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Highlights From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Another marvelous festival has come to a close, and these five days were certainly ones to remember. With world-class guests such as Kevin Brownlow and Serge Bromberg and some of the greatest silent film accompanists in the business, festival attendees experienced the very best that silent film has to offer.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is one of my favorite festivals to cover. The films are carefully chosen to provide a beautifully diverse program, with silent films from international markets, newly-restored gems, and hits from other silent film festivals such as Pordenone and Bologna. A survey of the schedule reveals 7 different countries represented in a program of 21 features, and several newly discovered movies that have been buried deep in the archives for decades.

Highlights included a beautiful showing of the Greta Garbo and John Gilbert classic Flesh and the Devil, one of the most stunningly photographed and erotic movies of the silent era. Introduced by Kevin Brownlow and accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble, a Swedish silent film orchestra that makes an appearance at the festival every year, I felt extraordinarily fortunate to be able to witness it on the big screen. This has long been one of my favorite movies to watch, both for the exquisite cinematography and the alluring character of Felicitas, who lives her life her way.

Serge Bromberg presented an uproariously funny selection of Charley Bowers shorts, showcasing the absurd and surreal filmmaking that swept the underground cinematic landscape in the early 1920s. Following World War I, the surrealist movement known as Dadaism began to grow in Europe and extended to the United States, and though Charley Bowers was not Dadaist in the true sense of the word, aspects of the genre can be seen in some of his best work.

Here is one of the funniest movies we saw. Ignore the video’s soundtrack if you can.

And here is some classic Dadaism:

Serge Bromberg presented the movie, and also played the score on the piano. It was a truly impressive program!

One of the most highly anticipated events of the festival was a newly found film that continues to be a work-in-progress in terms of editing. The movie is called Lime Kiln Field Day, a 1913 all-black comedy starring Bert Williams. Williams is often compared to Charlie Chaplin in his physicality and comedic style, and the similarity was evident in the movie. We heard a fascinating presentation beforehand that detailed the painstaking research that went into identifying the actors and directors, and gave the audience a sense of how the movie was made, and how it was found and restored. We saw a movie that was about 90 minutes long, which included multiple takes and outtakes. It will be exciting to see how the project progresses in the coming years, and it was a real treat to see an all-black movie from so early in the history of film.

Perhaps my favorite screening of the festival was another presentation by Serge Bromberg, of a beautiful family drama called Visages d’enfants. It tells the story of a young boy in rural France who experiences the death of his doting mother, and tries to come to terms with his father’s remarriage. Visages d’enfants is a startlingly modern tale, and feels as though it could have been made in the modern day instead of 90 years ago. Jean Forest, whom we also saw a few years ago at the festival in Gribiche, gave an immensely emotive and tender performance as the troubled boy, cementing my inclination to say that he was one of the most talented child actors to come out of the silent era. I would love to see Visages d’enfants released widely on DVD, as I think it has the potential to become a beloved classic.

Visages d’enfants.

The festival went out with a beautiful screening of the 1925 Ben-Hur, presented again by Kevin Brownlow and featuring Carl Davis’ magnificent score. This is a movie that is meant to be seen on the big screen, and anything less doesn’t do it justice.  I have seen this movie several times, but when I saw it at the Castro on Monday evening, I felt like I had never seen it before. The Technicolor sequences shone, and the score elevated the chariot race to thrilling heights unable to be reached on the small screen. It is moments like watching Ben-Hur at the Castro Theatre when I swell with pride as a Bay Area native, being mere steps away from some of the best festivals and screenings in the world of classic film. Thank you to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for another great year, and I can’t wait for next time!

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2015!

Hello dear readers, my goodness, it has been a long time since I’ve posted. I’ve been so busy with various projects that I feel that Backlots has been relegated to the back burner. I still owe you the post about my final day at the TCMFF, but I’m here to announce another festival–the San Francisco Silent Film Festival that Backlots has attended for the past several years will return at the end of this month, and I will be there covering all the action!

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This year’s lineup is spectacular. Featuring such films as Flesh and the Devil, All Quiet on the Western Front, Speedy, and their signature smorgasbord of silent films from around the globe, the 2015 festival promises to be one to remember. Join me the last weekend in May as we go to the historic Castro Theater in San Francisco to celebrate the silents once more.

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Greta Garbo and John Gilbert smolder in Flesh and the Devil.

