Tag Archives: Silent Film

Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival Comes to the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

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Hello, dear readers! I usually make it a point to post at least once a week, but due to an inordinately busy schedule over the past few days, that goal has eluded me. But here I am, ready to post about one of the things that has been occupying my time away from the blog.

In the quaint Niles district of Fremont, CA lives the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, a little theater with a huge heart. It celebrates an integral part of this town’s heritage–one of which few people are aware. When visitors come to Fremont, little do most people know that it was here that one of the top early film companies, Essanay Studios, flourished and produced a multitude of films in the early 1900s. Charlie Chaplin produced many of his early films here. Broncho Billy Anderson, the first Western star, was born out of Essanay Studios. It was a major focal point for the film industry, and the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum aims to educate the public about its history through tours, films, and festivals.

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This weekend will be the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, an annual occasion that celebrates not only the legacy of Broncho Billy in Niles, but also the art of silent film as a whole. I have been busy volunteering and preparing for this festival, and I am happy to say that it’s going to be a great one this year. The opening night movie will be The Big Parade, the 1925 King Vidor epic that I consider to be among the top 5 silent films ever made. It will be followed by many other great features and shorts throughout the weekend, including a showing of Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus and the rarely seen 1928 comedy The Spieler, starring Alan Hale and Renee Adoree.

Sunday is the real kicker. Following group of her films, the festival will be graced with its guest of honor, the beautiful and talented 95-year-old Diana Serra Cary–the former Baby Peggy.

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Between 1920 and 1924, Baby Peggy-Jean Montgomery was the toast of Hollywood. At the height of her fame, her film grosses equaled those of Charlie Chaplin, and she was one of the top three child stars of the silent era along with Jackie Coogan and Baby Marie. In 1924, her career took the turn of far too many Hollywood child stars–her stardom waned after her money was squandered by her father. She was relegated to vaudeville, and ultimately returned to Hollywood to work in bit parts to pay the bills. Later on, wanting to rid herself of the pain of Baby Peggy, she reinvented herself as Diana Serra Cary–becoming a prominent author, film historian, and activist for children’s rights. It was as Diana Serra Cary that she wrote a biography of former Hollywood rival Jackie Coogan, and that she became active in A Minor Consideration, an organization that advocates for children in the entertainment industry. And at 95 years old, she’s still going.

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Diana Serra Cary today.

Now for the big news. I will have the unparalleled honor of interviewing Diana Serra Cary onstage at the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival on Sunday. If you are in the area, please come out and see Circus Clowns, Peg O’ the Mounted, and the 2013 film Broncho Billy and the Bandit’s Secret in which Diana Serra Cary has an appearance at the age of 94. And see my Q&A with her between films! It promises to be a great day.

Here is the site for ticket information. You can reserve them online, or buy them at the door. I look forward to seeing you there!

TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: Lady of the Night (1925)

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The next film in Treasures From the Warner Archive is one to which I’ve been looking forward for some time. Perhaps the most highly respected film of Norma Shearer’s silent career and featuring the screen debut of a future Hollywood legend (more on that later!), it is a hallmark of the early MGM period and a shining example of the beautiful and complex character-driven narratives that came out of the silent era. The film is Lady of the Night, and it’s a real crowd pleaser.

A father is sentenced to 20 years in prison by a judge who has a daughter around the same age. Leaving the courthouse, he sees the judge cuddling with his daughter. “Pretty soft for your kid, but what about mine?” he cries, as he is carted off to jail.

Eighteen years pass, and both daughters are graduating from school–Florence, the judge’s daughter (Norma Shearer) from a select school for young women, and the convict’s daughter Molly (also Norma Shearer) from a reform school. The stark contrast between the lives of the two girls is seen right away–Florence’s world is photographed in a red tint, and her school is surrounded by flowers and trees, her friends smiling and skipping down the path following their graduation. Molly’s world, on the other hand, is photographed in stark black and white, and her school is nothing but a block of cement. She is dressed in a drab black dress, with a simple hat and no makeup. Molly’s world is a grim one, and with nowhere to go and nothing to do, she turns to taxi dancing to earn a living. At the club where she works, Molly is assaulted by a stranger and resists with all her might–kicking, hitting, and biting him. A man by the name of David Page helps wrench the man off of Molly, and to thank him for his kindness, Molly accepts a dance with him much to the chagrin of her boyfriend, Chunky (George K. Arthur). Soon, Molly begins to fall in love with David but David doesn’t see her as a romantic partner, only a good friend. David, an inventor, has invented a device that can crack safes, and Molly advises him not to give his invention to crooks, despite the high price they might pay. “Don’t go crooked, it don’t pay,” she says, drawing on her own experience growing up fatherless. She tells him to sell his idea to a bank, who will use it to keep thieves out.

Molly.

