Feuillade was playing with the possibilities inherent in tableaux filmmaking.
Feuillade found his style making scores of short comedies, fantasies, and historical spectacles at a pace that would make even D.W. Griffith blink. While Griffith was slowing down his output to craft and shape his stories and develop his narrative film grammar, Feuillade was cranking out shorts, serials, and short features at a breakneck pace, setting up scenes and letting coherence and chaos battle it out in his mise-en-scène. He wasn’t behind the times. His distinctive approach to filmmaking simply followed a different path. Where Griffith drove action through editing and turned to cutting as a defining element of his pacing, Feuillade was exploring the possibilities of set design, elaborate staging in depth, character movement, and surprise revelations, directing the audience’s attention within the frame and setting the rhythm of the film through its internal movement. His scenes played out in single takes with unmoving cameras (apart from the rare pan), yet he packed his frames with energetic movement and his labyrinthine stories with the fantastic and the unpredictable. In the years 1913 through 1917, there is no more creatively energetic, playfully inventive and entertainingly surreal filmmaking than in his wild crime serials: Fantômas (France/1913-1914), Les Vampires (France/1915-1916), and Judex (1917).
G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925), the Centerpiece screening on Saturday night, is a landmark drama of social commentary, a savage portrait of Germany after World War II, when rampant inflation and record unemployment plunged an entire class into poverty and widened the gulf between rich and poor into a veritable ocean. Decadence and desperation and degradation: this has it all, and with a drumbeat of social drama drawn in stark images and situations.
Greta Garbo takes her first role since being “discovered” in Gosta Berling’s Saga (1924) and is marvelous as the devoted daughter of a widower civil servant, basically taking care of her father and her little sister while he gambles their entire future on a stock market bet (a rigged game that we know is doomed to ruin them). Endlessly nurturing and sacrificing herself for others, we know where she’s headed when she ends up in hock to Frau Greifer (Valeska Gert), the neighborhood clothier with the secret club in the back and the procurer who turns desperate women into hookers for her male clients. Garbo is elegant and dignified without tipping into the Hollywood glamour that would soon define her (and fix her teeth), the honest working class innocent about to be savaged by the economic piranhas circling the stream.
The ostensible lead, however, is Asta Nielsen, the thirtysomething German superstar playing the teenage daughter of an impoverished and pious war veteran who accuses her of prostitution and essentially pushes her to it out of necessity. Dressed to the hilt by a smitten banker in fashions that make the Ziegfeld Follies look restrained, she goes through the movie like the walking dead, numb with shock at her station, which apparently her foreign fat cat client finds alluring, if confusing. Werner Krauss plays the butcher, who hordes his products to trade for sexual favors and wields the power of his position like a petty tyrant, and there’s an American aid worker, an aspiring young banker trying to follow in his market-manipulating boss’s footsteps, and a decadent young woman ready to trade her affections for the richest beau, plus there’s a couple of murders, a fiery suicide, a healthy dose of madness, and lots of lurid spectacle.
And yet watching the film is tough. Manny Farber’s designation of “elephant art” came to mind while working through the screening. This is long (over 2 ½ hours), important, heavy, full of social commentary and dreary lessons, and it goes on and on, teasing us with the threat of degradation of its struggling characters while showing damaging actions of the rich. It’s also overloaded with storylines, top-heavy with major characters (some of whom suddenly disappear for long periods, perhaps due to missing footage), confusing and complicated and at times clumsy in its storytelling.
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.
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).
I knew that San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the premiere silent fest in America, but I was elated to learn from Céline Ruivo, curator of the film collection at the Cinématèque Française and a special guest at this year’s festival, that in Europe, SFSFF has a reputation as one of the premiere silent film festivals in the world. It has earned that reputation. In its now four-day length (three full days plus a gala opening night), it is both selective and expansive in its programming, with rediscoveries and new restorations along with well-known audience favorites and world masterpieces.
