Tag Archives: San Francisco silent film festival

Live From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Day 2: AMAZING TALES FROM THE ARCHIVES, SONG OF THE FISHERMEN (1934), MIDNIGHT MADNESS (1928), THE PARSON’S WIDOW (1920), RAMONA (1928), COSMIC VOYAGE (1936)

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Today’s lineup featured an eclectic mix of American and foreign films, 20s films and 30s films, dramas, comedies, and science fiction fantasies. Today’s lineup truly embodies what I mean when I say that the festival takes a holistic approach to silent cinema–at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, anything goes and everything is celebrated.

First up today was a beautiful and informative presentation that the festival calls “Amazing Tales From the Archives.” A yearly program at the festival, it is always one of my favorite events, as the audience learns fascinating facts about our favorite films, and perhaps some that we may never have heard of. Today’s presentation was threefold–first, we heard from Bryony Dixon, the silent film curator at the BFI National Archive, who showed us some breathtaking nature documentaries from some of Britain’s most celebrated early film pioneers. We saw films from Oliver Pike, whose capturing of wildlife provided the inspiration for the current work of David Attenborough, and footage of bees from John Charles Bee-Mason, whose fascination with bees provided the first name in his hyphenated surname. We also saw astonishingly beautiful time-lapse photography of flowers in bloom, photographed by F. Percy Smith. Lovely to watch and a unique experience.

Following Dixon’s presentation was one on Edison’s famed Fred Ott’s Sneeze. Film fans and historians know this piece of footage well–but it turns out there is more to the footage than we knew about. After an extensive history of the 2-second film, we were given an extra few seconds that have just been restored to make a complete film. The extra few seconds are not online, so I will give you the original 2 seconds  of Fred Ott’s sneeze. It was very interesting to see the extra few seconds, and hopefully they will be online to share soon!

Finally, we were treated to a talk about Chaplin and the technology he used in his movies, given by Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Craig Barron and equally legendary Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt. Though Chaplin was initially opposed to sound film, that did not mean, Burtt and Barron tell us, that he did not use the latest technology. Focusing on his last two appearances as The Little Tramp in City Lights and Modern Times, the presentation showed us how Chaplin worked some of his movie magic. I was completely blown away when Burtt and Barron revealed how Chaplin achieved the iconic stunt of roller skating on a ledge in Modern Times. As it turns out, Chaplin used an innovative technique to create the illusion of this dangerous feat. Spoiler alert: Chaplin was not skating on a ledge at all. He painted a transparent ledge onto a piece of glass, and put that glass over the appropriate part of the camera, so that the audience would be privy to the optical illusion while he was on solid ground, in no danger at all. It worked. Take a look at the scene.

Absolutely fascinating.

Next up was a film from the China Film Archive called Song of the Fishermen. It dealt with the difficulties of a family in a poor fishing village in China, and was made long after sound films had become industry standard in Hollywood. As the presenter pointed out beforehand, silent films in China continued on for quite a long time due to the fact that the Chinese people were used to the silent films coming to them from Hollywood, and when sound films started to arrive, they couldn’t understand them. Subtitle technology had not been invented, and due to the Chinese people’s preference for silent films from abroad, Chinese studios also catered to this public demand domestically for much of the 1930s.

SONG OF THE FISHERMEN (1934).

Song of the Fishermen is quite a depressing movie, but a beautiful one. The leading lady, Wang Renmei, is a pleasure to look at and apparently was quite multi-talented. She trained at several elite voice and dance academies in China, and during this screening the festival dubbed her singing voice in whenever her character was to sing the “song of the fishermen.” Her voice is indeed elegantly trained, and the song catchy. It was a well made movie, though the audience definitely leaves feeling quite badly about life.

Next up was a bit of an odd movie–part light comedy, and part dark drama. Directed by Cecil B. De Mille, Midnight Madness is a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew set in an African diamond mine, with several twists from comedy to drama and back again. It was quite unusual, and at times the leading lady, Jacqueline Logan, reminds the viewer of Clara Bow, and at other times she is reminiscent of a Hitchcock victim. I enjoyed the movie for the novelty of it more than anything, as I haven’t really seen anything else like it. Perhaps a second viewing would help me warm up to it a bit more, but as of right now, it was simply an amusing novelty.

