Four surprising facts from early film history

Historical reality has a way of conflicting with the what we all assume. Here are four totally surprising, unintuitive facts about the early days of cinema.

Animation preceded live action

The first moving images weren’t photographed. They were drawn. Parlor toys such as Zoetropethe Zoetrope used multiple illustrations to create the illusion of movement–as cartoons would decades later–to create the illusion of movement.

The Zoetrope wasn’t the first toy to use Persistence of Vision. The far cruder Thaumatrope had been invented (we’re not really sure by who) by 1824. The Zoetrope came a decade later.

It would take nearly another 40 years before Eadweard James Muybridge used multiple cameras to photograph a running horse, and thus creating the first live action moving image.

Silent movies grew out of sound movies

If any one individual can be called the inventor of motion pictures, it’s Thomas Edison employee William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. Realistically, no one man created the technology, but Dickson was the first (as far as I can determine) to punch sprocket holes in George Eastman’s new photographic film so that it could move in a reliable stop-and-go motion through a camera or projector. He created the 35mm, four-perf pull-down standard that is only dying now with the digital revolution.

And according to his own account, as quoted in Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights, he was given the task "to combine Mr. Edison’s phonograph with a practical zoetropic moving figure device." Dickson also claimed that he showed Edison a talking picture in 1989.

Did this happen? Ramsaye, along with later historians, doubted it. A few years later, Edison released the Kinetoscope without sound.

But we do know that Dickson, still working for Edison, successfully created a way to record and show sound movies in the mid-1990’s. that was just around the time that Lumiere, in France, began to project motion pictures onto a screen in front of paying customers for the first time.image

Narrative cinema grew out of special effects

Today, you can prove your maturity by complaining about blockbusters where the story appears to be nothing but an excuse for the special effects. I’ve even done it myself. And yet, historically speaking, that’s pretty much how it happened.

It’s difficult to say who first started telling fictional stories on film. If you film a scene from a stage play, is that a narrative or merely a recording (especially if there’s no dialog)? Does it count if you film a man watering a lawn, and a mischievous teenager disrupts the chore.

But a real story, taking ten or more minutes? Arguably, the true inventor of narrative cinema was also the inventor of special effects, Georges Méliès. A professional magician, he started making movies because he could do effects in them that were impossible on the live stage. Eventually, he expanded his "trick films," providing stories such as A Trip to the Moon to provide a bigger canvas for his effects.

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Colorization preceded real color

You don’t need digital technology to colorize a black and white movie. It was done from almost the beginning of cinema.

The early ways to add color were many. Tinting gave one color to the whole frame, with the color standing out most in the light parts of the image. Toning also colored the entire frame, except that the color stood out in the dark areas. Combined together, tinting and toning could create a vivid two-color effect.

They also hand-painted prints in those days, which must have cost a fortune.

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All of these were available in the 1890s. The first commercially successful system using what was then called "natural color" (in other words, the colors were recorded in the camera), was Kinemacolor. In came out in 1908,

Valentino, Keaton, Caligari, Laurel and Hardy: My report on Silent Autumn

I could think of few better ways to spend a day then the way I spent last Saturday, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival‘s first Silent Autumn event. Over the course of the day, we were treated to three features, two collections of shorts, and a lot of great music.

Let’s take the day in order.

Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts

It’s amazing how easily Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made the transition from silent movies to sound. Adding voices barely changed their characters or comedy style.

The festival screened three of their two-reel silents–Should Married Men Go Home?, Two Tars, and Big Business. To show us how they evolved, the movies were screened in chronological order. That didn’t quite work; their characters and style seemed fully developed from the start of the show.

On the other hand, they did work, simply because all three were extremely funny.

Laurel and Hardy’s onscreen personas were probably the dumbest reoccurring characters in the history of the movies. Stan appears incapable of having a thought or remembering an instruction. Oli knows that Stan is an idiot, and thus, insists on taking charge. What neither of them seems to realize is that Oli is even dumber than Stan.

They’re also extremely vengeful and destructive–do something to get them angry, and you’ll be sorry. And yet, they’re eternally loveable. Looking and behaving like overgrown children, they wander into a placid and calm environment and, because of their presence, all hell breaks loose. Soon everyone is throwing mud, kicking shins, and tearing apart automobiles.

Laurel and Hardy slowed down the pace of silent comedy–which may be one of the reasons they did so well in talkies. They just stand there and watch while their antagonist–say, James Finlayson–rips off their headlight and throws it into their windshield. Then he just stands there and watches as they destroy his front door.

While the sound transition didn’t effect them much, they had a bigger problem moving from shorts to features. A real  plot inevitably got in the way of their style of comedy. But in short subjects, few geniuses were funnier.

