Rare Lubitsch in New York

I’m in New York City right now, visiting my son and daughter-in-law. This evening, we went to an art house cinema I didn’t know existed to see a Ernst Lubitsch film I had never heard of.

The theater is the Antohology Flm Archives in lower Manhatan. The movie was Broken Lullaby, also known as The Man I Killed–the name on the 35 print screened.

Like the Pacific Film Archive near home, the AFA is a non-profit that doesn’t sell food and frowns on your taking it into the theater. And like the PFA, it organizes its calendar around series. One series, Essential Cinema, is in theory the basic, common classics, although much of what they include here are pretty obscure. Other series in the current schedule includes New York’s Chinatown on Screen, a Richard Fleischer retrospective, and In the Flesh: Porn Noir (’70s porn with a noir twist).

Broken Lullaby was part of Auteurs Gone Wild–films by major directors that are not in the director’s usual style. Probably the best-known films in the group are Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn and Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris and A Countess from Hong Kong.

Broken Lullaby, made at Paramount in 1932, was not your usual sparklingly amoral Lubitsch comedy, but a serious anti-war melodrama set immediately after the end of World War 1. A young French veteran (Phillips Holmes), deeply guilty about killing a German soldier on the battlefield, seeks out the man’s family to apoligize. But once there, his courage fails him and he lies about his connection to their son. He also falls in love with his victim’s fiance.

Unfortunately, the very good-looking Holmes’ acting chops weren’t up to the part. He overplayed to the point of deep annoyance. Top-billed Lionel Barrymore, as the dead man’s father, plays his role beautifully, as does the rest of the cast.

Lubitsch and the four credited writers manage to avoid every cliche that they seemed to be headed towards. The ending is moving, emotionally complex, ambigious, unexpected, and perfect.

The film contains one great Lubitsch touch sequence–a montage that follow a rumor throughout the neighborhood.

i’m glad I caught it, and I hope someone in the Bay Area decides to screen it.

 

The Producers & Take the Money and Run at the PFA

Friday night I saw a disappointing print of a great movie, and a great print of a disappointing movie. Guess what! I’d rather see a great movie than a great print.

I attended a double bill of late 60′s comedies by first-time American directors, both of whom would become major filmmakers–Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. This was at  the Pacific Film Archive; the opening films in their new series, Jokers Wild: American Comedy, 1960–1989.

(I’m never sure about using the phrase double feature with the PFA, since you have to buy separate tickets for each feature. On the other hand, if you buy tickets for both, the second one costs only $4. Besides, these two really felt like a double bill.)

I’ve never cared all that much for Mel Brooks, but I’ve been a Woody Allen fan since the original Casino Royale in 1967. But Brooks never again did anything else as good as The Producers, while Allen would surpass the quality of Take the Money and Run many times over. (He’s also made films that are considerably worse.)

A The Producers
A desperate has-been Broadway producer (Zero Mostel) and a timid, neurotic accountant (Gene Wilder in his first starring role) plan a bit of larceny that will make them a fortune if the play they produce flops. But if it’s a hit, they’ll go to jail. No wonder the play they’re producing is called Springtime for Hitler.

I can’t imagine the story working without the chemistry of Mostel and Wilder (I haven’t seen the musical remake and I’m not sure I want to). Mostel is a bolt of fat lightning, zooming from one oversized emotion to another, always over the top and yet in a strange way always sympathetic and believable. But while Mostel’s Max Bialystock displays every emotion with the subtlety of a canon, Wilder’s Leo Bloom holds everything in. Timid and frightened, he reacts to the absurdities around him with small yet hysterical facial expressions. Until he explodes. Then he’s bigger than Mostel.

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And yet the movie’s funniest sequence doesn’t depend on either star. The big production number, also called "Springtime for Hitler," manages to parody Busby Berkeley and Nazi iconography. It’s hysterical, but it also says something very true about the thin line between big-budget entertainment and fascist propaganda.