The festival’s love for Scandinavian cinema continued next, with a screening of the Swedish drama (with some very funny bits!) The Parson’s Widow, about a new, young parson in a Norwegian village who has to marry the deceased parson’s elderly widow. He hatches a scheme to pass his fiancee off as his sister so she may live in the house with them until the old woman dies. But after a while, he begins to truly care for the widow. It is ultimately a sweet story of love and acceptance, and the plot is quite advanced for 1920. The woman who played the elderly widow was apparently quite sick during filming, and passed away shortly after the movie was completed. Nonetheless, she gave a remarkable performance. I really enjoyed this movie. It was tight and nearly flawless in its execution. Beautiful direction by Carl Dreyer and great performances all around.

After The Parson’s Widow came Ramona, a newly found print of the 1928 film starring Dolores Del Rio and Warner Baxter. There have been several versions of the Ramona story, including one with Mary Pickford made in 1910, but this one may be the best. It tells the story of a young girl who, after discovering she is half Native American, is free to marry the Native American man she loves despite her cruel adoptive mother’s reservations. It then turns into a story about the hardships they face as a couple, with love turning to tragedy. It is a very interesting story, and a wonderful movie. This particular print was found in the Czech Film Archive and restored beautifully. The original score played by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was also perfect for the film, and added a great deal.

Finally, a children’s science fiction movie out of the USSR in 1936 called Cosmic Voyage. Like China, Russia continued making silent films long after Hollywood stopped, and had a great silent film tradition that lasted through the 1930s. This film was a great choice with which to end the night, as the lighthearted nature of the plot about an experimental trip to the moon kept the audience engaged and excited at a very late hour. The Russian title cards (some quite ridiculous–my favorite was “You collect the atmosphere, and I’ll rescue the cat!”) were read aloud very enthusiastically, and at first I found it distracting as I wanted to read the title cards myself (I speak Russian), but after a while I realized how funny this man’s delivery was. I got really into it and by the end I had completely eschewed reading the title cards at all, in favor of listening to him. Great movie for 10:00 at night.

Thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow for day 3!

 

 

Live From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Day 1: THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE and Opening Night Party

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This evening’s kickoff for the 19th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival was an event of epic proportions. In honor of the anniversary of World War I, the festival opened with the monumental Rex Ingram/Rudolph Valentino collaboration The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), a movie that features “quite literally, a cast of thousands,” in the words of festival president Rob Byrne. The movie is so long that it requires an intermission, and packs a punch with its grim imagery and deep metaphors. This is all aside from the fact that for the majority of the movie, the timeless suave beauty of Rudolph Valentino lights up the screen, creating an impression on the mind that is difficult to forget.

The plot is quite vague, but when Valentino is on the screen, a plot is rendered unnecessary. The crux of the movie is that Valentino plays the grandson of a wealthy Argentinian who finds himself fighting in World War I on the side of the French, opposite his half-German cousins. The movie takes a staunch anti-war attitude, and the title relates the biblical description of the four horsemen of the apocalypse to the ravages of war. It is a complex and highly philosophical movie, with symbolism interweaving and juxtaposing war and religion.

In addition, if the audience member is familiar with the history of World War I, it is fascinating to look at the realities of what World War I wrought on the world and the biblical description of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Watching the part of the movie seen above, I was reminded of just how much the concepts of conquest, war, famine and death drove World War I from its beginning to its end. The idea to tie those two things together in a movie is sheer brilliance.

I was immensely impressed with this movie. It was a film ahead of its time, complete with advanced special effects and hand-painted color on the film in addition to its complex inferences. A raw and touching tribute to those who have experienced the pain of war.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was accompanied by the wonderful Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Mont Alto is a mainstay at this festival, and as one of the few motion picture orchestras in existence, does very well traveling to film festivals around the country. It is a truly remarkable group, and this evening they played their own original score to The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, receiving a standing ovation at the end.

After the movie, we headed down to the Opening Night Party at the McRoskey Mattress Company, where we were treated to wonderful live music and great food. It was a chance to mingle with other festival attendees, who often have similar niche interests, and I had a wonderful time chatting with several people who share mine. We finally headed home around midnight, exhausted from a very full and rewarding evening.

Tomorrow’s schedule starts at 10:00 AM, so be sure to tune in on the live tweets!

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival Starts Tonight!

