Tag Archives: San Francisco

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


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!

Dealing With Disaster Through Cinematherapy

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

As we struggle to make sense of the unthinkable events in Boston yesterday, we find ourselves coming together as a country and a world to participate in collective grieving, as so often happens when a tragedy of this scale occurs.

It is a time when people who need to get away from the gruesome footage and detailed descriptions often feel trapped, as all the television channels are showing the scene and all the radio stations describing it. The images are psychologically more than most of us can handle. When the events of September 11, 2001 occurred, my father instructed me not to turn on the television, as the images would scar me for life. Yesterday, I heeded my father’s advice from 12 years ago and have not turned on the television or radio. It is more than I wish to subject upon myself.

There is a movement in psychology right now called “cinematherapy,” in which those seeking comfort from grief, loss, stress, and numerous other issues, are given a list of movies to view to assist them in their journey toward recovery. I am not a psychologist, and I do not pretend to know the precise methodology behind cinematherapy. However, a good many of us involve ourselves in cinematherapy without giving it a second thought. Movies have the inherent ability to make us feel intense emotions, and in times of trial and despair, they can lift us up and make us feel better about the state of the world. They can even inspire us to change our world view, or to help those in need.

Here is a short list of movie classics that may help in our own collective journey toward healing from events that are beyond our comprehension. They are worth a look when we need an outlet for indescribable feelings.


A love story set in the days prior to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The earthquake and subsequent fire occur toward the end of the movie, and the ending scene features the joy at the fire’s extinguishing cries of “We’ll build a new San Francisco!” as the cast marches confidently and valiantly down toward the city to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” An exquisite and inspiring ending that shows the strength of the human spirit in the face of disaster.

2) SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)

Named the #1 funniest movie of all time by the American Film Institute, Some Like it Hot is legendary for its screwball humor. Two men witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and dress in drag to escape the mob by hiding out in an all-girls jazz band. If you’re one of those few who have not seen it, you are in for a big treat. It will make you howl with laughter, something that we all need in days like these.

3) THE THIN MAN (1934)

I know that this may seem like an odd choice for this list of movies, but aside from the fact that I personally enjoy this movie, I have a purpose for including it here. For some reason, The Thin Man seems to have strangely curative properties. I thought I was alone in my tendency to turn on The Thin Man after a long or stressful day, or when I’m feeling down. But in talking to other film fans, I learned that they have the same ritual. The Thin Man seems to be everyone’s go-to movie for comfort. Go figure, but it works.

4) MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944)

Musicals were created to raise spirits during the Depression, and continued to inspire long after the Depression was over. No matter what the country was going through, our musicals helped us get through it. I would personally suggest Meet Me in St. Louis, a movie that was conceived to help wartime audiences maintain a sense of home and family in the face of terrible events overseas. The number “You and I” is particularly touching as a reminder of love and solidarity, placed in the movie as a comforting message to soldiers.

Any of these movies are worth a watch any time, but especially if one is struggling to come to terms with something saddening or distressing.

See you next time.

“Forever Natalie Wood,” Castro Theatre, San Francisco, CA, November 9-11, 2012.

The extraordinarily talented Natalie Wood, who stole our hearts at the age of 9 in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and made the rare successful transition to meaningful roles as an adult, was tragically taken from us 31 years ago in an accident off Catalina Island. Last year, the case of her death was reopened when law enforcement gained some new information about that night, and the intense feelings surrounding Natalie’s death were reopened with it.

San Francisco impresario Marc Huestis, beloved for his lavish and creative productions dedicated to the stars of stage and screen, was uncomfortable with this new attention. A huge fan of Natalie Wood himself, he took matters into his own hands and created “Forever Natalie Wood,” a large tribute to Natalie featuring some of her best and most beloved film work to be shown over the course of 3 days at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

Beginning Friday night with a double feature of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and This Property is Condemned (1966), the event continued yesterday with another double feature of Gypsy (1962) and Love with a Proper Stranger (1963). The latter is a brave powerhouse of a film, featuring probably the most powerful scene I have ever seen on film dealing with back alley abortions. Wood’s performance earned her an Oscar nomination, the third of 3 over the course of her career.

