TCM Classic Film Festival coming to Hollywood (and I wish I could be there)

I generally only write about Bay Area film festivals. In fact, all too often, I don’t have time to cover them properly. And yet here I am, writing about a festival that’s four hundred miles away. And there’s simply no practical way for me to attend.

It is, of course, Turner Classic Movies’ TCM Classic Film Festival, a celebration of classic films and restoration. Among the better-loved titles are Tokyo Story, American Graffiti, Stagecoach, A Hard Day’s Night, Gone with the Wind, Mary Poppins, East of Eden, the original Godzilla, and This is Spinal Tap. Other titles include The Best Years of Our Lives, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Johnny Guitar, Hobson’s Choice, and Freaks.

More than anything else, I would love to attend the screening of The Adventures of Robin Hood, and not only because it’s my all-time-favorite swashbuckler and turn-of-the-brain action movie. Craig Barron and Ben Burtt will be in attendance to discuss how the special visual and audio effects were created. The conversation with Carl Davis also looks like fun.

Techy that I am, I naturally wanted to know how the films would be projected.–film or digital? At first, that seemed impossible. Clicking on a title from the Programs page tells you everything about the movie and the presentation except that one little detail.

But I found a way. If you go to the schedule page, you’ll get a pop-up that, among other things, tells you if the film is 35mm or "digital." It doesn’t say what kind of digital. I’d certainly feel cheated if they screened a DVD. I’ll give the festival a benefit of the doubt and assume here that all of the digital presentations will be off of DCPs–the professional, theatrical format.

I didn’t click on every single movie, but I checked out a reasonable sample. About half the films will be digitally projected, and as a general rule, they’re the better-known titles. Oklahoma, East of Eden, and Double Indemnity will be screened digitally. But On Approval, My Sister Eileen, and The Naked City will be on 35mm film.

That isn’t surprising. It takes time and money to properly digitalize an old movie. Naturally, the films everyone loves are the top priorities.

Of course there are exceptions. Stagecoach will be screened on 35mm, and Paper Moon will be digital.

I know that a lot of people disagree with me on this, but I’m happy to see so many classics available on (I assume) DCP. It makes them available in more theatres. And a well-transferred DCP looks at least as good as a brand-new print going through a projector for the first time. Often, they look better.

But sometimes they take the digitizing too far.  For its 75th anniversary, the festival will screen the 3D version of The Wizard of Oz. A 2D movie should remain 2D.

Chaplin at the Castro: My Report on a Wonderful Day

On January 11, 1914, a Keystone movie crew drove to Venice–a beach town near Los Angeles–to improvise a comedy around an actual event of modest interest. Only one performer came with the crew–a young British Music Hall comedian recently signed with Keystone. The comic, Charlie Chaplin, quickly put together a costume and makeup, and created the most beloved, endearing, and popular character in the history of cinema. Perhaps in the history of the world.

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Exactly 100 years late, my wife and I spent all day (this past Saturday) in the Castro Theater for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s celebration of The Little Tramp at 100. And a wonderful day it was!

The movies were all projected digitally, but the music was live. So were the enthusiastic audiences.

Before I discuss the three programs screened, I want to talk about that famous imagecharacter, almost universally called The Tramp or The Little Tramp. Although Chaplin stumbled onto the costume and makeup soon after he first stepped in front of a movie camera, it took years of cranking out short subjects to flesh out the image into a human being. The mature Tramp, while desperately poor and surviving on subterfuge and petty theft, has the manners of a gentleman. He’s chivalrous to women, polite to men (when he’s not kicking them), and haughty when appropriate. He may carry a selection of cigarette butts in an old sardine can, but he handles that can like a gold cigarette case.

But he isn’t always horribly poor, and he isn’t always a tramp. He often has a job. Watch his films, and you’ll see him on a farm, working in a pawnshop, waiting tables, tightening bolts on an assembly line, and working in construction. He also occasionally returned to the character that first brought him success on the stage–a rich drunk.

But there’s one thing he never has: a name. A silent movie can easily have a nameless protagonist. In his film’s cast lists, he’s identified as "a factory worker," "an escaped convict," "a lone prospector," "a derelict," and–most frequently–"a tramp."

