Raymond Griffith at Niles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Loeb accompanied all of the films on piano.

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

The theater

Old cameras, with an old projector on the right

Another view of the cameras and that black projector

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

Roxie gains beer & better projection; hopes to gain members

Late last year, when the major theater chains refused to screen The Interview
for fear of North Korean terrorists, San Francisco’s own Roxie offered to show the comedy. Sony turned them down for technical reasons: The Roxie could screen it in 35mm or Blu-ray, but Sonly would only send the movie out to theaters in DCP.

The lack of a DCP-capable digital projector is a major shortcoming for a movie theater these days; even an eclectic theater like the Roxie. Most new movies aren’t available in any other format. And even classics are becoming easier to rent on a hard drive than on multiple reels of 35mm film.

So I’m delighted to let you know that the Roxie now has a DCP-compatible (the official term is DCI-compliant) projector. The next time terrorists (or hackers pretending to be terrorists) scare the multiplexes from screening a big Hollywood blockbuster, the Roxie will be waiting and able.

And don’t worry about the death of film. The Big Roxie still has two 35mm reel-to-reel projectors, able to project the old-fashioned way.

And if you find the images from any of these projectors too sharp, you can blur your own perceptions with beer or hard cider, now on sale at the Roxie’s concession stand. The Roxie has a license to drink. (Okay, it’s a license to sell drinks, but only beer and cider.)

But with all these changes, the Roxie needs money. So the theater is pushing a membership drive this month. According to the Roxie’s announcement, a membership buys you “free or discounted admissions, free popcorn, private screenings and more.”

Coming in December: Day of Silents & Alamo Drafthouse

It’s a little early to write about December, but here are two events I want to tell you about right away. In fact, I wanted to tell you about them weeks ago, but I was too busy.

A Day of Silents

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will run a one-day festival at the Castro on Saturday, December 5. As one would expect, it’s going to be a very long day…but probably a fun one.

I’ve only seen one of the five programs scheduled: Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (11:00am). Fairbanks was the top action hero of his day, and also an auteur who wrote and produced (but didn’t direct) his movies. This swashbuckler isn’t his best movie, but it’s still a lot of fun.

In his only pirate movie, Fairbanks plays a nobleman who joins a band of scurvy buccaneers in order to take them down in revenge for his father’s death. The movie contains one of Fairbanks most spectacular stunts–and yes, he did it, himself. Fairbanks sticks his knife into the top of a sail and slides down, holding onto only the a knife. Of course there were a lot of behind-the-scenes tricks to make it safer than it appears, but it was still dangerous and looks amazing. The stunt was ineptly recreated in the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

This was Fairbank’s only color movie, shot in two-color Technicolor. To my knowledge, it’s the first feature shot entirely in Technicolor that wasn’t financed and produced by the Technicolor company. For decades, The Black Pirate was available only in black-and-white; the color was restored in the 1990s. This will be my first chance to see it in color on the big screen.

The Alloy Orchestra will provide the musical accompaniment.

It will be followed by:

  • Around China with a Movie Camera
    (1:00): A selection of newsreels and travelogues shot in China. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
  • The Grim Game
    (3:00): A melodrama staring the famous escape artist Harry Houdini. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
  • The Inhuman Woman (6:30): Can one make a good silent film around a singer? We’ll find out with this French film, which the Festival describes as a “fantasy.” Live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.
  • Piccadilly (9:15): I seldom stay for the last film of the night at the Silent Film Festival, but I just might with this one. The always-amazing Anna May Wong plays a scullery maid turned dancer in this British film. Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

Alamo Drafthouse at the New Mission

Movie lovers in Texas, New York, and other locations have enjoyed Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas for years. Now it’s our turn.

The Alamo Drafthouse company has restored The New Mission Theater (in the Mission, of course), and it will open December 17 with the new Star Wars movie.

I’ve yet to attend a Drafthouse theater, but the company’s reputation for good beer, good food (meals as well as snacks), and good projection seems promising. They screen mostly new movies, with some classics–often of the camp variety.

Judging from some of the photos on their Facebook page, The New Mission looks spectacular. And even though they have chopped it up into a multiplex, They’ve kept enough of the original to have one spectacular auditorium.

Or, at least, that’s what the photographs have led me to believe.

I’ve added the New Mission to the list of theaters this blog covers.

The Castro in July

The Castro‘s July calendar is up–at least in its details-free “Coming Soon” version is up. Here are some highlights:

July 5:
Jaws plays a lot in the theaters I cover, but this time it will play on a double bill with one of the first Jaws rip-offs, Roger Corman’s Piranha. Not a great movie, but it has the distinction of being John Sayles’ first produced screenplay.