The 35mm print had a slight yellow cast. It wasn’t bad enough to ruin the picture, but it certainly compromised the visuals. From what I’ve read, I’m pretty sure that a yellow cast is a sign of something much worse than a faded print—a faded negative. If I’m right, The Producers is in bad need of a major restoration.

B- Take the Money and Run
When I wrote about Woody Allen’s directorial review in this week’s newsletter, I gave it a B+. I should know better than grade a film I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. Take the Money and Run is a weaker movie than I remembered.

A mock-documentary about a hopelessly-inept criminal named Virgil Starkwell (Allen), it has no real plot and no real character development. This is what I call an anything-goes comedy–one that’s willing to sacrifice plot, character, and any sense of realism for a laugh. There are several great anything-goes comedies, including Duck Soup and Airplane!, but they all provide more laughs than Take the Money and Run.

Which isn’t to say it isn’t funny. Much of it is hilarious. There’s the absurdist job interview sequence, the bank robbery ruined by bad penmanship,  and best of all, the interview with Virgil’s parents, wearing Groucho masks as they argue with each other.

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But for every great scene, there’s two that fall flat. Allen never was a great slapstick comic, and a scene where he struggles with a shirt-folding machine made me long to see what Buster Keaton could have done with that prop. Any many lines, especially those spoken by the very serious-sounding narrator (Jackson Beck) would have worked better in a standup routine.

Before the film, curator Steve Seid discussed the difficulties of acquiring a print of this independent film, now owned by Disney. The print they got–the only one available, apparently–was a rare, archival print. It was gorgeous. The colors leaped off the screen with a deep saturation you rarely see anymore. The movie carries a Technicolor credit, and I’m pretty sure that what I saw was a dye-transfer print. Only Disney or the projectionist could say for sure.

The two movies have an interesting connection: film editor Ralph Rosenblum. By the mid-60s, Rosenblum had been typecast as the editor for New York-based first-time comedy directors. He would spend most of the 70s as Allen’s editor. His memoir, When The Shooting Stops … The Cutting Begins, is worth reading.

Quick Opinions on The Past and Dallas Buyers Club

I know. I haven’t been writing much lately aside from the weekly newsletter. I’ve been busy. But I have managed to get to a couple of current films.

And I chose well. I really loved both of these pictures, although The Past is definitely the best of them..

A The Past
Between this new film and A Separation (read my review), I’m ready to declare writer/director Asghar Farhadi our era’s Ozu. Like them, his intimate family dramas catch unique yet universal human beings at their best and worst. His low-key films don’t tell you what to think or feel–the camera work feels neutral and there’s little or no music–but he catches ordinary people in their moments of crisis, and in doing so tells us a lot about our species.

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This story concerns a married but long-separated couple. The man returns from far away to his old home, temporarily, to manage the divorce. He finds a dangerously dysfunctional family, with a selfish, manipulative, and possibly insane mother, a boyfriend trapped in a moral dilemma, and children in desperate need a sympathetic parental figure. The story moves quietly from one crisis to another, without ever feeling forced or melodramatic.

Although officially an Iranian film, The Past is set and was shot entirely in France, and most of the dialog is in French. Outside of the children, all of the main characters are Iranian immigrants. Little is made of that. There’s no sense of religious Islam or political exile.

A Dallas Buyers Club
Compared to The Past, this story of people dying of AIDS is practically upbeat. But then, it’s an American movie. Matthew McConaughey gives the performance of his career (so far) as the real-life Ron Woodroof, a Texas good-old-boy diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. He was supposed to die in 30 days, but he did some research, started smuggling pharmaceuticals not approved by the FDA, and kept himself alive for a long time.

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And not just himself. He sold the drugs to other AIDS sufferers. At first this was purely a for-profit business. Eventually, it became a crusade.

And yes, this is very much a feel-good movie, albeit one that acknowledges that many of the characters will die young. Jared Leto particularly stands out as a dying transvestite whom the initially homophobic Woodroof befriends. Leto’s character, like most of the supporting roles, is fictitious.

Noir is a French Word: Two French Films at Noir City

On Saturday, the Noir City festival honored the nation that first recognized Film Noir as a genre, and gave that genre a name. Unfortunately, my wife and I were only able to attend the first two films.

