Comedy and Popularity: Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman on Blu-ray

It might be possible to watch Harold Lloyd’s 1925 masterpiece, The Freshman, without laughing, or without hoping that the protagonist will win the popularity he so deeply wants. But it wouldn’t be easy. Every shot in this film is brilliantly designed to make you either laugh or care–or both.

Lloyd’s "glasses" character truly came into his own in The Freshman. He’s more than just the brash, clever, ambitious, and opportunistic young American of Safety Last. Here "Harold Lamb" is a naïve college freshman, caught in the tide of peer pressure, desperately wanting to be liked and admired by his fellow students. In his determination to become popular, he unknowingly becomes the class clown. Everyone pretends to like him, but they’re all laughing behind his back.

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How can you watch a story like that and not be moved? This kid has spunk to spare. Even when his ineptitude makes a mess of things, his spirit and fortitude seem admirable.

What’s more, the movie is peppered with brilliant, extended comic sequences–although none top the climax of Lloyd’s Safety Last. Silent comedy, which don’t have to pause for the laughter to die down so that the audience hear the next line, could build one gag on top of another, producing an unstoppable locomotive of laughter. Lloyd was one of the masters of this technique.

Consider the Fall Frolic sequence. Harold is hosting the big party. It’s clearly hurting him financially, but he springs for a tailor-made tuxedo. Unfortunately, the tailor is subject to fainting spells, and has only managed to baste the tux –it’s not properly sewn together. So we have Harold trying to be the life of the party while his guests are secretly laughing at him, his suit is coming apart, and an elderly tailor is sneaking around, trying to fix the disintegrating tux without being seen–and without fainting.

And all the while, the local working girl who loves him looks on, far more aware than Harold of his real status. And his real worth.

I’m not sure if Jobyna Ralston was the best of Lloyd’s leading ladies, or simply the one who was there when Lloyd reached his artistic maturity. She’s not as funny as Mildred Davis, who after Safety Last gave up a career as his on-screen ingénue to become his real-life wife. But Ralston’s on-screen persona seemed both pure and worldly, sexy and motherly. She could deliver a "believe in yourself" pep talk that would save the day–even in a silent movie.

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I suppose I should explain why I called this film "Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman," even though the directing credit goes to Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. Lloyd produced the film, and had complete control. Historians pretty much agree that Lloyd, who never took a directing credit, was the leader of the collaborative team that made his films.

The auteur is not always the director.

First Impression    

imageThis unusually thick three-disc set comes in a cardboard slipcover. The fold-out container inside has a cover designed as the Tate College 1925 yearbook.

Inside, on the left, are two DVDs stacked together. You have to remove disc 1 to access disc 2. On the right, a single Blu-ray disc contains the same content as the DVDs–looking and sounding better, of course.

Also in the box is a thin booklet dominated by an article by Stephen Winer, "Speedy Saves the Day! A Harold Lamb Adventure!" Mostly, this article puts the movie in its’ 1925 context. The booklet also has an "About the Transfer" page and disc credits.

How It Looks

This is one of the best transfers of a silent film I’ve yet seen–for the most part clear and sharp as a tack. Whether the image is pure black-and-white or tinted (the tints are based on instructions that came with the negative), it’s a beauty to behold.

I thought I saw, very briefly, some nitrate deterioration. It went by so fast I’m not entirely sure. (And no, I didn’t go back and look for it. I was enjoying the film too much.)

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How It Sounds

This version comes with a new chamber orchestra score composed and conducted by my favorite silent film accompanist, Carl Davis. Like his Safely Last score, this one is heavily flavored with jazz–appropriate for Lloyd, whose work is so much of the jazz age.

I love Davis’ work, but he made a serious mistake here. The music in the climactic football game was too subdued. It’s an exciting scene that deserves exciting music.

The score is presented in two-track stereo, uncompressed PCM. It sounds great.

Much as I love this score, I wish they had also included Robert Israel’s score from the previous Warner Brother’s release (part of The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection, Volume 2). That one, too, is excellent. With silent films, the more scores, the merrier.

And the Extras

No wonder the DVD version comes on two discs. There’s a lot of stuff here.