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It’s here, readers! Backlots’ annual coverage of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival starts tonight. As usual, I will be enabling live tweets on the blog, and posting every evening about the day’s adventures.

For more information about what is going on this weekend, please visit the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website at http://www.silentfilm.org. There, you can buy tickets, find the full schedule, and get the lowdown on what the Silent Film Festival does year-round. It is a wonderful organization dedicated to the preservation of our silent film heritage, and it partners in many restorations and rare screenings of silent classics. Check them out!

In 2012, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened Kevin Brownlow's masterpiece restoration of Abel Gance's NAPOLEON at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. Over the course of 4 days, 10,000 people packed the theater.

In 2012, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened Kevin Brownlow’s masterpiece restoration of Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. Over the course of 4 days, 10,000 people packed the theater.

If you are in the Bay Area, I encourage you come to at least one screening. You won’t regret it. My mother, who previously knew little to nothing about silent film, came with me several years ago to the festival’s screening of Wings with live foley accompaniment. She was blown away, and couldn’t stop talking about it. Since then, she has come with me to multiple screenings at the festival every year, and has become a bona fide silent film fan. This is what the Silent Film Festival strives to do–to create new interest in silent film and delight longtime devotees–and it succeeds beautifully.

So if you’re in the Bay Area, I hope to see you there. If you are not, follow along on the blog and on Twitter. It will be a great time!

See you soon!

 

Backlots at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Earlier this evening, I received confirmation that Backlots will be at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival as an official member of the press. This will be my third year at the festival, and it stands as one of my favorite festivals to cover. Held at San Francisco’s beautiful Castro Theatre, I find the ambiance to be perfect, and the programming and festival speakers to be of the highest quality of any film festival I have attended. I feel immensely privileged to be able to have this experience year after year.

THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1921).

This year’s lineup features some real treasures, including a presentation of the Rudolph Valentino classic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as the opening night movie. Painstakingly restored by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, the print comes directly from Brownlow’s Photoplay Productions and the screening promises to be quite an event. It is followed by an opening night party at the McRoskey Mattress Company down the street, which is an opportunity to mingle with other like-minded silent film fans in the glamorous upstairs room of McRoskey’s overlooking Market Street.

One of the things I love about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is its attention to world cinema–it gives the audience a true smorgasbord of movies, a holistic and full approach to what the tradition of silent film means on a grand scale. Throughout the festival there will be movies from Sweden, the former U.S.S.R., China, and the UK, as well as ample opportunity to see American favorites and crowd-pleasers. The festival is presenting a newly found print of Ramona, and we will see the world premiere of a new restoration of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Good Bad Man, made possible by a collaboration between the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Cinematheque Francaise, and the Film Preservation Society.

Douglas Fairbanks in THE GOOD BAD MAN (1916).

If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, this festival is not to be missed. Please visit their website at http://www.silentfilm.org for tickets and more information. On my end, I will be live-tweeting during the festival and blogging every night, so be sure to tune in for live updates as they happen, beginning on May 29.

See you there!

THE LITTLE TRAMP AT 100

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An enthusiastic crowd packed the Castro Theatre solid yesterday, for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s celebration of the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s “little tramp” character. Featuring a beautiful lineup of films all played with live accompaniment  (a piano accompanied the shorts, and the feature-length films were accompanied by 15 musicians from the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra), the San Francisco Silent Film Festival once again provided us with a world-class event, a moving portrait of love for a cinematic legend.

Often I find that even those people who have never seen a silent film know and are interested in Charlie Chaplin. There is something about Chaplin that we identify with, that speaks to the commonality of our experiences as humans. The honesty, sweetness, almost childlike quality of his iconic “little tramp” character is something intangible, representing a sort of universal goodness that we all strive for. To those who know his life story, his leftist politics and his fight for social justice having banned him from working in the United States for the latter portion of his life due to the Hollywood blacklist, this aspect of his character is simply a branch of who he was in real life.

“The Little Tramp” made his first appearance onscreen in a hilarious short called “Kid Auto Races at Venice,” in which he plays a spectator who, unwittingly or otherwise, keeps getting in the way of the camera filming an auto race event. It was filmed on January 11, 1914–100 years ago yesterday. It was the first offering at yesterday’s event, and the crowd went wild. Chaplin’s character in this is decidedly a bit more irate and cranky than what we are used to, as the character evolved over several years to become the character so widely loved today.