Music: Donald Sosin accompanied these shorts on a grand piano. All three films opened with the MGM lion, and Sosin managed to recreate the roar on the piano (except for the last film, when he invited the audience to roar). His lively music helped keep the laughs coming.

Projection: The Festival screened archival prints from the Library of Congress and the UCLA Film Archive. Aside from some bad titles in Should Married Men Go Home?, they looked excellent.

The Son of the Sheik

You can’t discuss Rudolph Valentino’s last and most famous movie without confronting how attitudes about romance and sex have changed considerably in the last 90 years. Here’s a movie designed to feed women’s sexual fantasies, and judging from its commercial success and the audience that flocked to see it, it did its job.

Yet this is a film where the hero rapes the heroine. Of course he does it because he’s been lied to, and he feels bad about it afterwards. But still, the hero rapes the heroine.

In 1926, women found this movie very sexy. And judging from the women I talked to in the theater after the screening, a lot of them still do. Of course, then and now, no woman wants to be raped. But on a movie screen, with the gorgeous Valentino, it’s a safe fantasy.

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The story is silly and hokey, the cast is full of white actors in swarthy makeup, and there’s a comic sidekick bad guy who I just found annoying. But it was a lot of fun.

Music: The Alloy Orchestra (actually a trio with a wide range of instruments) premiered their new score for The Son of the Sheik on Saturday. It was lush and romantic, with a hint of the "Orient" without using the common, clichéd music.I loved it.

Projection: The festival screened this newly-restored classic digitally. The source material was clearly in bad condition, and probably several generations away from the original camera negative. The image quality was acceptable, but not great.

The shape of the frame was very narrow, with a little bit of the image sliced off on the left side. How did that happen? My guess: The source print, made after the silent era, came with recorded music. Because the soundtrack takes up room on the film, part of the image was lost.

A Night at the Cinema in 1914

Feature-length films came into fashion just about a hundred years ago. But it didn’t happen overnight. In 1914, more often than not, a night at the movies involved only a collection of shorts.

The British Film Institute has put together a selection of 14 such shorts to help recreate the movie-going experience in the year World War I started. Each of the shorts was preceded by a new title card putting it into a historical perspective.

Not that all of these particular shorts would have likely been on the same bill in 1914. One newsreel of the Austrian-Hungarian royal family, taken before Ferdinand’s assassination but screened after it, refers to the killing as a "tragedy." They didn’t know just how tragic it would be. Within weeks, those tragic Austrian royals were the enemy. Later newsreels in the program concentrated on the war.

Among the narrative offerings were two from America–a chapter from the serial The Perils of Pauline and an early Keystone Chaplin comedy called A Film Johnnie, where the tramp wanders into the Keystone studio. But the funniest selection in the show was British, Daisy Doodad’s Dial, about woman with a gift for making outrageous faces.

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Another highlight: The Rollicking Rajah was actually a sound film, using a film/phonograph system similar to the Vitaphone. Clearly a music hall act, enhanced with the ability to easily change settings, The Rollicking Rajah was a risqué musical act starring a male singer accompanied by flirtatious female dancers. Unfortunately, the phonograph record is lost, but the sheet music survives, which brings us to…

Music: In addition to playing the song, The Rollicking Rajah, on the grand piano, Donald Sosin sang the lyrics with the verve of a music hall performer. His words didn’t match the lips on screen perfecting, but they worked. He did a fine job on the rest of the show, as well.

Projection: I have nothing to complain about with this digital presentation. Some of the sources were pretty bad, and not much could be done to repair them. But overall, it looked very good.

The General

One of these days, I’m going to have to write a full article about Buster Keaton’s civil war masterpiece. So for now, I’ll keep it brief:

Based loosely on an actual event, The General puts a comic character at the center of a heroic epic, and he proves more than up to the task. The film is visually beautiful, and gives us the sweep of armies and locomotives moving through a land at war. In the climactic battle, soldiers actually die.

But it’s also a love story between a man and a train (there’s a girl in it, too). It’s made up almost entirely of two train chases. Keaton, a child of vaudeville who grew up largely on trains, wrings every gag possible (and some impossible) out of these wood-burning steam engine locomotives.

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The General belongs near the top of any must-see movie list. And like all good comedies, it’s best scene with an audience.

Music: The Alloy Orchestra provided a percussion-heavy score that emphasized the unstoppable forward motion of a fast-moving train. A couple of times it felt monotonous, but not for long. Comic sound effects, not overdone, added to the fun.

Projection: The festival screened an excellent 35mm print from Raymond Rohauer’s collection.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The story is very conventional–at least until the end. But no one remembers The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for its story. Visually speaking, this has to be one of the weirdest commercial films ever made.

The painted backdrops–including painted light and shadow–make no attempt to look realistic. Doors are angular and misshaped. Bureaucratic authority figures sit on very high stools, and crouch over high yet small desks. The sweet and innocent ingénue is dressed and made up to look like a darker and more depressing version of Morticia Addams.