  • Commentary by film historian Richard Bann, archivist Richard Correll, and critic Leonard Maltin. A bit of a disappointment, especially when you consider how well these three men know the subject. While their talk contains some social and historical insights, the three (who were recorded together) spend too much time explaining what’s onscreen and just enjoying the movie. This extra track is also on the above-mentioned Warner Brothers release.
  • Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life: 30 minutes. In 1966, Lloyd combined a re-edited version of The Freshman with an introduction and some narrated clips from his other films, and called the cobbled-together feature Harold Lloyd’s Funny Side of Life.  This excerpt contains everything in Funny Side of Life except The Freshman. Its only real interest is in seeing how Lloyd marketed his films to a new generation.
  • Short films: I’ve always preferred Lloyd in features than in shorts. Here are the three shorts included in this package:
    • The Marathon: 14 minutes. This early 1919 one-reeler doesn’t provide many laughs. It’s also one of the most racist silent comedies I’ve seen, and that’s saying lot. Piano score by Gabriel Thibaudeau.
    • An Eastern Westerner: (27 minutes). This cute 1920 western parody is easily the best of the three, with a climax that seems to parody Birth of a Nation. Carl Davis’ wonderful score adds to the merriment.
    • High and Dizzy: (27 minutes). Harold gets drunk and walks along a skyscraper’s edge. Moderately funny and historically interesting. Another Carl Davis score.
  • Conversation with Kevin Brownlow and Richard Correll: 40 minutes. Our leading silent film historian and Lloyd’s personal archivist discuss their own initial Lloyd experiences, both in terms of falling in love with his films and getting to know him personally. Interesting and enjoyable.
  • Harold Lloyd: Big Man on Campus:
    16 minutes. John Bengson, who’s written three books on silent comedy locations, discusses where The Freshman was shot.
  • Delta Kappa Alpha Tribute: 29 minutes. In 1964, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts honored Lloyd in a gala event. On stage, Jack Lemmon, Steve Allen, and one-time Lloyd collaborator Delmer Daves ask him about his career. They’re all relaxed and friendly. And Lloyd talks extensively about his work. The best extra on the disc.
  • What’s My Line: (7 minutes) Lloyd appears as the mystery guest in this 1953 TV game show clip. Inconsequential, but fun.

Criterion’s release of The Freshman, containing both DVDs and Blu-ray, go on sale today.

German Expressionism on a Hollywood Budget: My Blu-ray review of Sunrise

A marriage sinks as low as it can go, then rises again to the joys of marital bliss in F. W. Murnau’s first American film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. The story is as simple and as simplistic as a story can get, yet the beautiful, expressionistic telling of that story turns it into a magnificent work of art.

In the 1920s, German expressionism appeared to be cinema at its most artistic. Rejecting naturalism, the expressionists used outsized acting styles against bizarre sets showing exaggerated forced perspective. Their films were no more real than Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, and at their best were just as emotionally effective.

Murnau was one of expressionism’s leaders. Among his German hits were The Last Laugh and the strangest adaptation of Dracula, Nosferatu (see my Blu-ray review). But Hollywood has always tempted other country’s successful filmmakers, and Murnau leaped at the temptation. And why shouldn’t he? Studio head William Fox (whose name now adorns 20th Century Fox and, so help us, Fox News) offered him a huge budget and considerable freedom. He used it to make the greatest of all German expressionist features; and he did it in southern California with Hollywood stars.

Those stars were George imageO’Brien and Janet Gaynor, playing a young married peasant couple in a quaint, lakeside village. A temptress from the city seduces the husband (no one has a name in this film), and talks him into murdering his wife. He backs down at the last minute, and the story takes the couple to a large city, where they find redemption, forgiveness, love, and joy. A good quarter of the movie simply watches two people in love enjoying a outing together–a risky approach for narrative cinema, but one that works perfectly here. Potential disaster will greet them on the trip home.

I told you the story is simple.

Murnau and screenwriter Carl Mayer (another German) treat the city as a place of temptation and redemption. In the first act, the evil Woman from the City injects adultery and violence into a a happy, rural marriage. But in the second act, the unnamed city–almost an alien landscape to our protagonists–provides an environment where the two heal their wounds and rediscover their love. And after that, they have a great afternoon and evening enjoying urban pleasures.Murnau shot all of the city sequences, and much of the countryside as well, on the Fox back lot. He didn’t want the realism of downtown Los Angeles, but a perfect dream city.

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Make that a perfect European dream city. Although an early title tells the audience that the story "is of no place and every place," everything from the cottages in the village to the café in the city are designed to look European.

One can’t talk about Sunrise without acknowledging the groundbreaking, still breathtaking photography by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss. They turn a studio set into not just a moonlit marsh, but a beautiful, erotic moonlit marsh of the imagination. Their choice of lenses made the city set seem exciting and immense. They turned artificial weather into a chorus of angels and a wrath of the gods. And they highlighted brilliant, even if not realistic, performances by the two stars. Rosher and Struss deservedly won Oscars for their cinematography–Aa the very first Oscars ceremony.

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Sunrise is a silent film in all but the most technical sense. It tells its story visually and with intertitles–and not many of those. But it was originally released–at least in some of the best theaters–with a recorded music and effects soundtrack. It is, I believe, only the second sound feature film released by a studio other than Warner Brothers.

American and European versions

This disc contains two separate versions of Sunrise, officially listed as the Movietone and European versions (Movietone was Fox’s sound technology). Back in silent days, filmmakers usually made multiple original camera negatives for a movie. For long shots, they’d have several cameras lined up side by side. For more intimate setups, which required more exact framing, they made sure to have more than one usable take.

The European version of Sunrise–or at least the European version on this disc–runs about 15 minutes shorter than the American Movietone one. Why? I don’t know and nothing on the disc explains it. I noticed one missing sequence–a cad hitting on the wife in a barbershop–and several missing shots. Jump cuts and mismatched cuts suggest some crude cutting. Perhaps this transfer was sourced from a print that had been cut for some long-forgotten reason.

Unfortunately, amongst all of the extras on this disc, there’s very little about the two versions. It’s too bad that Fox didn’t include a short documentary explaining how they came to be and highlighting the more interesting differences.

