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.

Dough and Opening night at the SF Jewish film festival

I attended opening night of the SF Jewish Film Festival at the Castro last night. It was, for the most part, an enjoyable evening.

Although it did start with the inevitable reserved seating problem. The whole front half of the theater was cordoned off for VIPs. Luckily, I convinced a volunteer usher that as press, I counted as a VIP, so I was able to sit in my preferred 3rd row center seat. Not that I was stealing that seat from a worthier person. For most of the film, I was the only person in the front three rows.

The show started soon after the official 6:15 starting time with a series of past Jewish Film Festival trailers. The last trailer, of course, was this year’s, and its’ one of the best.

The talking started at 6:23. SFJFF officers discussed the history of the Festival, the organization’s new name–the Jewish Film Institute–and their video-on-demand service. We were told that people under 35 can buy a festival pass for $35 (it doesn’t cover the big nights). We heard about other films coming up. And the director of this year’s film, John Goldschimdt, was introduced and talked briefly.

The movie started at 6:46. Not bad.

And the film itself? Not bad.

B+ Dough

This feel-good comedy succeeds in making you laugh and in making you feel good. Why not? The marijuana-laced challah makes the onscreen characters laugh and feel good. You have to suspend a lot of disbelief to accept the absurdities of the story and the conventional comic tropes, but if you do you can sit back and enjoy the movie. The story involves an orthodox kosher baker (Jonathan Pryce) who hires a Muslim, African refugee teenager (newcomer Jerome Holder) as his apprentice. And of course they bond while the bakery thrives. It’s a movie.

Dough will play three more times at the festival:

This British film may get an American theatrical release, although as near as I can tell, it has not yet been picked up my a distributor.

After the film, director Goldschimdt and star Holder came on stage for a Q&A. It happened to be Holder’s 21st birthday, and he was presented with a cake.

Some highlights:

  • How did you (Holder) get involved? “I got called in to come in, and I did and audition with Jonathan Pryce. I’d done a bit of TV work. This is my big break.”
  • On playing a character from Darfur (out of character, Holder speaks with a London accent): It came to me just speaking to people in that circle.
  • Goldschimdt: “We shot 60 percent of the film in Budapest. It was a very good experience.”
  • On casting Holder: “When you look at a video, you can see who the camera likes best.” He brought Pryce into the auditions to make sure they had chemistry together.
  • Holder: “It was the best 10 or 11 weeks of my life.”

After the show, I went to the opening night party at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The current exhibit on Any Winehouse was open for us. There was plenty of good food, but alas, no marijuana-laced challah.

Technicolor experiences at the Pacific Film Archive

Over the last few days, I’ve attended two separate three-strip Technicolor screenings at the Pacific Film Archive, each projected in a very different way. The first, Jean Renior’s The River, was screened pretty much as the original audiences saw it in 1951. The second, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann, was presented in a way only possible in the 21st century.

I liked both films very much. And I loved both forms of projection. I’ll talk about how the films looked and why, then tell you what I thought about the movies–neither of which I’d seen before last week.

Technicolor’s three-strip format dominated commercial color filmmaking from the mid-1930s through the early 1950s. A special camera recorded each primary color on a separate strip of black-and-white film.

From The History and Science of Color Fi 1 From Filmmaker IQ

The prints made from these tree negatives were prints in a pre-photography sense of the word–as in a printing press. From each negative, Technicolor would make a special intermediate relief print that would be thick and thin instead of black and white. They would use these to stamp the color dyes onto the release prints. You can find more technical details at the Widescreen Museum and the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.

These dye-transfer prints (the official name was IB, for imbibition) had a beauty all their own, with gorgeous saturation and reds that really popped. The dyes used were extremely stable; even the oldest existing dye-transfer prints look gorgeous today.

Both films were released in 1951, near the end of the three-strip period, and arguably when the technology, and the artistic use of that technology, was at its zenith.