Here’s what I saw Saturday.

Our Mutual Friend: Three Chaplin Shorts

Over a period of 18 months in 1916 and ’17, Chaplin made twelve two-reel shorts for the Mutual Film Corporation. These represent his best work in short subjects–more mature than the Keystone and Essanay shorts that proceeded them, but without the artistic pretentions that sometimes mar the later First Nationals.

The Festival made an excellent choice in the three Mutual shorts it screened–and not only because they were all very funny. The first, "The Vagabond," is an early experiment into the sentimentality that would become a Chaplin specialty. The second, "Easy Street," may be Chaplin’s first experiment in social criticism, getting laughs in a story that deals with grinding poverty, violent street fights, battered wives, and drug addiction. "The Cure" is arguably the funniest Mutual. It’s also an excellent example of his rich drunk character.

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Serge Bromberg has recently restored the Mutuals, and his Lobster Films provided the DCP for this screening. "The Vagabond" looked so good it was a revelation; the image was so clear I felt like I was in those locations. "Easy Street’s" image quality wasn’t anywhere near as good, but it was certainly acceptable. "The Cure" was quite good–better than "Easy Street," but not the revelation of "The Vagabond."

Jon Mirsalis provided musical accompaniment on the Castro’s grand piano. He did an excellent job. The Tramp plays the violin (as did Chaplin himself off-screen) in "The Vagabond," and Mirsalis made you hear it through his piano.

The Kid

The middle show didn’t start with the main feature.

First, the Festival offered something common in the 1920s–a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like contest. Most of the contestants were children, and yes, they were adorable. The judging was done by audience applause.

Chaplin lookalikes

Next, they screened the very first movie with the character later called The Tramp: "Kid Auto Races in Venice, Cal." Running only about five minutes, it might today be called a found footage movie. A camera crew tries to record a children’s car race, but this little man with a toothbrush moustache keeps stepping in front of the camera and ruining the shot. And yes, it’s very funny.

It’s also a filmed record of the Tramp’s first audience. Once he became famous, Chaplin couldn’t shoot a movie with a real crowd; he had to hire extras. But here, people in the background look quizzically at this odd man getting in the way of the camera crew. They soon figure out that he’s intentionally funny, and they enjoy the show..

A century later, we’re still laughing at Charlie Chaplin.

Jon Mirsalis accompanied this screening on piano. The movie was projected off of a very good  35mm print–the only analog projection of the day.

Author and Chaplin expert Jeffrey Vance introduced the contest, the short, and the feature.

That feature is Chaplin’s first, The Kid. Although it was many wonderful sequences, it’s actually my least favorite if Chaplin’s five silent (and almost silent) feature comedies. This story of the Tramp raising a child, and fighting to keep him, occasionally falls to deeply into sentimentality. And the dream sequence near the end never worked well for me–despite a few laughs. It’s always felt like padding.

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On the other hand, when The Kid is good, and that’s most of the time, it’s terrific. The Tramp’s early attempts to not take responsibility for an abandoned baby are side-splittingly funny, as are the domestic scenes of unorthodox child-rearing. And the chase across the rooftops manages to be heart-breaking, suspenseful, and hilarious at the same time.

Chaplin recut The Kid in 1921, and that’s the version shown. The changes, as I understand it, were minor. I’ve never seen the original.

Visually, The Kid was the big disappointment of the day. It looked awful, showing the harsh lack of detail that comes when you project standard-definition video onto a large screen. I suspect we saw a DVD, or a DCP made from a DVD master. I can accept that no one has yet spent the time and money required to convert the The Kid to theater-quality digital. But couldn’t the Chaplin estate have loaned the Festival a 35mm print?

Before I discuss the musical accompaniment by the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, I need to disclose a conflict of interest. My wife played First Viola with this orchestra for many years. We know a lot of musicians.

For Saturday’s screenings, the Orchestra played Chaplin’s own score, written for the 1971 re-release. (In addition to being an actor, writer, producer, and director, he was also a composer.) Timothy Brock, who has been working with the Chaplin estate to adapt the filmmaker’s scores for live performance, conducted.

