SF Silent Film Festival Report, Day 4

The Mark of Zorro
Big fun. I don't think I've seen this theatrically before, and certainly never with so big and enthusiastic a crowd. People cheered, hissed, and laughed on cue. Dennis James kept things lively on the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ, and Fairbanks' antics and stunts were stunning.

One thing I noticed about the story: Zorro is, inherently, a left-wing character. He's all about protecting the oppressed lower classes, even though he is himself an aristocrat. But this version made a big deal about how only those of “good blood” can stop the oppression.

The Docks of New York
My first experience with a silent Josef Von Sternberg. And guess what! It was the best Josef Von Sternberg I'd ever seen. His strength has always been his visual style, but silence gave that style a free range, and Docks has a stronger story than any other film of his I've seen (and I think I've seen all of his major talkies).

That story is like the seamy underbelly of On the Town. A stoker on shore leave, with only one night to enjoy himself, saves and then marries a suicidal prostitute on a whim. Full of atmosphere, eroticism, and a lead character whose motivations are never clear, but whose surprising actions always believable.

Donald Sosin kept the piano dark and moody, even with happy tunes like “Ain't We Got Fun.” The best film I've seen for the first time at this festival.

A Note Between Movies
I think the festival has tried to squeeze in too many movies a day this year. The result is that everything is late. The very first movie of the day, Mark of Zorro, ended when the second one was supposed to begin.

I'm writing this at 2:41, waiting for a picture that was supposed to start at 2:00.

I've just been told that today's problems came from incorrect information on Mark of Zorro's frame rate.

But frankly, I think they crammed too many shows into the festival this year. I can't find last year's schedule as I write this, but I don't think they were doing six programs a day like they did this year on Friday and Saturday (five today). There's no time to go for a walk or a restaurant meal. It wears you down.

On the other hand, I'd hate to have to decide what to cut.

I doubt that any genre is less suited for silent film than the comedy of manners. How do you adopt a stage play that consists of people standing around saying witty dialog to a non-verbal medium?

Did this Swedish version succeed in making the difficult transition? I'm not sure. I succumbed to festival exhaustion and slept through most if it. Judging from the laughter around me, I think it was a success.

I can't tell you if the Matti Bye Ensemble's score helped the film, but it did cause pleasant dreams.

Stella Dallas
“Ronald Colman in Stella Dallas” sounds like very daring casting. What it is, of course, is top billing going to the famous star in a supporting role. Belle Bennett is the real star–and gives a usually brilliant (but occasionally over-the-top) performance.

This is the first time I've seen any version of Stella Dallas, so I can't compare it to anything. But it's a heart tugger, even if I kept thinking of easier ways for these people to solve their problems. The famous ending had me, if not sobbing, at least mysty-eyed.

Stephen Horne's accompaniment was restrained and served the picture, without showing off.

The Cameraman
Buster Keaton's first film at MGM, his first without creative control, and his penultimate silent, comes close to being among his best. This story of a tintype photographer trying to break into the movie newsreel business provides plentiful opportunities for befuddlement, extended comic routines, and Keaton's patented pratfalls. The picture is filled with gags, and every one hit home with the festival audience.

Yet this is different from the Keaton-controlled film. There's a cute little monkey, and a running gag involving a confused cop (Harry Gribbon)–both bits that Keaton wouldn't have done. The most obvious change is one that's arguably for the better. The ingenue is actually intelligent, thoughtful, and helpful. You don't find much of that in Keaton's work.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanied The Cameraman in their usual splendid style. Their music carried the movie's emotions, helped the gags without overpunching them, and even knew when to be quiet for dramatic effect.

The movie, and the festival, ended at about 9:30. Now it's time to get back to real life.