Raymond Griffith at Niles

Last Saturday night, I visited the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum for a screening of the 1925 Raymond Griffith comedy, Hands Up! I had seen it once before–probably in 1977 or ’78 at the Avenue Theater (of blessed memory). Then, and now, I totally enjoyed it.

Sorry it took me so long to get to write about this. I’ve been busy.

Raymond Griffith (not related to D.W. Griffith) is largely forgotten these days, and his work (or at least what I’ve seen of it) doesn’t come up to the best of Keaton, Chaplin, or Lloyd. But he was funny. He almost always appeared in a top hat and cape, as if he was going to the opera. His character was cheerful, unflappable, and exceptionally polite. I wrote more about Griffith in a recent Eat Drink Films article, Revisiting Walter Kerr’s THE SILENT CLOWNS.

Hands Up! is a civil war comedy, with the hero on the side of the Confederacy, so comparisons to The General
are almost mandatory. The General is a masterpiece–a near perfect alloy of epic adventure and slapstick comedy. Despite the laughs, it feels plausible and realistic. But Hands Up! is simply farce. It will do anything for a laugh, even at the expense of the atmosphere or story.

Griffith plays a Confederate spy who travels west to sabotage a Yankee goldmine. Along the way he outwits a firing squad, teaches native Americans to dance the Charleston (a major anachronism), and romances a pair of young and beautiful sisters.

The film wasn’t quite as good as I remembered. Over the years, my memory had improved some of the jokes, making them better timed. Some sequences involving an African American were shockingly racist, even for a film of this vintage.

But the good parts were strong enough for me to give it an B+.

The 16mm print was made up from several sources to get the entire picture looking as good as possible. And for the most part, it looked good if not great.

The feature was preceded by two shorts: D.W. Griffith’s The Last Drop of Water and William S. Hart’s The Taking of Luke McVane. Neither was better than moderately entertaining, in large part I suspect from the washed-out prints, especially of the Griffith.

There was a theme running through all three movies: the desert. The organization Desert Survivors was involved with this screening.

Bruce Loeb accompanied all of the films on piano.

Before the movies began, I took the liberty of taking some photos of the museum. Enjoy:

The theater

Old cameras, with an old projector on the right

Another view of the cameras and that black projector

The two 16mm projectors in the projection booth. The blue box in the rear is one of the two 35mm projectors

My Fair Lady on the big screen

This Saturday morning, I finally saw the film version of My Fair Lady on the big screen–specifically, the big screen at the Cerrito. I really enjoyed it. As far as the big, roadshow musicals of the 1950s and ’60s go, it’s one of the best. Although, in general, those aren’t my favorite musicals.

I give it a B+.

The story is George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion, , turned into a musical by Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music). Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a brilliant phonetics expert and a horrible human being, sets out to turn cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) into a fine lady. It’s just an experiment for him; he couldn’t care less about Eliza as a person–at least initially.

Shaw’s original play brilliantly examined issues of class, culture, and gender roles in an intimate story that deftly balanced between drama and comedy. The musical version adds spectacle, which is absolutely unnecessary but doesn’t really hurt the story.

The stage version became a phenomenal hit on Broadway, so Jack Warner( at that point the sole surviving Warner Brother) turned it into a very big movie directed by George Cukor. This was probably the last movie set in Britain but shot entirely in Hollywood soundstages. But the sets built on those soundstages dripped with high-polish–whether its Higgins’ enormous study or Covent Garden in the wee hours of the morning.

And yet, for all its polish, the film version of My Fair Lady stays true to Shaw’s vision and themes. A pivotal scene at a racetrack manages to be opulent, expressionistic, surreal, funny, and very satirical.

Harrison makes a wonderful Higgins, tyrannical, cruel, and yet slowly falling in love and not understanding why. Harrison wasn’t a singer, but he talks his songs so well you don’t notice it. Stanley Holloway steals the movie as Eliza’s happily slothful father. His two songs are the movie’s musical highlights. Both Harrison and Holloway won Oscars for their roles.

Audrey Hepburn didn’t’ win an Oscar, and didn’t deserve one. She’s pretty good in the title role, but she’s miscast and had to have her singing dubbed. Julie Andrews, who created the role on the Broadway stage, should have been cast in the movie. (She won an Oscar that year for Mary Poppins.)

The other big problem is the ending. When Pygmalion was turned into a movie in 1938 (starring Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller), the money people objected to Shaw’s original ending. Their “happy ending” (I personally find it depressing) was used in both the stage and film versions of My Fair Lady.

