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.
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 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!