A- Pépé Le Moko
You can’t talk about this 1937 thriller without talking about star power. This is not by a long shot the greatest film starring Jean Gabin (that would be Grand Illusion), but if there’s a better vehicle for Gabin’s talent, his looks, his sex appeal, and his ability to hold your attention, I haven’t seen it. Officially, this movie is about a brilliant criminal living in an impenetrable neighborhood where the cops can’t possibly find him. In reality, it’s about how wonderfully Gabin could spin his magic over an audience.

And that’s enough to make a wonderfully entertaining motion picture.

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That impenetrable neighborhood is Algiers’ Casbah, the "Arab section" of the city that was actually a melting pot of people from all over the world. With its steep staircases and winding streets, it’s a world onto its own, and one uncontrolled by the French colonial government. Director Julien Duvivier and designer Jacques Krauss use both real locations and (mostly) studio sets to create a filthy yet exotic setting that becomes the film’s second leading character.

Before the film began, festival founder (and self-proclaimed "Czar of Noir") Eddie Muller talked a bit about Gabin, his life, and his professional relationship Duvivier. It was a good talk.

The 35mm print from Rialto Pictures had seen better days. The scratches and white flecks didn’t ruin the film, but they detracted somewhat from the overall enjoyment. A greater concern: While much of the film had the wonderful sharpness of a good 35mm print, other scenes looked washed out, as if made from a copy several generations away from the original negative. I hope someone finds the money and footage necessary  to give this film a full restoration.

B Jenny Lamour (aka Quai des Orfèvres)
Murder, lust, a beautiful singer, a dirty old millionaire, a jealous husband, a tired cop, and a lesbian photographer turn this 1947 noir into a tight little entertainment. The film was directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who would go on to make the great Wages of Fear.

Although still dark, Jenny Lamour is considerably lighter than that masterpiece. This is noir as pure entertainment. The title character (Suzy Delair) is a rising singer, well-aware of the importance of her sex appeal in helping that rise. Things get so bad that her pianist husband (Bernard Blier) sets out to murder one of her admirers–a powerful and wealthy womanizer. But when he arrives at his would-be victim’s home, he finds that another murderer has beat him to it. And yet, the clues all point to him.

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The story captures the excitement and camaraderie of the theater world, brings in several fun (if not always realistic) characters, and provides quite a bit of suspense. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Muller gave a brief talk about this one, as well. He talked about Clouzot and his guilt as a collaborator during the occupation. He also noted that, while an American film of 1947 could only hint that a character is gay, a French film from that year could say in the open.

This time, Rialto provided the festival with a stunningly beautiful 35mm print.

Crime on both sides of the border: Saturday at Noir City

I spent Saturday at the Castro, taking in the first full day of the Noir City festival. It was a long day–a triple-bill matinee, a short dinner break, and a double-bill evening show. Mexico was the common theme.

Technically speaking, only the matinee had a Mexican theme. It started with a Hollywood thriller about illegal immigration with a Mexican hero. That was followed by two Mexican movies. All three films were pretty obscure, at least for American audiences.

The evening event screened two classic, well-loved noirs, both recently restored. The first one ended in Mexico; the second was mostly set there, although the main characters were all American.

Amazingly, all three of the American films–made in the late 40s and early 50s–managed to avoid the most obnoxious of Mexican stereotypes. The Mexican characters were as intelligent, hard-working, honest, and decent as the American characters. On the other hand, since this was noir, that’s not saying much.

The Matinee

B Border Incident
Nothing provides perspective like a 65-year-old film about one of the most controversial subjects of our own time. If made today, this 1949 MGM thriller about illegal immigration would anger both sides. The immigrants are treated sympathetically– as exploited victims. Those who smuggle them across the border and put them to work picking crops are evil villains in the great noir tradition. Those in law enforcement–Yankee and Mexican working together–are virtuous and courageous heroes, motivated only by a desire to stop the exploitation of the workers.