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This is, apparently, the filmmakers’ view of small-town Germany in 1919, reeling from defeat.

Into this world, a showman named Dr. Caligari arrives with an act built around a somnambulist who never wakes up but can see the future. Then people start getting murdered.

The story takes some very wild turns in the last third. Best not to go too much into detail.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an easier film to admire than to like. It’s expressionistic visuals and way over-the-top acting keeps the audience at an arms-length. The constant intensity can be exhausting. But the atmosphere can also have a powerful hold. And the film’s story and strangeness can say a lot about the society that made it, although what exactly it says is a matter of controversy.

Music: Donald Sosin eschewed the grand piano for a smaller, electric one for Caligari. I heard a violin, a harp, and other instruments in the score; presumably the piano had MIDI capabilities. The score was appropriately weird and kept the story moving.

Projection: For as long as I’ve been watching old movies, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meant bad, soft, scratchy prints. But the film has recently gone through a thorough 4K digital restoration, and most of it looks great. And even when it doesn’t look great, it’s still presentable and a big improvement.

The American Dream turns into a nightmare, and a great American film needs to be seen

A young man comes to New York, dreaming of success and wealth. But reality refuses to live up to his dreams–perhaps because he dreams too much– in King Vidor’s 1928 masterpiece, The Crowd. Told with daring photography, real locations, surreal sets, and subtle pantomime, The Crowd brings you through dizzying joy and wrenching tragedy as it follows the story of an ordinary man who refuses to accept that he’s ordinary.

Even those who love silent film will often acknowledge that when it comes to character-driven, realistic, contemporary drama, talkies have a distinct advantage. But The Crowd makes one very special exception. Here we have reality–or something very close to it–without the aid of the human voice.

The Crowd is not a lost film, but it’s a difficult one to see. Warner Brothers, which owns this MGM title, has never released The Crowd on DVD or Blu-ray. If you want your own legal copy, you have to find an out-of-print, expensive laserdisc or VHS cassette. It’s currently streaming on Warner Archive Instant, but individual titles don’t stay up on that service for more than a few weeks. As far as I know, it’s not streaming anywhere else–at least not legally.

The Crowd follows the optimistic but ultimately disappointing life of John Sims, who comes to New York as a young man to make it big. The first time we see the adult John (James Murray in what I believe was his only starring role), he’s on a ferry to Manhattan, smiling and ready to conquer the world. He tells a fellow passenger (in an intertitle, of course) that he only wants an "opportunity." The look on the other man’s face is priceless.

A reverse shot shows us the Manhattan docks, which leads to a montage of New York City, including a couple of shots where the camera tilts up to reveal the high skyscrapers. Then the camera moves up one of those skyscrapers, and heads inside, where rows and rows of desks fill a vast room (yes, The Crowd influenced The Apartment). Finally, the camera finds John, now earning his living. But he’s just one toiler out of hundreds, eagerly waiting for the 5:00 bell that will let him leave the office.

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That image of the vast, dehumanizing room reoccurs much later in the film, in a surprising context. John has just become a father, and the vast maternity room stretches out with rows of beds. People are born to be lowly workers dreaming of an unattainable better life.

Director King Vidor (who also co-write the screenplay) condemns American society in The Crowd, but he also condemns John, a man whose imagination is greater than his real ambitions. He talks about his ship coming in, but he never seems to seriously guide it into a harbor. He works just hard enough to keep his job, refuses to socialize with his bosses, quits in a moment of anger, and rejects a job offer that feels like charity. And all this from a man with mouths to feed.

Murray gives an excellent performance here, but Eleanor Boardman gives a better one–one of silent cinema’s greatest acting jobs–as his long-suffering wife, Mary. We first meet her as a flirtatious but innocent young woman on a Coney Island date. On her wedding night (on a train to Niagara Falls), she is shy and scared. In a later breakfast scene, her frustration, exhaustion, and disappointment are palpable. She loves John, and you can see that even when she’s mad at him. And he gives her plenty of reasons to be mad at him.

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Boardman married Vidor two years before they made The Crowd. Three years later they divorced. I can’t help wondering if a real troubled marriage helped her understand her character.

The Crowd is a serious film, but it has moments of joy and laughter. The ending is ambiguous. It’s a happy ending, in that John and Mary are happy when we last see them. But the basic problems are still there. Vidor gives you no reason to believe that the happiness will last.

I first saw The Crowd at a Los Angeles museum screening in 1973. It was some 30 years before I could see it again, on Turner Classic Movies. A year or so later, I saw it at the PFA. Last night, almost a decade after that screening, I got to watch it on Warner Archive Instant. Outside of the current, temporary situation, it’s not an easy film to see.