July 10: A Dolly Parton double-bill of 9 to 5 and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I haven’t seen either, but I’ve also never heard of a Dolly Parton double bill.

July 12: A matinee-only screening of The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.–the only Dr. Seuss feature film made in his lifetime and with his cooperation. And one of the strangest and most delightful children’s films ever made.

July 16: As a Christopher Lee tribute double bill, the theater will screen Horror of Dracula and The Wicker Man.
Horror was the first of Hammer’s Dracula films starring Lee, and probably the best. I have not seen The Wicker Man since it’s American release nearly 40 years ago, and was very impressed then. I understand that the restored director’s cut is much better.

July 19: Two of Alfred Hitchcock’s best British films. The 39 Steps was one of the two films that made him the unrivaled Master of Suspense (the other being the original version of The Man Who Knew too Much). The second is his penultimate British film, and in my opinion his best before he hopped the pond, The Lady Vanishes. You can read my Blu-ray review.

The last night days of the month belong to the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. I intend to screen some of those films before opening night. I’ll tell you what I find.

Three Ways to See Three-Strip Technicolor at the PFA

They stopped making three-strip Technicolor movies about 60 years ago. The movies are still around, and they’re still beautiful. This summer, the Pacific Film Archive will screen three different films shot in the still-loved format, and thanks to the way they’re being screened, each one projected using a different technology. You can decide which is best way to see them.

From the mid-1930s to the early 1950s, almost every Hollywood color film was shot in Technicolor No. IV–casually known as “three-strip Technicolor.” These include Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Bandwagon, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and The African Queen.

The unofficial name tells you how it worked. Through a beam splitter, filters, and special film stocks, a special camera captured each primary color on a separate strip of black-and-white film.

From Filmmaker IQ

From each of these three negatives, Technicolor would create a special relief print that was thicker where the image was darkest. From these three intermediate prints (called matrices), the lab would literally print (in the pre-photographic sense of the word) the colors to 35mm release prints. You can find more technical details at the Widescreen Museum and the Timeline of Historical Film Colors.

From The American Widescreen Museum

These dye-transfer prints (the official name was IB, for imbibition) have a considerably longer history than three-strip. Technicolor introduced them in 1928 as an improved printing method for their then-current two-color system. And when three-strip died around 1954, Technicolor started making IB prints off of three-strip’s replacement–Eastman Color Negative film. The company continued this service until the mid-1970s.

So what does all this mean for presenting and watching three-strip films today?

Both three-strip and dye-transfer have significant advantages in preservation and restoration. The printing dyes in IB prints don’t fade as quickly as the photochemical dyes in color film (especially color film from the 50s, 60s, and 70s). And since the three-strip negatives store color information on black-and-white film, fading colors isn’t an issue.

But three-strip has its own problems. Film shrinks over time, and no three cans of film are going to shrink exactly the same way. Even the slightest shrinkage can cause a disaster when three strips have to line up perfectly. Because of their high contrast, dye-transfer prints don’t make good sources for new copies.

Digital technology has solved the shrinking problem. You can scan all three negatives at a high resolution (say, 4K), resize them to match each other, and produce a full image. But this sort of restoration requires three things not always available. You need the original negatives (or at least black and white protection positives made from them), a lot of money, and people who know what they’re doing.

So let’s look at the three films to be screened at the PFA this summer, and how they’ll be projected:

Leave Her to Heaven
35mm Eastmancolor print
Thursday, June 18

I strongly suspect that the PFA will screen the same print I saw in 2008–or certainly one from the same restoration. And as beautiful as I found the print, I suspect this will be the least accurate three-color experience of the PFA summer.

In the 1970s, Twentieth Century-Fox created new, color-film negatives of their three-strip titles. Then they did something unforgivable: They destroyed the original three-strip camera negatives. When the color negatives inevitably faded, they had no way to restore them.

So the Film Foundation basically had to colorize this film, using the sole surviving three-strip print as a guide. In other words, they didn’t really restore the colors, they painted them in.

By the way, this is the only one of the three I’ve seen. A rare Technicolor 40s noir, it stars Gene Tierney as a woman who loves too much. She’ not the typical film noir femme fatale, seducing men to their doom in her quest for material ends. She doesn’t need material things, but she needs her man (Cornel Wilde) so desperately she can’t bear the thought of sharing him with friends or family. And she’s willing to do anything to keep him to herself. I give it an A-.

The River
35mm Technicolor IB dye-transfer print
Wednesday, July 15

Jean Renoir took the big Technicolor cameras to the newly-independent nation of India to film this coming-of-age story. And the PFA will screen it in an actual Technicolor dye-transfer print from 1952.

That’s about as close to the original experience as you can get.

