Carl Dreyer, Yasujirô Ozu, & Ernst Lubitsch: My first report on the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

There’s no time to write and post articles during the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, so I’m doing it afterwards. My first installment covers opening night, and two of the four full days – except for the late night screenings of The Lighthouse Keepers
and Policeman. I need my sleep.

Wednesday: Opening Night

The Man Who Laughs

The best Lon Chaney movie ever made without Lon Chaney is a rousing period adventure, well-made but essentially silly. Watching it a second time (the festival screened it ten years ago), I noticed just how well director Paul Leni and cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton used the medium. For such a big story, it makes great use of facial expressions, especially with Conrad Veidt, who could only emote via the top half of his face; his character was disfigured as a child, so that he has a permanent, grotesque grin.

I still give it a B+.

NBCUniversal recently gave this film a brand-new 4K restoration, and it was screened on a DCP.

The music by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra enhanced the movie and would probably work as an orchestrational piece in its own right. The seven composer/conductors, taking turns at the baton, did masterful work controlling what I think was 15 or 16 musicians.

Thursday: Troubled fathers and other movies

Amazing Tales From the Archives

Several preservationists came on stage to discuss their recent work. They discussed two recently-restored films being shown at the Festival, The Ancient Law and The Hound of the Baskervilles. But the best section covered the restoration of some very old Kinemacolor shorts. One of the earliest color systems for movies, it had considerable problems. Davide Pozzi from L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna explained what they fixed and what they chose not to fix – because digital restoration can go too far.

Soft Shoes

Before the feature, the festival screened Detained, a newly-restored Stan Laurel two-reel comedy. Reasonably funny.

The feature, Soft Shoes, was one of the biggest happy surprises of the festival. Harry Carey plays an extremely capable western sheriff, out of his element in modern San Francisco. (In the 1920s, there was an assumption that the wild west was still going on just outside of town.) He must deal with an entirely different kind of criminal, including a perky and beautiful one. The plot has as many twists as a Simpsons episode. The movie is clever and very funny.

I give it a B+.

Donald Sosin’s score, with piano and other instruments, helped the laughs along.

Master of the House

The festival advertised this modest work by the great Carl Th. Dreyer as a comedy. I’d call it a drama with some funny moments. An unemployed father/husband drives his wife and kids crazy with his imperial manner. Two old women – his mother-in-law and his former nursemaid – set out to rescue his family and change his attitude. He’s clearly suffering from depression, and yes, you feel sorry for him. But you feel much more for the wife and kids.

I give it a B.

Stephen Horne did a wonderful accompaniment with piano and whatever instruments he could get his hands on. I think I heard a flute and a xylophone.

An Inn in Tokyo

This late silent from Yasujirô Ozu (1935) is a real tearjerker about an unemployed, homeless single father and his young two sons. The big question is: Will they find enough to eat? But kids will be kids, and find ways to enjoy themselves. They also do some very stupid things. The family’s luck appears to turn when a friend helps the father get a job, but such good fortune can be very precarious.

I give An Inn in Tokyo an A-.

Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius provided very emotional music that brought out the tragedy and occasional comedy.

People On Sunday

Yep, people on Thursday watched People on Sunday.

Two young couples, one falling in love, the other falling out of it, go for a picnic at the lake. None of the four leads are professional actors, and they’re basically playing themselves. There’s not as much sense of place here, and neither the story, nor the documentary-style shots of random people, provide insight or emotion. You’d expect something better from a collaboration between Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann.

The movie worked best as visuals to compliment the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s wonderful jazz-flavored score.

I give the movie on its own a C+.

Newly restored, the film was screened off a lovely DCP.

Friday: Women on the job, in court, the King’s court, and a slum

Good References

Now I know why screwball comedies didn’t become popular until sound came in. This slight movie about a working girl employed in a wealthy family is very much screwball, but it loses a lot without sparkling dialog. On the other hand, it just might have worked if it ahd a more talented star, such as Clara Bow. Constance Talmadge just isn’t that funny.

I give this one a D+.

The tinted, 35mm print was good but not exceptional.

Donald Sosin’s piano score helped, but it couldn’t save this one.

The Other Woman’s Story

This pretty good but not exceptional murder mystery, set primarily in a court trial, uses flashbacks extensively. Everyone involved gets to tell their version of the story. The movie has an unusual number of dissolves, which were difficult to make in 1925.

I give it a C+.

Before this screening, no audience had seen this movie in 93 years. The beautiful, digital restoration was screened on a 35mm print.

Stephen Horne gave the movie a fine musical accompaniment. There was one moment of impressive syncing with a closeup of the judge’s gavel banging away.

Silent Avant-Garde

The festival wisely put a three-minute limit on introductions, but filmmaker Craig Baldwin ignored that rule in spades when he introduced this section of weird shorts. Rambling incoherently at a mile a minute, he went on for about 15 minutes before someone got him away from the podium.

I enjoyed all these strange movies. Robert Florey’s Life and Death of 9413–A Hollywood Extra is something of a masterpiece. But my favorite was footage from Sergei Eisenstein’s failed Mexican film – especially the artistic skull masks placed in front of amusement park rides. I don’t know what it was meant to say, but it looked fascinating.

The Matti Bye Ensemble’s music was appropriately weird.

Rosita

What a match! Ernst Lubitsch directing Mary Pickford (who also produced and brought Lubitsch to the States). They hated each other and never worked together again, but the resulting movie is a lot of fun. A lecherous king casts his eye on Pickford’s Rosita, a peasant girl supporting her family as a street singer. She despises the him but understands the advantages of being in his favor. Meanwhile, a dashing nobleman is in trouble with the law for protecting Rosita, and love will blossom.

I give it a B+.

The DCP looked great, with beautiful tints and in one scene, what looked like the Handschiegl process for adding color to portions of the image.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provided wonderful accompaniment.

Mother Krause’s Journey To Happiness

It took me awhile to get into this 1929, Communist-tinged drama about Berlin slumdwellers, but it eventually grabbed me by the throat. The head of a struggling family, Mother Krause’s difficult financial situation gets much worse when her good-for-nothing son drinks up desperately needed funds. Other family members have romantic and financial problems, often connected to each other. But don’t be fooled by the title; happiness doesn’t belong here.

The DCP clearly came from a very bad print, gray with little contrast and significant scratches. Several scenes are still missing. As is common in these situations, the restoration contains intertitles explaining what happens in the scenes that no longer exist.

The music by Sascha Jacobsen and the Musical Art Quintet was phenomenal.