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Border Incident gives us two detective heroes–one Mexican (Ricardo Montalban) and one American (future senator George Murphy). Of the two, Montalban–a Mexican who was seldom cast as one in his Hollywood career–has the larger and more impressive role. Not that the casting measures up to 21st century enlightenment. Another major Mexican good guy, a farm worker who effectively becomes Montalban’s sidekick, is played by James Mitchell in swarthy makeup.

Leaving aside social and racial issues, Border Incident is a well-made thriller set mostly in rural areas. It provides suspense, entertaining if not realistic characters, a modicum of humor, and the most ridiculously unbelievable quicksand I have ever seen in a movie. (On the other hand, I have never seen quicksand outside of a movie.)

The 35mm print was just fine.

B+ In the Palm of Your Hand 
The perfect crime goes horribly wrong in this Mexican tale of wealth and greed. Arturo de Córdova stars as a fortune teller who uses detective skills to convince his clients of his magical powers. When he discovers that a beautiful widow murdered her husband–with the help of her handsome but not-too-bright lover–the clairvoyant sees the chance to augment his income with some blackmail. But the widow (Leticia Palma) has other plans, and a talent for getting what she wants out of men.

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In the Palm of Your Hand becomes a story of a good man tempted into evil, with disastrous results. Palma creates the first of two great femme fatales I encountered on Saturday. And the flat tire sequences is a masterpiece of suspense.

This film has never been released in the USA, and the 35mm print lacked English subtitles. Noir City used the Castro’s digital projector to display newly-translated subtitles live over the film image. That worked fine for the most part, but occasionally got out of sync.

B+ Victims of Sin 
The best flick in the triple bill was also the weirdest, and could reasonably be described as a noir musical. Actually, it’s a strange hybrid now called a cabaretera film, that combines melodrama with music. Like the earliest Hollywood musicals, they’re generally set in the world of live entertainment, allowing for realistically-motivated song and dance sequences.

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Victims of Sin sports a silly plot, ridiculous characters, and entertaining musical numbers. But what sets it above all that is the films’ star, a force of nature named Ninón Sevilla. A blonde firebrand and magnificent dancer with the energy of a firecracker, she lights up the screen every time she steps into the frame. Whether she’s dancing with a drummer in a cabaret or jumping through a window guns ablazing, she holds the screen like few others.

The Festival screened the only English-subtitled print of Victims of Sin. Aside from some difficult-to-read subtitles, I have no complaints.

The Evening Show

A Too Late For Tears 
Lizabeth Scott created the other great femme fatal of the day as a housewife willing to do anything to hold onto an illegal fortune. When a stranger tosses a satchel of cash into the family car, her husband wants to do the right thing and report the incident to the police. But that poor man is no match for his scheming wife. Neither is the crook whose car the satchel was supposed to be tossed into.

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This is noir at its most entertaining. That paragon of mid-century American virtue, the housewife, proves herself smarter and meaner than everyone else as she sinks into depravity and murder (the professional crook is downright decent by comparison). Filled with tricky plot twists, witty dialog, and almost no production values, it provides a chance to both root for a dangerous killer and cheer at her ultimate downfall.

The Film Noir Foundation recently restored Too Late For Tears. Before the screening, Eddie Muller explained the problems finding decent source materials for the restoration. At one point they almost acquired an original nitrate print, but the trail went cold when the print’s owner suddenly died (which sounds like a noir plot). The 35mm restoration print (the FNF lacked the funds to restore it digitally) proved uneven in image quality. But it was never so bad as to compromise the pleasure of watching this excellent  movie.

A The Hitch-Hiker
Directed and co-written by Ida Lupino, the only woman director of the Hollywood studio era, The Hitch-Hiker is a quick, efficient thriller that runs only 71 minutes. The story is simple, suspenseful, and based on a true story. Two men on a fishing vacation pick up a hitchhiker, who turns out to be a psychotic killer wanted by the police. Holding them at gunpoint, he forces his prisoners to drive into Baja California, where he hopes to cover his tracks and be safe forever. They know quite well that he only intends to keep them alive until he no longer needs them.