“Kid Auto Races at Venice” (1914)

We were then treated to 3 shorts that Chaplin made during his time at Mutual studios–“The Vagabond,” “Easy Street,” and “The Cure,” all very solid shorts that show the evolution of the character and Chaplin’s comedic trademarks. In “The Cure,” Chaplin plays an alcoholic spa-goer who gets himself and everyone else into a lot of trouble when his liquor is accidentally tossed into the curative waters. It is a very funny bit, and features prominently Chaplin’s gift for physical comedy–he teases the audience with nearly falling into the water several times, and we wonder when and if he will actually fall!

Next was a feature film, one of Chaplin’s most monumental hits and the first of his films to receive universally rave reviews. The Kid, released in 1921, was presented to us with Chaplin’s original score played by members of the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra. Charlie Chaplin, a gifted composer, wrote many of his own scores and they are all magnificent. Festival artistic director Anita Monga told us that in order to procure the rights from the Chaplin family to show the film, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival had to agree to play it with the original score. Usually, the family requires that the score be played with the original instrumentation as well, but due to budget constraints the festival was able to talk them into allowing the chamber score to be played. So we heard 15 members from the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra playing Chaplin’s beautiful score to The Kid.

The Kid is a masterwork of simplicity and understatement. The plot is simple–a poor young man (the tramp) finds a baby and raises him as his own, becoming his surrogate father. When the child gets sick and he calls a doctor, the doctor finds out the situation and tries to send the boy away to an orphanage. The tramp loves the little boy so much he does everything to get him back.

Chaplin conceived this movie in the wake of the death of his own infant son, which makes the end product that much more significant. The little boy, 4-year-old Jackie Coogan, gives a startlingly beautiful performance and it’s difficult to fathom that this adorable child would grow up to play Uncle Fester on The Addams Family.

Last on the program was The Gold Rush, the film Charlie Chaplin said he would “most like to be remembered by.” After the success of The Kid, Chaplin set out to make an epic that would top it. Costing over $900,000, The Gold Rush was the most expensive comedy picture ever made up to that time and also the longest comedy, at 95 minutes in length in 1925.  Also featuring some of Chaplin’s best-remembered sequences (including one where he eats a boot, goofs around making dinner rolls dance on forks, and battles a cabin about to fall off a cliff), this is one of Chaplin’s greatest achievements of his career.

The Gold Rush has an unusual history–originally released in 1925, Chaplin later composed a score for it, added narration, and re-released it in 1942. Thus, though it was a silent film, it interestingly received an Oscar nomination for Best Sound at the 1943 Academy Awards. At the festival last night, we watched the original version that is in the process of restoration by Photoplay Productions. So we saw the film without narration, as close to the way Chaplin had originally filmed it as possible given the restoration work being done.

Chaplin eats his shoe in one of the famous sequences. Note the narration that was added upon the film’s re-release.

As always, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival delivers. The full official San Francisco Silent Film Festival will take place over Memorial Day weekend this year, between May 29 and June 1. Please mark your calendars, because this is something that you will not want to miss. Thank you to Anita Monga, film historian Jeffrey Vance who gave informative talks before the screenings, and everyone at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for making The Little Tramp at 100 an event to remember.

THE LITTLE TRAMP AT 100 Celebration–January 11 at the Castro Theatre


By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

Tomorrow, locals of the San Francisco Bay Area will be treated to a very special event at the Castro Theatre. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Little Tramp’s first appearance onscreen, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is putting together a program honoring Chaplin’s iconic character, featuring two landmark Chaplin films as well as several shorts from his time at the Mack Sennett studios.

I will be in attendance to keep you up to date on what is happening throughout the day, through live tweets and posts on the official Facebook page and the Backlot Commissary. As with all festivals, I will make a post at the end of the day talking about the event and what it was like. Stay tuned!

From THE KID, one of the films to be screened on Saturday.

If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, it would be wonderful to see you there. For more information on the program, check out the Little Tramp at 100 site, as well as Mick LaSalle’s wonderful article for the San Francisco Chronicle last week.

For those of you who are not able to make it, I look forward to talking with you on social media or through the comments section of this post. For those who are coming, I will see you there!