Fox didn’t even see fit to tell us what language the intertitles are in (Eric Heath Prendergast of the UC Berkeley Linguistics Department informed me that it’s Czech). These intertitles, by the way, use the broad, hand-painted, and very unique visual style of the English originals–it’s nice to know that someone in Prague cared enough to do that. These intertitles are subtitled back into English on the disc.

First Impression

imageSunrise comes in a standard Blu-ray case. Open it, and you’ll find both a Blu-ray and a DVD. The DVD is two-sided, with the Movietone version on one side and the European one on the other.

I only looked at the Blu-ray, which had both versions on the same side .

After a brief 20th Century-Fox fanfare, and some time loading, the disk takes you immediately to the main menu. Actually, it only takes you there the first time you play it. After that, you’ll get a choice of returning to where you left off, or going back to the main menu. That automatic bookmarking is a nice touch that you rarely find outside of Criterion Blu-rays.

How It Looks

Sunrise stands amongst the greatest works of cinematography. But the original negatives are lost, and image quality can only be as good as the worn and multi-generational prints available.

Movietone version: When Hollywood started putting soundtracks on film, the picture had to become narrower. So Fox properly pillarboxed Sunrise to a very narrow 1.20×1.

Some scenes are significantly scratched, but not too many. As a whole, the image quality is good for a film this old, but not exceptional. There’s a slight fuzziness to the image, as if the film source was too many generations away from the original negative (which is probably the case).

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European
version: Wow! I wish the Movietone version looked this good. This is as sharp and detailed as the best silent Blu-rays I’ve seen. If it was complete, I’d definitely prefer this version.

Unlike the Movietone edition, this is a truly silent film, originally shown in theaters with live music, it’s therefore pillarboxed to the more conventional 1.33×1 aspect ratio.

Having watched these two versions on consecutive nights, I wish someone would take both and create the most perfect Sunrise out of them.

How It Sounds

Movietone version: Fox gives you a choice of two musical scores here. The default, of course, is Hugo Riesenfeld’s original score and recording from 1927. It’s haunting and beautiful, and is presented here in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mono. This is probably the best it ever sounded.

The second track is a much more recent score by Timothy Brock, recorded by the Olympia Chamber Orchestra. I loved this score, too; I’d have a hard time choosing between them. This one is in two-track stereo, and oddly, presented only in lossy Dolby Digital.

European version: No choices here. You just get the Movietone soundtrack, edited to match the shorter length. Once again, it’s mono DTS Master Audio.

And the Extras

I’ve already complained about the extra that isn’t here–a documentary on the two versions. But there are plenty of others to fill in your knowledge of the film.

  • Commentary by cinematographer John Bailey. Not surprisingly, he talks a lot about the camerawork, but he also covers other aspects of the film. Very interesting.
  • Outtakes with commentary by John Bailey. 10 minutes. Some interesting stuff, here, although I get the feeling that Bailey wasn’t always sure what he’s showing you.
  • Outtakes with Text Cards: 9 minutes. These are for the most part–but not entirely–the same outtakes. Only this time, with introductory intertitles instead of vocal narration.

  • Original Scenario by Carl Mayer with Annotations by F.W. Murnaw. You step through this one page at a time, either automatically (every 5 seconds) or manually. I didn’t get too far. I’d rather they made this available in a PDF. One interesting discovery: On paper, the characters had names.
  • Sunrise screenplay: Same idea. Same problem.
  • Restoration notes: Once again, static pages of text. However, with only nine such pages, this one is readable and interesting.
  • Theatrical trailer

A Little Bit of Trivia

The front cover claims that Sunrise won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Yet most film historians will tell you that at the first Oscar ceremony, honoring the films of 1927 and ’28, Wings won Best Picture.

In reality, there was no award called "Best Picture" at that time. Wings won Outstanding Picture, and Sunrise won Unique and Artistic Production. In other words, they had one award for the big Hollywood blockbuster, and another for the work of art.

Chaplin at the Castro: My Report on a Wonderful Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what I saw Saturday.

Our Mutual Friend: Three Chaplin Shorts

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

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

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

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

The Kid

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

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

Chaplin lookalikes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gold Rush

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Century Ago: The Films of 1913

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some quick notes about the shorts:

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

Barney Oldfield's Race For a Life

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

The Evidence of the Film

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

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

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

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

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

Suspense

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

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

Altogether, a wonderful evening.

Comic Perfection: My Blu-ray Review of City Lights

A great comedy seamlessly mixes a good story, an intelligent observation on the human condition, and a lot of laughs. Everything works together, and only on the third or fourth viewing do you become aware of how the filmmakers balanced all these ingredients, so that the gags and the emotional reality compliment each other instead of clashing. And even after all those viewings, you still laugh–and sometimes cry.

Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece,City Lights, must rank amongst the greatest comedies ever made. In no other film did the three elements of Chaplin’s work–slapstick comedy, pathos, and social commentary–mix so effortlessly. As his tramp romances and deceives a blind flower girl, and befriends a rich drunk, everything works perfectly.