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This three-person tale is taut and suspenseful throughout. William Talman doesn’t bring nuance to the killer, but he brings a menace that could curdle water. I suspect that a generation swore off giving lifts to hitchhikers after seeing this movie.

The Library of Congress recently restored The Hitch-Hiker, and Noir City screened a beautiful new print. (And no, the picture above is not from the restoration.)

Noir City Opening Night

My wife and I arrived at the Castro more than 30 minutes before curtain time. It was already packed. A trio, the Fly Right Sisters, entertained us with songs from the 40s (or there abouts). The singers, along with many in the audience, were dressed appropriately.

Right from the beginning, I knew it was going to be a great night.

Journey into Fear

This was my first chance seeing Orson Welles’ third film, and the last he made on his RKO contract. The first two on that contract were Citizen Kane and The Magnificient Ambersons, so you would expect number three to be something special.

It wasn’t. It was a short, simple war-time thriller, with a good but not exceptional story and a strong sense of humor. It was a Mercury Theater production, and all the familar faces from Kane and Ambersons were there. Joseph Cotten starred as an American armaments engineer on business in Turkey for the war effort (this was made in 1943). Someone working for the Germans wants to kill him, and he finds himself on a rundown cargo ship with his would-be killer in the room across the hall.

Like almost every American film Welles’ made after Kane, this one was seriously tampered with by the studio, with more than a third of its runtime cut without Welles’ approval. As Eddie Muller noted in his introduction before the film, this reoccuring theme in Welles’ work was as much a fault of the auteur’s as of the suits. Welles had a habit of abandoning a project before it was through.

The festival screened Journey into Fear off an acceptable but not exceptional 35mm print. It showed some wear-and-tear, and the focus was a bit soft. Despite its important director, this is not a title anyone is bothering to restore. (Of course, a real restoration would involve recovering footage that was destroyed more than 70 years ago.)

The Third Man

This one really is one of the great movies of all time–and that’s not just my opinion. It regularly appears near the top of Greatest Films lists. Noir found its most fertile ground in the post-World War II disillusionment. And The Third Man, set and shot in shell-shocked post-war Vienna, is as disillusioned as they come.

Joseph Cotten stars as a struggling American novelist who comes to Vienna–an occupied city divided into American, British, French, and Soviet sectors–to take a job offered to him by old, very close friend. But he arrives to find the friend recently killed in a car accident. What’s worse, the friend has been accused of some very nasty blackmarket trading. As the writer looks into the story, nothing proves to be as it seems.

The film is immensely entertaining, often funny, and yet very, very bleak. Much of it was filmed amongst the rubble of a once-beautiful city where people now scamble for food. The protagonist learns that the best friend he grew up with is thoroughly evil–something he had never expected. The female lead (Alida Valli) is facing a life under Communism.

Outside of musicals, I’d be hard-pressed to think of another film so well remembered for its score. Anton Karas, a local Austrian musician, wrote and recorded the score himself. Director Carol Reed was so impressed with Karas’ work that he superimposed the opening credits over a close-up of the instrument being played.

Noir City screened The Third Man is a beautiful 35mm print.

 

Duck Soup Revisited

I watched Duck Soup Sunday at the Pacific Film Archive. Great fun. I don’t remember when I saw it last on a big screen with a real audience. Certainly more than 20 years ago. That’s all very odd, because I just may have seen Duck Soup theatrically more often than any other movie.

I first saw it in a packed theater in LA’s Westwood district, on a Saturday night around 1970 or ’71. It was on a double bill with Horsefeathers, which I had already seen on TV. I fell in love with the Marx Brothers that night, and especially with Duck Soup.

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Over the next twelve years or so, I rarely missed a chance to see my favorite Marx Brothers movie. And there were plenty of chances in those days. Revival movie theaters were doing great business, and the Marx Brothers were big money makers(one LA revival house extended a triple bill of some of their worst movies for several weeks). I could see Duck Soup two or three times a year.

But in the early 80s, parenthood reduced my movie-going habits considerably, and home video all but killed revival cinema. I think I took my son to see it theatrically when he was young, but I’m not sure (neither is he).