The centerpiece of the event, however, was a frank and honest discussion with Natalie Wood’s younger sister Lana, with whom she was very close. Lana, who made her own name for herself in Hollywood (notably as a Bond Girl in Diamonds are Forever (1971), wrote one of the quintessential books about Natalie Wood, and along with 2001’s Natasha by Suzanne Finstad, Natalie: A Memoir By Her Sister stands as one of the most complete and honest accounts of Natalie Wood’s life.

Preceded by 20 minutes of film clips compiled by Huestis that detailed the life and career of Natalie Wood (as well as a very entertaining performance by Matthew Martin lip syncing to a mashup of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”), the discussion with Lana was an insightful look into the early life and career of her legendary sister as well as the details of Natalie’s later personal life. Simultaneously serving the roles of sister, friend, and confidante, Lana Wood’s words were sincere, moving, and beautiful as she spoke about what Natalie meant to her. She was quick to protect her infamously pushy stage mother, who she admitted was “difficult to deal with” but who was ultimately “full of life” and protective of her children.

Natalie Wood with Lana and their parents.

The Wood family (originally Zakharenko, later changed to Gurdin and then to Wood when Natalie began in Hollywood) was from San Francisco. The sisters’ parents were both born in Russia and emigrated to the United States later in life. Both Natalie and Lana grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, speaking Russian and proud of their Russian heritage. Lana spoke fondly of her “very Russian” mother and her father who “played the balalaika and wished the Communists would get out of Russia.” This reverence for her Russian heritage and San Francisco background was especially moving to me, as my own nativity to the San Francisco Bay Area and my Russian heritage has always made me feel close to Natalie Wood.

During the discussion, Marc Huestis announced that there would be a surprise for Lana and the audience. He had conducted telephone interviews with Mary Badham (primarily known as “Scout” in To Kill a Mockingbird) and Ann Blyth (known for her role as “Veda” in Mildred Pierce), who had both worked with Natalie. They offered remembrances of their times with her, and expressed thanks to the audience for keeping Natalie’s memory alive. It was a lovely gesture by Huestis, and wonderful to hear such stars in their own right speaking so candidly.

Mary Badham and Natalie Wood in “This Property is Condemned.”

Speaking about Natalie’s later life, career, and relationships, Lana commented on an increasingly difficult relationship with Natalie following her second marriage to Robert Wagner, of which Lana disapproved. But they loved each other dearly despite their disagreements, and referring to of the circumstances surrounding the ongoing investigation of Natalie’s death, Lana’s voice broke as she remarked that she appreciates the investigators’ thoroughness but nothing will change. She emphasized that she does not want to bring more pain to Wagner and their two daughters. Lana concluded by thanking the audience for their devotion to Natalie. “I don’t want her to be forgotten,” she said, with a sincerity that was palpable. As with all of Huestis’ events, the crowd was warm and enthusiastic for her, and it was a true pleasure to hear her speak so freely about Natalie.

Lana Wood’s talk was followed by a screening of Splendor in the Grass (1961). I have a special affinity for this film, as it was one of the first Natalie Wood movies I ever saw and it was wonderful to see it on the big screen. One of my favorite trivia bits about this movie demonstrates just what a magnificent and dedicated actress Natalie Wood was. There is a scene in which Natalie is supposed to have a nervous breakdown in the bathtub. Due to a childhood injury on the set of The Green Promise, Natalie had a malformed wrist and due to her nearly pathological insecurity about it, she nearly always wore a bracelet on her left hand. In order to get into the right mindset for the scene (and for the reality of the scene, as she was in the bathtub), Natalie took off her bracelet. The psychological distress that she shows in this scene is not completely acting, the fact that her bracelet was off was an intense psychological impetus that helped her play the scene accurately. The film afforded her her second Oscar nomination.

The bathtub scene from Splendor in the Grass.

Today, the final day of “Forever Natalie Wood,” features a Sing-A-Long version of West Side Story (1961) at 2:00, followed by a double feature of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1968) at 7:00 and Inside Daisy Clover (1965). For those in the San Francisco Bay Area, this is a great opportunity to see some of Natalie Wood’s true gems. I hope to see you there!

