Tag Archives: Louise Brooks

SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL Opening Night: Prix de beauté

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

San Francisco’s Castro Theatre was packed last night, full of excited patrons who came to the theatre for the opening feature of the internationally renowned San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The festival is known for encouraging quality restorations of silent films, and last night’s presentation was Prix de beauté, a recently restored French film made in 1929 and starring American actress Louise Brooks.

1929 was an important year in cinema history. Though sound technology had been officially introduced into film in 1927, theater owners were at first reluctant to renovate their theaters to accommodate this new technology, as the appeal was thought to be fleeting and the expense of theater renovation could not be justified. By 1929, however, the novelty of sound films were continuing to capture the public’s attention, and many studios were beginning to film exclusively in sound to respond to the increasing public demand and the sky-high revenue sound films brought in. Despite the many benefits of switching to sound technology, many small-town theaters still could not afford to renovate their theaters and in recognition of this, many films were shot twice–once with sound, and once without to accommodate those theaters that had not yet switched to the new technology.

Such was the case with Prix de beauté. The silent version was made first, and the sound version premiered one year later with the voice of Louise Brooks dubbed into French. The sound version is much better known and more widely seen today, but last night the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented the silent version that was recently restored by the Cineteca de Bologna.

Lucienne Fournier is the happily married wife of Andre, a printing press operator, living in the beach community of San Sebastien. When she hears that there is to be a beauty contest to choose “Miss France,” who will ultimately compete in the Miss Europe competition, she jumps at the opportunity despite her husband’s disdain for beauty contests. She secretly applies, and to her great surprise she ends up winning the competition. To compete in the “Miss Europe” pageant, she has to travel to Spain immediately without having the opportunity to break the news to her husband. When he finds out, he rushes to the train but Lucienne has already departed.

In Spain, Lucienne receives wild audience applause and hence is crowned “Miss Europe.” She receives many admirers, including a maharajah and a Russian prince named Prince Grabovsky, and is tempted by a rich and luxurious life. André finally shows up and gives her an ultimatum–return to France with him, or accept that their marriage is over. She makes the difficult decision to return to her husband and renounce her life as Miss Europe.

Lucienne is courted by the maharajah.

Back in France, Lucienne is miserable. She loves her husband, but feels restricted by life as a housewife. She becomes very depressed, but brightens when autograph requests come from people seeking a souvenir from Miss Europe. André is angered by the photos that come in the mail, and rips them up. “I hope to never hear about Miss Europe again,” read the intertitles. “Understood??” Lucienne breaks down in tears, and André is wracked by guilt. He begins to cry too, cuddles up to her, and they comfort each other.

Later, Prince Grabovsky tracks Lucienne down, offering her a contract for sound films. Recalling her earlier confrontation with her husband, she refuses it to Grabovsky’s face but still keeps the contract. Feeling temptation of which she knew her husband would not approve, Lucienne rips up the contract. She immediately regrets it and that night, she stares for a long time at the ripped pieces. She reflects for a long time, and ultimately writes the sleeping André a note telling him it is over between them. She emphasizes how much she loves him, but she take this contract. She leaves the house forever, signs the contract, and makes a screen test with Phonofilm.

When André wakes up she is gone. He reads the note and tracks her down at the Phonofilm company, where Lucienne is in the screening room watching her screen test. In his anger, he pulls out a gun and shoots Lucienne. As she lies dying, we hear her voice singing in the screen test.

Lucienne smiles as she watches her screen test.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this movie. I had never seen the sound version, and I was half expecting a happy ending, as much of the movie is quite cheery. But instead the ending was a bit of a shock, and the viewer is left with a feeling of the fleeting nature of life. A woman who had so much in front of her is shot dead while watching her future unfold. One is also left with some questions unanswered, as we never know what happens to André, and we are reminded that a woman was very much at the mercy of her husband, in every way, during this era. One thing I noticed in this movie was the contrast between the opening scene and the ending scene. The movie begins on a sunny San Sebastien beach, where children are playing and adults laughing and talking with each other. We are set up for a happy movie, and we have every reason to believe that the characters will unfold that way. Instead, the movie ends in the dark, with a gruesome murder of one of those laughing, happy characters on the beach lying dead in a screening room. Very interesting film.