The next day, David goes to the board of a bank to pitch his idea. The meeting was held at board member Judge Banning’s house, and on his way, he bumps into Florence. The two lock eyes, and Florence also begins to fall in love with Dave. This time, it is mutual and they begin dating. One day David takes Florence to his studio when Molly walks in, unaware that he wasn’t alone. She and Florence meet, and after Molly walks out, she says to David “She loves you, David, I can see it in her eyes.” She follows shortly after Molly and finds her sitting in Florence’s carriage. Molly implores Florence to marry David and make him happy. Florence expresses concern for Molly, and when Molly says she can be happy with her own boyfriend, Chunky, the two hug. All ends well with a tinge of bittersweetness at what could have been–with Florence marrying David and Molly marrying Chunky.

It is in the carriage scene that we see the very, very brief screen debut of an actress who would become an immortal Hollywood star. A young actress by the name of Lucille LeSueur had recently come to Hollywood and was being tested out in bit parts. In this role, she plays Norma Shearer’s double for the hugging shot. Within 2 years she would hit it big, and under the name of Joan Crawford, she would become perhaps one of the most important and influential stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Norma Shearer, on the left, with Joan Crawford acting as Molly’s double on the right.

The significance of Joan Crawford’s screen debut against Norma Shearer is lost on very few fans who are familiar with the backstory of classic Hollywood. Joan Crawford’s career skyrocketed very quickly, and by the early 1930s she was one of the reigning queens of the MGM lot. Norma Shearer, always a huge star in her own right, married MGM production chief Irving Thalberg in 1927, becoming not only one of MGM’s biggest assets financially but also gaining an influence and control within the studio that was hard to shake. Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer became bitter rivals at MGM in the 1930s, with both asserting their power to its full extent. Because of her political influence within the studio, however, Norma usually won out, prompting Joan to quip “How can I compete with Norma when she’s sleeping with the boss?” They later appeared in 1939’s The Women playing competitors for a man’s affections–not far from their real life situation.

At its core, the story of Lady of the Night has a complexity that is quite thought-provoking. Much of it, in my analysis, has to do with the fact that Norma Shearer plays the dual role of a judge’s daughter and a convict’s daughter. This prompts the audience to rethink any prejudices they may have had coming in regarding “the girl from the wrong side of the tracks,” and instead judge the characters by their internal qualities. In addition, this dual role shows us the remarkable range of Norma Shearer’s acting abilities. Shearer was one of the rare performers in Hollywood who successfully made the transition from silent film to sound, and 5 years before her Oscar-winning turn in the sound film The Divorcee, Shearer was proving that she had the versatility of the best in the business. As Molly, she is hardened and rough but with a heart of gold–and as Florence, she is soft and demure. The ability to be able to switch from character to character with such aplomb and so quickly is a gift rare indeed.

If you would like to watch Lady of the Night, click here. It is worth watching for the tremendous performance of Norma Shearer, and for the place it has in the silent film pantheon.

See you next time!

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!

 

 

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 Rise of getTV and the Accessibility of Classic Film

For more than 12 years, the accessibility of classic film on mainstream television has been limited to a single channel. Following the change of direction that American Movie Classics (AMC) undertook in 2002, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has been the classic film fan’s holy grail, the one station showing classic films 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Due to its near monopoly on the showing of these films, it has attracted legions of devoted fans and become a brand unto itself–with the annual TCM Classic Film Festival and TCM Classic Cruise drawing participants by the thousand.

Now there is another channel on the market, just launched in February of this year in major U.S. cities and expanding quickly across the country, that may have all that to look forward to. GetTV, owned by Sony Pictures Television Networks, is the newest channel to make classic film programming its primary business model. Like TCM, GetTV shows classic films around the clock, but there is one significant difference–GetTV is available to viewers completely free, no cable subscription required. For this reason, GetTV shows 3 hours per week of educational programming in order to comply with FCC standards on public broadcasting, and this consists of quality entertainment directed toward a demographic crucial to the survival of classic films–children.

For the vast majority of hours in the week, GetTV shows films primarily from Sony Pictures’ Columbia Library and has had in its lineup thus far such notable films as To Sir With Love (1967), Picnic (1956) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959). I was also thrilled to see The Fuller Brush Girl, one of my favorite lesser-known Lucille Ball comedies on the schedule a few days ago, cementing my notion that GetTV is a market force to be dealt with.

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As a general access public broadcasting network, GetTV has certain restrictions as to what they are and are not able to show. At the present time, the network is focusing on films from the mid-1930s through the late 1960s, which aligns more or less with the time frame of the Production Code’s enforcement in Hollywood. This allows the channel to comply with broadcasting standards and the needs of advertisers (the channel does carry commercials).without editing a film for content. In addition, GetTV is committed to never editing a film for time. In an interview with Will McKinley over at Cinematically Insane, they state:

We are trying not to get into the zone of editing. We’re trying to present the whole movie, but at the same time, we are on broadcast TV, which has tighter restrictions than cable, and tighter rules in terms of community standards.  And we’re not editing films for time. So if something runs from 10 a.m. until 12:40 p.m., that’s when the next movie is going to start.”