The PFA screened The River in an archival dye-transfer print made in 1952. And yes, the colors were amazing–beautiful in a way that you simply don’t find in today’s digital projection. Or for that matter, in yesterday’s conventionally-processed color film prints. On the other hand, focus was often unreliable and soft. I don’t know if that’s a problem with the printing, the print’s age, or a flaw in the film itself.

But the colors they had were always beautiful. Such dye-transfer prints will get rarer over the years, so you should never miss the chance to see one (unless you really hate the movie, of course).

The Tales of Hoffmann, on the other hand, has just gone through a full digital restoration. So it was projected digitally from a 4K DCP. The look was cleaner, brighter, and sharper than The River’s dye-transfer print. And while the gorgeous, highly-saturated colors certainly popped, they didn’t pop in the same way as dye-transfer print.

Film shrinks over time, and you can’t expect three separate reels to shrink in exactly the same way. So restoring three-strip Technicolor is an art in itself. You scan the original black-and-white negatives (assuming they survived) at a high resolution. Edge recognition software and human eyes resize the three images so that they match.

With The Tales of Hoffmann, the results were beautiful. The images were sharp (except when they shouldn’t be), and textured. And the color was just gorgeous.

So which was best? The dye-transfer print had a special excitement all its own. You watch it the way you read a first edition copy of a classic book–with awe. You’re experiencing a rare treat and you know it.

Digital projection isn’t a rare treat. But it provides a beautiful way to present these films, sharp and clean. And while the colors may not be as good as dye transfer, they’re still an improvement over conventional color film prints.

And before you talk about “How the film was intended to be seen,” consider this: IB prints were notoriously irregular. No two prints would have the exact same colors.

So what about the movies?

B+ The River

The clash of civilizations appears as a friendly melting pot in this coming of age story set in British India. A happy English family begins to get unglued when the two oldest daughters both develop crushes on the same American veteran–who just moved in with their next-door neighbor. There’s tragedy and near-tragedy, and gentle comedy, and the warm envelope of people who love each other, even when they’re angry. Renoir paints (an appropriate term for Technicolor) an idealized version of British India, where everyone gets along, no one rejects a mixed-race girl, and western and eastern ways of life merge happily.

A- The Tales of Hoffmann

The Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film of Jacques Offenbach’s episodic opera (with the libretto translated into English) merge stage and cinema like nothing else I’ve ever seen–at least at feature length. On one level, there’s no attempt at cinema realism. The sets, costumes, and makeup have all the expressionism of the live stage. But, like the great dance sequence in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, it could only be created in a movie studio. The three stories (four if you count the framing device) are the simplest of fairy tales. But the dramatic use of music, dance, light, and acting makes it all (well, almost all) amazing.

Solaris at the Pacific Film Archive

The plot of Andrei Tarkovsky’s science fiction film Solaris could easily work as a Star Trek episode. Captain Kirk (or Picard) visits a troubled space station orbiting a strange, ocean-covered planet. The ocean appears to be sentient, and it’s playing tricks on minds of the human visitors, driving them mad.

But no Star Trek episode could feel so bleak and hopeless. And while it might bring up the question of what defines a human being, it would provide a clear and optimistic answer. Nor would it run nearly three hours, much of it made up of long takes of tormented faces. (Okay, the first Star Trek movie kind of matches that last description, but not in a good way.)

I caught Solaris Thursday night at the Pacific Film Archive, where it screened as part of the ongoing series, The Poetry of Time: Andrei Tarkovsky. This was my second Solaris experience; the first was probably around 1977. I don’t think I was mature enough to appreciate it then. This time around, I loved it. Definitely A material.

Tarkovsky keeps the story down to Earth for nearly 45 minutes. Psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), troubled with his memories and his journey to the troubled space station, prepares to say goodbye to his father, son, and the rural home he clearly loves so much. That home, which shows very few hints that this story is set in the future, provides an extreme contrast to the space-age setting of the rest of the film.