But it’s one that should be seen. Warners should give it a thorough restoration (the streaming version shows serious nitrate degradation in some shots), and make it readily available to theaters on DCP and 35mm. And then they should make it available on DVD and Blu-ray, complete with commentary and extras . And if Warners won’t do it, they should license the film to Criterion, or the Film Foundation, or UCLA, or someone else who doesn’t have to worry about stockholders.

Six years after making The Crowd, Vidor made a sequel of sorts, Our Daily Bread. It’s an interesting picture, but far from a great one. If I was to put The Crowd on a double bill with anything, I would bill it with Preston Sturges’ Christmas in July. Yes, one’s a drama, and the other a comedy. Yet they have some interesting themes running through both.

But for now, just catch The Crowd while you can.

Note: Soon after posting this article, I received the following good news from a Warner spokesperson:

The film has not been released on DVD yet as they feel it needs a restoration, which it will at some point but for now, fans can watch the film on WAI.

Also, the article makes it sound as if the film is only on the short for a short period of time. It’s not. Films do come off and new ones will come up but it’s not as if they are only up for a few weeks before coming down. Also, there is a column on the site noting which films are coming off so fans have notification of this ahead of time at http://instant.warnerarchive.com/browse.html#CF_2461-3426.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Part 2

One of the major problems with life is that it intrudes on watching movies. Saturday, other responsibilities kept me away from the Castro, and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, until mid-afternoon. Among other things, I missed Serge Bromberg’s Treasure Trove. What a pity.

But here’s what I saw on Saturday and Sunday. You can also check out Thursday and Friday in San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Part 1.

Underground

We got two introductions to this British melodrama from 1928. First, Bryony Dixon of the British Film Institute talked about the restoration. "It can take a very long time to [raise the money] for a big restoration costing hundreds of thousands of pounds. It took, I think, 15 years to get this one going." Initially, all they had was a fourth-generation print. They found another source in Brussels, and "We were able to combine these elements" to make the restoration.

Now that I’ve seen the restoration and the movie, I’d call it money well spent.

Next, Leonard Maltin introduced the movie. "I’ve seen this film once before. I remember liking it." He talked about the great film collector and historian William K. Everson, and the "visual flair" you find only in late silent films. "No one was untouched by the work of Murnau and other innovators of that period…It seems kind of a shame that just when filmmaking had reached this pinnacle, sound came along and everything froze."

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Underground is not about criminals or black-market economics, but the London subway system. When the movie started, I assumed it would follow Aristotle’s unity of place, and contain all (or almost all) of its action within the subway system. I was wrong, and a bit disappointed. It opens and closes in the subway, and two main characters work there, but it’s set all around working-class London.

But really, I didn’t have much to be disappointed about. Underground is a fun melodrama about a cad, a nice guy, a nice girl, and a mentally unhinged young woman. A great deal of it was shot on location, with a real sense of London in the late 20s.

Stephen Horne gave his usual fantastic one-man-ensemble accompaniment. I could see him from my seat, and noticed him playing flute, accordion, clarinet, and piano. I think he’s part octopus.

Under the Lantern

Weimar Germany must have had a thing about prostitutes. The Germans filmed a lot of downbeat tragedies about girls sliding into the oldest profession and suffering the consequences. Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl are unique only in being better than the others. (It helped, of course, to have Louise Brooks.)

In Under the Lantern, we follow the fate of a young woman who goes dancing without her overly-strict father’s permission. She takes up with her boyfriend, joins a vaudeville act, becomes a kept woman, and is eventually reduced to walking the streets. But don’t worry; worse things are ahead.

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It’s an often-told story, reasonably well-done, although slower than it needed to be. It worked well enough to make me hope that she could turn her life around.

But it had one big problem: The star, Lissy Arna, while an excellent silent actress, was not the ravishing beauty that the story required. And she looked too old in the early scenes. When an intertitle told us that she was underage, I wondered just what age constituted adulthood in the Weimar Republic…35?

Many of the film’s flaws were papered over by the Donald Sosin Ensemble. Their European and yet jazzy score carried all of the film’s rich emotions, and deepened the otherwise shallow sequences. Occasionally, someone on screen would turn on a phonograph. When this happened, the musicians stopped playing and we were treated with recordings off of old 78s.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West In the Land of the Bolsheviks

The Soviet Union was a pretty horrible place to live in 1924. World War, revolution, civil war, and an experimental economy had shaken the nation to the core. No one quite yet knew how much freedom of expression would be allowed. (Final answer: not much.)

And yet, in that very year, Russian film theoretician Lev Kuleshov created one of the most intentionally silly comedies I’ve ever seen. The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West In the Land of the Bolsheviks (let’s just call it Extraordinary Adventures) makes Duck Soup feel like neorealism.