In the early days of DVD, I bought a box set containing Animal Crackers, Horsefeathers, and Duck Soup. These were bare-bones discs, with indifferent transfers and no extras. With the ability to see it at my leisure, I pretty much stopped watching Duck Soup. The magic, it seemed, had gone away.

Until Sunday. Watching this great comedy in a theater, with an enthusiastic audience, made it come back to life again. Over the years, I’d forgotten that even the name Rufus T. Firefly gets a laugh. And you barely notice that the mirror scene no sound at all when you’re surrounded by laughter.

The big screen also helps Duck Soup. The movie is filled with mock pageantry, from Groucho’s belated entrance to the "His Excellency’s car!" running gag to the patriotic production number "Freedonia’s Going to War" ("We got guns. They got guns. All God’s chillin got guns").

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This really is one of the screen’s greatest comedies, and The Marx Brothers at their purest and most perfect. What makes so pure and perfect? Two reasons:

First, the Brothers were always at their best when up against the stuffy, respectable protectors of the status quo, and the richest strain of that gold can be found in the halls of government, where Duck Soup is set. Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) becomes absolute ruler of Freedonia, appointed by the wealthy elite (Margaret Dumont). (Harpo and Chico play spies for a rival nation, and Zeppo plays Groucho’s personal secretary.) Groucho encourages graft, refuses to take anything seriously, shortens workers’ lunch hour, and starts a war on a whim. And this film was made before George W. Bush was born. image

Second, it’s the Marx Brothers stripped down to the bare essentials. It lacks a romantic subplot. Screenwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby keep unfunny exposition to the barest minimum. The movie even lacks the usual piano and harp solos. There’s very little here that doesn’t provoke laughter.

Duck Soup is the only Marx Brothers movie helmed by a well-respected comedy director, Leo McCarey. McCarey started his directing career in Laurel and Hardy silents, and it shows. Harpo has always had a knack for pulling odd props out of his coat, but only in Duck Soup does one portable prop–a pair of scissors–become a running gag. And the peanuts vs. lemonade war, with Harpo and Chico making life difficult for slow-burn master Edgar Kennedy, allows those two Brothers to delve into an entirely different kind of comedy without ever losing character.

Having only seen it on DVD for many years, I was beginning to think that Duck Soup might not be the great motion picture I remembered from my youth. Now I know that it’s one of those amazing miracles that the Hollywood system occasionally produces.

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.

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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).

goldrush

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.

A Century Ago: The Films of 1913

Thursday night, I drove to the Rafael to see A Century Ago: The Films of 1913. This is the latest edition of an annual event–one that was just becoming possible a scant decade ago. And, in its current form, it won’t be possible for much longer. In 1910, people still went to movies primarily to see a selection of one-reelers (ten to 15 minutes depending on the projection speed). By 1920, these shorts were a minor addition to the main attraction–the feature film.

Every year, the Motion Picture Academy puts together the show, screens it at their Los Angeles theater, then flies it up to San Rafael for the second and last screening. Academy executive Randy Haberkamp hosted the program, introducing each film. Michael Mortilla supplied musical accompaniment on piano.

But the best performance came from the projectionist, Joe Rinaudo, working with his hand-cranked 1909 Powers Model 6 Cameragraph Motion Picture Machine. I got a chance to talk to Rinaudo, looking sharp in his top hat and tails, before the show. The Model 6 was designed to be portable, for travelling showmen who didn’t know if their next gig would be in a vaudeville theater, a church, or a barn. He proudly showed me how he had altered the lamp to provide a better light than was possible in 1913. In those days, the lamp was so hot, and the film so flammable, that safety required a thick glass between them. It saved lives, but produced a less-than-ideal image.

I took several photos of Rinaudo and the Model 6, but the camera in my phone couldn’t handle the low light level. So I snatched this photo from the Academy Web site. If someone objects, I’ll remove it.

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Rinardo set up his projector in front of the regular projection booth, with no soundproof wall between the machinery and the audience. The steady, clickety-clack sound behind us, mixed with Mortilla’s music in front and to the side, helped bring us back a century. I’ve been seeing a lot of digital projection lately, and I love it, but this was something very special that went to the heart of cinema.