Speaking of rich drunks, before he became the Little Tramp, Chaplin won fame on the British Music Hall stage playing just that role. He revised the part in several of his shorts, including "The Idle Class." This time, rather than playing the part himself, he hired Harry Myers, who carries the assignment well. It’s a difficult role, but Myers (pretty much forgotten except for City Lights) is up to it. When he’s drunk, he’s boisterous, generous, friendly, and embraces the Tramp as his best friend, although he sometimes turns suicidal. When he’s sober (which pretty much means he’s hung-over), he’s remote, angry, and doesn’t recognize the Tramp.

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Myers proves an excellent comic foil for Chaplin–no easy feat for anyone. In their comic scenes together, he matches Chaplin’s razor-sharp timing; the two work together like pieces of a clock.

Also central to the story is the Tramp’s relationship with the blink flower girl (Virginia Cherrill, who, like Myers, is only remembered for this film). The sound of a car door closing (which we don’t hear) makes her assume that the Tramp is a millionaire, and he plays along with the charade.

If she could see his ragged clothes, of course, she would know better. Some of the best gags in the movie revolve around his deception backfiring on him.

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Chaplin filled City Lights great, one-off gags and brilliant, extended comedy sequences as tightly choreographed as ballet. Consider Myers’ first scene, when the Tramp saves the millionaire from a suicide attempt and they both end up in the river. Or the boxing match where the Tramp, desperate to win money for the girl,  fights a man far stronger than himself.

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City Lights is both Chaplin’s first sound film and his penultimate silent. During the more than two years he spent working on it, the American silent cinema died, and the theaters fired all of their musicians. Chaplin, already the producer, director, writer, and star of his films, became the composer as well, creating a score that makes up the entire soundtrack.

He also created two sequences that are completely dependent on sound effects–scenes that would not have worked in a truly silent film. One of these, the film’s opening, manages to  lampoon both talking pictures and pompous dignitaries.

The film’s closing, which requires no sound effects, is probably the most emotionally-charged close-up in the history of cinema.

First Impression

imageFollowing Criterion’s new policy, the City Lights package contains both a Blu-ray and a DVD. Their contents are identical–or at least as identical as they can be considering the obvious advantages of Blu-ray.

The cover sports a cartoon of Chaplin smelling a flower. Inside the case, in addition to the discs, you’ll find a 40-page booklet. The bulk of the pages contain two large articles on Chaplin’s work. It also contains credits for the film and the transfer.

The discs themselves are stacked one on top of the other. I don’t like this increasingly common configuration. You have to take out the top disc and put it somewhere safe to play the bottom one.

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Like all Criterion Blu-ray discs, this one has a timeline, so you can bookmark favorite moments. When you insert the disc for anything other than the first time, it will ask if you want to start where you left off.

How Does It Look

The first thing you’ll likely notice is how narrow the image looks. City Lights was originally screened in the early talkie aspect ratio of 1.19×1. It looks almost square.

General sharpness and detail are fine, if not exceptional by Blu-ray standards. I’ve seen better transfers from films of this vintage.

How Does It Sound

Criterion presents Chaplin’s original soundtrack in uncompressed PCM mono. This is probably as good as it sounded with he signed off on it in the mixing stage. Maybe better.

Criterion didn’t include the Carl Davis modern-day re-recording of the score that came on the first DVD. I believe that the Chaplin estate blocked it. That doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

And the Extras

A lot of supplements here. This is, after all, Criterion.

  • Audio commentary by Jeffrey Vance. As I write this, I haven’t had a chance to listen to it.
  • Chaplin Today: "City Lights": This 27-minute documentary on the film was directed by Serge Bromberg. Although it covers some "making of" stuff, it mostly concentrates on why the film is so good. Aardman Animations’ Peter Lord offers some excellent insight into the art of physical comedy and how Chaplin fit into British stage tradition.
  • Chaplin Studios: Creative Freedom By Design: 16 minutes. Made and narrated by visual effects expert Craig Barron, this short discusses Chaplin’s working methods, concentrating on City Lights but not exclusively so. There’s a lot here about art direction and sets, and why Chaplin avoided locations.
  • From the Set of City Lights: About 18 minutes. Outtakes, deleted scenes, rehearsal footage, and so on. No music.
  • The Champion: 10-minute excerpt from an early Chaplin short which, like one scene in City Lights, takes place in a boxing ring. Music by Robert Israel.
  • Boxing Stars Visit the Studio: 5 minutes. No sound.
  • Trailers.

Charles S. Chaplin was one of the cinema’s greatest artists. This is his best film. What else can I say?

Friday Night at the PFA

I visited the Pacific Film Archive Friday night to see two very good films.

I suppose I could say that they were both feminist films. The first was about a woman and the damage done to her because to her gender, and the second was directed by a woman. But that would be a stretch.

Here’s something they had in common: Both 35mm prints were poorly subtitled, although in different ways.

A- The Goddess

This touching, sad story, from the last days of the Chinese silent cinema, brings us into the life of a prostitute trying to raise her young son. To do so, she must not only sleep with strange men, but also fend off the prejudice of respectable people and the greedy exploitation of her cruel pimp. I’ve seen this one before, on DVD.