When Kelvin arrives at the space station, it looks like the morning after a frat party. Garbage is strewn everywhere, and no one is in a mood to meet with the newcomer. Of the three crewmembers, one of them rarely leaves his laboratory. Another is only a bit more friendly. The third, an old friend of Kelvin’s, has committed suicide.

Then Kelvin’s late wife, dead the past ten years (another suicide), shows up. An hallucination? Not quite. The other crewmembers see her and interact with her. She is unquestionably, really there. But she suffers from mercurial emotional shifts. And physically, she heals with stunning speed–even from death. She has his wife’s looks and love for Kelvin, but no memory of the past. Natalya Bondarchuk gives an amazing performance here.

Based on a novel by Stanislaw Lem, Solaris suggests that connecting to extraterrestrial life will be far more difficult than we imagine. And that connecting to ourselves, and each other, is almost as difficult.

Like I said, it’s bleak.

The screening at the PFA was a sell-out via advanced tickets, but apparently some people didn’t make it. A few seats were empty.

The print, from Kino, looked as if it had seen better days. Scratches were heavy at the beginning and end of each reel, and the colors looked a bit faded. I think Solaris needs a full restoration.

The A+ List: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at the Pacific Film Archive

Sunday night, I attended a screening at the Pacific Film Archive of one of my favorite western’s, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance–another film on my A+ list of movies that I’ve loved dearly for decades.

The PFA screened it as part of the series Cinema According to Víctor Erice.

In his last masterpiece, John Ford summed up the myth of the American west that he had weaved into the fabric of his long career. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance plays almost all the tropes of a Ford western–the drunk doctor, the dead man’s hand, the shootout, and the conflict between the wilderness and civilization. But this time around, we know it’s a myth. Ford knows it’s a myth. And even the protagonist knows that this isn’t the true story.

In Liberty Valance¸ Ford and his screenwriters (James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck) split the conventional western hero into two men, neither of which is complete without the other.

The most important of these, the character through whom we see the film, is Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart)–an idealistic young lawyer newly arrived in the west. Rance, as his friends call him, has none of the skills we associate with western heroes. He can’t shoot a gun or ride a horse. But he knows right from wrong, objects to the macho posturing around him, and in the end proves braver than anyone.

Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) has all the skills that Rance lacks. He’s the toughest guy around. He’s basically descent, in that he’s not a criminal and will occasionally help people in need. He pretty well fits Winston Churchill’s description of America: You can count on him to do the right thing–after he’s tried everything else.

Let’s consider those names. Who would name their newborn son Ransom? And the shortened version of his name suggests rancid. As the story unfolds, and we learn that he’s been living a lie for decades, we can see how the guilt from that lie has rotted him, making the word appropriate. And the name Doniphon sounds like a mispronunciation of Donovan–as if something is just not right.

And then there’s the name Liberty Valance. Why give the movie’s villain a name that suggests a swashbuckling hero? Especially this villain. As played by a not-quite-yet famous Lee Marvin, he’s one of the craziest, most sadistic thugs ever to grace an American western. Everyone except Tom is terrified of him.

Of course if Tom was sheriff, or just civic-minded, Valance would be dead or in jail. But Tom isn’t interested in any battles but his own, and town marshal Link Appleyard (another strange name; played by Andy Devine) seems only interested in saving his own hide. It’s absurd that this broad comic character would have a position of power, and it’s never explained. But the story requires an ineffectual sheriff, and making him funny helps us accept the absurdity.

Ford fills the town of Shinbone with memorable characters. Consider Dutton Peabody (an almost unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien) as the talkative, muck-raking, Shakespeare-quoting, yet alcoholic newspaper man. Or Tom’s handyman Pompey (Woody Strode)–apparently the only African-American in town. Dignified and uneducated, he bears the weight of entranced racism, eating dinner in the restaurant’s kitchen rather than the dining room.

I saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance four or five times before I realized that Tom Doniphon is an alcoholic. We don’t see him drunk until quite late in the film. But twice, people who know him well go out of their way to keep alcohol from touching his lips. What’s more, we learn early on that he died penniless.

