Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema

SFSFF 2013 Spotlights: The ‘Beauté’ of Louise, the ‘Safety’ of Lloyd, and those ‘Joyless’ Germans

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.

Greta Garbo in ‘The Joyless Street’

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.

The score by the Matti Bye Ensemble, while lovely, doesn’t help. It’s a long film and they can’t keep up a dynamic melodic score throughout, but when it shifts to tonal mood music, it slows it down even further with glum chords and sleepy moods and drags the mood down with it.

There is no definitive version of the film, which was censored upon release and continued to be cut down on subsequent releases in Germany (where the Nazis finally destroyed all prints they could get their hands on) and around the world. This most recent restoration is reconstructed from numerous export prints and is still missing about half an hour of footage. And there are gaps, which seem more glaring in that so many of the numerous storylines are largely intact, when something is missing its noticeable. It is an impressive print, however, with effective tinting, and while some of the footage was in rough condition, mostly it looks quite good.

Louise Brooks in ‘Prix de Beaute’

Opening night qualifies as both rediscovery and revival. Prix de Beaute (France, 1930), 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 one of those films made on the cusp of sound 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 than the sound edition, and more interesting, even while it remains a minor coda to her Pabst masterpieces. The story of a newspaper secretary winning the Miss Europe beauty contest while her jealous boyfriend (Georges Charlia) resents not just her success but her joy at the attention takes sharp tonal turns, downshifting from bubbly romantic comedy and high-society 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.

We can only guess as what the film might have become under the direction of Clair. I don’t want to burden Augusto Genina, the Italian director who ended up helming he film, with cultural stereotypes, but the sense of machismo and destructive male possessiveness and jealousy sure seems more Italian than French. But the silent version also comes across as more sympathetic to Lucienne, the open, ambitious young secretary who wants to experience the rush of her sudden fame and try her hand at the movies, especially when we see the virtual prison of her life as a housewife eking out a household on her husband’s salary (she, of course, is no longer allowed to work). 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.

And in terms of music, Stephen Horne is 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 pay for a solo act and get a combo.

Safety Last (1923) is certainly not the most famous silent film but it surely boasts the single most iconic shot that says “silent movies” and “slapstick comedy” to the general public without further explanation. That, of course, is Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock high above the Los Angeles city streets. Safety Last is the first of Lloyd’s “thrill features” and still his most recognizable film. Though overshadowed by Chaplin and Keaton, in his day Lloyd was just as popular and even more financially successful, possibly because he was relatable. Lloyd was the most modern of the big three, the bright young man of the jazz age trying to carve out his piece of the American dream.

Thrills aside (and the climb up the side of a building is impressive, thanks to a mix of ingenious filmmaking, impressive physical comedy, and daring stuntwork), this is also a very funny urban comedy with Lloyd as the boy from the sticks posing as the savvy big shot while toiling away in a department store. He’s both the hard-working Horatio Alger and the smart-aleck guy whose short-cuts and sneaking around make him something of a blowhard. Some of his ingenious ideas are comedy magic, turning cultural clichés into witty visual gags, and are just as masterfully executed as the comic stunts of his climb. Other smart-aleck antics are more rooted in braggadocio (playing the big shot for an old buddy) and sneaky behavior (tricking a drunk to kick a cop in the pants) and tend to leave others holding the bag, a sensibility that undercuts his plucky underdog status. And he falls back on tired racial stereotypes that have not aged well. Those are few and far between, however, and mostly it is a hilarious comedy of an ambitious young man stumbling over his own hubris. (I previously reviewed the film for Turner Classic Movies; you can read it here.)

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra did the honors of the closing night film and their small combo energy and bright twenties-era swing was the perfect match for the film.

‘Safety Last’