I have a strange history with this story. My mother had the Broadway cast album, and I listened to it often as a young child. So I grew up knowing the songs, but not the story. I was ten when the movie came out, and I don’t remember why I didn’t see it.

Years later, when I was in my 20s, I saw the 1938 film version of Pygmalion. A few years later, I read the play.

I finally saw My Fair Lady about 20 years ago–a borrowed Laserdisc of the then-new Robert Harris restoration. It was a strange experience. I knew the story. I knew the songs even better. But I was stunned to realize that I had no idea how the songs fit into the story.

Laserdisc didn’t do My Fair Lady justice. A DCP and a large screen does.

The final day at the Mill Valley (San Rafael) Film Festival

Sunday was the last day of this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. I spent the day at the Rafael, but I didn’t stay long enough to catch any of the official closing films or the closing party.

Here’s what I caught:

B Truth
I kind of wish I was new to the theater. I would have loved to have asked a volunteer “Where do I go for Truth.”

As the 2004 presidential election came to its climax, CBS’ 60 Minutes news program covered a story that should have ruined George W. Bush’s chance of re-election. But an important piece of evidence turned out to be fake, turning the exposé into a mediascandal that helped Bush and destroyed several journalism careers, including Dan Rather’s. Writer/director James Vanderbilt gives us a slick, entertaining, but unexceptional movie about TV journalism in the early 21st century. It has one very big casting flaw (Robert Redford as Rather). But it tells a story that we should all know and remember.

There was no filmmaker Q&A.

This was, of course, the festival’s last screening of Truth (but hopefully not their last truthful screening). There was no Q&A after the film. It opens in theaters soon.

Panel – The Future of Film Technology
How will digital technology, immersive games, and other innovations change the nature of cinema. Angela Watercutter of Wired Magazine chaired a discussion on where we are going.

The panelists, going from left to right, were:

  • Tiffany Shlain: Emmy-nominated filmmaker and Webby Award founder
  • Christopher Coppola: Filmmaker and teacher and member of a famous cinema family
  • Shane Hurlbut: Cinematographer
  • John Gaeta: Lucasfilm designer
  • Jess Lee: InVisage president and CEO

Lee was the only one there promoting a product–a new camera technology called QuantumFilm. He screened a short film shot on a smartphone using his company’s system. The image looked soft and out of focus. He also showed some us-vs.-them comparison images, but I never trust demos done by people who have something to sell.

A few highlights from the discussion. There may be a few errors in the quotes, but none of them are substantial.

Shlain: The most exciting new advance was when they added the “photograph yourself” feature to cellphones. It’s so empowering. There’s no camera crew to intimidate you.

Coppola: Pity the artist who blames the equipment.

Hurlbut: I try to read the story, listen to what the characters say. The story will tell you what to shoot it on; what lens. You have to read the subtext.

Hurlbut: What I’m finding is the way I’m moving the camera is changing because of the physical size. I find that very exciting. Something that used to be 60 or 70 pounds is now a six-pound box.

Coppola: When you say “cut” using film, you stop everything. You can keep going and improvise with digital. Actors love that. [Coppola also claimed that he showed digital camera tests to the great cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who “liked what he saw.”]

Hurlbut: There will always be artists who stick with film; they like the look and feel of it. But what I’m not liking is the look and feel of the budgets.

Shlain: It’s changing how you create. There’s pros and cons. You can do so much on the fly now. It’s like when they were first able to move the camera; that was so radical.

Hurlbut: The quality of television has gone through the roof. I remember when you couldn’t get a famous actor on TV. But now the scripts are so good.

On the theatrical experience:

Hurlbut: Is the movie-going experience dying?

Coppola: For my seven-year-old, it already has. There’s this multi-tasking thing.

Hurlbut: It’s still my favorite way to sit in a darkened theater. That’s something I’m going to hold onto.

Gaeta: Along with church, it’s one of two places where you disconnect from Twitter and Facebook.

Shlain: People still like theater experience.

The Saga of Ingrid Bergman
This isn’t a movie, but a museum-like exhibit around the corner from the Rafael, celebrating the great actress and movie star.

I enjoyed it. Most of it was mounted photos, many of them movie stills. Captions helped outline her life and career–mostly her career. I found one error: A caption credited Alfred Hitchcock for writing and directing Notorious. He directed it, but Ben Hecht wrote it. in addition to the photos, three video screens offered mini-documentaries about stages in her life.