The small orchestra sounded great. I have only one complaint–and the fault lies with Chaplin, not Brock or the Orchestra. For the above-mentioned rooftop chase, Chaplin wrote a soft, sentimental, romantic piece. It hurts both the suspense and the humor.

The Gold Rush

The day closed with Chaplin’s epic comic adventure, The Gold Rush, and if you’re presenting Chaplin with live music, nothing could beat that. Here you’ll find some of Chaplin’s funniest set pieces, including the Thanksgiving dinner of boiled shoe, the dance of the rolls, and my favorite–the fight over the rifle that always points at Chaplin. All within the context of a powerful and touching story of love and survival.  You can read about the film itself in my Blu-ray Review, and my report on seeing it with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (as opposed to the Chamber one).

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So I’ll go right to Saturday night’s presentation. The image quality was uneven, which is hardly surprising for a restoration that’s being called a work in progress. But most of it looked very good, and none of it looked dreadful. Considering the film’s history (see that Blu-ray Review for details), it’s amazing that The Gold Rush looked as good as it did.

Once again, Timothy Brock conducted the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra in his own adaptation of Chaplin’s score. It’s one of Chaplin’s best scores, and Brock did a great job adapting it for the longer silent version and for a smaller orchestra. In other words, I loved this accompaniment.

And it improved upon earlier performances of the score. Brock’s recording of this score on the Blu-ray lacks the musically-created sound effects that are a big part of silent film accompaniment. I’m glad to say he fixed that problem Saturday night. The orchestra provided gunshots, hand clapping, and a strange, whale-like sound for a cabin teetering on the edge.

I do have one complaint about how the festival was managed. A huge number of seats in the center section were reserved before the audience was allowed into the theater. And it wasn’t always clear which seats were reserved. My wife and I picked seats that were not marked as such, but staff members asked us to move because the seats were, in fact, reserved. Then they told us that we could move back. The reserved seats next to us were empty for the first two shows.

But despite the seating shenanigans, I couldn’t imagine a better place to have spent an overcast and drizzly day. Or even a nice one.

SF Silent Film Festival, Saturday Report

Amazing Tales from the Archive

First, Robert Byrne of the Festival discussed the restoration of The Half Breed, the 1916 Douglas Fairbanks feature that will have its restoration premiere Saturday. He and his team had to work with three different, incomplete prints, most from questionable sources. Byrne divided his talk into three categories:

  • Continuity: Trying to figure out how the story worked and in what order the scenes were shown in the original release.
  • Titles: The intertitles had clearly been altered in the various prints They tried to work out what they originally said.
  • Image: Which of the three had a particular shot, which looked best, and how to improve the image.

Next, Celine Ruivo of the Cinematheque fancaise discussed the restoration of very early sound films shown at Paris' Phono Cinema Theatre in 1900. These involved a very unusual film format, plus early phonograph cylinders. I have to confess that I nodded off in this one.

The First Born

There's no such thing as an Alfred Hitchcock movie that is not also an Alma Reville movie. But I've now seen a film written (actually co-written) by Reville that Hitchcock didn't work on.

But the real auteur is Miles Mander, the director, producer, star, and other co-author.

Set in the world of the British aristocracy, Mander plays a nobleman angry at his wife (the wonderful Madeleine Carroll and the real star of the film) for failing to provide him with an heir. So she adopts a baby boy while her husband is in safari in Africa. A melodrama with comic overtones, The First Born satirizes the whole upper-class fixation on birthright. A couple of wild plot twists in the film's final minutes add more pleasure to the story.

Stephen Horne accompanied on piano, accordion, and flute.

Tokyo Chorus

The great Yasujiro Ozu made this comedy-turned-drama in 1931, the year before his great I was Born, But…. It lacks the consistency and depth of that masterpiece, but it's still an entertaining and thoughtful work–and the best film I've seen at the festival so far.

