Silent Recommendations and Warnings

In three years of Bayflicks, I have yet to see a week so totally dominated by silents. The silent movie events listed below outnumber the talkies three to one.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival–Winter Edition, Castro, Saturday, all day. What a great way to spend a Saturday! The festival begins at 11:00 with a series of Vitaphone shorts, then at 2:00 presents Intolerance. And it finishes at 8:00 with Flesh and the Devil. The two silents are accompanied by Dennis James at the Wurlitzer pipe organ. Click here for my detailed discussion.

A Century Ago: The Films of 1907, Rafael, Thursday, 7:30. The cinematic art is just barely old enough for centenaries. This collection of shorts promises to that art was evolving a century ago, in the year that Kalem and Essanay both went into business and D. W. Griffith first appeared in front of a camera (it would be 1908 when he stepped behind it and really made history). The selection includes trick films, actualities (today we’d call them cinéma vérité), and something called “An Awful Skate, or The Hobo on Roller Skates.” The California Film Institute (which runs the Rafael) promises 35mm prints (in most cases). Michael Mortilla will accompany the movies on the piano.

City Lights, Castro, Thursday. In Charlie Chaplin’s most perfect comedy, the little tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl and befriends a suicidal, alcoholic millionaire, but neither of them know the real Charlie. The result is funny and touching, with one of the great tear-jerking endings. Sound came to movies as Chaplin was shooting City Lights, resulting in an essentially silent film with a recorded musical score composed by Chaplin himself.

Double Bill: Modern Times and The Circus, Castro, Sunday. In Modern Times Charlie Chaplin takes an anachronistic art form (silent film in 1936) and uses it to explore headline topics: assembly lines, mechanization, and the depression. The tramp’s innate dignity and optimism, upholstered by Chaplin’s perfectly choreographed comedy, keeps Modern Times light despite the heavy theme, and turns his last silent (with music, sound effects, and an occasional human voice) into his last great masterpiece. Made in between Chaplin’s two feature masterpieces (The Gold Rush and City Lights), The Circus can’t help but suffer by comparison. But it’s funny and touching enough to be liked–if not loved–on its own merits. The Castro will screen The Circus with Chaplin’s own recorded score (including a dreadful song he sings himself) rather than live accompaniment. For more details, read about The Altered Charlie Chaplin Problem. A part of the Castro’s PFA at the Castro–Charles Chaplin series.

The Strong Man, Stanford, Friday, 7:30. For a brief shining moment in the mid-1920’s, Harry Langdon sat in the pantheon of great comedians along with Chaplin and LLoyd. Then his star fell quickly. He was never better than in his second feature, The Strong Man. Perhaps that’s because Langdon promoted one of his gag men to producer on this one, and Frank Capra would prove a far more long-lasting talent. Langdon plays a Belgian immigrant–a vaudeville strong man’s assistant–who hopes to find his pen-pal sweetheart in America. Much of Capra’s faith in American small-town decency (as well as his Christian faith) already shows itself in The Strong Man, along with his sense of cinema. And Langdon’s innocent child/man was never so endearing, or as funny. Accompanied by Dennis James at the Wurlitzer pipe organ.

The Iron Mask, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Douglas Fairbanks must have felt melancholy as he made what he knew would be his last silent film. Based on Dumas’ oft-filmed The Three Musketeers sequel, The Iron Mask is unusually dark for a Fairbanks movie, with several likeable characters meeting untimely deaths. But writer-producer-star Fairbanks lacked the knack for serious drama, resulting in an odd juxtaposition of bad melodrama and entertaining swashbuckling. Shown the “The Great Train Robbery” from 1903 and Chaplin’s “Shanghaied,” all accompanied by Jon Mirsalis on piano.