Today’s lineup consists of Amazing Tales from the Archives, The First Born, Tokyo Chorus, The Patsy, and The Golden Clown. I’ll be back tomorrow with a rundown! In the meantime, be sure to check Twitter, as I will be posting throughout the festival.

See you soon!

Live from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Day 3–Felix the Cat, “The Spanish Dancer,” “The Canadian,” “South,” “Pandora’s Box,” “The Overcoat.”

As is a running theme throughout the festival, today’s lineup focused on recent restorations of newly discovered or newly constructed prints. For me, the most interesting restoration story from today had to do with The Spanish Dancer, and how the film was put together like a puzzle, using pieces found all over the world individually. The pieces were spliced together, and the complete film began to emerge as a whole unit, as it had never been seen since its release in 1923. It is remarkable how resourceful archivists can be in their determination to restore and preserve–it gives me security that these films are safe in their hands, and that we will be able to keep them to show future generations.

Here are the movies we saw today:

First film: FELIX THE CAT

The day began at 10:00 with a series of Felix the Cat cartoons. As they were shown on the big screen in original 35 mm with live music, the showing of the cartoons was introduced by Leonard Maltin as a historic event–they are very rarely seen this way. Indeed, it felt like a historic event. We saw 7 cartoon shorts featuring Felix, and they came alive with the help of some great avant-garde live music. The titles of the shorts:

•    Felix Loses Out
•    Felix the Cat Trips Thru Toyland (which had some pretty intensely disturbing scenes. It surprised me that they would allow things like hangings in a kids’ cartoon.)
•    Felix the Cat Flirts with Fate (my personal favorite, in which Felix goes to Mars. In one scene, Felix begins to do the Charleston in a Mars restaurant, and a waiter says to him “Listen buddy, you can’t do the Charleston on Mars!”)
•    Felix the Cat in Blunderland
•    Felix the Cat Weathers the Weather
•    Felix the Cat in Eskimotive
•    Felix the Cat in Jungle Bungles.

Second film: THE SPANISH DANCER

This may be my favorite movie of the day. It was introduced in such a way that didn’t give me much hope for it, but it turned out to be a smart, focused plot following a clever, witty, script. I found myself really enjoying it! Starring Pola Negri and Antonio Moreno, it tells the story of a gypsy girl in love with a count, and when the count is condemned to death for breaking one of the King’s decrees, the gypsy girl goes to great lengths to try to save him. It’s a complex plot, but that’s the basic idea, and I would highly recommend that you see this film when it is released, so I don’t want to give away any major plot points. Another interesting tidbit about this film is that the young prince, whom the gypsy girl saves from falling off a horse at one point in the movie, is played by none other than a 6-year-old girl named Dawn O’Day who would later become known as the 1940’s movie actress Anne Shirley.

Third film: THE CANADIAN

This was a sweet story about love and marriage, and how a woman can make a complete turnaround in her personality when provided with satisfactory circumstances. A sort of cold fish snob by the name of Nora Marsh comes to live with her brother in a roughneck part of Alberta, Canada, and immediately makes a bad impression with her haughty manners and tendency to look down on others. She has no domestic abilities whatsoever, and constantly irritates her brother’s wife. Finally though, she somewhat suddenly proposes marriage to the houseman, and they move in together. It was not a match made in heaven, and they were unhappy for quite some time, due to various hardships they encounter. However, by the end all is mended in a quaint, sweet way that I described to my friend Marya as “very Canadian.” There just doesn’t seem to be a bad bone in this whole movie.