The opening night program qualifies as both rediscovery and revival. Prix de Beaute (1930, France), directed by Augusto Genina from a screenplay by G.W. Pabst and Rene Clair (who originally developed the project for himself), is famous largely for its star: it was Louise Brooks‘ third and final starring role in her brief European vogue. It was also released in both silent and talkie versions, and the sound version (with La Brooks dubbed by a French actress) is what most people have seen. The recently restored silent version is both longer and more interesting, even while it remains a minor coda to her Pabst masterpieces. The story of a newspaper secretary who wins the Miss Europe beauty contest takes abrupt tonal turns from bubbly romantic comedy to high-society spectacle to working class drama to operatic melodrama. But at its best it offers a look at working class life at work and at play in 1930 Paris and it sweeps us up in the rush of Brooks’ fairy-tale journey to stardom. Her fresh, natural presence in the world of late silent-era acting makes her all the more guileless and innocent in a culture where every man wants to possess and control her.
The programmers are as careful with the musical component as they are on the film materials. Every film is accompanied by live music from world-class silent film musicians. The opening night films was accompanied by Stephen Horne, a solo musician as one man band: he plays piano, flute and accordion (often two at once), and plucks strings of piano to suggest a Spanish guitar in a nightclub scene. The affectionate joke around the theater is that Horne returns to SFSFF every year because they get a combo for the price of a solo act! Also returning this year are the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra from Colorado and the Mattie Bye Ensemble from Sweden, while German pianist and organ player Günter Buchwald made his SFSFF debut on four programs.
The image of Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock high above the Los Angeles city streets may be the single most iconic shot that says “silent movies” and “slapstick comedy” to the general public without further explanation. It is of course one of the great set pieces in Safety Last! (1923), the fourth and still most famous feature from the acrobatic silent comedy superstar.
Lloyd plays the small town swell trying to make good in the big city, putting on a show of success for his girl back home while scraping by as a department store at the fabrics counter, still waiting for his big break. He’s simply called “The Boy” in the credits but his pay stub puts his name right out there — Harold Lloyd — and why not? It’s a familiar variation in his repertoire as “the glasses character,” as he called the persona defined by his distinctive horn-rimmed glasses and Horatio Alger spirit. Whether rural or urban, he was the everyman trying to make his way in the world and win the girl. All of the great silent comics pretty created a defining screen character which they dropped into different situations. As popular as Chaplin and Keaton and even more successful financially, Lloyd was the modern man of the big three, the bright young man of the jazz age trying to carve out his piece of the American dream. Lloyd didn’t take directing or writing credit (Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor share the directing title card and Keystone komedy king Hal Roach is one of the screenwriters), but at this point in his fast-rising career he was, like Chaplin and Keaton, very much in charge of his films. He developed the stories, helped design the stunts, and made sure the production looked big and handsome and impressive.
French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris 1923-1928 (Flicker Alley) presents of the stateside DVD debut of five silent classics from Film Albatros, a French studio founded by Russian artists: The Burning Crucible, Kean, The Late Mathias Pascal, Gribiche, and The New Gentlemen.
Three of the films star Ivan Mosjoukine, the great Russian actor who fled the revolution and landed in Paris, and the other two are directed by Jacques Feyder. All of them are examples of the sophisticated filmmaking coming out of France in the twenties.
Which is not to say that they are all masterpieces — The Burning Crucible (1923), which not only stars Mosjoukine but is written and directed by the actor, is inventive and full of lively images and playful techniques but is all over the place and jumps willy-nilly through styles and episodes — but they are all tremendously entertaining and full of filmmaking energy. Mosjoukine plays eleven roles in The Burning Crucible, including the leading role of Detective Z, a man of many disguises, and Mosjoukine the director rolls Russian formalism, German expressionism, and French surrealism together in a simplistic but richly imaginative story that at times borders on craziness of Louis Feuillade’s serials of the previous decade.
Mosjoukine also stars in Kean (1924) as the great 19th century stage actor Edmund Kean and in The Late Mathias Pascal (1926), the fantasy epic directed by Marcel L’Herbier that Flicker Alley released on Blu-ray earlier this year. I reviewed it for Videodrone here.
The final pair of films in the set are from Jacques Feyder.