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.

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).

goldrush

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

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

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

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

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

A Century Ago: The Films of 1913

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some quick notes about the shorts:

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

Barney Oldfield's Race For a Life

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

The Evidence of the Film

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

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

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

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

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

Suspense

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

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

Altogether, a wonderful evening.

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?

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