The Kid and The Pilgrim, Castro, Tuesday, 6:30. Charlie Chaplin’s first feature, The Kid, isn’t among his best–there are times when you can feel him stretching to fill six reels, and others where the sentimentality overwhelms. But it has some of his best routines, most built around his very young co-star, Jackie Coogan. This may be the only time Chaplin allowed someone else to steal one of his films, and it was the right decision. The future Uncle Fester imitates Chaplin perfectly as an abandoned child raised by the little tramp. The Pilgrim, which is either Chaplin’s last short or his second feature, depending on how you want to define a four-reel movie, improves considerably on The Kid. Chaplin creates one of his best roles as an escaped convict posing as a clergyman in a story that mixes comedy and social commentary while keeping the sentimentality at a minimum. A part of the Castro’s PFA at the Castro–Charles Chaplin series.

Once, Red Vic, Wednesday and Thursday. Wow! A recent film! The most romantic picture since Before Sunrise, Once charms you with winning characters, an odd kind of low-key suspense, and terrific music. The music comes out of the story, which concerns two talented but unprofessional musicians (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) becoming close friends and collaborators. There’s clearly a romantic attraction, but you’re never quite clear where it’s going to go. Wherever it goes, it gets there musically; if the film isn’t a hit, the singer/songwriter-style soundtrack will be. Sorry, but I have to say it: You’ll want to see Once twice.

Double Bill: Modern Times and Three Late Chaplin Shorts, Castro, Wednesday. See above for Modern Times review. The three shorts, “Sunnyside,” “A Day’s Pleasure,” and “Pay Day” combined earn only a D. I don’t think you can put together a worse selection of late Charlie Chaplin shorts. “Sunnyside” is pretty good–not a masterpiece, but a pleasant enough comedy. But “A Day’s Pleasure,– and “Pay Day” may be the worst movies Chaplin made after gaining full control of his work. I don’t think there are three good laughs in their combined four reels. As part of the Castro’s PFA at the Castro–Charles Chaplin series, the theater will present these shorts with Chaplin’s own score on the recorded soundtrack.

Sing-Along The Wizard of Oz, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. I don’t really have to tell you about this one, do I? Well, perhaps I have to explain why I’m only giving it a B. Despite its clever songs, lush Technicolor photography, and one great performance (Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion), The Wizard of Oz never struck me as the masterpiece that everyone else sees. It’s a good, fun movie, but not quite fun enough to earn an A. I have no experience with, and therefore no opinion of, watching The Wizard of Oz in a sing-along setting. A benefit for the Pacific Center.

The Gold Rush (sound version), Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 3:00; Castro, Tuesday, 8:45. Nothing George Lucas ever did to a finished Star Wars movie compares to Chaplin’s 1942 reworking of The Gold Rush (1925). Wanting to re-release his masterpiece but fearful that audiences would no longer accept a silent movie, Chaplin removed all of The intertitles, trimmed several scenes, and added new, and seemingly endless, narration. Thus, one of the greatest comedies ever made is “enhanced” by a non-stop monolog written and spoken by the world’s greatest mime. The original, 1925 Gold Rush still exists–it’s even an “extra” on the two-disc special edition DVD. But Chaplin went to his grave insisting that the 1942 Gold Rush was the definitive version. His family has respected his wishes rather than history, general consensus, and the wishes of his fans. So that’s the version the Castro will screen as part of its PFA at the Castro–Charles Chaplin series. For more on the subject, read The Altered Charlie Chaplin Problem.

Valley of the Heart’s Delight, 4Star, opens Friday. I hate saying anything bad about a locally-made independent film struggling to get national distribution. Based very loosely on historical events, Valley of the Heart’s Delight details the circumstances leading to the lynching of two kidnapping/murder suspects in San Jose in 1933. The lynching occurred with the active or passive endorsement of just about everyone who should have stopped it, from the local sheriff to the Governor of California. Writer/Producer John Miles Murphy believes the suspects were innocent, and has turned his theories into a work of fiction with completely original characters. Cinematographer Hiro Narita, Production Designer Douglas Freeman, and Costume Designer Cathleen Edwards all do a remarkable job creating 1933 San Jose out of modern day Bay Area locations and very little money. Unfortunately, Murphy and director Tim Boxell fail to fill that world with real people. Click here for my full review.

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