Seeing it on the big screen, however, bumped up my grade from B+ to A-.

The Goddess stars Ruan Lingyu, one of the great stars of the Chinese screen. Her own life was even more  tragic than the character she plays here. She committed suicide in 1935; about a year after The Goddess’ release. She was only 24.

Lingyu carries this film with sure grace. She rips out your heart with both her suffering and her occasional joy. We react to the other characters as she reacts to them. Her son is a cute, happy, smart kid. The portly pimp is scum personified.

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After the Goddess (a slang term for prostitute), the school principal is the film’s most interesting character. She sends her son to a very good school, knowing what would happen if her profession were found out. And the principal, a stiff, proper man deeply concerned with propriety, does find out . But he ends up being her, and her son’s, one true friend.

The print from a Chinese archive was a disappointment. It was scratchy and unsteady, but that’s to be expected for an Asian film of this vintage. The real problem were the English subtitles laser printed under the Chinese intertitles. They were clearly written by someone not that fluent in English. I’m not sure what "I’m a mean woman" was supposed to mean, but it wasn’t what it sounds like. Worse, the Goddess has some very long and wordy intertitles, and these lacked subtitles entirely. I just sat there, wondering what I was supposed to be reading. Sometimes, when it cut back to the moving image, subtitles would come on again and fill you in on what you were just unable to read. But sometimes they didn’t..

Judith Rosenberg did a wonderful job on the piano (of course). The Goddess is a sad enough film on its own right. Her work on the keys made it a tragedy.

The Goddess was the first screening in the series Beauty and Sacrifice: Images of Women in Chinese Cinema. Another film in the series, Center Stage, is a biopic about Ruan Lingyu, starring Maggie Cheung. That will screen November 29, and I won’t be able to attend.

A- La Pointe Courte

Ever admire an artist for their daring, original work, and then discover who they stole it from? I experienced that revelation over and over again while watching Agnès Varda’s first feature.

People argue about what was the first feature of the French New Wave. Some would say Elevator to the Gallows (1958). Others would argue for The 400 Blows (1959). Still others would give that claim to Breathless (1960). Yet in mood, an emphasis on character and atmosphere at the expense of story, and in daring technique, La Pointe Courte is clearly a New Wave film; and it was made in 1954.

Between that and Varda’s second feature, the remarkable Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962), she deserves to be listed along with Truffaut and Godard amongst the major auteurs and innovators of the Wave. I strongly suspect that she would have that honor if she had been born with a penis.

Many cinephiles think that Robert Altman invented a certain kind of film–one that cuts back and forth between storylines, studying the lives of people who may vaguely know each other and live in the same town or neighborhood. Well, Varda beat Altman here by 20 years.

Just like Altman’s Nashville, the title La Pointe Courte is both the film’s setting and its main character. It’s a small, somewhat impoverished fishing village in southern France, cut up by canals. And over the film’s 90 minutes, Varda introduces us to many of the people here. There’s the fishermen worried about government health inspectors, the family with the very sick child, and the teenage girl with the over-protective father.

And then there are the young lovers–not movie-star glamorous but better looking than anyone else in the movie. He’s a local native–a prodigal son returning home for the first time in years. His wife of four years is there for the first time. The couple wander through his childhood home, discussing the past, problems with their marriage, and the possibility of divorce.

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Varda was a photographer before she became a filmmaker, and her first feature may be amongst the best photographed films ever made. Of course the setting is inherently visually interesting, but Varda shows an instinct for camera setup that rivals John Ford’s (although to a very different effect). Whether the camera is travelling along an old wall, watching people argue in a tiny yard, or following the lovers as they descend into the ribs of an abandoned boat, everything is strikingly beautiful.

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imageAnd strikingly alienating. Varda’s camera doesn’t plunge you into the action; it reminds you that you are an outside observer. Varda’s doesn’t want you to live these people’s lives, but study them from a distance. I wouldn’t want every movie to take this approach, but the emotional remoteness is absolutely right for La Pointe Courte.

For what it’s worth, the film was cut by Alain Resnais, who would take audience alienation to a much farther level (too far, in my opinion), in Last Year at Marienbad.

The print was a new one, owned by the PFA, but the subtitles had a problem I haven’t seen since the early 1970s. The light gray lettering disappeared whenever the image behind them got too light. They were often difficult to read, and it one scene disappeared entirely.

To Late for Halloween: My Blu-ray Review of Nosferatu

The big question about Kino’s forthcoming Blu-ray release of Nosferatu, newly and beautifully restored: Why release a classic vampire movie three weeks after Halloween?

Now, on with our review.

Before Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman, or even Bela Lugosi, Max Schreck created the first screen Dracula. He was not the elegant, sexy aristocrat of the night that he became later, but something out of a nightmare. Impossibly thin, with pointed ears and  fingernails that seemed to go on forever, he clearly wasn’t human. His fangs, in the center of his mouth like a beaver’s, completed the disquieting effect. Was this a man, a giant, bipedal rat, or the devil?

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F.W. Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror, was the first great feature-length adaptation of Dracula. And although it takes a very different path than later adaptations, It’s still one of the best vampire movies ever made, and the best to follow the broad outline of Bram Stoker’s novel.