With one very old projector and seven rare archival one-reel prints, there was no way to do a continuous movie show. But that’s okay. Few places could do that in 1913, either. While Rinaudo changed reels and displayed slides, Haberkamp introduced the next movie.

Some quick notes about the shorts:

Barney Oldfield’s Race For a Life
This Keystone comedy is the only film on the program I’d already seen; it’s part of the Slapstick Encyclopedia collection of silent comedy shorts. On DVD, Ford Sterling’s outrageously overdone villain was annoying. With an audience, he was successfully funny. The title character was a real-life, famous race driver at the time. Starring the always adorable Mabel Normand.

Barney Oldfield's Race For a Life

The Evidence of the Film
Argo wasn’t the first movie to highly praise its own industry. Here, a sweet, innocent young boy is accused of theft and sent away. Luckily, the real crime was accidentally recorded by a film company. This picture gives us a glimpse into early post-production editing facilities.

The Evidence of the Film

A Lady and Her Maid
This very entertaining comedy shows two homely women visiting a beauty parlor, then spurning the men who rejected them. Future star Norma Talmadge plays the younger one. A lot of fun. Although this is an American film, this print from the Netherlands had Dutch intertitles; Haberkamp read the English version out loud.

Arabia Takes the Health Cure
A decade before Rin Tin Tin, Selig tried to turn a horse into a movie star. Everything you need to know about this venture is summed up in the fact that the company gave up after only three shorts. "Health Cure" is the only surviving film starring the equine Arabia . If the other two are of similar quality, their loss is no great one.

The Making of Broncho Billy
Cowboy star Broncho Billy (real name: Max Aronson) has long been a Bay Area favorite, largely because he did so much work here. He made several Broncho Billy shorts before giving his character this origin story. Like all Broncho Billy shorts, it’s fun.

The Lady and the Mouse
The night wouldn’t be complete without something by D.W. Griffith. This warm tale of a struggling rural family, two sisters–one sick and one well–and true love was sweet and fun. It’s also a fine example of Lillian Gish inventing the art of motion picture acting.

Suspense
I don’t know if Lois Weber really was America’s first woman film director. But judging from this little thriller, she already understood how to scare audiences long before Alfred Hitchcock stepped into a studio. And in 1913, Weber used technical innovations that would seem experimental and daring today (and they were harder to do back then). My favorite of the group.

Suspense

I suspect that all of these movies are available on Youtube. After all, they’re all in the public domain. But Youtube can’t provide the enthusiastic audience, live music, or the clattering of the projector behind you.

After "Suspense," projectionist Rinaudo got to rest his arm as the program switched to modern technology–the Rafael’s digital projector. Acknowledging the move to features that had already begun in 1913, Haberkamp showed us a selection of clips from other 1913 titles, some of them feature length. Among the highlights were scenes from Atlantis, a fiction based on the then recent Titanic disaster, an Nursery Favorites, an early talkie experiment from Edison.

Altogether, a wonderful evening.

Taxi Driver, Alamo Bay, and 4K Digital Projection at the PFA

Saturday night, my wife and I attended two screenings at the Pacific Film Archive. Both were parts of the series The Resolution Starts Now: 4K Restorations from Sony Pictures. And this time, unlike Thursday night’s screening, the movies were actually projected in 4K.

And they both looked fantastic.

This was not a double feature. You had to pay for each screening. On the other hand, there’s a discount for the second feature, and the total came to only $10.50.

Let’s take the movies one at a time:

Alamo Bay

The evening started with a short talk by Sony Senior Vice President for Asset Management (translation: VP for old movies), Grover Crisp. On Thursday night, his talk was the main attraction. This time, it was just a quick introduction.

Crisp knows that many cinephiles are offended by the digital conversion that he and Sony are a major part of. He may have felt defensive. "I have nothing against film," he explained. "I love it. But that doesn’t keep me from loving digital, which I like better."