2013 at Backlots–A Year in Review

A big thank you to my readers for making 2013 a true banner year for Backlots. Here are some of the things that happened on the blog this year:

My attendance at the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival was far and away one of the highlights of the year. A true movie lover’s paradise, the TCM Festival attracts classic film aficionados from the world over, and TCM certainly delivers the goods. It was great fun interacting in person with my fellow bloggers, whose work I know so well online, and making new classic film friends. A wonderful experience!

For the second year in a row, Backlots covered the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this past summer. As usual, it was a fantastic event with presentations unparalleled in their quality. Highlights for me included a screening of the hilarious Marion Davies movie The Patsy, an interactive talk with Winsor McKay expert John Canemaker,  and the breathtaking gamelan accompaniment set to the Balinese silent film Legong: Dance of the Virgins by the Sekar Jaya Gamelan Ensemble. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival never disappoints. Stay tuned next year’s festival which will be held over Memorial Day Weekend, and on January 11 for their special celebration of The Little Tramp at 100–celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first appearance of Chaplin’s The Little Tramp. I will be at both events!

Last month, I was honored to be invited to blog for the Warner Bros. 90th Anniversary Tour. We bloggers were treated to a day of exploration at the studio, led by a professional guide, and topped off with lunch at the commissary. We had special access to the costume department and several areas off limits for regular tour members, and it was indeed a special day. Again, I met so many fellow bloggers and had such a good time. Thank you, Warner Bros., for organizing this wonderful day for us!

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The classic film community was graced with several magnificent new books this year. I had the pleasure of conducting interviews with Victoria Wilson, author of A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True 1907-1940, and Kendra Bean, who is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait and a personal friend of mine. Both of these works are great monuments in and of themselves. A Life of Barbara Stanwyck is a gargantuan book that features 860 full pages of text and another 200 for source notes, and has proven to be the quintessential, definitive book on the actress. My reading of this book, though it took me less than 2 days, is one of the highlights of my year. Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait is so chock full of previously unseen photos of this staggering beauty that the reader simply cannot put it down. It is displayed prominently, face forward, on my shelf so as not to obscure its beauty. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to interview these two gifted writers, and I thank them for their interviews with me. Read Victoria Wilson’s interview here, and Kendra Bean’s here.

In what was perhaps my most meaningful personal success of 2013, I had the great privilege to interview Joan Fontaine in honor of her birthday. This was her last birthday, and her last interview. Joan was frail and her health declining, so she kept her answers short. The length of her answers does not matter to me. My interview with Joan Fontaine remains the single greatest privilege Backlots has ever had. Click here to read it. Rest in peace, dear Joan.

This is the video I made in memory of Joan Fontaine. I hope you enjoy it.

Wow, readers. What a year. 2014 is already shaping up to be an equally marvelous year! Here’s to what’s to come, and to you, loyal readers, for helping to make this blog what it has become.

SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL Day 2: Amazing Tales from the Archives, The First Born, Tokyo Chorus, The Patsy, The Golden Clown.

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.

A poster for Phono-Cinema-Théatre.

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.

The sleazy husband in The First Born.

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.

Tokyo Chorus.

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.

Marion Davies in one of the funniest scenes in the movie.

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.

The Golden Clown.

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.

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!

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival Kicks off Tonight!

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

That’s right folks, tonight Backlots will be returning to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival as an official member of the press! This year, like every year, the festival will feature some of the most fascinating films, restorations and speakers from the world of silent film over the course of 4 days.

Louise Brooks in Prix de beauté, tonight’s opening night feature.

The festival schedule this year is as follows. Click the films you are interested in, and you will be taken to the film’s page on the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website for more information and showtimes!

Prix de Beaute

Opening Night Party!

Amazing Tales from the Archives

The First Born

Tokyo Chorus

The Patsy

The Golden Clown (Klovnen)

The Half-Breed

Legong: Dance of the Virgins

Gribiche

The House on Trubnaya Square

The Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse)

Kings of (Silent) Comedy

The Outlaw and His Wife (Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru)

The Last Edition

The Weavers (Die Weber)

Safety Last!

I will be following my standard method of covering festivals, with live tweets appearing on the site and a blog post following each day. It promises to be a wonderful festival, and if you are in the San Francisco area, please come join me and be sure to say hello!

Thanks for reading, and I hope to see you there!