The title character is an American executive who comes to the newly-Communist Russia on business, brandishing a fur coat, Harold Lloyd glasses, and an American flag. His sidekick and bodyguard is a cowboy with a quick draw and a slow brain (Mr. West isn’t any smarter). They almost immediately fall in with a bunch of con artists intent on taking advantage of their ignorance and fear to separate them from their money.

I have to give a special shout out for Aleksandra Khokhlova as the "sexy" con artist. As skinny and flexible as Popeye’s Olive Oyl, she comes off as a strange, warped, and hilarious caricature of a human being. Like everyone else in the movie, she’s a broad stereotype, but her bizarre performance is funnier than any other.

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It seems strange that a movie intended to be Communist propaganda would show almost all of its Russians as liars and thieves. Only near the end do honest Bolsheviks appear, and only then does Extraordinary Adventures become Communist propaganda.

The Mattie Bye Ensemble did a great job accompanying the feature.

Extraordinary Adventures ended Saturday’s program. I had a nasty surprise on my way home. When I arrived at the North Berkeley BART station around noon, I discovered that someone had stolen my bicycle.

Now, on to Sunday:

Seven Years Bad Luck

The always entertaining Serge Bromberg introduced this 1921 Max Linder comedy. More to the point, he introduced Linder.

Max Linder is probably cinema’s first comic star. He started making shorts in his native France in 1905, and came to the USA in 1916. He went back and forth between the two countries until his 1925 suicide.

The festival screened two American Linder comedies: the 1917 short Max Wants a Divorce and the 1921 feature, Seven Years Bad Luck. This was my first Linder experience, and I found him funny–often hilarious. Linder reminded me of an upper-class Charlie Chase—dapper, normal, and stuck in funny situations. It’s clear that he influenced Chase, but then, he influenced everyone.

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Unfortunately, the feature hit its comic peak early. Max’s servants conspire to keep him ignorant of a broken mirror. One servant, who vaguely resembles Linder, stands on the other side of the empty mirror frame and imitates his master’s every move while shaving. It’s the old mirror routine (Groucho and Harpo did it in Duck Soup), but I’ve never seen it done so well as it’s done here.

The rest of the film plays fine, but never again reaches that level. Max keeps expecting to have a lot of bad luck. That sort of thing tends to be self-fulfilling.

Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius collaborated on the musical accompaniment. It was fine.

Dragnet Girl

Earlier this year, New York’s Antohology Flm Archives ran a series called "Auteurs Gone Wild"–films by major directors that are not in the director’s usual style (see Rare Lubitsch in New York). Yasujiro Ozu’s Dragnet Girl would have fit right in. As Noir City’s Eddie Muller explained it when he introduced the picture on Sunday, it was quite a surprise to discover that Ozu, known for his quiet and contemplative family dramas and low-key comedies, "made a 1930s Warner Brothers gangster movie."

Muller also talked about the "absolutely dazzling camera movement," more "like a Martin SCorceses fever dream" than anything by Ozu. The future director of Tokyo Story clearly wanted to make an American film; posters and signs are all in English.

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The movie definitely has style. It’s flashy and fun to watch. And Kinuyo Tanaka is wonderful as a seemingly innocent young girl who’s really a tough-as-nails moll. Well, maybe she’s not as tough as she seems. The exceptionally handsome Joji Oka brings energy and charisma to the part of her gangster boyfriend–a Japanese James Cagney. But the story manages to be both weak and confusing. In the end, it just didn’t do much for me.

To accompany Dragnet Girl, Gunter Buchwald played piano and violin, with Frank Bockius on the drums. Their jazz-infused music was everything it should have been.

The Girl in Tails

This 1926 Swedish romance starts similarly to Under the Lantern. A young woman disobeys her father’s orders to go dancing. But this time, breaking the rules and making trouble results in love and happiness, not tragedy.

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Actually, her father doesn’t object to her going to the ball; he just won’t pay for the needed clothes. This is particularly unfair because he gives her brother a seemingly limitless clothing budget. So she steals her brother’s white tie and tails, and goes to the dance in drag.

And let me add that the film’s star, Magda Holm, looks very fetching in men’s formalwear.

Of course she scandalizes the town, but she has a few defenders, including the very wealthy young man she obviously loves. You never really worry that things will not come out right.

The Girl in Tails goes on too long, and overstays its welcome by about 15 minutes. But it’s such a warm, generous, and subversive movie that you can forgive a few slow spots.

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

The Sign of the Four

I was a huge Sherlock Holmes fan in my early teens, and I’ve reread all of the stories over the last few years. The second novel, The Sign of the Four, is one of my favorites. It’s an atmospheric mystery with a good action climax. And Watson gets to fall in love.

Eille Norwood played Holmes in something like 45 movies, mostly shorts, from 1921-23. The Sign of Four, a feature, was his last.