The exhibition runs through Thursday at 1020 B Street, San Rafael. It’s connected to the Rafael’s current Ingrid Bergman Retrospective.

A Tikkun
The last film I saw at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival turned out to be the best. But I’m not sure how much a non-Jew would appreciate this fantasy drama set in Jerusalem’s strictest Orthodox community.

A young, male Chasid, extremely religious and prone to accidents, survives a near-death experience. He comes out of it changed in slight but (for his family) frightening ways. He doesn’t need his glasses. He refuses to eat meat. He hitchhikes late at night as a way to study the world outside his enclosed community. He even visits a brothel. Sometimes he seems holier than the more conventional Chasids; other times, blasphemous. Shot in widescreen black and white, with no background music, this very odd film is unlike anything you may ever see.

I find it to be a strange, spiritual experience. But after the movie, the man sitting next to me enthusiastically called it the best anti-religion film he’d ever seen. I guess people see what they want to see in it.

There was no filmmaker Q&A.

Will you get a chance to see it? Maybe. An American release is possible, but as far as I know, not yet confirmed.

Ian McKellen at the Mill Valley Film Festival

Sunday night, I attended the Sir Ian Mckellen tribute at the Rafael–all part of the Mill Valley Film Festival. The event started 20 minutes late; no explanation was given.

Executive Director Mark Fishkin started out with a brief summary of McKellen’s many awards, nominations, and honors. He has received six Olivier awards, two Oscar nominations, and, of course, a knighthood. He’s also been named a Freedman of the City of London. Unsure exactly of what that meant, Fishkin conjectured that may give him “permission to drive cattle over certain bridges.”

(All of the quotes in this article are from my typed notes. They may not be 100-percent accurate, but they’ll be close.)

Photo from Mill Valley Film Festival

After a clip reel of his work from Gods and Monsters through X-Men: The Last Stand, Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin came on stage to announce McKellen and present an award from the Festival. “I’m here because he’s one of my oldest and dearest friends,” Maupin explained. He mentioned a time when McKellen was an overnight guest in his house. In the morning, he found a note on the actor’s pillow: “Gandalf and Magneto slept here…together.”

Maupin told us that McKellen is “as charming in private as you’d expect. When he got his last award from the queen, she said ‘You’ve been doing this for a long time.’ He responded ‘Not as long as you.'”

With Armistead Maupin, MVFF_10_10_15_12 ©AdamClay

When McKellen finally came onstage, he talked of his love for the Bay Area. “It was in san Francisco that I learnt that if I was going to be a happy man I had to come out as a gay man.”

After the honors, the evening settled down for the main event, a talk with the Festival’s Director of Programming, Zoe Elton. The talk was broken up with clips from various films.

Some highlights:

  • About falling in love with theater and becoming an actor: “I wanted to know how it was done…I didn’t expect fame. I didn’t expect money. I didn’t intend to be in the movies. But my friends said ‘You always wanted to be in movies.'”
  • “The hero of my youth was Lawrence Olivier. We [he and other now-famous actors] were all there, all learning how to act. I think his legacy is the achievement of these actors he trained. “
  • “I’m interested in contacting the audience on stage. You can’t do that on film. Actors like me love an audience that you can see.”
  • Brian Singer saw McKellen’s Richard III film, and wanted him for Apt Pupil. But when he met the actor, he thought he was too young for the part. Then he found out that McKellen had played a much older character in Cold Comfort Farm. “‘Oh, you can play old people?” McKellen replied “Yes, I’m an actor.”

Richard III

  • The clip from Richard III (one of my all-time favorite Shakespeare films) was too short, cutting off the opening speech in mid-sentence. But McKellen recalled that “that movie was made for almost no money at all. It was made by friends who just came in because they approved of what we were doing…The director, who was not familiar with Shakespeare, kept saying there were too many words in it. I said we were making a talkie.”
  • After a Lord of the Rings clip where Gandalf faces the Balrog and falls to his seeming death: “That scene did not really have anything to do with me. Often in Lord of the Rings, we really were where we were supposed to be–up on a mountain and so forth. But you’d probably guess not this scene. The bridge was just a yellow strip on the studio floor.”

Lord of the Rings

  • On playing to an audience: “When I began, I was often required to play in very large theaters. My performance had to be big enough to reach the people in the back. When I’d been acting for 30 years, I landed in a production of Macbeth in a theater with only 100 people. I loved it. From then on, I never wanted to work in a big theater. That got me ready for the closest audience of all, the camera.”
  • On playing Sherlock Holmes, a character played by many different actors: “If you’ve played Hamlet, you don’t worry about other actors playing Sherlock Holmes.”