Murnau’s producers failed to buy the novel’s movie rights. So they altered the characters’ names and some of the places where the story is set. Dracula becomes Count Orlock. Jonathan Harker is now Hutter (no first name given). And instead of moving to London, the vampire takes his death ship to Wisborg. Stoker’s widow sued, won in court, and ordered all prints destroyed. Fortunately, some survived.

Nosferatu is not, by a long shot, the scariest horror film ever made. But it is almost certainly the creepiest. This movie makes your skin crawl. Schreck’s makeup and performance plays the major role in getting that result, but not all of it. The startling photography, the well-picked locations, and the slightly off-kilter sets help. So do the shots of nature’s predators and prey, and the often surprising appearances of rats.

Speaking of rats, this version of Dracula, set in the early 19th century, has several allusions to the black death. The word plague turns up several times in the intertitles, and a book on vampires refers to that tragic time.

Nosferatu was part of the post-war German Expressionism movement. The performances are large and exaggerated–considerably more so than those in American silent films. But these oversized performances don’t take you out of the story; they send you deeper into it.  (Well, most of them do; Gustav v. Wangenheim’s performance as Hutter makes me want to beat him with a stick.)

The best performance in the film is that of Greta Schroeder as Frau Hutter (think Minaimage in Broker’s novel). With her dark hair and sad eyes, and her proclivity for sleepwalking, she carries tragedy with her even when she’s happy. And as the movie progresses, she has very little reason to be happy.

Nosferatu does something simple and yet utterly amazing. It took a relatively recent best-selling adventure novel, set in the present, and turned it into  an ancient myth about the unavoidable existence of evil. It’s utterly unlike any of the vampire movies that followed (except, perhaps, Werner Herzog’s remake), yet has more atmosphere and effect than any of them.

First impression

imageNothing special here. Just a standard Blu-ray box in a slip cover, with two discs and nothing else inside.

Disc 1 has the movie with English intertitles; these are modern, translated, electronic reproductions of the original intertitles.  Disc 2 has the movie with those original, 1922 German intertitles–and, of course, optional English subtitles. As near as I can tell, everything else in the two versions are identical. Disc 1 has all of the extras.

I’m not sure why there have to be two discs. Blu-ray’s seamless branching technology should have allowed Kino to put both sets of intertitles on the same disc.

Both discs start up quickly and go directly to the main menu.

How it looks

Restorations of silent films are rarely perfect. Inevitably, some bits and pieces will come from inferior sources. Such is the case here, although nothing is truly horrible. The worst scenes look acceptable, and the best ones look mouth-wateringly fantastic (or perhaps I should say "mouth-bloodingly creepy").

I saw more details here than I’ve ever seen before. Credit must go as much to the imagerestoration (which I believe was done on film) as to Kino’s transfer. Most of the shots exhibit scratches, although they’re never to the point of ruining the viewing.

The restoration recreated Murnau’s original tints, which play an important part of creating the atmosphere. Indeed, without tints (which is the first way I saw Nosferatu), the vampire often appears to be walking around in broad daylight.

Nosferatu has always been a visual feast. This restoration and transfer makes it all the more impressive.

How it sounds

You hear this movie before you see it. After a couple of cards discussing the sources for the restoration, this release of Nosferatu starts with an overture.

This silent film disc comes with a new recording of Hans Erdmann’s original 1922 score. In other words, it’s the official score, the definitive one, and in the minds of certain purists, the only one that should ever be played.

Unfortunately, it’s not the best Nosferatu score. It’s very good, sometimes excellent, but I’ve heard better scores live and on DVD. Erdmann made some very strange decisions. For instance, while Hutter happily travels through Transylvania towards Count Orlock’s castle, the score plays a pleasant pastoral. This may fit Hutter’s mood, but it didn’t help the sense of dread that the scene needs.

It’s a pity that Kino did not include alternative scores, as the company does in many of its Buster Keaton discs. But they do give us the choice of listening to this score in either a 5.1 mix (lossless DTS-HD Master Audio) or a 2.0 one (uncompressed LPCM).

At the extras

Nosferatu comes with only a handful of extras.

  • The Language of Shadows: This 53-minute documentary appears at first to be a Murnau biography. In the first few minutes, it covers his childhood, youth,  and his first films (most of which are lost). Then it spends the rest of its running time on Nosferatu, primarily discussing the locations and occult influences. It never gets back to his post-Nosferatu life.
  • F.W. Murnau Film Excerpts: Scenes from eight other Murnau films, including The Last Laugh and Tabu. but not Sunrise. They’re presented without context but with music.
  • Promotional teaser
  • Image Gallery

Nosferatu goes on sale November 19.

Special Charlie Chaplin Day at Castro in January

Audiences first saw Charlie Chaplin on a movie screen on February 2, 1914. (Thousands had already seen him live.) On that day, his first Keystone one-reeler, "Making a Living," premiered to audiences who were not, reportedly all that excited. But with his second flick, "Kid Auto Races in Venice," he became a sensation.

In other words, audiences have been laughing at Chaplin’s filmed antics for just a fewcitylights weeks short of a century. (Some 25 years ago, I showed my then very-young son some early Chaplin shorts. As he watched, I marveled that he was laughing at performances older than his grandparents.)

