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Douglas Fairbanks

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).

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Blu-ray/DVD: Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’ and the silent spectacle of ‘The Thief of Bagdad’

Argo (Warner), the third feature from actor-turned-director Ben Affleck, was released early in October, just before the traditional roll-out of high-toned dramas and Oscar-bait showpieces gets aggressively competitive, and debuted to glowing reviews, enthusiastic audiences, and impressive box-office. Pretty good for a real-life drama about the stranger-than-fiction rescue of the six Americans who escaped capture when Iranians stormed the U.S. Embassy and took American hostages. But then it’s a savvy picture that takes a few liberties with the historical record to create a nail-biter of an escape thriller.

It was an early Oscar favorite, then lost momentum as the season rolled ahead and competition heated up. For reasons still not clear, Ben Affleck was passed over as a Best Director nominee and even though the film snagged seven Oscar nominations – an impressive count by anyone’s standards – it seemed to have lost its luster. Then it caught its second wind: a Best Director award from the DGA, Best Director and Best Picture Golden Globes, an award for the ensemble cast from the Screen Actors Guild, and BAFTA wins for Best Picture and Best Director. Now, as handicappers tip “Argo” as for the Best Picture Oscar, it arrives on disc and digital delivery less than a week before the Academy Awards.

Awards hype aside, Argo is a terrific piece of filmmaking. Not Zero Dark Thirty brilliance or Life of Pi beauty, mind you, but a solid, well-made film with personality, humor, drama, tension, and a superb sense of time and place. Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio establish the era and the complicated history that created the Iranian situation smartly and efficiently, and Affleck seamlessly combines actual news footage with recreations that segue into the story at hand. And while I’m not convinced that the escape-movie contrivances that drive the film’s final act necessary to communicate the stakes of this mad plan, there is something oddly appropriate in the way this meeting of Hollywood fakery and true-story spycraft plays out like a movie.

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SFSFF 2012: ‘The Mark of Zorro’ and the Birth of the Swashbuckler

One of the beauties of the SFSFF program is its balance of rarities and classics. I cherish the discoveries (or rediscoveries) that every festival brings, but just as valuable is the opportunity to revisit a well-known classic for a fresh experience under the most ideal conditions: big screen, live music, excellent print, and appreciative audience. I’ve seen Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 The Mark of Zorro, directed by Fred Niblo, a couple of times, but never has it come alive for me as it did in the Sunday morning screening with Dennis James accompanying with a muscular organ score on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer.

While Fairbanks is remembered as the great swashbuckling action hero of the silent era, inspiring stars from Errol Flynn to Jean Dujardin in The Artist (Fairbanks is the acknowledged model for the fiction silent star of the movie), The Mark of Zorro was his first adventure movie. Before that, he was the all-American hero of contemporary comedies, the charismatic everyman who turns can-do hero with dashing feats of heroism performed with comic flair. The genius of The Mark of Zorro is dropping the Fairbanks persona into a costume adventure. His Robin Hood of Old California is an action hero defined by jaunty energy, acrobatic physicality, a zest for life, and sheer pleasure of performance. And that was all new to the movies thanks to Douglas Fairbanks, who took his career in an entirely new direction and changed the course of cinema with it.

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SFSFF 2011: A Yank at Oxford – Douglas Fairbanks is “Mr. Fix-It”

There is a defining contradiction at the center of Mr. Fix-It, the buoyant 1918 Douglas Fairbanks comedy directed and written by Allan Dwan, their sixth or seventh feature together (they made four films together in 1918 alone).

Fairbanks’ Dick Remington is ostensibly a British student at Oxford and roommate to American Reginald Burroughs (Leslie Stuart). Yet Burroughs, with his regal bearing and trim dress and mannered courtship of his college sweetheart, is the very image of a British aristocrat while the bouncing, eternally smiling Remington is the quintessential Fairbanks character: Boisterous, fun-loving and eccentric (he somersaults fully clothed into his bathtub as a lark in the opening scenes), he is unmistakably the can-do American, no matter what the intertitles tell us.

Fairbanks in a frame enlargement from "Mr. Fix-It"

Which is why he is the perfect person to take Reginald’s place when he’s ordered back home for an arranged marriage and “fix it” for Reginald and everyone else he meets along the way. Before you know it, that list includes Reginald’s sister (similarly trapped in an arranged marriage), fiancé (who is sweet another man) and status-conscious uncle and aunts, not to mention a pretty young newly orphaned woman, Mary (Wanda Hawley), desperately trying to care for her five brothers and sisters in the slums. Remington (as Reginald) simply whisks them all away to “his” mansion and has the little tykes soften up the stiff aristocrats while he falls for their sister.

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Silents Please! The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2009 (Part 1)

SFSFF poster boy Douglas Fairbanks
SFSFF poster boy Douglas Fairbanks

I’ve traveled to Pordenone, Italy, three times to attend Le Giornate de Cinema Muto, the biggest, grandest, most dedicated silent film festival in the world: eight days of morning to midnight screenings of the masterpieces, rarities, rediscoveries and revelations. Yet in my own backyard (more or less) I’d never been to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the weekend-long celebration that unspools every July at the Castro. Until this year. To the world it was the 14th Annual SFSFF, but it was my first visit to this well mounted, well curated and exceptionally well attended festival. It won’t be my last. To the rest of the world it may seem like a curious pursuit, but I can think of few pleasures greater than spending a couple of days in the Castro (even without air conditioning) soaking in silent films and live music by some of the best silent accompanists in the world.

Curating a silent film festival takes a special kind of art. Apart from rediscovered and newly restored films, there is none of the urgency of discovery and representation that drives the selection in the rest of the film festival world. And while 80-90% of all silent films have been lost to time and neglect, that still leaves thousands upon thousands of features and shorts available to programmers at any given time. So how do you choose a dozen programs that balance the known and the unknown, masterpieces and curiosities, while suggesting the scope of thirty-some years of silent cinema from all over the world? I don’t know the secret alchemy, but the programmers of SFSFF have found it. The features of this fest are firmly in twenties, the golden age of silent cinema (the exception is the 1932 Wild Rose, from China’s own golden age of silent cinema), with shorts spanning nearly thirties years. The result is not just an appreciation of the greatness of the art across genres and cultures, it is testament to the state of the art of cinema from the mid-twenties to the dawn of sound, and of the Hollywood filmmaking machine where every cog was a professional at the peak of his profession.

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