That’s not a spoiler. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens decades after the main action., when Senator Stoddard and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles as the film’s ingénue) return to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Most of the film is a flashback–an old man’s memory of his youth.

And what a memory it is. The film has two severe beatings, a political convention, a showdown in a frontier restaurant, and a one-room classroom scene where men, women, and children–black, white, and Mexican-American–learn about democracy.

What the John Ford western doesn’t have is Monument Valley. Ford went out of his way to avoid anything visually beautiful or epic here. This is a western morality tale set on a soundstage, not the vast expanses of Utah. And on the rare occasions where the films goes on locations, the background looks like an undeveloped part of the Los Angeles basin.

In the end, Ford reminds us that he’s spent his career weaving a mythology, and that while a myth can contain a grain of moral truth, it is always a lie. Rance has carried that lie in his heart for decades, and he will never be free of it.

Unlike Rance, Ford was able to expose that lie, and even to some degree validate it. He would make four other films after The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, but he never made another masterpiece.

Up until Sunday night, it had been more than 30 years since I last saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on the big screen. Although it’s not a visually beautiful film, it was still a major improvement over my DVD. I could enjoy the details of the town. And the audience laughed and gasped in all the right places.

The 35mm print, supplied by Paramount, was serviceable but disappointing. Some scenes were washed out, and much of it was scratched. I can only hope that Paramount will one day take the time to restore it properly.

After the movie, I hung around with other members of the audience and discussed the movie. We all agreed that the PFA should show more westerns.

Early DeMille and early Tarkovsky: Saturday at the movies

I saw two different movies at two very different theaters on Saturday.

The Cheat at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum

I not only attended this screening. I was part of it. I introduced this 1915 Cecil B. DeMille melodrama at the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival.

Among major American auteurs, DeMille stands alone as something of a punchline. Although his films were almost always commercially successful, they seldom got good reviews about most of them today have not aged well–unless you count their unintended camp value.

But DeMille deserves considerable credit as a pioneer. As much as any individual, he can be called the inventor of Hollywood. Not only was he one of the first filmmakers to build a studio in that particular Los Angeles neighborhood, but he was a genius at that very commercial mix of sex, sin, violence, and Christian morality–all washed down with lurid melodrama.

His early works were often brilliant, and none so much as The Cheat. James Card called it “a towering masterpiece of 1915.” The film stands out with its remarkable use of atmospheric lighting, creating a sense of the exotic, the foreign, and the dangerous. The film also makes brilliant use of Japanese screens, especially in its one truly violent scene.

The Cheat also made a star out of Sessue Hayakawa–it also made him into a matinee idol. At a time of extreme racism in America, women–including white women–swooned over this handsome Japanese immigrant.

It wasn’t just about looks. Hayakawa easily gave an best performance in this film. In 1915, actors were still figuring out the differences between film and stage acting. While his co-stars, Fanny Ward and Jack Dean, appear to be playing for the last row in the balcony, Hayakawa played for the camera.

Make no mistake, The Cheat is a racist film. Hayakawa plays the villain, a Japanese trader who has wormed his way into respectable society. Outward, he’s a polished and proper aristocrat. But he nurses a dangerous, uncontrollable lust for white women, and he lashes out cruelly when he doesn’t get his way with them.

But when you consider that The Cheat came out the same year as The Birth of a Nation, it doesn’t seem so bad.

Although The Cheat was made and released in 1915, all existing prints (to my knowledge) come from a 1918 re-release. By 1918, the USA and Japan were allies in World War I, so Paramount changed the intertitles, making Hayakawa’s character Burmese. (You could do that sort of thing very easily in a silent film.)

The feature was preceded by The Doll House Mystery, an entertaining two-reeler.

The 16mm prints screened for both films were serviceable but not exceptional. There were no tints and some shots looked washed out.

Judith Rosenberg, as usual, did an excellent job accompanying both films on piano.