It’s hard to imagine how the dialog-heavy Sherlock Holmes stories could work in silent film, but they do. After all, much of the talking in the original stories involve one person telling another about what happened. All you need is a flashback and you’re back to telling a story visually.

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Norwood is one of the best Holmes of the screen, up there will Rathbone, Brett, and Cumberbatch. He underplays the great detective, moving little and seeing all. His is a contemplative Holmes, a man always in the process of thinking.

On the other hand, Arthur M. Cullin makes a poor choice for Watson–especially for The Sign of the Four. Flabby, plain-looking, and dull, there’s nothing here for Mary Morstan to fall in love with. Cullins didn’t play Watson in any of the other Norwood Holmes films, which makes this choice odder.

The film follows the book relatively closely, but when it deviates, it goes off in the wrong direction. Specifically, in the "innocent white girl menaced by evil dark people" direction.

Oh, well. It was fun, anyway.

Donald Sosin (on piano) with Guenter Buchwald (on violin) kept everything lively.

Harbor Drift

Sleep deprivation is a major problem with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. At least it is for me. If I try to attend everything, I don’t get enough sleep.

And that’s why I’m not really qualified to tell you about Harbor Drift, yet another German film about poverty and prostitution. The movie started, and I fell immediately to sleep. I think it was about half over when I woke up.

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From what I saw, it was well made, with daring camera angles and wild editing. I couldn’t really get a handle on the characters, but the main ones seemed real and sympathetic.

Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius’ accompaniment sounded fine, even in my dreams.

The Navigator

The closing show of the Festival presented one of Buster Keaton’s most beloved works. It was the only film screened that I’m really familiar with. This was my fourth time seeing The Navigator theatrically. (I also own the Blu-ray.)

This is not my favorite Keaton, but it’s still a very fun movie. Keaton and Kathryn McGuire play spoiled rich kids adrift on an otherwise deserted ocean liner with no power. Thus, two people who can’t boil water have to make due in an environment designed for feeding hundreds.

This provides for plenty of great comic sequences. Buster tries to put an unconscious Kathryn into an uncooperative deck chair. The two, working together, manage to create a pot of coffee comprised of three beans and a couple of quarts of salt water. A small cannon with a lit fuse manages to always point at Buster.

In my favorite sequence, Buster tries to shuffle and deal a pack of cards so wet that they’re dissolving in his hands. Kathryn got the cards wet in the first place, and chivalry demands that he ignore their soggy condition.

Unfortunately, the Matti Bye Ensemble added too many bizarre and weird sound effects. At first they were funny, but soon they just got in the way of the truly funny stuff going on onscreen.

Nevertheless, watching Buster Keaton with 1,500 other fans is always a wonderful experience. It was a good way to end an enjoyable, if exhausting, weekend.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Part 1

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the closest thing to a movie marathon I’ve experienced in decades. For three of its four days, it runs movie after movie from 10:00am until nearly midnight, with breaks that generally last an hour or less. Seeing everything–or almost everything–requires stamina and sleep deprivation.

Attending the festival, and blogging about it, takes Herculean efforts.

Here’s what I’ve seen so far:

The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse

Festival President Robert Byrne started things off with a little pep talk, thanking sponsors, noting that this is the 19th year, and talking about the feature.

The movie started only 15 minutes after the scheduled time. For any festival’s opening night, it’s excellent.

If you want to see the value of star power, there’s no better example than Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Rudolf Valentino  was just another handsome face when he was cast in this film, receiving only fourth billing. But he owns the picture. His open likeability, his energy, and his exceptional sexuality dominate this epic about Argentinians caught up in World War I.

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Valentino was a competent actor, although not a great one. Occasionally, he’s horrible. But his magnetism overwhelms his flaws.

The family dynamics of the story are a bit complicated. Let’s just say that a wealthy Argentine family develops into separate French and German forks. The French move to France, the Germans move to Germany, and war puts them on separate sides.

It’s an antiwar movie, of course, but a flawed one. The message seems to be "War is evil, and Germans are evil because they love war." Germans are inherently bad guys in this film’s worldview.

The picture is big, epic, and spectacular. It drags a bit in the first half, but is overall good fun, despite the anti-German sentiment. And Valentino makes it a much better film than it would otherwise be.

The 35mm print was tinted and mostly beautiful. Some scenes were soft; I assume they came from an inferior source. For some reason, it was projected at an aspect ratio that was too narrow even for a silent. Occasionally the sides looked cropped.

The Mont Alto Silent Picture Orchestra did their usual wonderful accompaniment.

Amazing Tales from the Archives

This Friday morning free show is always one of the Festival’s highlights. Once again, Robert Byrne got it started. "I love the smell of nitrate in the morning. It smells of history."

This year’s tales came in three segments.