In honor of this anniversary, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will take over the Castro on January 11 for The Little Tramp At 100: A Charlie Chaplin Centennial Celebration.

Why January 11? I don’t know. Maybe the Castro is already booked for February 2; perhaps for a screening of Groundhog Day.

A more important question: What will they be showing? The Festival hasn’t goldrushannounced that yet. I assume the program will be announced before October 21, when tickets go on sale.

I’ll also assume, based on the Festival’s history, that they’ll bring in some great musicians to accompany the films. They may not have all that many choices, musically speaking. Chaplin’s estate is pretty strict about the scores played for the movies they control.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to a whole day of Chaplin.

Silent Film Festival Report: Sunday

Kings of (Silent) Comedy

Of course it was funny. There was really no question about it. This was my first chance seeing "Mighty Like a Moose" and "The Immigrant" on the big screen, and both were wonderful that way. The cartoon, "Felix Goes West," wasn’t of the same quality, but it delivered enough laugh to be worth the time. And Buster Keaton’s "The Love Nest" is always fun to watch.

The movies were projected off a DCP, but that’s no more a guarantee of quality than is imagea 35mm print. The image quality for "Mighty Like a Moose" really disappointed me. It looked like it was mastered off a DVD. The image quality for "The Love Nest" also left much to be desired, but the problems were all film-based. That isn’t surprising; this film was lost for decades and no known good sources survive. No image-quality complaints for the other films.

As an added surprise, they showed some home movies of Stan Laurel late in his life. It’s strange to see him out of character. There was actual intelligence in his eyes.

Günter Buchwald’s accompaniment on piano and violin supported the shorts without distracting us. In one scene in "The Immigrant," set in a restaurant, he seemed to become the musicians playing onscreen.i

The Outlaw and His Wife

I’m not sure if I just saw an excellent tragedy with excellent accompaniment, or merely a very good tragedy with incredible accompaniment.

This Swedish tale involves a man who comes to a rural area, starts working for a wealthy widow, and they fall in love. Unfortunately, he’s eventually recognized as an escaped thief from far away, and must escape into the wilderness. She comes with him. They live together happily in the wilds of nature for several years, but it doesn’t last forever. (Actually, considering the Swedish winter, I don’t know how it lasted one year.)

The film is beautifully shot, with a cast of fine actors and charismatic leads. The gorgeous woods, the cruel human society, and the ardent love all play well.

And playing even better was the Matti Bye Ensemble. This quartet, working with traditional and unusual instruments, brought the story up to the level of high tragedy. An amazing experience.

The Last Edition

Not great art, but a hell of a lot more fun than tragic Swedes.

Newly discovered and restored, The Last Edition carries significant historical interest, especially in the Bay Area It was shot on location in San Francisco, much of it at the Chronicle building. In fact, it’s about the Chron.

Unlike most newspaper movies, the protagonist isn’t an editor or a reporter, but a printer. This is a movie that loves the machinery to turns words and photos into massive amounts of paper (and probably won’t do so for very long). Of course there are editors and reporters, one of whom is quite heroic as he hunts down evil bootleggers.

All quite fun.

One technical problem turned up in the screening. An intertitle turned up backwards–reading right to left. The screen quickly went dark, and Stephen Horne continued playing the piano as the projectionist quickly retreated and got the movie going again.

I skipped The Weavers, then came back for…

Safety Last!

I’m not going to discuss this Harold Llyod comedy in detail here. If you want to know what I think about it, see Nail-biting Laughter: My Blu-ray review of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! I will, however, make one correction to that post, where I claimed that "the final third, where Harold climbs a skyscraper, stands amongst the greatest comic sequences in the history of film." It’s more than that. See it with an audience, and you quickly realize that Safety Last’s third act is the greatest extended comic sequence in the history of cinema.

Before the film started, Festival Artistic Director Anita Monga brought up Lloyd’s granddaughter, Suzzanne Lloyd, plus special effects expert Craig Barron, to discuss his life and this film. Barron had created a video (which is in a Blu-ray extra) explaining how the clock sequence was shot. He didn’t show it at the screening, but he announced it’s availability on the Festival web site.

As far as the movie screening, I’ll just say that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that much laughter (my own and other people’s) in one time or place before.

The Monte Alto Motion Picture Orchestra gave Safety Last! a strong and exciting accompaniment, although much of it was overwhelmed by audience laughter. Which, of course, was not a bad thing.

SF Silent Film Festival Report: Saturday

This was an exceptionally exhausting day at the festival. I saw five programs, and lacked the stamina for a sixth.

Windsor McCay, His Life and Art

Animation historian John Canemaker narrated this entertaining lecture/film presentation on the work of the brilliant cartoonist, vaudeville performer, and animation pioneer Windsor McCay. The presentation covered his ground-breaking comic strips Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland, but the main pleasures came, not surprisingly, from his animated work.

Canemaker showed four of his films, each amazing in its own unique way, and each a major stride forward from the previous short. His “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend” cartoon, involving a very determined mosquito and his hapless human victim, left the audience laughing while gasping in horror.

