By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
The first full day of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was full indeed, consisting of four feature-length silent movies and a fascinating behind-the-scenes presentation on the restoration of The Half Breed, premiering this afternoon. Beginning at 11:00 in the morning and continuing on straight to the stroke of midnight, day 2 of the festival proved to be a monumental marathon of a day.
The first event of the day was a program entitled Amazing Tales from the Archives, which is a programming staple of the festival each year. This year, Board President Rob Byrne discussed the restoration of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Half Breed, which was made possible only by digging very deep into the archives of film centers around the world. By using source material from the original Tri-Stone script, the Library of Congress, The Cinémathèque française and an incredible discovery in the Yukon (hundreds of film canisters were discovered buried under the ground in an abandoned swimming pool), the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was able to restore The Half Breed to its original 1916 splendor, or as close as possible given the 100 years that have passed since its
initial release. It premieres today at 2:00–and it will be the first time this restoration will have passed through a projector. After this showing, the film will be sent to the Library of Congress, where it will become the first title in the new San Francisco Silent Film Festival Collection at the Library.
One of the highlights of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the programming of consistently excellent scholars and speakers from around the world. Next on the program was an example of this, a representative from the Cinémathèque française by the name of Céline Ruivo, who talked about the wonderful Phono-Cinema-Théatre. Created in 1900 and starring some of the most prolific stars of the Belle-Époque, Phono-Cinéma-Théatre was one of the very first attempts to put sound on film. Though Edison first experimented with sound in the mid-1890s and his footage of a man playing a violin is considered to be the first “sound” film, Phono-Cinéma-Théatre took it a step further. It presented a true performance to the viewer, and provided him with the very new novelty of sound on film. Ms. Ruivo showed us how they restored this art form at the Cinémathèque française, and projected a short video called “La Poupée” that they recently found and restored. It was mindblowing to think that this art form existed in 1900, less than 5 years after Edison’s first foray into sound.
Following a short break, the feature-length films began with The First Born, a British film starring Madeleine Carroll about a woman who goes to desperate lengths to keep her sleazy politician husband from leaving her. Knowing that he wants a child, she adopts a baby while her husband is away and passes him off as their biological child upon his return. After a conniving mistress tells the husband to ask his wife who the baby’s father REALLY is, he becomes angry and decides to leave his wife for his mistress. But after a row, the mistress throws something at him while he is waiting for an elevator and he falls down the elevator shaft. What happens next is a marvelous and shocking twist that I was not expecting, and the entire audience gasped. I will not reveal the ending, as I implore you to see this film if you can find it. At first I was rather put off by the misogyny that I perceived (even by 1920s standards I found it to be that way), but by the end, everything turns around. It leaves the viewer with a very positive feeling.
Next up was Tokyo Chorus, a 1931 film by Yasujiro Ozu who was an extremely prolific Japanese director in the 1920s and 1930s. Ozu continued to make silents long after it was popular, and Tokyo Chorus is a very relevant and relatable piece. It tells the story of a middle-class family in Tokyo that lives comfortably until the husband suddenly loses his job. It follows their journey of trying to make ends meet, their struggle paying hospital bills after their daughter gets sick, and the embarrassment the father feels when he is unable to buy his son the bicycle he longs for. It is a sweet, pensive drama, and ultimately ends on a very uplifting note. It continues to be relevant today, as many families are going through this exact dilemma around the world. Ozu created a really timeless piece that examines and comments on universal family dynamics.
The uproariously funny comedy The Patsy was next, starring the supremely gifted Marion Davies as the screwball-esque lead. Indeed, I would say that this film influenced what eventually became screwball comedy. A quirky, somewhat dizzy family doesn’t understand their bouncy, energetic daughter Patricia (called “Pat”), and hence they make her the butt of many of their jokes and negative remarks. This is much to the chagrin of her father, the rock of the family. Pat tolerates it, but through a series of circumstances Pat pretends to be insane in order to win a boyfriend. The tone of the film reminds me a bit of My Man Godfrey, and Davies’ antics are quite a bit like Carole Lombard’s later screwball roles. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and the theater seemed to be constantly roaring with laughter.
I had to leave early in order to catch the last train home, but I was lucky enough to stay and see Eddie Muller, known as the “Czar of Noir,” introduce the Danish The Golden Clown. He described it as “clown noir,” and the initial happy nature of the film belies a very dark second half. I very much regret not being able to stay and see all of it, but what I saw was quite interesting. It takes place in a circus, and I regrettably had to leave before its tone got sinister. Muller mentioned that the “tower of clowns” scene was particularly terrifying.
Today’s lineup is probably the most noteworthy of the entire festival–a presentation on Windsor McKay, followed by The Half Breed, Legong: Dance of the Virgins, Gribiche, The House on Trubaya Square, and The Joyless Street.
See you tomorrow with another blog post! And don’t forget to check Twitter, as I will be tweeting throughout the festival.
I’m really enjoying your updates from the SF Silent Film Festival! I hope to make it there myself one of these years.
Of the ones you write up here, I’m really eager to see The Patsy. I’ve heard of that one before, and I’ve seen another one or two of Marion Davies silents and enjoyed them. I’ll have to see if I can find this one somewhere.
I did just want to point out that Yasujiro Ozu was prolific until the end of the 1950s, and is one of Japan’s most highly regarded filmmakers – probably second only to Akira Kurosawa (and some would probably place Ozu higher). Japan didn’t make the silent-to-sound switch until the mid-1930s, so Ozu wasn’t unique in making silent films through about 1934. It’s not the same situation as Chaplin making City Lights in 1931. It’s really cool the festival played an Ozu film! I would’ve expected them to stick mostly with American or European films.