First, Bryony Dixon, Curator of Silent Film for the British Film Institute, showed us some early nature films–forerunners of David Attenborough’s work. The best sequences involved bees and beekeeping, and required experimental lenses.

Next, Dan Streible of the Orphan Film Symposium discussed one of the most famous films to come out of Edison’s laboratory, The Sneeze. Thanks to the discovery of a new paper print, we now know that this laboratory experiment ran twice as long as anyone suspected. Yes, Fred Ott sneezed twice!

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He also used some of his talk to criticize digital, proclaiming that "digital film is an oxymoron." I disagree, but I should read his article on the matter anyway.

He ended his presentation with a little gem that I saw once maybe 35 or 36 years ago: Raymond Rohauer Presents the Sneeze–a two-minute gem by David Shepard. You have to know about the silent film restoration/copyright battles of 60s and 70s to appreciate this one.

Finally, special effects designer Craig Barron and sound effects creator Ben Burtt took the stage to discuss Charlie Chaplin’s his use of technology. Their point was to dispel the myth that Chaplin was a luddite, interested in the camera only as a way to record his silent performances. Barron and Burtt showed he used trick photography, and Burtt discussed his use of sound effects in City Lights and Modern Times.

These two are always worth listening to.

Song of the Fishermen

They were still making silent movies in China in 1934, although sound was beginning to sneak in. Song of the Fishermen is a bit like the Jazz Singer. Basically a silent film, but every so often, the lead character breaks into song.

The star, Wang Renmei, was both a movie and a singing star at the time.

The movie was shot in horrible conditions on location in a very poor fishing village. The singing was dubbed in later.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t too impressed with Song of the Fisherman–a story about a sister and brother struggling to survive in a depressed fishing village. Many individual scenes worked well, but the continuity was confusing and I often felt unsure about what was going on. After the film, I talked to others who had the same experience.

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It was beautifully shot, but the excellent photography was marred by a poor print source and a worse digital transfer. Fades and dissolves showed very bad digital artifacts.

Donald Soshan’s piano work was fine. But three times he stopped playing and the film’s original soundtrack took over, so we could hear Wang Renmei singing. Sometimes it was out of sync.

Life sometimes gets in the way of going to movies, and I had to return to the East Bay after Song of the Fishermen. I made it back to the Castro in time for the 10:00pm screening of…

Cosmic Voyage

Experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin selected this Soviet sci-fi for the Festival, and introduced it. "One reason I picked it is it has a sense of otherness. My own films deal with technology. Mine are more pessimistic."

He spoke about as fast as is humanly possible. I think my typed notes are accurate.

"The film is a lesson in itself about how soviet film played out. And it’s a children’s film. It would have been popular, but it was pulled. The benefit of it being a silent is the crucial role of montage. The odd angles, the willingness to take chances, and the release from melodrama."

That’s Baldwin’s view. Here’s mine:

Cosmic Voyage feels like something George Pal would have made in the 1950s, except that it’s a silent film made on the other side of the iron curtain. A brilliant but loveable scientist with a Santa-like beard, a young boy brimming with pluck, and a beautiful young woman convince the powers that be that their rocket is safe. Then they go to the moon, have some adventures there, and return home.

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In many ways, the science is remarkably accurate for its time. Zero gee starts when the thruster rockets stop. The moon has gravity, but it’s so weak that the explorers can make big leaps.

On the other hand, the spaceship has a very high ceiling, which is a big waste in a spaceship (Pal made the same mistake in When World’s Collide). And who can forget a timeless intertitle like "You gather the atmosphere. I’ll rescue the cat." This and other intertitles were in Russian; Frank Buxton read an English translation out loud as the film played.

In other words, the whole thing is charming, silly, and entertaining. I wish it was readily available in this country.

But I don’t understand the festival’s scheduling decision. This is a kid’s movie, and should have screened as a matinee. The 3:00 show that day (which I missed) was called Midnight Madness; that sounds like a better late-night movie.

The print, which I believe was digital, looked great. The Silent Movie Music Company accompanied Cosmic Voyage. They did a good job.

I Wake Up Dreaming about Silents: Bay Area May Film Festivals

Taking some time off of the San Francisco International Film Festival, I thought I’d tell you about three other festivals opening in May.

I Wake Up Dreaming

May 16 – 25

Noir City isn’t the only local festival to concentrate on the dark side of cinema. The Roxie‘s I Wake Up Dreaming series offers its own selection of 30 noir movies (and “noir-ish” ones according to the press announcement) from 1932 to 1965. The films all come from the Warner Archive.

I’ve only seen two movies on this list, Ladies They Talk About and Al Capone, and have heard of one other, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. But that’s how it should be. I like surprises. [Note: When I first wrote this post, I’d forgotten that I’d seen Ladies They Talk About. I corrected this paragraph on May 18.]