Canemaker presented McCay's most famous animated work, “Gertie the Dinosaur,” the way it was intended to be seen, with Canemaker taking McCay's part of the live, on-stage but off-screen narrator (originally performed by McCay), and encouraging audience participation (“Come out, Gertie! Don't be shy!”). Gertie, probably the first animated dinosaur, has the personality of an eager, semi-trained, and mischievous puppy.

The final cartoon, “The Sinking of the Lusitania” was brilliant pro-war propaganda. It was mournful and horrific in its recreation of the atrocity that led the USA into World War I. Of course it ignored the British and French atrocities that led to the German one, but that's what makes it propaganda. The sense of disaster and loss-of-life was haunting.

Stephen Horne, who's becoming the Festival's default musician, did wonderful accompaniment on all four shorts–funny for the mosquito, but haunting for the sinking ship.

The Half Breed

I've already told you, in Friday's post, about the restoration of this 1916 Douglas Fairbanks adventure, made four years before he found his place in cinema with the swashbuckler. The movie was fun, short, and sweet, but I'd like to concentrate here are the social and racial issues.

This feature, indirectly supervised by D.W. Griffith only a year after Birth of a Nation, takes a very strong, critical view of the concept of white supremacy. (It was directed by Alan Dwan.) Fairbanks plays a man between races–with a white father and a Native American mother–neither of whom he ever knew. He's noble, decent, and constantly at odds with the cruel, bigoted, or hypocritical white people. The intertitles frequently refer to the “superior” white race in a tone of deep sarcasm.

You can only expect so much from a commercial American film from 1916. The hero does not get to happily marry, and some “Indian” behavior appears to be genetic. The native Americans are stereotypes too, of course, and it's worth remembering that Griffith's extreme racism pointed primarily to the race of his father's former slaves.

Günter Buchwald accompanied the film on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer organ and on violin. Now I understand his reputation. He pulled emotional stops out of the story that I don't think were there, adding new depth.

Legong, Dance of the Virgins

The ethnographic films of the silent and early talkie eras, such as Nanook of the North and Chang, have their own special appeal, giving us a reasonably accurate view of lost worlds, even if coated with narative gloss. Legong, set and shot in Bali in 1935, was one of the last and most fascinating of these movies.

It's also probably the last existing silent picture released by a major Hollywood studio (Paramount) and the last shot in two-color Technicolor (audiences first saw three-strip Technicolor in 1933). Color makes Legong special; Bali doesn't belong in black and white.

The story is simple and shallow. A young temple dancer sets her eyes on a handsome drummer. He's nice to her, but he falls in love with her sister. At least in this version of Bali society, unrequited love pretty much ruins a young woman's life.

This was a daring film in 1935. The people wear accurate Bali clothes, which mean a lot of bare female breasts. When it was restored in 1996, the main issue was recovering footage cut by censors. Frankly, I can't imagine a cut of this film that would have been acceptable in America at that time.

But breasts are no more part of the film's main attraction than its silly story. Legong records, in what I assume are reasonably accurate images, a way of life from long ago. We see occasional hints at the modern world–pipes feeding water into a stream, two young boys fighting over cigarettes–but we mostly see a different world inhabited by people little touched by our global civilization. And we see them in color.

Two musical groups, Gamela Sekar Jaya and the Clubfoot Orchestra, joined forces to accompany the film. I think there may have been 15 musicians playing, most of them on the stage and blocking the lower-left corner of the screen. But the sound they provided, much from human voices and from instruments I cannot name, carried us away to Bali. This was easily the best accompaniment at the Festival so far.

Gribiche

This French comedy of manners, directed by Jacques Feyder, plays the Great Expectations plot to modest comic effect. A working-class boy living with his widowed mother does a good deed, then is adopted to be prepared for a life of wealth. He can't adjust to the more restrictive, more formal, less fun life of the upperclass. The kid was likable, and there were some laughs, but nothing exceptional. Easily the weakest film of the festival so far.

On the other hand, the print was beautifully tinted and toned. And the Monte Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was as wonderful as usual.

The House on Trubnaya Square

It's hard to imagine people laughing under Stalin. On the other hand, Stalin had not yet consolidated his power when Boris Barnet made this charming, bizarre, and funny comedy.

A peasant woman comes to Moscow to work as a maid (I didn't know there was such a job in the “classless” society), and ends up almost a slave of a lazy and exploitative hairdresser. Director Barnet plays with the medium like few others, using stop-motion animation, freeze-frames, and sudden flashbacks to get laughs.

And he gets them. Even an old cliche like the country bumpkin who doesn't understand the difference between theater and reality got a big laugh thanks to Barnet's outrageous technique.

One wonders how something so subversive–the apartment building in the title is anything but a workers' paradise–could have been made in the USSR. But, of course, the party and the government saves the day and brings about the whimsical happy ending.

One continuity problem: We never find out what happens to the heroine's pet duck.

Stephen Horne gave another wonderful piece of accompaniment. This time, I believe, he added a drum set to his musical collection.

As much as I wanted to see The Joyless Street, I just didn't have the time or energy for another film. Too bad. It looked like a good one.

 

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