Ivan’s Childhood at the Pacific Film Archive

Last night, the Pacific Film Archive opened the series The Poetry of Time: Andrei Tarkovsky with his first feature, Ivan’s Childhood. When I first read about this series, I felt it was an opportunity to finally dive into the great Russian director’s work.

And no, Ivan’s Childhood is not a prequel to Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.

The point of Ivan’s Childhood is that Ivan never really gets to have a childhood–or at least not an adolescence. When we first meet him, he’s happy, innocent, and loved by his mother. Then he wakes up from that dream to a far more horrible reality. It’s World War II, and the Germans have killed his family. Only 12 years old, he has joined up with a group of partisans fighting the occupiers.

The soldiers, most of whom love and care for Ivan, want to send him east to safety. But he refuses. His young heart burns only for revenge.

Is Ivan’s Childhood an anti-war film? Hard to say. It doesn’t shrink from the horrors of war, although it represents them entirely as the horrors of Nazi occupation. When the film was made in 1962, the memories of those horrors will still fresh for most Russians; films like this were catharsis, not escapism. And while Ivan’s single-mindedness comes off as strange and sad, it’s also completely understandable. The Nazis made his life impossible, and controlled anger is all he has left.

The film’s black-and-white visuals–mostly of swamp, denuded forests, and ruined buildings–create a sense of loss and sadness that matches the story. It’s a beautiful, haunting tale.

Those images were well supported by the excellent 35mm print screened Saturday night. It was from the PFA’s own collection.

Before the screening, Stanford’s Nariman Skakov introduced both this film and, to a greater extent, Tarkovsky’s general esthetic. He concentrated on the director’s love of very long takes, which was odd, since there are no such takes in Ivan’s Childhood. When he opened the floor up for questions after his talk, he didn’t get many. He should have done the Q&A after the film.

The Best of this years’ San Francisco Silent Film Festival

I planned to report on every day and every screening I attended at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. But that was just too much. So this year, I’m waiting to the end and discussing the highlights.

But first, one serious lowlight. When it comes to reserving seats, the Silent Festival is getting almost as bad as the San Francisco International Film Festival. A huge block of rows–comprising the center of the house where most people prefer to sit–was blocked off with Reserved signs. For Sherlock Holmes, they extended the Reserved section so far forward that even the fifth row was out of bounds for most ticket buyers and pass holders.

Okay, now on the good parts.

Few festivals are as fun as this one between the movies. If you have a pass or a ticket to the next show, you’re welcome to hang out, shop for books and DVDs on the mezzanine, or just talk to people.

And the people you can talk to are pretty amazing. When I came in Friday morning, Kevin Brownlow, Serge Bromberg, and Grover Crisp were within about six feet of each other. A collapsing chunk of ceiling would have set back the cause of film preservation for decades.

Another example: A friend of mine, at the festival for the first time, talked about a silent movie he remembered fondly–The Way of All Flesh. He wondered how he could see it again. As he was talking, who should walk by but Serge Bromberg, who joined in the conversation. Bromberg explained that, aside from one reel, the film is believed lost. (He also mentioned a Charley Chase short comedy made soon afterwards called The Way of All Pants.)

The talks–introductions, Q&A, the Amazing Tales from the Archives show–contained a lot of talk about preservation and restoration. We heard multiple stories about reassembly and re-translating intertitles (a lot of American silents exist through foreign, non-English prints). We viewed recently discovered early Technicolor from Hearst’s Castle. And Serge Bromberg–who seemed to be everywhere this year–told us a long and funny story about acquiring the large collection of a family of total jerks.

One running gag ran throughout the festival. Anyone on stage soon learned they could get applause by saying “35mm,” “nitrate,” or, for a really big reaction, “35mm nitrate.”

So much for atmosphere. Here are my favorite films and presentations at this year’s Festival:

Visages d’enfants (Faces of Children; AKA Mother)

I had never heard of this film before I read the program, so I was in a good place to be blown away. It sounded interesting, but I didn’t know until it started that I was watching a masterpiece.