By Sony’s definitions, there’s "very little difference" between a 2K and 4K restoration. "The films are always scanned at 4K resolution." In a 2K restoration, the digitized images is downgraded to 2K for mastering–the creative and difficult work done after scanning. That saves money, and still results in an image as good or better than a 35mm print.

Of course a 4K presentation is going to look better than a 2K one, but Crisp didn’t think it was that big a difference. He estimated that in the PFA theater, "You can see the difference from the first 5 rows…if you know what to look for."

In answer to an audience question, Crisp acknowledged that if a film is scanned in 4K and mastered in 2K, they can always go back and master it again in 4K without a new scan.

He also said said that a 4K master looks significantly better than a 2K master when transferred to Blu-ray–a 2K medium.

Before the movie, the PFA played a videotaped introduction by Alamo Bay’s cinematographer, Curtis Clark. He discussed the film stock he used, director Louis Malle’s desire to have a wide contrast ratio, and the problems of getting good release prints. The digital restoration, and DCP projection, now fixes that later problem.

Made in 1985, Alamo Bay dramatizes and fictionalizes some ugly, racist incidents that happened on the Texas coast only a few years earlier. As refugee Vietnamese fishermen arrive, looking for the American dream, they run up against the local bigots, who are for the most part dirt poor and worried about their own economic conditions. It stars  Amy Madigan as a young woman of very conflicting views, Ed Harris as a violent bigot made more dangerous by both drink and fear that he will lose his boat, and Ho Nguyen as a cocky young Vietnamese fisherman. Still relevant today, it tells a powerful story, even if it gets a little preachy and a bit Hollywood at times. I’d give it a B+.

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The transfer looked very good. There were a couple of shots where the colors looked a bit flat–especially with Madigan’s lipstick–but for all I know, they may have looked like that on film.

Taxi Driver

Once again, the program started with a talk by Grover Crisp. Since the audience was different, he repeated a few items (as well as a few from Thursday). He "explained ‘K thing: "4K is the amount we really need to capture the visual image in a 35mm film frame."

He followed that with a demonstration that he also did Thursday night, as well as last year at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. He projected the same frame, a close-up of Peter O’Toole, from Lawrence of  Arabia, from 4K and 2K scans. The difference was huge. O-Toole’s headgear, which looked blurry in 2K, was detailed enough to see the threads in 4K.

I might point out that Lawrence of  Arabia is a large-format film, and I would expect 2K to be very inadequate for scanning. After all, when Sony scanned the film, they did it in 8K, and mastered it in 4K.

Actually, I’d like to see similar demo showing the same same, mastered at 4K, but projected in 4K and 2K.

Crisp insisted that he’s "not anti-film," but is merely "being pragmatic. I think that in this changeover period, now is the time to make sure that we’re actually [restoring these films] correctly so that you have a cinematic experience." A DCP should be "the best print you’ve ever seen."

Then he talked about Taxi Driver, which was restored about two years ago. It was "Typically abused when it was new…scratches and things like that. All the things that we can fix digitally now."

He compared stills from a pre-restoration DVD and the restored version. It was shocking how much had been lost but is now restored. The earlier versions had dull colors and what looked like flat lighting. Worse, even though it was in the wrong aspect ratio, much of the image was cropped off. All that is fixed now.

I’ve written about Taxi Driver before, and I don’t feel a need to discuss it in detail again. I’ll just say that I give it an A+. You can check out my Blu-ray Review (taken from the same restoration) for more.

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But I will say that I’ve never seen Taxi Driver look so good. And I don’t mean looking beautiful, because Taxi Driver was never meant to be a beautiful movie. It’s dark, ugly, and has an intentional film grain texture. But the details of the grain and within the grain, the perfect color, and the lack of film vibration took me into Travis Bickel’s head like nothing ever had before.

Those who object to digital projection insist that without physical film, the theatrical experience becomes nothing but television. That simply is not true. With a good-sized screen, a well-transferred DCP, and an enthralled audience, there is nothing that a 35mm print can add (unless there’s something very special about the print).

This was the ultimate Taxi Driver experience.

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