See you next time!

Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: “San Francisco” (1936)

Jeanette MacDonald singing “Nearer My God to Thee” with survivors of the 1906 earthquake in “San Francisco” (1936).

As a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, this film has always held a special place in my heart. The story is of a young singer, Mary Blake (MacDonald), who emigrates to California just prior to the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and is torn between two venues–the lower-class Barbary Coast, run by “Blackie” Norton (Clark Gable) and the Tivoli Opera House, for which her classically trained voice is better suited. She is also torn romantically between the operators of the two venues, and the beginning of the movie is dedicated to her exploration of this conflict within herself.

The story is nothing special, it has been done in different ways many times before and the only thing that really makes it stand out is Jeanette MacDonald’s famous soprano voice, singing operatic arias at Tivoli, and the jazzy tune “San Francisco” at Blackie Norton’s.”San Francisco,” by the way, has become one of the official anthems of the city, and has been covered by countless artists over the years since this film’s release. Here is a video of Jeanette singing the song in the movie.

I sincerely apologize for the quality of this particular video, specifically the advertisement at the beginning and the coloration of the film. This is the only video on the internet of this number as it exists in the film, and I am unable to upload a more quality one on my outdated computer. So this will have to do.

What I would like to focus on is not the story, not the songs (though admittedly Jeanette MacDonald is a highly accomplished classical singer, and it is a joy to watch her), but rather the final 15 minutes of the movie. As Mary Blake performs at Blackie’s, the earth begins to shake, first a little, then violently as glasses break, chandeliers fall, and the entirety of the audience flees for their lives and people pour into the streets. What follows is the most lavishly constructed disaster scene in a film up to that point, and if I do say so myself, one of the most technically advanced disaster scenes of any decade (adjusting for technology available at the time of filming, of course). With the use of quick cuts at the height of the earthquake sequence, followed by long, wide shots at the end, director W.S. Van Dyke succeeds in evoking a crippling sense of panic and fear followed by an almost serene surveying of the damage and loss of life, key real life emotions in the wake of any disaster.

In this video, pay close attention to the shaking ground. That was not trick camerawork, as would have been employed in earlier films–the production designer, Slavko Vorkapich, created a set that rocked and shook, simulating the strength and damage the earthquake wrought 30 years prior in real time. The crumbling San Francisco buildings were dollhouse miniatures shot from below in order to make them look like tall structures capable of the damage Van Dyke sought to replicate.

The earthquake starts at 1:03.

It is clear just how much future disaster films took from this scene. From Earthquake (1972), which employed the same rocking set that Vorkapich created for San Francisco, straight down to the epic Titanic (1997), which contains a scene in which a mast falls crashing onto a civilian almost identical to what occurs at 2:30 in the video above.

The final scene of the film is one in that, no matter how many times I watch this movie, never fails to give me goosebumps. High above the city in the evacuation tents, Mary Blake sings the spiritual “Nearer My God to Thee” a capella with the survivors of the earthquake. It is a somber melody that echoes the melancholy felt at the loss of all that was precious to them. Soon, a messenger announces that the fire following the earthquake has been extinguished. Amidst cheers and choruses of “We’ll build a new San Francisco!” all their cares melt away as they march proudly back to the city, singing a joyful rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The film ends on a note of hope and optimism for what the future holds for this city and all those who reside there.

The theme of eternal hope in the wake of a disaster is sure to pack a punch for anyone, but as a native of the San Francisco Bay, this scene is especially powerful emotionally. To know that this tells the story of your own history and your own identity, evokes a very special and indescribable sense of belonging and ownership of the tale. Each time I watch this film, my love and pride for San Francisco is renewed, and that is a unique connection that can’t be quantified.

Here is a link to the last scene of the film, and I have followed it with pictures of San Francisco as it looked after the earthquake, juxtaposed with images of San Francisco today.

Click here to watch the ending of San Francisco on the official TCM website.

Upper Market Street during the fire that raged after the earthquake in 1906.

Upper Market Street today.

Lotta’s Fountain, the official meeting place for families searching for loved ones during the 1906 earthquake.