Tokyo Chorus starts out as an out-and-out comedy, subversive in its attitude about authority but really offering little more than laughs and a likable protagonist. Then, about half an hour into the film, it takes a serious turn. That protagonist loses his job, and with a wife and three kids at home, that's no laughing matter. Oddly, the shift in tone works. The man we laughed at and with now becomes someone we care about deeply, and the story about unemployment breaks our hearts. And yet occasional light touches still come through.

Günter Buchwald, in his first performance in the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, did a fine job accompanying the film on piano and violin. Nothing mind-blowing, however.

The Patsy

I have seen this Marion Davies comedy–directed by King Vidor the same year he made The Crowd–before, but never theatrically. Live music and an enthusiastic audience helped.

 

In a very light story with overtones from Snow White and Hamlet, Davies plays the awkward sister clearly less favored by her dominating mother (the amazing Marie Dressler in a performance that reignited her career). She's clearly in love with her sister's boyfriend; which is just fine because the sister is cheating on him. The Hamlet part? At one point she discovers that she can get away with more if she pretends to be crazy.

 

In the film's best sequence, she tries to get a rich playboy's attention by imitating Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri. Her mimicry is astonishing. I know I'm not the first to say this, but it's a pity that her patron and lover William Randolph Hearst didn't put her in more comedies. This is where she shines.

 

I don't think I've ever seen a well-made silent comedy that depended so much on intertitles. The audience laughed as much from what we read than what we saw performed. It's not supposed to work that way, but in this case, it did.

 

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra did their usual wonderful performance.

Hitchcock 9, Part 3: Sunday

B The Pleasure Garden
For a new director’s first film, The Pleasure Garden is surprisingly assured–creatively imageusing all the cinema’s tools to tell a good story. Based on a popular novel of the time, it follows two young women, both dancers, as their professional and love lives go in different and contrasting directions. One goes aggressively after money and becomes very wealthy. The other–the nice one–marries the worst cad you could imagine. The movie really picks up in the last act, when the action moves to "The East" (country unnamed), where exotic diseases and even more exotic  women improve the atmosphere and story. The climax involves one of Hitchcock’s best murder scenes–one that left the audience gasping in horror. Pretty impressive for a newcomer.

And what about the music? Sometimes I suspect that Stephen Horne is more than one person. Playing flute, piano, accordion, some sort of percussion, and I think his own breath, he became a one-man sextet. And he fit the excitement and the weirdness perfectly.

The restoration looked fine, presented in a tinted 35mm print.

B- The Lodger
His first thriller, The Lodger feels like Alfred Hitchcock in embryo. The plot and the atmosphere set up themes he would use again and again, but this first time, he imagedoesn’t get it quite right. For instance, it’s often referred to as his first use the "innocent accused" plot repeated in 39 Steps, Strangers on a Train, North by Nortwest, and others; I’ve even referred to it that way, myself. But it’s more of a mystery than any of those later works, leaving the audience to wonder if the strange new boarder really is the Avenger Murderer terrorizing London. This robs the film of much of its potential suspense; we have a hard time worrying about the guy if we think he’s a serial killer. It’s all made worse by Ivor Novello’s anemic and bizarre performance . But if you love Hitchcock, you have to see The Lodger.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra gave it a wonderful score, catching the mystery, the terror, and the feeling of the London fog. The tinted 35mm print, made from a new digital restoration, looked quite good.

SF Silent Film Festival, Day 2

Amazing Tales From the Vault
This year’s technical talk concentrated on digital restorations and distribution by major studios, with experts from Paramount and Sony (Columbia). I didn’t take notes, so I’ll just give you a quick overview:

  • Wings was projected off a DCP Friday night. Paramount has made a 35mm negative and prints of the new digital restoration, but the Festival decided to show the DCP because they were more confident of the quality.
  • The restoration cost about $700,000, and will probably lose money. Since Paramount is a for-profit company, this bodes ill for other silent restorations.
  • We were treated to a back-and-forth comparison of the first reel of Dr. Strangelove in 35mm and DCP. DCP looked better.
  • If you sit close enough to the screen, 4K projection looks better. They showed a single frame from Lawrence of Arabia in 2K and 4K. The difference, from my seat in the third row, was amazing.