All of the films will be projected digitally, which would be fine with me if they were off of a DCP or a Blu-ray. Unfortunately, they’ll be DVDs–not the optimal format for a theater screen. On the other hand, the Roxie has a small screen, so they should look okay.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

May 29 – June 1

The biggest Bay Area silent movie event of the year moves from mid-July to late May  this year. But some things don’t change. It looks like another great four-day weekend of movies and live music at the Castro.

It starts Thursday night with the movie that made Rudolph Valentino a star, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This is not, quite frankly, a great film, but it is a pretty good one. And Valentino’s first scene is one of the great star-making moments of all time.

Three days later, it ends with Buster Keaton’s The Navigator. While this isn’t my favorite Keaton by a long shot, it’s a lot of fun and has some fantastic sequences. I haven’t seen it theatrically in a very long time.

As usual, Friday morning brings us this year’s Amazing Tales From the Archives. This time, Bryony Dixon, Curator of Silent Film for the BFI National Archive, will screen some early nature films, Dan Streible of Orphan Film Symposium (I haven’t heard of it, either) will teach us more about Fred Ott’s Sneeze than we ever thought we’d know. And Craig Barron and Ben Burtt will discuss Charlie Chaplin’s use of special effects.

Other films that look very exciting here include two Soviet pictures–a space adventure and a comedy–and an early noir by Yasujiro Ozu (yes, you read that right). There’s also an adaptation of one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories, The Sign of Four. And Serge Bromberg will show us a Treasure Trove of work, including a recently discovered version of Buster Keaton’s “The Blacksmith.”

The musicians include Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Stephen Horne, the Donald Sosin Ensemble, and a group I never heard of called the Silent Movie Music Company.

Green Film Festival

May 29 – June 4

I tend to put film festivals into three categories: general (SFIFF, Mill Valley), identity (Jewish, Frameline, Mostly British), and genre (Silent, Noir City, DocFest). But this is something different: a didactic festival. It exists to teach a lesson and turn us inter activists.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. We need more activists fighting for the planet’s future.

For the most part, Green will screen documentaries. But they’re also showing a 40-year-anniversary screening of Chinatown.

Even the Green Film Festival dips its beak into noir.

SFIFF: Getting Down and Staying Down at the Castro

Tuesday night I visited the Castro for a special San Francisco International Film Festival event: Thao and the Get Down Stay Down.

SFIFF has a tradition for daring silent movie accompaniment. They bring in a local musician or group, one with a significant following, and have them accompany a silent feature or a collection of shorts. The idea, I suspect, is to attract both silent film lovers and fans of the musician. Hopefully, there is cross-pollination between the two groups.

Sometimes it works beautifully. Other times it’s a disaster. Tuesday night fell in between, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

Before I read the press release about this event, I had never heard of Thao Nguyen, or of her band, The Get Down Stay Down. Having now experienced them in live performance, I can say that the music was fun and infectious, often with an ironic touch. I would describe their music as very good art rock, pushing the envelope without sacrificing the beat. Nguyen sang through much of the performance, although I had trouble making out the lyrics.

And make no mistake about it: This was as much a concert as a screening. Probably more so.

And yet, they weren’t always playing music. Some of the shorts were talkies. Three of these were short comedies starring Nguyen as herself–or at least a vain and insecure comic version of herself. She’s a good comic actress and I enjoyed two of these shorts quite a bit (one wasn’t so good). The other talkies were newsreel segments from the 1930s.

The silent movies they accompanied included two additional newsreel segments, both about women’s beauty, and clearly treated ironically by the band. One showed the "torture" Broadway chorus girls must go through to remain beautiful; it looked about as painful as a moderate massage, and they were smiling. There were a couple of very short, color animated works that functioned as lightshows for the music. And there were two well-known silent shorts.

The first of these was the very strange "The Life and Death of 9413: A Hollywood Extra." Made in 1928 by Robert Florey and Slavko Vorkapich, it takes German expressionism to an outlandish extreme–even though it was made in America. As the title implies, it’s a satire of depersonalization in the Hollywood system. Nguyen’s weird music made a perfect match.

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The program ended with Charlie Chaplin’s "The Pawnshop." Like everything else that Chaplin made during his Mutual period, it’s a small comic gem, filled with remarkable gags and extended routines. They were right to close the show with "The Pawnshop," easily the best picture in the group.

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But here, Nguyen’s music hindered rather than helped. Loud and electronic, it overwhelmed the picture. The drummer did some excellent, perfectly-timed sound effects, but they were often overwhelmed by the loud rock and roll. It was as if Chaplin and Nguyen were fighting over the audience’s attention. Nguyen won.

And yet I still enjoyed "The Pawnshop." And the whole evening. When it was over, the audience called for an encore. After a few minutes, Nguyen came back on stage and thanked us. But she didn’t pick up her guitar.

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