The audience Q&A was brief. Two highlights:

  • On whether straight actors should be allowed to play gay characters: “I don’t object to Tom Hanks playing a gay man because if I did, I couldn’t play a straight one. Heterosexuality is such a strange phenomenon that it should be explored.”
  • When asked about the TV show Vicious with Derek Jacobi: “We had the time of our lives. The trouble was we had a studio audience. The moment we see an audience we start acting for them and forgetting we should act for the camera. In the first series we were very broad. We were having fun.”

They weren’t the only ones. As near as I could tell, everyone in the auditorium were enjoying the show. I certainly was.

Note: I have altered this article since I first posted it, correcting several misspelled versions of the name McKellen.

Cars, Queens, and Eye Surgery: Saturday at the Mill Valley Film Festival

This event should really be called the Marin Film Festival. It uses theaters all over the county.

But I really did spend Saturday in Mill Valley, a town that I’ve never quite figured out geographically. I caught three films there.

B- Havana Motor Club

I’m not really a fan of car racing, which may affect my review. People who really love cars will probably enjoy it far more than I did.

Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt’s documentary looks at how this especially loud sport plays in Cuba–a country where racing cars has been outlawed for more than half a century. The film focuses on the struggle of a few enthusiasts–many of whom have been racing illegally in the streets for years–to bring it back. The film’s best scenes show how the racers and mechanics (often the same people) creatively customize American cars from the 1950s, not only to keep them running but to make them run faster than was ever intended. But when the government finally allows an open race, you can only root for its existence; you don’t really care who wins.

I was unable to stay for the Q&A with the director.

The film will screen again this coming Monday, the 12th, at 12:30 at the Sequoia.

B The Girl King
This Swedish (but English-language) historical epic focuses on Queen Kristina, a young yet intellectual monarch holding onto her power in a men’s world, while religious wars ravage Europe. She tries to bring peace, improve her subjects’ lot, and–for various reasons–avoid marriage. Malin Buska anchors the film in her sublime performance in the title role. Director Mika Kaurismäki marshals an all-around good cast and provides the appropriate atmosphere. But the film lacks a strong story arc, and the complex court politics often felt complex and confusing. I suspect that screenwriter Michel Marc Bouchard stuck too close to actual history.

After the film, we were treated to a Q&A with Kaurismäki and Buska. Some highlights:

  • How did Buska prepare for the role? “I tried to find as many books as I could. That was very difficult, but I got a bunch of them. I stayed in a cottage for half a year. I didn’t have any Internet. I was learning horseback riding and sword fighting.”
  • Was Descartes really poisoned? (The film suggests he was.) “He wasn’t used to the cold climate, and they said it was pneumonia. But when they moved his body back to Paris, they discovered poison in him.
  • Why was this Swedish film, set in Sweden, made in English? “English is now the world language. In those days, the court spoke French, not Swedish.”
  • The greatest challenge in making the film: “Shooting it in 37 days, which was not enough. I think in Hollywood it would have been 100. The costume and makeup changes took hours. I ended up shooting only three or four hours a day. Every day was a fight.

This screening was The Girl King’s the US premiere. It will play at the festival one more time: Thursday, October 15, 2:00, at the Sequoia. But don’t fret if you miss it. It will have an American release in December.

Open Your Eyes

This event was more than a movie. It had to be; the movie itself ran only 34 minutes. It was also a celebration for bettering the world, and for the Seva Foundation, which works to eradicate blindness in the developing world.

Full disclosure: I occasionally donate money to Seva.

After introductions by director Irene Taylor Brodsky and producer Larry Brilliant, we were treated to a concert by the film’s composer, Salman Ahmad. The music was meditative and haunting–I just closed my eyes and drifted with it. Very pleasant.

The documentary itself was moving and joyful. It follows an elderly couple in Nepal, both all-but-completely blind, as they travel to a clinic where Seva workers restore their eyesight. We see their travel, their very quick operations (only one eye each; they’ll get the other eyes fixed four months later), and the amazement when they can see again. Then they return home and see their grandchildren for the first time.

The film was followed by a panel discussion. In addition to Brodsky and Brilliant, Indiewood producer Michael Shamberg (Pulp Fiction, Erin Brockovich), and Sandy Herz, Director of Global Partnerships for the Skoll Foundation sat in.

(Wouldn’t you love to have the last name Brilliant? You could legitimately introduce yourself with “Hello, I’m Brilliant.”)

