I could think of few better ways to spend a day then the way I spent last Saturday, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival‘s first Silent Autumn event. Over the course of the day, we were treated to three features, two collections of shorts, and a lot of great music.
Let’s take the day in order.
Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts
It’s amazing how easily Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made the transition from silent movies to sound. Adding voices barely changed their characters or comedy style.
The festival screened three of their two-reel silents–Should Married Men Go Home?, Two Tars, and Big Business. To show us how they evolved, the movies were screened in chronological order. That didn’t quite work; their characters and style seemed fully developed from the start of the show.
On the other hand, they did work, simply because all three were extremely funny.
Laurel and Hardy’s onscreen personas were probably the dumbest reoccurring characters in the history of the movies. Stan appears incapable of having a thought or remembering an instruction. Oli knows that Stan is an idiot, and thus, insists on taking charge. What neither of them seems to realize is that Oli is even dumber than Stan.
They’re also extremely vengeful and destructive–do something to get them angry, and you’ll be sorry. And yet, they’re eternally loveable. Looking and behaving like overgrown children, they wander into a placid and calm environment and, because of their presence, all hell breaks loose. Soon everyone is throwing mud, kicking shins, and tearing apart automobiles.
Laurel and Hardy slowed down the pace of silent comedy–which may be one of the reasons they did so well in talkies. They just stand there and watch while their antagonist–say, James Finlayson–rips off their headlight and throws it into their windshield. Then he just stands there and watches as they destroy his front door.
While the sound transition didn’t effect them much, they had a bigger problem moving from shorts to features. A real plot inevitably got in the way of their style of comedy. But in short subjects, few geniuses were funnier.
Music: Donald Sosin accompanied these shorts on a grand piano. All three films opened with the MGM lion, and Sosin managed to recreate the roar on the piano (except for the last film, when he invited the audience to roar). His lively music helped keep the laughs coming.
Projection: The Festival screened archival prints from the Library of Congress and the UCLA Film Archive. Aside from some bad titles in Should Married Men Go Home?, they looked excellent.
The Son of the Sheik
You can’t discuss Rudolph Valentino’s last and most famous movie without confronting how attitudes about romance and sex have changed considerably in the last 90 years. Here’s a movie designed to feed women’s sexual fantasies, and judging from its commercial success and the audience that flocked to see it, it did its job.
Yet this is a film where the hero rapes the heroine. Of course he does it because he’s been lied to, and he feels bad about it afterwards. But still, the hero rapes the heroine.
In 1926, women found this movie very sexy. And judging from the women I talked to in the theater after the screening, a lot of them still do. Of course, then and now, no woman wants to be raped. But on a movie screen, with the gorgeous Valentino, it’s a safe fantasy.
The story is silly and hokey, the cast is full of white actors in swarthy makeup, and there’s a comic sidekick bad guy who I just found annoying. But it was a lot of fun.
Music: The Alloy Orchestra (actually a trio with a wide range of instruments) premiered their new score for The Son of the Sheik on Saturday. It was lush and romantic, with a hint of the "Orient" without using the common, clichéd music.I loved it.
Projection: The festival screened this newly-restored classic digitally. The source material was clearly in bad condition, and probably several generations away from the original camera negative. The image quality was acceptable, but not great.
The shape of the frame was very narrow, with a little bit of the image sliced off on the left side. How did that happen? My guess: The source print, made after the silent era, came with recorded music. Because the soundtrack takes up room on the film, part of the image was lost.
A Night at the Cinema in 1914
Feature-length films came into fashion just about a hundred years ago. But it didn’t happen overnight. In 1914, more often than not, a night at the movies involved only a collection of shorts.
The British Film Institute has put together a selection of 14 such shorts to help recreate the movie-going experience in the year World War I started. Each of the shorts was preceded by a new title card putting it into a historical perspective.
Not that all of these particular shorts would have likely been on the same bill in 1914. One newsreel of the Austrian-Hungarian royal family, taken before Ferdinand’s assassination but screened after it, refers to the killing as a "tragedy." They didn’t know just how tragic it would be. Within weeks, those tragic Austrian royals were the enemy. Later newsreels in the program concentrated on the war.
Among the narrative offerings were two from America–a chapter from the serial The Perils of Pauline and an early Keystone Chaplin comedy called A Film Johnnie, where the tramp wanders into the Keystone studio. But the funniest selection in the show was British, Daisy Doodad’s Dial, about woman with a gift for making outrageous faces.
Another highlight: The Rollicking Rajah was actually a sound film, using a film/phonograph system similar to the Vitaphone. Clearly a music hall act, enhanced with the ability to easily change settings, The Rollicking Rajah was a risqué musical act starring a male singer accompanied by flirtatious female dancers. Unfortunately, the phonograph record is lost, but the sheet music survives, which brings us to…
Music: In addition to playing the song, The Rollicking Rajah, on the grand piano, Donald Sosin sang the lyrics with the verve of a music hall performer. His words didn’t match the lips on screen perfecting, but they worked. He did a fine job on the rest of the show, as well.
Projection: I have nothing to complain about with this digital presentation. Some of the sources were pretty bad, and not much could be done to repair them. But overall, it looked very good.
One of these days, I’m going to have to write a full article about Buster Keaton’s civil war masterpiece. So for now, I’ll keep it brief:
Based loosely on an actual event, The General puts a comic character at the center of a heroic epic, and he proves more than up to the task. The film is visually beautiful, and gives us the sweep of armies and locomotives moving through a land at war. In the climactic battle, soldiers actually die.
But it’s also a love story between a man and a train (there’s a girl in it, too). It’s made up almost entirely of two train chases. Keaton, a child of vaudeville who grew up largely on trains, wrings every gag possible (and some impossible) out of these wood-burning steam engine locomotives.
The General belongs near the top of any must-see movie list. And like all good comedies, it’s best scene with an audience.
Music: The Alloy Orchestra provided a percussion-heavy score that emphasized the unstoppable forward motion of a fast-moving train. A couple of times it felt monotonous, but not for long. Comic sound effects, not overdone, added to the fun.
Projection: The festival screened an excellent 35mm print from Raymond Rohauer’s collection.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
The story is very conventional–at least until the end. But no one remembers The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for its story. Visually speaking, this has to be one of the weirdest commercial films ever made.
The painted backdrops–including painted light and shadow–make no attempt to look realistic. Doors are angular and misshaped. Bureaucratic authority figures sit on very high stools, and crouch over high yet small desks. The sweet and innocent ingénue is dressed and made up to look like a darker and more depressing version of Morticia Addams.
This is, apparently, the filmmakers’ view of small-town Germany in 1919, reeling from defeat.
Into this world, a showman named Dr. Caligari arrives with an act built around a somnambulist who never wakes up but can see the future. Then people start getting murdered.
The story takes some very wild turns in the last third. Best not to go too much into detail.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is an easier film to admire than to like. It’s expressionistic visuals and way over-the-top acting keeps the audience at an arms-length. The constant intensity can be exhausting. But the atmosphere can also have a powerful hold. And the film’s story and strangeness can say a lot about the society that made it, although what exactly it says is a matter of controversy.
Music: Donald Sosin eschewed the grand piano for a smaller, electric one for Caligari. I heard a violin, a harp, and other instruments in the score; presumably the piano had MIDI capabilities. The score was appropriately weird and kept the story moving.
Projection: For as long as I’ve been watching old movies, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meant bad, soft, scratchy prints. But the film has recently gone through a thorough 4K digital restoration, and most of it looks great. And even when it doesn’t look great, it’s still presentable and a big improvement.