If you are in the San Francisco area, you may get the details about this year’s festival by visiting the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website and downloading the full schedule. This festival remains one of my favorites due to its perfect combination of quality films, world-class speakers, and cozy local atmosphere. If you’ve never been before, it’s a true experience.

I will get that final TCM post up shortly, but be sure to check back between May 28 and June 1 for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival!

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL DAY 1: Meet TCM, So You Think You Know Movies?, QUEEN CHRISTINA, My Man Godfrey

Exhausted but beyond excited, I arrived in Los Angeles last night for the kickoff of the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, taking place in Hollywood this weekend for its sixth year. The theme this year is “History According to the Movies,” which leaves plenty of room for interpretation…and controversial programming. When the full schedule of the TCM Classic Film Festival was announced several weeks ago, the internet started buzzing. Bloggers and film fans began asking questions–why were there so many modern movies scheduled?  Is TCM changing direction? Today at the annual Meet TCM panel prior to the official start of the festival, a film fan brought the question to the attention of Charlie Tabesh, head of programming at the channel. Tabesh answered that the modern programming of this year’s festival fits into the theme of “History According to the Movies,” and TCM has always operated according to themes. If the channel were paying tribute to the career of Katharine Hepburn, Tabesh continued, they would show not only Hepburn’s admired early work, but also her last film, Love Affair, made in the 1990s and generally acknowledged to be far from great.

MORNING GLORY (top), which won Katharine Hepburn her first Oscar, would get equal attention with LOVE AFFAIR (bottom) on TCM in a tribute to Hepburn’s career.

Much of the discussion centered around the fact that the festival is screening Out of Sight, a film from 1998 edited by Anne V. Coates. Having edited Lawrence of Arabia, Murder on the Orient Express, and several other noteworthy titles that firmly establish her in the landscape of classic Hollywood, Coates is a deserved honoree at the festival this year for her achievements in editing and, Tabesh said, she requested that the festival screen Out of Sight for a look into what editing looks like today. A look into editing from a woman in the business for over 50 years is a remarkable gift to festival goers. As there is no set definition of “classic,” TCM is obligated to identify and adhere to what they as a channel and a brand consider to be classic cinema, and for Tabesh, classic film has no expiration date. This is clear in TCM’s choice of programming on the channel as well as at the festival–for an in-depth discussion of TCM’s programming choices and what makes a classic, see my article TCM Programming and the Definition of Classic Film. After a short break for lunch, which I spent with my friend Spencer and fellow blogger Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film, festivalgoers convened again at Club TCM for an exciting round of So You Think You Know Movies?, TCM’s difficult and rapid-fire trivia competition. So You Think You Know Movies? is designed for the trivia master, with extremely obscure questions about film history and culture. Trivia is my strong suit, and our team did well, but ultimately a team of 8 called The Flickers won the grand prize, and deservedly so. When quizzed on the spot after the game, they knew almost all the answers to the supplementary questions, which were just as difficult as in the regular game.

As those with high-level passes got ready for the big opening night screening of The Sound of Music, I had a few hours to relax wherein I caught up on some preliminary blogging until 5:30, when I decided it was time to get in line for Queen Christina. A word about lines at the festival–passholders must line up in order to gain entrance to a movie, and entrance is first come, first served. Needless to say, lines queue up quickly. As I deduced that Queen Christina, a hugely popular movie with two hugely popular stars (Greta Garbo and John Gilbert), I gave myself an hour to play it safe in case it sold out. The movie began at 6:30, and the audience was treated to two wonderful things–first, an introduction by noted film historian Cari Beauchamp, and then a rare lighting test that showed Greta Garbo acting in a casual manner.  Cari Beauchamp’s talk included details about Greta Garbo’s personal life (“Ernst Lubitsch said that Greta Garbo was the most uninhibited people he knew,” she related), and about her acting in general, in this film and beyond. It was a great introduction to a fascinating film. Queen Christina is one of the last great hurrahs of the days before the full implementation of the Production Code. It tells the true story of Sweden’s queen Christina, who lived in the mid-1600s and who many historians now believe was either transgender or intersex. The film hints gingerly at these subjects, though even in the days before the Production Code, the industry was bound by what it thought the public would accept, so a full examination of a transgender person was out of the question. However, in scenes like these, director Rouben Mamoulian gives the audience an idea of what it is he’s trying to get across.