Little Toys
I had mixed feelings about this late silent from Shanghai. At times, I felt the lack of sound as a flaw, something I rarely experience in a silent film. Other times, this tale of a brilliant toymaker and her tribulations in a world of war, touched me. Ruan Lingyu gave a brilliant performance as the lead, but at times it felt like it was going on too long.

The 35mm print looked washed out and badly scratched–probably a problem with the source and not this particular print. The Chinese intertitles had badly-translated, often grammatically strange, English subtitles.

Donald Sosin was, as usual, brilliant on the piano.

The Loves of Pharaoh
This is the sort of big, epic, costume melodrama that Hollywood loved in the 1950s–except it was made in Germany in the 1920s. The plot involved an evil yet love-sick pharaoh, a slavegirl, her lover, barbarian Ethiopians, and…well, you get the idea. Silly, but utterly entertaining.

Recently restored from two incomplete tinted prints, the movie is still not complete. Missing scenes were filled in with intertitles (“Pharaoh walks to the window”) and occasional stills.

The DCP presentation was acceptable, but not as crisp as Wings. One annoyance: The bulk of the intertitles used light blue letters, which was very distracting and anachronistic. Only the ones filling in for missing footage used the conventional white letters. It would have been better the other way around.

Dennis James provided fine music on the Castro’s mammoth pipe organ. There was no subtlety to the score, but that was appropriate, as there was no subtlety to the movie.

Mantrap
No surprises here. I own this romantic comedy–the perfect Clara Bow vehicle–on the Treasures 5 DVD box set. And I’ve even seen it once before at the Castro, with live music. But that didn’t keep me from enjoying the movie. After all, comedy is always better with a large and enthusiastic audience, and Stephen Horne’s score (mostly piano but also with some accordian and flute) sounds better live. A tale of a flirt who marries a hick, with a New York divorce lawyer thrown in as a reluctant piece of the triangle, is very much a work of its time. But in many ways, it’s timeless.

Physically, the film hasn’t aged well. The 35mm print from the Library of Congress came from a source that was scratched and lacked detail. Seeing this the day after Wings brought home the difference between preservation and restoration. No one will likely spend $700,000 to make Mantrap look new. So it has only been restored; the best existing print was copied to a more stable film stock.

I decided to skip the last movie of the evening, The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna. I didn’t think I could stay awake for it. To paraphrase Lloyd Bridges in Airplane!, “I knew this was the wrong week to give up caffeine.”

But I did buy the Wings Blu-ray before I left.

Note: I corrected a factual error in the original post.

SF Silent Film Festival Report 1: Wings

I always felt that realistic sound effects weren't appropriate for silent films. I was wrong. Or perhaps this was just an exception. Realistic sound effects are fantastic if they're performed live by an ensemble directed by sound effects wizard Ben Burtt. Using bicycles, drums, a typewriter (I think) and devices that I couldn't possibly name (but all, I suspect, existing in 1927), Burtt and his team brought the air and land battles of World War 1 to life. The thrills, shocks, and horrors of combat came through in Burtt's audio as much as in William Wellman's images.

Music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra helped, as well. One of the best ensembles accompanying silent films today, they make any silent film come alive. But this time, to be honest, they were upstaged by the sound effects. I don't think they minded.

Silent movies were meant to be seen, not heard, so let's talk about visuals. Paramount's new restoration of Wings–the first Best Picture Oscar winner–is simply stunning. A couple of scenes looked grainier than the rest, but most of it looked like a brand-new black and white movie. Except there wasn't much black and white. Most of the movie was tinted, and if the tints lacked the excitement of those in Napoleon, they were still effective. Flames were hand-painted orange (or CGI'd to look hand-painted). I don't know if I saw a brand-new 35mm print or a digital copy, and frankly, I don't care.

But what about the movie itself? I don't know if it was the audio, the restoration, or my age, but Wings seemed much better than I remembered. A great, big epic of regular soldiers at war, it took its time developing the atmosphere and characters, and foreshadowing an important death. When the action starts, we're entirely invested.