Fourth film: SOUTH

This was a very unusual and special screening of the documentary footage taken by cameraman Frank Hurley on the infamous Shackleton expedition through the frozen Antartctic. Breathtaking film of the landscape of Antarctica as well as profiles of the animals Shackleton encountered, make this film a really intriguing and different documentary. It looks markedly different than any other true-to-life film that I have seen from that era–instead, it resembles more something like March of the Penguins. To top off the unusualness of the film, Shackleton’s original script from when the film was screened upon its first release, was read by an actor accompanying the score.

Fifth film: PANDORA’S BOX

By this point in the evening, I was beginning to feel some exhaustion, but was eager to see this film. The movie was supposed to start at 7:00, but after the staff cleared the theater to do soundchecks after South, they didn’t re-open for Pandora’s Box at 7:00 as expected. We were told that it would be another 15 minutes or so, but it was a full 45 minutes after 7:00 that they finally re-opened the theater. The movie itself didn’t start until 8:15, and for someone who has been sitting in a theater taking notes and viewing 4 movies over the course of 8 hours, that was too late. I nearly fell asleep in the middle of Pandora’s Box due to the hour and my exhaustion, but managed to keep myself awake long enough to talk about the film in this post. It was a very interesting story of how this film came to be–there exists no original negative, all the footage they have comes from the original restoration that was done years ago, and the funding for this restoration comes from none other than Hugh Hefner, of all people. The film is an exquisite example of German expressionist filmmaking, that reached a height in Berlin in the 1920’s and was the genesis of countless other philosophic movements within filmmaking over the past 90 years. The film tells the story of a woman, Lulu, who simply allures men and enjoys them. When she accidentally/is forced to commit a murder, she is sentenced to 5 years in prison but manages to escape. The ensuing details all lead to Lulu’s further spiraling into problems and ultimately…well, I won’t give away the ending. This showing was only the second time this restoration had been seen by a North American audience, and it was the world premiere of a new score for the film, which was absolutely stunning.

I can’t say that I was wild about the restoration. It made the image too modern, too perfect. A movie from this era should be grainy, it should have a specific look to it that was lost in this restoration. It looked like it came from a DVD, or should have been a scene in The Artist. I’m glad they restored it, but it would have been more appealing to me if they had taken care not to wipe away all the grain.

Unfortunately, due to the extremely late start of Pandora’s Box, I was not able to stay for the sixth film: THE OVERCOAT, owing to my own exhaustion as well as concerns for getting home safely and in time to write this post. I was disappointed, as I had planned on reviewing every film for this blog, but I felt I needed to take care of my health first. Sometime in the future, I will get a copy of The Overcoat and review it here, to make up for missing it at the Silent FIlm Festival.

Stay tuned tomorrow!

A Sneak Peek at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Well readers, I am back, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed from my cello master class, and ready to tackle Backlots’ next big event, which is my coverage of the renowned San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Leonard Maltin referred to the festival as “in a class all by itself,” and I feel honored and privileged to have been granted press credentials to such an event. Here is a peek at what I will be covering.

Thursday,
July 12
7:00 pm Opening Night Film
WINGS (1927)
9:30 pm Opening Night Party at
McRoskey Mattress Company
Friday,
July 13
10:30 am Amazing Tales from
the Archives
1:00 pm LITTLE TOYS (1933)
4:00 pm THE LOVES OF PHARAOH (1922)
7:00 pm MANTRAP (1926)
9:15 pm THE WONDERFUL LIE OF NINA PETROVNA (1929)
Saturday,
July 14
10:00 am FELIX THE CAT SILENT CARTOONS (1925-1929)
12:00 noon THE SPANISH DANCER (1923)
2:30 pm THE CANADIAN (1926)
5:00 pm SOUTH (1919)
7:00 pm Centerpiece Film
PANDORA’S BOX (1929)
10:00 pm THE OVERCOAT (1926)
Sunday,
July 15
10:00 am THE MARK OF ZORRO (1920)
12:00 noon THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (1928)
2:00 pm EROTIKON (1920)
4:30 pm STELLA DALLAS (1925)
7:30 pm THE CAMERAMAN (1928)

Please check back throughout the weekend of July 12 for continuing festival updates!