A few comments:

Brilliant: “Seva projects and services have given sight to millions of people. You just saw the story of two of them. The intraocular lens [IOL; the implant that makes these surgeries possible] used to cost $500 dollars each. Seva purchased a manufacturing plant. Now IOLs cost $1.67.”

Brilliant and Shamberg worked together on the thriller Contagion, which they feel helped convince congress to not gut medical research.

Of all of her films, Brodsky is “most proud of this one. I was closer to it that most of my other films. I did all the filming myself.

The short will screen again on Saturday, October 17, 8:15, at the Lark, with another film called A Children’s Song. HBO will broadcast it next year.

Four nights at the movies: The Crowd, Preston Sturges, a Teenage Girl, & 2 Noirs

I managed to see four feature films theatrically in the last four nights–plus another on television.

Sunday: The Crowd

My wife and I, along with another couple, went to the Castro to see one of the greatest silent films ever made, and arguably the most difficult American masterpiece to see, King Vidor’s The Crowd. I’ve already written about the movie, so I’ll stick to the presentation.

This was something of a special event–the last silent film to be accompanied by the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that has graced both silent films and before-the-movie concerts at the Castro for over 30 years. The Castro never owned the organ, and the owners are finding it more and more difficult to maintain. The Silent Film Festival hasn’t used it in years because of technical problems. The theater is raising money to replace it with what is being claimed as “the largest hybrid (pipe/digital) organ in the world.”

Unfortunately, this last hurrah for the old organ was disappointing–despite the great cinema up on the screen. Bruce Loeb’s improvised score felt off, often ignoring the actions and emotions on screen. Even obvious music cues, such as a close-up of a phonograph about to be put on the turntable, didn’t affect what Loeb was playing.

Monday: Christmas in July

My wife and I stayed home Monday night, and we watched the one movie I always wanted to screen on a double bill with The Crowd: Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July.

What does a talk-heavy comedy have to do with a silent drama? A lot. They’re both set in New York. Both protagonists have lower-level white-collar jobs adding numbers in a large office filled with similar employees. And each dreams of breakthrough success via advertising slogan contests.

Of course the big difference is that Christmas in July is funny. The hapless hero of a loser (Dick Powell) thinks he’s won a slogan contest with a “funny” catchphrase that other people just find bewildering. So he goes on a generous spending spree that’s headed to disaster. The ending is utterly and completely absurd–and hilarious. I give it a B+.

Just remember: If you can’t sleep at night, it isn’t the coffee. It’s the bunk.

Tuesday: Diary of a Teenage Girl

The next night, we went to the Shattuck to catch Diary of a Teenage Girl–the only new film we’ve seen this week. In fact, it’s the only film we saw this week that was made before after 1950.

We both loved it.

Minnie (Bel Powley in an amazing breakthrough performance) isn’t just any teenage girl. She’s the daughter of a irresponsible hippie mother in 1977 San Francisco–and when we first meet her, she’s just lost her virginity to her mother’s boyfriend. She’s also an inspiring cartoonist (the film is based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, and the images often burst into underground-comic-style animation). The movie follows her early sexual experimentations, mostly with the morally weak, age-inappropriate man who should be loyal to her mother. The film captures San Francisco in the late 70s flawlessly (I was there). But even better, it captures the rocky emotions of a young woman bursting with hormones and not sure what to do with them.

I give it an A.

At least when we saw it, the Shattuck was running Diary of a Teenage Girl in one of their tiny, hole-in-the-wall auditoriums. I hate these. The tiny screens are bad enough, but the very wide aisle down the middle of the theater makes it worse. There’s nowhere you can sit that isn’t very far off to the side.

Wednesday: I Wake Up Dreaming

The I Wake Up Dreaming film noir series moves to Berkeley this month. Every Wednesday in September, The California Theater will screen two classic or obscure noirs–mostly obscure.

That’s the good news. The bad: The $15 ticket price is high, and there are no discount prices. The other bad news: The films are being screened digitally, and I don’t think any of them will be off DCP. Some of the films will be projected off of Blu-ray, which is reasonably acceptable. Most, I suspect–including the two I saw Wednesday night–will be off of DVDs.

If you’re curious, there’s an easy way to tell if a film will be screened off a Blu-ray. Google the title, the year or star, and the word blu-ray. You’ll soon find out if a Blu-ray is available. If it is, chances are very high that California will screen it in the better format.

