My Report on the Day of Silents

I spent Saturday at the Castro Theater for the Day of Silents, a one-day event produced by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I saw four features and eight shorts, all with live musical accompaniment. It was a wonderful day.

Fatty + Buster: The Comique World of Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton

One hundred years ago, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was the second most popular comedian in the world (the first was Charlie Chaplin). A very young Buster Keaton was a major member of Arbuckle’s team.

The Day of Silents started with three comic Arbuckle shorts that showed both comics’ talents: The Cook, Good Night, Nurse, and The Garage. None of them had anything like a real story, but they were all funny. Arbuckle was a wonderful comedian, and in The Cook he shows his amazing juggling abilities, while Keaton manages some hilarious Egyptian dancing. Nurse was the weakest of the three, with Keaton having only one good scene. The Garage, the last Arbuckle/Keaton film, has them pretty much as equals, and is quite funny.

The image quality from Lobster Films’ DCP was acceptable but not great. Judging by how everything looked, I would guess that the pre-digital sources were four or five generations away from the original negative.

Donald Sosin played the grand piano and, I think, some digital sounds on his laptop. For the most part, the music choices were good, but in one scene he clearly should have played the Star Spangled Banner but didn’t.


It’s impossible to discuss this native American adventure without mentioning the racist aspects. Even the title is no longer acceptable (although the film acknowledges that the word is an insult). Most of the Native American characters are played by white actors in brown face (The cast list includes Chahi – the Medicine Man…Bernard Siegel).

But Redskin was way ahead of its time. It shows the cruelties of the Indian schools, and the bigotry of most white Americans. It’s also an entertaining melodrama that closes with an exciting chase. Seeing it on the big screen with a full audience made it much more fun. I give this movie a B+.

Most of Redskin was shot in two-color Technicolor; the scenes in the white man’s world are in black-and-white. The 35mm print provided by the Library of Congress was a bit soft, but the colors were just beautiful.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provided an excellent musical presentation.

For more on the racial issues, you may want to read Louise Dunlap’s article at Eat Drink Films.

Woman with a Movie Camera: The Films of Alice Guy Blaché

Alice Guy Blaché was the first woman to direct a film; arguably, was the first film director, period. She’s been ignored by film historians for decades. This year, the documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché helped bring her back into the limelight (read my review).

The program contained five shorts she made in her native France, followed by an American feature. The highlight of the selection was The Drunken Mattress. A wild, slapstick chase made five years before Mack Sennett created Keystoneand he never made a chase as funny as this one. The feature, The Ocean Waif, didn’t do much for me. This weak melodrama worked only through the performance of Doris Kenyon.

The image quality on Kino Lorber’s DCP went from excellent to horrible. You have to expect that from very old movies that no one cared for. Much of the feature was missing,, with new intertitles telling us what happened in the missing scenes.

Donald Sosin’s musical accompaniment was just great.

The Marriage Circle

Film Historian Joseph McBride, the author of How Did Lubitsch Do It?, introduced this film as one of the great director’s most important and influential works. He also called it the beginning of romantic comedy (I disagree). He also explained something I’d always wondered about Lubitz: Why are almost all of his American movies are set in Europe? The answer: Americans could accept sex in Europe but not at home.

Like so many of his movies, The Marriage Circle (only his second American film) is a comedy about adultery – this one set in Vienna. An unhappily married woman (Marie Prevost) sets herself to seduce her best friend’s husband (Monte Blue). Florence Vidor plays the best friend, and a very funny Adolphe Menjou as the adulteress’ husband. As one would expect from Lubitz, the movie is sexy and funny. What’s unusual is a real sense of emotional hurt that comes with extracurricular sex.

The 35mm print from the Museum of Modern Art was okay but not exceptional.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s Viennese-styled score fit the movie beautifully.

The Phantom of the Opera

One of the most beloved horror movies of the silent era, Phantom of the Opera depends very much on atmosphere. It’s creepy, frightening, suspenseful, and fun. And if you think too much, it all falls apart. Lon Chaney, his face covered entirely with either a mask or the famously frightening makeup, gives an incredible performance as the insane psychopath of the title. The story, set mostly in the Paris Opera House and the ancient tunnels and forgotten torture chambers below, are enough to give you goosebumps. [Note: I’ve corrected a mistaken word in this paragraph. My thanks to madviolist (actually my wife) for bringing the error to my notice.]

I give the film an A-.

Kino Lorber’s DCP looked beautiful. The film is filled with color. Almost every scene is tinted, and there’s a little two-colorTechnicolor and some Handschiegl color as well. All of it just looked great.

The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra was just fantastic – the biggest and best music of the day. Seven students of the Berklee College of Music composed the score and conducted the college orchestra. Since the movie is set at the Opera, big, dramatic, symphonic music was just what the doctor ordered. There was even a vocal soloist for the songs that matched the lips of the singers in the screen.

It was a great ending for a great day.

One thought on “My Report on the Day of Silents

Comments are closed.