For a full analysis of the LGBT implications of Queen Christina, feel free to check out my post on the subject for the Queer Film Blogathon in 2011.

Next up was one of my favorites, a showing of the screwball classic My Man Godfrey in a theater that was packed to the gills with enthusiastic fans. This is one that I have seen on the big screen several times, but always seem to come back for more whenever it is showing. One of the zaniest screwball comedies of all time, it is a masterpiece of ensemble acting and director Gregory La Cava directs Carole Lombard and William Powell to perfection. Alice Brady, playing the eccentric and off-the-wall mother, was robbed of an Oscar  in 1936, though the film itself received 6 Oscar nominations including Alice Brady for Best Supporting Actress, and remains one of the best-loved screwballs among devotees of classic cinema. We have a big day tomorrow, so I’d better get to bed. See you tomorrow night!

The Romantic Comedy Blogathon: FINAL DAY ENTRIES

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Well, readers, I must say, this blogathon has been a great success! On behalf of Carole & Co. and myself, thank you to everyone who submitted your posts. We so appreciate all the time and energy that went into these fantastic, informative entries, and we love reading all your work.

So without further ado, here are the final installments:

From our good friend Ivan at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, we kick off our shoes for some Easy Livinghttp://thrillingdaysofyesteryear.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-romantic-comedy-blogathon-easy.html

At The Vintage Cameo, Garbo laughs in Ninotchkahttp://www.thevintagecameo.com/2014/05/ninotchka-1939/

Don’t drink anything the old ladies give you at Amy’s Rib: A Life at the Movies, because she’s serving up the fabulous Arsenic and Old Lacehttp://amysrib.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-romantic-comedy-blogathon-arsenic.html

Don’t wait to go over to The Merry Widow Waltz for a wonderful analysis of Heaven Can Waithttp://randompicturesblog.net/2014/05/04/the-merry-widow-waltz-lubitschs-heaven-can-wait/

Our blogathon regular Dorian at Tales of the Easily Distracted tells us how There’s Always a Woman. http://doriantb.blogspot.com/2014/05/theres-always-woman-blondell-ambition.html

At Movies Silently, we get a taste of early Lubitsch in The Merry Jail. http://moviessilently.com/2014/05/04/the-merry-jail-1917-a-silent-film-review/

At Girls Do Film, demand the ale that won for Yale (rah, rah, rah!) because it’s The Lady Eve! http://girlsdofilm.wordpress.com/2014/05/04/the-lady-eve-barbara-stanwyck-and-henry-fonda/

Go to Journeys in Classic Film for a crash course in culture (and maybe a good game of gin!), because Kristen is giving us Born Yesterdayhttp://journeysinclassicfilm.com/2014/05/05/born-yesterday-1950/

And my own contribution–from Backlots, it’s a case of mistaken identity in Ever Since Eve. https://backlots.net/2014/05/04/the-romantic-comedy-blogathon-ever-since-eve-1937/

Whew! That’s it, folks. Hope to see you next year at the second annual Romantic Comedy Blogathon!

The Work of Ruth Harriet Louise: Breaking Ground for Women in Photography

Ruth Harriet Louise, self portrait.

When one thinks of classic Hollywood glamour photography, there are a select few names that come to mind immediately. George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull are two of the most recognizable photographers of the era, and their work stands out as an exquisite capturing of what classic Hollywood means. But there is a name that is often egregiously overlooked, one that deserves to stand on equal footing with the immortal Hurrell and Bull–and that is Ruth Harriet Louise, MGM studio photographer from 1925-1930 and the first major female photographer in Hollywood.

Though her Hollywood career lasted only 5 years, Louise’s photographic technique set the stage for what Hurrell would make famous–and indeed, many of her photographs have the angelic, ethereal quality that is the hallmark of Hurrell. Others, however, are sweetly playful, capturing the essence of her subjects in diverse and versatile ways.

Greta Garbo, by Ruth Harriet Louise.

Joan Crawford, 1928.

Born Ruth Goldstein, a rabbi’s daughter, in 1903, she began taking photographs as a child and was soon spotted by New York photographer Nickolas Muray for whom she began an apprenticeship. At age 22, she moved to Los Angeles to live with her brother (Mark Sandrich, future director of several Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies) and opened up a portrait studio of her own near Hollywood and Vine. But shortly thereafter, her work was spotted by Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM Studios in Culver City, who asked her to come work as a professional portrait photographer at MGM, where she became an integral part of the photography department and one of the most sought-after photographers on the lot.