I attended the first double bill last night (my wife wasn’t able to join me that night). It was in the California’s large and lovely downstairs auditorium. Okay. Now onto the movies:

Phantom Lady: Enjoyable and fun, this 1944 murder mystery is awful light for a noir. The good guys are just too good. And thus, dull. But the bad guys are a lot of fun–especially Franchot Tone as a totally psychotic killer (don’t worry; I’m not giving anything away) and Elisha Cook Jr. as a horny drummer. But then, any noir with Elisha Cook Jr. is better than the same movie without him. By the way, the plot involves a man convicted of murdering his wife, and the loving secretary (Ella Raines) out to prove him innocent. Enjoyable but unexceptional. I give it a B-.

Criss Cross: This one is considered a minor classic. I wouldn’t go that far, but I liked it enough to give it a B+. Burt Lancaster plays an armored car driver who finds himself in a love triangle with his ex-wife and a gangster. And not just a love triangle. They also join forces to pull off the heist of the century. But as the name suggests, everyone is planning to double cross everyone else. Director Robert Siodmak keeps the story moving fast and tight. Look fast, and you’ll catch a not-yet-famous Tony Curtis in a non-speaking role that’s little more than an extra.

[[Thanks to my wife, Madeline, for catching that before/after error.]]

Resnais and Stroheim at the Pacific Film Archive

Friday night, I attended two very different screenings at the Pacific Film Archive. The first, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon amour, is a widely-acknowledged masterpiece. The other, Erich von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly, is the uncompleted final work of great but controversial filmmaker.

It was my first experience seeing either film.

Hiroshima mon amour

Why did it take me so long to see Alain Resnais’ first feature film? Simple. For more than 40 years, I’ve actively hated his second feature, Last Year at Marienbad. But finally, I decided to give his first feature a chance.

I’m glad I did.

Hiroshima mon amour starts with a couple in bed, presumably naked, locked in love’s embrace. But their talk is not about love–or even sex. They’re talking about the bomb and Hiroshima. He wants to make sure that she has seen everything of importance in that victimized city and understands what it means. (The film was made in 1959. The end of World War II was as close then as 9/11 is to us today.)

Soon we get to know these lovers. The woman is a French actress (Emmanuèle Riva), working on location in Hiroshima. He’s a Japanese architect, and Hiroshima is his home–it always has been. He was in the army, serving elsewhere when the bomb hit. But his family was there.

They’re very much in love, but it’s not that simple. Not only are they of different cultures (he, conveniently, speaks fluent French), but both of them are already married. She will be gone soon, and presumably they will never see each other again.

But sex can lead to other forms of intimacy, and soon they’re telling each other their secrets. Actually, she tells more than he does, about the German lover she had during the occupation and the punishment she endured for “betraying France.”

Hiroshima mon amour is an intimate, hopeless love story set against the ruins of a massively horrific war that scarred everyone involved (mentally or physically). My one complaint: I would have liked to know more about the man’s past. The flashbacks were all the woman’s.

The film has just been restored, and was screened off a DCP. It looked fantastic.

I give it an A-.

Queen Kelly

How could this be anything except a disaster? Joseph Kennedy, without any real movie experience, financed Queen Kelly as a vehicle for his mistress, Gloria Swanson. He hired Erich von Stroheim to write and direct it–despite Stroheim’s reputation as an overspending, uncommercial, and uncontrollable egomaniac. (He was all those things, as well as a brilliant artist.)

It’s no surprise that Queen Kelly, made at the very end of the silent era, was never completed. Swanson and Kelly fired Stroheim, shelved the film, unshelved it, pieced it together, shot additional scenes, and eventually released it in various forms.

It’s probably remembered best today for a couple of scenes that appeared in Sunset Boulevard.

The film today, at least in the 1983 restoration screened Friday night, is of little but historical interest. The plot–or what’s left of it–is silly. The characters are cardboard. Its attempts at being kinky are just kind of annoying. The whole last part of the film is a series of intertitles–with a few photographs–that tell the audience what would have happened had Stroheim been able to complete his vision.

But then, of all the brilliant and daring auteurs who fought the Hollywood studio heads to have their visions brought to the screen, only Erich von Stroheim makes me feel sorry for the studio heads.

The 35mm print had serious focus issues, presumably because the sources were several generations away from the original negative. Although this was a silent movie, it was shown at the PFA with a recorded musical soundtrack–probably from a very early release. By the time the film came to paying audiences, movie theaters had laid off their musicians and the American silent cinema was dead.

And if it hadn’t been dead, this film might have killed it. I give Queen Kelly a D.


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