For classic film lovers, this is great news. Though I have not as yet seen any silent movies on the schedule for GetTV, this doesn’t mean that silent films are off the table for the future. I would love to see GetTV tap into the lucrative silent film market, as in this way they could reach several crucial demographics–the huge community of silent film devotees that make pilgrimages every year to events like the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Kansas Silent Film Festival, and the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Pordenone, Italy, as well as the deaf community, many members of which have a huge passion for silent cinema and would likely tune in as regular viewers.

A scene from King Vidor’s THE PATSY (1928), a silent film that I think would work wonderfully on GetTV. Funny, engaging, and appropriate for public broadcasting, it would be a fantastic gateway film to introduce many viewers who might not be familiar with silent cinema to this beautiful art form.

We have great reason to be excited about this new development in the classic film world. I will stay on the pulse of GetTV and update readers with any news.

Thanks for reading! See you next time!

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!

Hitchcock 9 Day 1: BLACKMAIL (1929)

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

The Hitchcock 9 got underway at the Castro Theatre last night with a screening of the silent version of Blackmail (1929). San Francisco Silent Film Festival artistic director Anita Monga spoke before the screening, mentioning that Blackmail is the last of Hitchcock’s films restored by the BFI for this event, made just before Hitchcock made the official transition into sound. In fact, Blackmail was actually shot twice–once as a sound film (sound was just beginning to become the default choice for filmmakers) and once as a silent, intended for theatres not yet equipped for sound. The sound version is relatively frequently seen, while the silent version screened for this event is quite rare and thus was a particularly special treat for filmgoers.

Alice White (Anny Ondra) is going out with Frank (John Longden), a Scotland Yard detective, but he seems more interested in his work than in spending time with his girlfriend. She confronts him about this at a tea house, and they have a fight during which Frank walks out in anger. To spite Frank, Alice invites a young painter named Mr. Crewe over to her table and leaves with him, walking right by Frank, who fumes. The two go back to Mr. Crewe’s apartment for what starts out as a harmless evening of painting. Alice notices a painting of a laughing clown that is a bit eerie, but she ignores it. Eventually Mr. Crewe asks Alice to pose in a ballerina costume for a painting. When Alice tries to change back into her clothes, Mr. Crewe steals them and attacks her in an attempted rape. As Mr. Crewe attacks her, Alice desperately tries to escape but when Mr. Crewe proves too strong for her, she reaches for a bread knife and stabs Mr. Crewe to death.

In this clip, pay special attention to Anny Ondra’s complete transformation from the beginning to the end. She morphs from a sweet, friendly girl to a woman almost possessed. You can see the murder in her eyes, but also intense fear and shock at what she has done. This clip demonstrates what a magnificent actress Anny Ondra was, and what a stellar performance she gave in this movie.

The morning after the murder, the whole neighborhood is talking about Crewe’s death and who might have committed such a horrible crime. Scotland Yard goes to the house to investigate, and coincidentally, it is Frank who is assigned to the case. He finds a glove in the house that he recognizes as Alice’s. When he sees the face of the dead man, he remembers Alice leaving with him and begins to put the pieces together. He confronts Alice at her father’s tobacco shop about what happened, when another man named Tracey approaches them and tries to blackmail them with the other glove, which he has in his possession. However, it turns out that Tracey himself has a criminal record, so Frank turns the blackmail around and turns Tracey in to Scotland Yard. Tracey flees and is pursued by Scotland Yard in the British Museum, where he falls through a glass panel to his death.

Tracey tries to escape down a rope in the British Museum.

Meanwhile, Alice is wracked with guilt about pinning the murder on someone who didn’t do it. She decides to turn herself in. But when she goes to see the Chief Inspector, he is distracted by a phone call and asks Frank to talk to Alice. The film ends as Mr. Crewe’s laughing clown painting is carried past them.

The image of the laughing clown painting was clear irony, providing a contrast to the murder. But I thought it was only that, until I researched the sound version. In the sound version, it is made clear that the model for the clown was in fact Tracey. This clears up some vagueness in the movie, because this silent version never explains where Tracey came from or how he knew Mr. Crewe. This gives an extra dimension to the reappearance of the clown, and ties up some loose ends that I noticed in the movie.

Despite this, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. It is unmistakeably Hitchcock, and the chase through the British Museum reminded me more than a little of the chase through the Symphony Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1954). Another interesting trivia bit about this movie is that there are no intertitles at all for the first 15 minutes of the movie. The action is conveyed completely through facial expressions, but there is no plot lost. The acting is so good that the audience is aware of exactly what is going on, without relying on the use of words.

Blackmail also includes what is thought to be Hitchcock’s longest cameo in any of his movies. He is onscreen for 20 seconds, shown being tormented by a small boy on a bus.

Hitchcock’s cameo

The festival continues today with Champagne at 1:00, Downhill at 4:00, The Ring at 7:00, and The Manxman at 9:30. See you there!

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!