Marion Davies, 1927.

In  an era when bonds between a star and a photographer were cherished, Louise thrived as the favored photographer of many of the MGM stars. She got a great deal of work from stars who specifically requested her–stars like Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, Buster Keaton, and Greta Garbo–and her own star in the photographic world shone brightly for the 5 years she was on the MGM lot.

Hollywood at this time was very much controlled by male talent behind the scenes. Excepting a handful of extremely talented women–such as Louise and directors Dorothy Arzner and Lois Weber–Hollywood history in the 1920s was dominated by men. In an industry that valued women primarily as objects, working in what was considered a “man’s role” was fickle. It was in this vein that in 1930, when Ruth Harriet Louise’s contract at MGM expired, it was not renewed. Louis B. Mayer cited the fact that Norma Shearer, the top star at the time, preferred the work of George Hurrell, who had also been hired at MGM and subsequently became the head of the department.

Retirement was, however, already on the horizon for Louise. She married director Leigh Jason shortly thereafter, and the couple had two children. When they tried for a third in 1940, it was disastrous–the labor came too fast and too soon, and the hospital was helpless. The baby died…and Louise died of complications. A sad and sudden end to a remarkable short life.

Ruth Harriet Louise’s photographic legacy lives on in her magnificent portraits of some of the most iconic early MGM stars. Here are a few of my favorite portraits of hers.

See you next time!

Buster Keaton, 1929.

Joan Crawford, 1928.

Greta Garbo, 1929.

Book Review: GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Glamor, fashion, and beautifully seductive images are hallmarks of George Hurrell’s unmistakable photographic style. The preferred photographer of many classic Hollywood stars, he became indelibly associated with the Golden Age of Hollywood, and one of the most famous names in portrait photography.

Jean Harlow as photographed by Hurrell. As seen in GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD.

Never has Hurrell been more aptly celebrated than in Mark Vieira’s big and beautiful new coffee table book George Hurrell’s Hollywood (published by Running Press Books), that chronicles Hurrell’s life and work, his relationship to his photographic subjects, and his growth as a photographer over the course of his monumentally lengthy career. A detailed biography of Hurrell is accentuated by hundreds of stunning photographs, ranging from Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford all the way to Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas.

Carole Lombard, as photographed by Hurrell. Seen in GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD.

Vieira was a longtime friend of Hurrell’s, and draws on exclusive archival research, interviews, and diaries to create a portrait of the artist never before seen in any book. He details Hurrell’s rise to fame, his flourishing career in Hollywood’s Golden Age, and ultimately his perseverance when times got extremely hard due to scandal and corruption from the underworld of the art collectors’ community.

The book is also a treasure trove for lovers of old Hollywood gossip, providing the reader with information about the mystery of Greta Garbo that existed offscreen as well as on (Vieira relates an anecdote on the unusual way in which Hurrell finally succeeded in getting Garbo to smile for a picture), the eccentricities of Marlene Dietrich, and the resistance of Olivia de Havilland to Hurrell’s unorthodox methods of getting a shot. One of my favorite parts of the book is an examination of how Hurrell airbrushed his subjects. A famous Hurrell photograph of Joan Crawford, glamorous, sexy, and a true movie star, is shown alongside its original negative–and we see Crawford as the freckle-faced, normal woman she was when she came into Hurrell’s studio. The difference between the two photographs is astounding, and shows what Hurrell was capable of long before the days of digital airbrushing and Photoshop.

Hurrell expanded his horizons a bit during the second half of his career, photographing such musical notables as Diana Ross, David Bowie, and Natalie Cole (Hurrell’s photograph of Cole appeared on the cover of her album Unforgettable…With Love). Sharon Stone, his last photographic subject, provides the foreword to this book and an alluring photograph of Stone graces the first page of text.

Hurrell’s photograph of Sharon Stone that appears alongside the foreword of GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD.

Click here to order your copy of the book. George Hurrell’s Hollywood is a must-have for anyone interested in classic Hollywood, photography, the art world, or simply the life of a fascinating personality whose career survived multiple setbacks and difficulties. A truly loving and fitting portrait to a photographic genius, featuring 420 breathtaking images that testify to the man and his art.

Joan Crawford in 1930, as seen in GEORGE HURRELL’S HOLLYWOOD.

See you next time!