The two leads, Charles (Buddy) Rogers and Richard Arlen, give complete and subtle performances. There's a moment when Arlen's character is receiving a medal, and the weary sadness and confusion on his face spoke more volumes than any dialog ever could. Among the other impressive performances are a not-yet-famous Gary Cooper in a small but effective role, and Henry B. Walthall as a father trying his best to repress emotions raging inside. The wonderful Clara Bow, despite her top billing, is wasted here as the ingenue in love with a man who doesn't realize he's in love with her.

Tomorrow night, we'll watch Bow shine in Mantrap, a movie more suited to her talents.

 

Children of Paradise

Something struck me as I watched Children of Paradise Saturday at the Castro. The main characters are, at heart, all extraordinarily selfish. Even when expressing deep and undying love, they’re thinking only of their own needs and desires. They want to own the object of their adoration, but they don’t see that object as a human being with desires of his or her own. No wonder there are no happy endings here.

Perhaps that’s why I so pity the two most love-struck characters in the story, Baptiste and Nathalie, but I can’t bring myself to like them very much. They’re doomed by their intense, melodramatic, but ultimately unattainable loves–even when they appear to, perhaps briefly, attain them..

Yet I adore two other major characters: Garance and Frédérick. For them, love is simple pleasure. They’re almost as selfish as Baptiste and Nathalie, but they, at least, are honest about their desires. Garance and Frédérick are merely hedonists, while the seemingly serious and romantic Baptiste and Nathalie have sunk into narcissism.

And yet no character in this large cast earns more affection for me than Avril, the criminal sidekick (and possibly murderer) with the innocence and demeanor of a child. Avril has no ambitions or desires. He does what he’s told, even when he’s reluctant to do so. His eyes are soulful, and he almost always carries a small flower–sometimes by hand, or in his teeth, or behind his ear. How can you hate a man like that?

Avril takes those orders from Lacenaire, who comes as close as anyone to being children_of_paradise2Children’s villain–a well-educated dandy with a deep distain for almost everyone, he steals for a living and dreams of committing a grand murder. Like Baptiste and Frédérick, he’s a planet orbiting Garance–the gravitational center of the film’s solar system. But while Baptiste needs Garance to be his true love, and Frédérick merely wants to sleep with her, Lacenaire’s desires are less clear. He’s fascinated by Garance, and she’s fascinated with him, but there’s nothing sexual between them. Perhaps Lacenaire is gay–or asexual.

Garance acquires another male admirer before the film is through–the Count Eduard of Monteray. He wants to own Garance and make her his mistress. He’s rich and powerful, and used to getting whatever he wants. But I’m not sure if he desires Garance for sex, for status, or for an excuse to kill other men honorably in duels. (Eduard is more evil than Lacenaire, but there’s too little of him onscreen to call him the villain.)

And all of this is set in the theater world of 19th century Paris. Baptiste, a mime, grows as an artist as unrequited love burns a hole in his heart. His staged mime children_of_paradise3routines are amongst some of the film’s best moments–funny, touching, and sad. Baptiste and Frédérick are both historical figures. Jean-Baptiste Debureau was one of the greatest mimes of all time. Frédérick Lemaître was his era’s great dramatic actor. (Lacenaire and Avril are also historical figures. The other characters  are, as far as I know, fictitious.)

The large sets, filled with extras, and captured with Roger Hubert’s atmospheric cinematography, bring the audience back to a teeming, lively, and romanticized time and place. I’d be hard-pressed to think of another black-and-white sound film that works so well as period spectacle. The high production values are all the more impressive when you remember that Children of Paradise was shot during the last months of the Nazi occupation.

Which brings me to Pathe’s new restoration. It’s gorgeous, from the sharp, fine detail of the crowd scenes to the smoky insides of the theaters–so brilliantly lit by Hubert to give the impression of gas lighting. Wisely, Pathe did not attempt to sharpen scenes that were never meant to look sharp. A handful of shots fail to look as good as they should, probably because they were restored from inferior sources.

The Castro screened Children of Paradise digitally in DCP. I know that many will object, but I don’t. 35mm film couldn’t have looked better.

September 10, 2012: After watching the film again on Blu-ray, I have made a few changes to this article.

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