Lotta’s Fountain today. Every year at 5:12 am (the time of the initial shock) on the anniversary of the earthquake, a ceremony is held here in remembrance of the victims and in honor of the survivors.

The Ferry Building was miraculously untouched during the earthquake. Here is a sharp contrast between the untouched Ferry Building in the background and a completely destroyed building in the foreground.

The Ferry Building as it looks today, a real monument to San Francisco. Today it not only serves as the port for ferries to and from Marin County, but boasts a popular array of shops and restaurants inside.

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.


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!

Enabling live twitter feed for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival tonight

As the San Francisco Silent Film Festival begins tonight, I am enabling a live twitter feed to Backlots so that you may follow all the action as it happens right here on the site. It promises to be a wonderful evening, as the opening night film is Wings, starring Clara Bow, and there is an opening night party after the film. Until the festivities start, you will see previous posts on Backlots’ twitter account, which you can “follow” if you haven’t already.

Stay tuned!

What’s New in Classic Film?

As a way to bring the very latest in classic film happenings to my readers, I have compiled a list of some of the classic film events for the month of July. I hope that some of you will be able to see some of these! If you are, please let me know how they went–I very much want to attend TCM’s nationwide screening of Singin’ in the Rain, but alas, it conflicts with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for which I have press accreditation, so I have to prioritize those screenings. Tough life, right? Anyway, here are what I consider to be the major events for the month of July:

Here is the screening that I so badly want to go to. For the 60th anniversary of Singin’ in the Rain, TCM is presenting a big screen showing of the movie in theaters across the country on July 12. It promises to be quite the event. And if you haven’t seen Singin’ in the Rain on the big screen before, you’re in for a treat–it is one of my all-time favorite movies to watch on the big screen. The colors come so alive, and the musical numbers are simply nothing like you remember them on your 25″ TV set. Keep a special eye out for the Broadway Rhythm number and how beautiful it looks on the big screen. It was clearly meant for the theater.

For tickets, click on the poster and follow the instructions on the website.

The 17th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival kicks off July 12 and continues through July 15 in San Francisco, CA. The festival is highly renowned and very highly regarded, Leonard Maltin has called it “in a class by itself” and is a frequent guest speaker. The centerpiece film for this year’s festival is Pandora’s Box (1925), and other films being shown include Mantrap, Stella Dallas, Wings, and The Spanish Dancer. All showings will be at the Castro Theatre, and I have been honored to receive full press accreditation for the festival, so if you can’t make it, you can follow along right here! Last year’s festival was stellar–you can read my reviews of Die Frau, nach der Man sich sehnt and He Who Gets Slapped by clicking on the links.

For tickets, please visit the official website at http://www.silentfilm.org or click here. If you’re traveling from outside the area, I would advise you to book your hotel NOW. Even though I live just across the bay, there is one night that I will have to spend in San Francisco, and I had a terrible time trying to find a room. All the hotels are filling up fast due to a parade happening that weekend. Something to plan for!

As of June 26, The Artist has been released on DVD! It is now available in all the usual places–movie stores, online, Redbox, and to be ordered on Amazon.com. If you haven’t seen it yet, you are missing out on an incredible piece of cinema. However, like Singin’ in the Rain, it was simply meant to be seen on the big screen, so I’m interested to see how it holds up on DVD. I do believe that it is still playing at a few select theaters around, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find one, so it looks like if you haven’t seen it, you’ll have to settle for the DVD version. Maybe they’ll re-issue it in theaters someday!



July 10, 11:15 PM: Of Human Bondage (1934)

July 13, 8:00 AM: The Lion in Winter

July 15, 9:00 AM: The Virgin Queen

July 18, 8:00 PM: A Face in the Crowd

July 20, 12:15 AM: The Adventures of Robin Hood

2:15 AM: Citizen Kane

4:30 AM: The Magnificent Ambersons

July 22, 8:30 AM: Pinky

6:00 PM: Wuthering Heights

July 29, 5:15 PM: West Side Story

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.

July 12
7:00 pm Opening Night Film
WINGS (1927)
9:30 pm Opening Night Party at
McRoskey Mattress Company
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)
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
10:00 pm THE OVERCOAT (1926)
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!