Note: I altered this section after first posting the article, after confirming when the print was manufactured.


The Tales of Hoffmann
Sunday, July 19

If Leave Her to Heaven is the problematic restoration, and The River is closest to the original experience, The Tales of Hoffmann provides an example of an ideal restoration, done off of the original, 35mm three-strip camera negative. I haven’t seen the restoration (or the film in any form), but i trust the people who did it.

Unlike Heaven, Hoffmann will
be projected the way it was restored–digitally. I realize that many will object, but not me. Taking it from the digital domain and converting it back into film loses image quality, and adds nothing except vibration, flicker, and, inevitably, scratches.

Of course, I hope that they have transferred it back to film for archival purposes. it will be decades before we know if we can safely archive bits.

Summer Season at the Pacific Film Archive

You may have noticed that the Pacific Film Archive is currently closed. No big deal; it always closes for a few weeks in May and June. It will open again on June 11.

But not for long. August 2 will be the last screening in the current PFA theater. When it reopens, hopefully early next year, it will be in the new location just west of the campus.

So what will screen in those scant 52 days? Quite a bit. Here are the upcoming series:

Thanks to Henri Langlois: A Centennial Tribute
This series honors the late, great archivist and cofounder of La Cinémathèque française, screening films that would no longer exist without his dedication. Ernst Lubitsch’ 1924 Forbidden Paradise, Early Films by Abel Gance, Tod Browning’s Lon Chaney vehicle, The Unknown, and two Erich von Stroheim features: Foolish Wives and Queen Kelly.

A Theater Near You
The PFA’s traditional series for films that don’t fit into any of their series. This time around, it includes Hiroshima mon amour, the Maysles brothers’ Grey Gardens, and the new restoration of Powell/Pressburger collaboration The Tales of Hoffmann (screening on my birthday).

Sunday Funnies: Laurel & Hardy and W. C. Fields

Can’t get much wrong here, although I wish the series included some silents. And while I realize that I’m in the minority here, I don’t put Way Out West amongst L&H’s best features. I would have picked Sons of the Desert or Blockheads.

The Phantom Foe
How do you present a a 15-chapter, silent, 1920 serial at a film archive? The PFA will screen this “proto-feminist masterpiece of terror and tension” on three Sunday evenings–five chapters each. All will be archival prints; with Judith Rosenberg on piano.

Melodrama Master: John M. Stahl

I’m not very familiar with this director, and the only film on this program that I’ve seen is the Technicolor noir, Leave Her to Heaven. But I liked that one.

The Poetry of Time: Andrei Tarkovsky
I’ve been telling myself that I need a serious dive into Tarkovsky. This is my chance.

New Video Art from India
This isn’t really a series, but a single screening of shorts.

An Open Window: Víctor Erice
This Spanish director, best known for The Spirit of the Beehive, must be a slow worker–he’s made only three features in a career that spans over 40 years. But this isn’t the only series built around Erice. See:

Cinema According to Víctor Erice

This much longer series of Erice’s personal favorites include Sansho the Bailiff, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Renoir’s The River (a dye-transfer archival print), City Lights, and They Live By Night. The series, and the PFA’s use of the on-campus, off-Bancroft theater, will end with Ozu’s Tokyo Story,

By the way, both Tales of Hoffman and The River were shot in three-strip Technicolor, and originally released in dye-transfer prints. They’re playing only four days apart–The River in 35mm dye transfer, and Hoffman off a DCP. This should make a great way to compare the old and new projection technologies.

Cerrito Classics going on hiatus

The Cerrito theater is halting its monthly Classics series until September. Why? Here’s the official explanation:

Cerrito Classics are shown by the Friends of the Cerrito Theater, under the auspices of Rialto Cinemas, which operates the Cerrito. Rialto operates as a first-run theater, with special showings of filmed productions of London plays, as well as films about famous artists.

Rialto has contracts with major studios, which are able to enforce the number of showings for their current movies. While the plays and art films are exempt from these studio rules, additional programs such as Cerrito Classics are not.

With the summer 2015 blockbuster season approaching, some of the studios are enforcing their contracts, and demanding that they be able to have the maximum number of showings of their new movies. Thus the cancellation of Cerrito Classics for May through August 2015.

Rialto made this step reluctantly, as they have been great supporters of the Cerrito Classics, which are very popular with the community. The Classic for this month, for example, “A Shadow of a Doubt,” played to a sold-out house.

What makes this particularly curious is that, as far as I know, a lot of other first-run theaters are continuing their weekly classics series. This includes the Alameda and the very big CineMark chain, which now shows a classic every Sunday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon and evening.

Of course, you can always check here at Bayflicks to see what classics are screening theatrically in the Bay Area.


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