SF Silent Film Festival, Saturday Report

Amazing Tales from the Archive

First, Robert Byrne of the Festival discussed the restoration of The Half Breed, the 1916 Douglas Fairbanks feature that will have its restoration premiere Saturday. He and his team had to work with three different, incomplete prints, most from questionable sources. Byrne divided his talk into three categories:

  • Continuity: Trying to figure out how the story worked and in what order the scenes were shown in the original release.
  • Titles: The intertitles had clearly been altered in the various prints They tried to work out what they originally said.
  • Image: Which of the three had a particular shot, which looked best, and how to improve the image.

Next, Celine Ruivo of the Cinematheque fancaise discussed the restoration of very early sound films shown at Paris' Phono Cinema Theatre in 1900. These involved a very unusual film format, plus early phonograph cylinders. I have to confess that I nodded off in this one.

The First Born

There's no such thing as an Alfred Hitchcock movie that is not also an Alma Reville movie. But I've now seen a film written (actually co-written) by Reville that Hitchcock didn't work on.

But the real auteur is Miles Mander, the director, producer, star, and other co-author.

Set in the world of the British aristocracy, Mander plays a nobleman angry at his wife (the wonderful Madeleine Carroll and the real star of the film) for failing to provide him with an heir. So she adopts a baby boy while her husband is in safari in Africa. A melodrama with comic overtones, The First Born satirizes the whole upper-class fixation on birthright. A couple of wild plot twists in the film's final minutes add more pleasure to the story.

Stephen Horne accompanied on piano, accordion, and flute.

Tokyo Chorus

The great Yasujiro Ozu made this comedy-turned-drama in 1931, the year before his great I was Born, But…. It lacks the consistency and depth of that masterpiece, but it's still an entertaining and thoughtful work–and the best film I've seen at the festival so far.

Tokyo Chorus starts out as an out-and-out comedy, subversive in its attitude about authority but really offering little more than laughs and a likable protagonist. Then, about half an hour into the film, it takes a serious turn. That protagonist loses his job, and with a wife and three kids at home, that's no laughing matter. Oddly, the shift in tone works. The man we laughed at and with now becomes someone we care about deeply, and the story about unemployment breaks our hearts. And yet occasional light touches still come through.

Günter Buchwald, in his first performance in the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, did a fine job accompanying the film on piano and violin. Nothing mind-blowing, however.

The Patsy

I have seen this Marion Davies comedy–directed by King Vidor the same year he made The Crowd–before, but never theatrically. Live music and an enthusiastic audience helped.

 

In a very light story with overtones from Snow White and Hamlet, Davies plays the awkward sister clearly less favored by her dominating mother (the amazing Marie Dressler in a performance that reignited her career). She's clearly in love with her sister's boyfriend; which is just fine because the sister is cheating on him. The Hamlet part? At one point she discovers that she can get away with more if she pretends to be crazy.

 

In the film's best sequence, she tries to get a rich playboy's attention by imitating Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri. Her mimicry is astonishing. I know I'm not the first to say this, but it's a pity that her patron and lover William Randolph Hearst didn't put her in more comedies. This is where she shines.

 

I don't think I've ever seen a well-made silent comedy that depended so much on intertitles. The audience laughed as much from what we read than what we saw performed. It's not supposed to work that way, but in this case, it did.

 

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra did their usual wonderful performance.