Today was the first full day of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and today’s lineup featured a very diverse selection of films–ranging from all-American flirtatious Clara Bow in Mantrap to the troubled toymaker played by Ruan Lingyu in Little Toys, a rarely seen Chinese film allegory for the struggle against Japanese occupation in the early 1930’s. Temptation drives a pharaoh from riches to rags in The Loves of Pharaoh, and temptation draws men to the mysterious and alluring Nina Petrovna in The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna. If a theme were to be chosen for today, it was certainly a day for woman characters who wielded the power in relationships.
The day began, however, with a tie-in to the showing of the new restoration of Wings last night, by way of a talk by Paramount archivist Andrea Kalas who oversaw the restoration of the print. She talked a bit about how the restoration came about, and showed side-by-side examples of how the print looked pre-restoration, versus how it is seen today. It seems that there was severe nitrate deterioration on the film, and in order to get it looking the way it does now, extensive work had to be done–much of it digital. She shared her goals for the Paramount archive, and expressed a desire to prioritize film restoration and preservation in the archive, utilizing digital restoration as much as possible as she believes this is the way the film may be best restored. In response to skepticism about digital technology for film, she replied that we can’t simply ignore that this digital technology exists and the truth is that a film can be beautifully restored using digital technology, why not?
After Andrea Kalas’ presentation came Grover Crisp, who is the head of restoration at Columbia. He talked about the restoration of Dr. Strangelove, which happens to be one of my favorite black comedies. One thing that strikes me about the restoration of Dr. Strangelove is that it really does look like a completely different film post-restoration–the tint of the black and white photography is noticeably different, and it looks much more modern in the restored print. I think I may be alone in preferring the original print to the restored one, but that might just be due to the fact that I’m so familiar with the original print. He also showed us a clip from a newly restored version of Lawrence of Arabia–and it took my breath away. This might be the most fantastic restoration job I have ever seen. You can see every little dot on O’Toole’s face, every wrinkle, specks in his eyes. It’s just spectacular. So if you see it in the store in the coming months, I think it will be worth whatever it costs.
Since there were so many films today, I am going to list them and provide some info on them individually underneath.
First film: LITTLE TOYS
Directed by Sun Yu and starring the beautiful Ruan Lingyu, a legendary classic actress in China, this rarely-seen gem is a thinly veiled allegory for the situation of China under the Japanese occupation. It highlights the life of a simple toymaker trying to make ends meet and keep up with the competition of mass-produced Japanese toys. It’s hard to talk about this movie without giving anything away, so let’s just say that her life takes a series of tragic, devastating turns, and she ends up on the street. The end of the film is a call for action against the enemy, the intertitles of which have never been shown, due to the Japanese censors at the time, and now the current censors in the People’s Republic of China. Beautiful film, with great acting by Ruan Lingyu and also by the children, of which there are many.
Second film: THE LOVES OF PHARAOH
This was Ernst Lubitsch’s last European film before signing a contract with Paramount and moving to the United States. Dealing with a pharaoh who loves a young Greek slave girl who loves another man, it is the story of how one woman can destroy a man. By the end of the film, the Pharaoh (played by Emil Jannings) is a mess, having lost his crown and everything he has because of his love for a woman who loves another. Many parts of the film have been lost, and the intertitles have been translated from a multitude of different languages, so the film today has a bit of a stilted quality to it due to the frequent still shots inserted where film has been lost, and the bright digital rendering of the intertitles is indicative of some problems with obtaining the originals. Still, it is a pretty fantastic thing to watch.
Third film: MANTRAP
I want to start this out by saying that I love Clara Bow. I think she is at once the cutest, the sexiest, and the most coquettish star of her era, and she has a quality that just draws you to her. I believe that was “it,” the indescribable allure that people refer to when they speak of Clara Bow, and that which earned her the nickname “The It Girl.” Mantrap is definitely a vehicle for Clara Bow–there is not much to the plot other than her flirting with people and earning the desire of two men at the same time. Yet it works so extremely well, because it has no pretenses about what it is. It is basically a movie made just to say “How about some Clara Bow to brighten your day?” The man who talked at the beginning of the film discussed the ability of Clara Bow to brighten people’s days–I really want to do a profile of Clara Bow here because she’s such a fascinating character, but for now, I will just say that despite a horrific upbringing she had in destitute poverty, she always exuded a bouncing, bubbling energy that was very infectious. It is also interesting to note that this movie was directed by Victor Fleming, 13 years before The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, and he and Clara Bow were an item for some time.
Oh and by the way, the ending for this movie is absolutely darling.
Fourth film: THE WONDERFUL LIE OF NINA PETROVNA
What a movie to end the night! Suffice it to say that I have now found myself an overnight fan of Brigitte Helm, the German actress who played Nina Petrovna in this film. Take a look at this clip, and play special attention to her glances.
I believe these are perhaps the most suggestive and seductive glances I have ever seen in any film. The entire audience literally gasped and murmured in awe of them whenever they happened. The story was of a “kept woman” who incites jealousy when she begins a relationship with a young lieutenant. She is the center of the story, and the men are powerless around her–in fact, the very last shot seems to be rather a tease or a snicker at the man who tries to control her. Very interesting movie.