Set in a small town high in the Alps, in what appears to be the last 19th century, Visages d’enfants follows the difficulties of what is now called a blended family–and–as is so often this case, it wasn’t blended very well. A widower with a son and daughter marries a widow with a daughter. Bullying, anger, and complicated emotions result.

I don’t believe I have ever seen such good child performances. The kids come off has real kids, with their own joys, angers, and issues. I grew up in a poorly-blended family myself, and this film hit every nerve.

One major flaw: The movie climaxes with not one but two nail-biting cliffhangers. That works for Harold Lloyd, but for a realistic story like this one, that was one too many.

Stephen Horne provided accompaniment on piano, flute, and I’m not sure what else.

The Last Laugh

This was my third time seeing F.W. Murnau’s 1924 masterpiece, and my first time seeing it theatrically. I loved it from the first, but this time around, with a big screen, a full audience, and great, live music, I realized that this is A+ material.

An aging hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) loves his job. He gets to wear a fancy uniform with big, brass buttons. He’s a member of the working class, but he dresses up, looks smart, and commands respect. And at the end of the workday, he comes home to his tenement apartment, still in his uniform, and everyone respects him. Then he’s demoted to washroom attendant. He’s so ashamed he can’t even tell his family.

Silent films didn’t get any purer than The Last Laugh. It tells almost everything visually, without benefit of language. The film has only one intertitle, separating the main story from the epilogue.

The music came from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra–an undergraduate program in film scoring at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Several students worked on composing this score, and they took turns at the baton. That sounds like a recipe for disaster, but it was anything but.

There was one problem with the music. From where I was sitting, the conductor’s head blocked the bottom of the screen, and thus the subtitles. On the other hand, you’d find few foreign films with less need for subtitles.

Sherlock Holmes

This was, of course, the movie we were all waiting for–newly found and restored after sitting in a French vault for almost a century. It’s the only filmed performance by the great stage actor William Gillette–the first playwright and actor to make the famous detective his own.

By the time Gillette shot Sherlock Holmes in 1916, he’d been playing the part onstage on and off for some 17 years. And even without hearing his voice, you can see that he was a great Holmes. He brings an insolence and an air of sarcasm to the role, making him a very modern hero.

The film’s faults come primarily from the stage play, and from its adaptation to the screen (or lack thereof). It appears that the filmmakers simply filmed the play, then added a few intertitles. Much of the time, you’re watching people talk, without any hint of what they’re saying.

And the play has its own problems. For instance, Holmes falls in love, and presumably is heading towards marriage at the final curtain (or fade out). I’m sorry, but Sherlock Holmes does not fall in love.

The Donald Sousin Ensemble provided excellent accompaniment.

Speedy

Harold Lloyd’s silent features tend to fall into two categories: Very funny, and really good stories that are also very funny. I prefer the second category. Lloyd’s last silent film falls into the merely very funny group, and was thus never one of my favorites. The story is weak and meandering, and Lloyd’s character is an absent-minded failure who can’t hold a job. But seeing it for the first time on the big screen, with an audience around me, I realized just how funny Speedy is. And believe me–it’s extremely funny.

Much of it was shot in New York City, and Lloyd’s team had a lot of fun with the locations. There’s a long sequence at Coney Island that makes me want to visit the place–or at least visit the Coney Island of 1928. Babe Ruth has a cameo as himself. And the final chase is one of Lloyd’s best.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, amongst my favorite accompanists, kept the story hopping.

The Donovan Affair

This had to be the weirdest thing at the festival. For one thing, it’s not really a silent movie. At best, it’s an “accidental silent,” as Bruce Goldstein described in his introduction.

It was made as a talkie (Frank Capra’s first). We have the picture, but the soundtrack is lost. So it was screened with live actors lip-synching–usually accurately–the dialog onscreen. Oddly enough, after a few minutes getting used to the experience, it worked. There was also piano accompaniment and sound effects.

The movie is a very silly murder mystery–I believe the laughs were intentional. I don’t think this type of presentation would work with a serious film.

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