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San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2011

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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SFSFF 2011: Divas – “Il Fuoco” and “The Woman Men Yearn For”

Pina Menichelli is the very ideal of the diva in Il Fuoco (Italy, 1915). Introduced only as an illustrious poetess and countess, she steps out of her chauffeured car in a feathered outfit and hat that makes her look like a bird of prey. And she acts that way too when she meets the young artist Mario (Febo Mari), “the unknown painter.” She is inflamed by the power of his commitment and the beauty of his art but love is a very different kind of thing for her, a momentary conflagration of great excitement and heat that quickly burns out. And fire is the appropriate metaphor for a woman whose seduction includes smashing an oil lamp onto a table just to watch the flames burn.

Pina Menichelli

Menichelli, whose contorted poses and curled smiles give her the look of a female Nosferatu in Milan couture, makes Theda Bara look like a pretender. This countess treats seduction like a competition to be won but she really does feed on the physical charge of the affair. She simply burns out so quickly that she has nothing left for her abandoned lover, who here is pretty much a mama’s boy whose first step away from maternal protection leaves him crushed, broken.

It’s directed by Giovanni Pastrone, whose Cabiria (1914) is one of the landmarks of Italian epic spectacle. He brings the scale down for this film and takes his camera in closer for the more intimate story. The images and costumes are lavish and the performances tend to the operatic, larger than life in every respect, but he stages these scenes to express the internal drama rather than the external spectacle and in one scene offers a rare and subtly striking truck in from a medium long shot to medium close-up of the two lovers, all the more dynamic in a 1916 film that otherwise resorts to cutting and the occasional pan to reframe.

And a note on the accompaniment with Stephen Horne on piano, flute and chimes and Jill Tracy (a local SF singer) doing wordless cooing and moaning. It’s like an Ennio Morricone score for a giallo: erotic, threatening, haunting, the siren call of a sexual predator who devours and abandons her prey. A perfect evocation of the drama playing out onscreen.

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It’s actually a misnomer to call Marlene Dietrich a “diva,” as her performance is as un-diva-like as you can get. Dietrich maintains the focus by remaining still amidst the activity. Even in a film as measured and conducted as The Woman Men Yearn For (Germany, 1929), she gives a performance defined by the smallest gesture and the most subtle of shifts in gaze and expression: a slight drop of the eyes, a tiny parting of the lips, the body dropping with a sigh.

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SFSFF 2011: John Ford’s Upstream

The biggest film history news of 2010 was without a doubt the discovery of Upstream (1927), a John Ford comedy from the late silent era previously thought lost, found in a New Zealand film archive along with numerous other American shorts, features and fragments. After screenings in Los Angeles, Pordenone, New York and elsewhere, San Francisco Silent Film Festival kicked off with Upstream as their opening night event, accompanied by The Donald Sosin Ensemble (pianist and composer Sosin on piano with a makeshift group consisting of members of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and others) playing a score that he premiered at Pordenone.

Nancy Nash and Earle Foxe

Upstream is a lighthearted comedy set in the society of theater and show people in the lower rungs of entertainment, centered on the romantic triangle of a specialty act trio. Eric Brashingham (Earle Fox) is the black sheep of the acting dynasty, reduced to performing with knife thrower Jack (Grant Withers), a brash everyman sweet on the third member Gertie (Nancy Nash, cutting quite the modern girl), who loves Eric. Clearly his only contribution to the act is his name. The Brashingham family name might well have been Barrymore, for all the talk of theater royalty and all the profile posing for photographers and audiences. It’s said that he was disowned by his family because of his lack of talent. It’s more likely it was simply because he’s a jerk, something that Gertie seems willing to overlook. Even when he, of all people in the house, gets the opportunity of lifetime by virtue simply of his family name and jumps ship without a thought for anyone else.

It’s not the kind of film we usually associate with Ford but then Ford was a studio man who took on all sorts of films that we don’t necessarily think of as “Ford” films until we see them. This gentle comedy set in the community of show people in a theatrical boarding house was surely just another assignment but Ford makes it a Ford picture through his affectionate characterizations, good natured competiveness and joshing and comic sensibility. This sense of community, the show people as an extended family, is where his touch is apparent, at least in retrospect. Ford is already a master of storytelling shorthand when it comes to introducing a very large ensemble cast of boarders. Those first impressions are very much types but the interaction of the ensemble suggests family, even if it not by blood.

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