Saturday, February 08, 2014

Somerville Theatre Centennial Series: Mary Pickford, Way Down East, and Wings

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The Somerville Theatre recently posted a picture on their Facebook page that was kind of amusing to me for how it showed that the building and general area hasn't changed that much since it opened in 1914, which is really kind of fantastic. It does lead to the occasional reminder that the average height was apparently a few inches shorter a hundred years ago - the curved rows toward the front without a lot of leg room can be a beast to navigate! - but it's great to see this old-fashioned neighborhood theater which has over the course of its life added four extra screens rather than sliced the main auditorium into smaller ones thriving a hundred years on, when so many are gone or not what they were.

Their 100th anniversary celebration kicked off on 31 January with a Mary Pickford program, and will feature roughly a hundred movies in roughly chronological order by the time it reaches the actual centennial date in May. The plan is for it to be entirely in 35mm, which is pretty fantastic.

Since it's running in order, they started off with silents, giving regular accompanist Jeff Rapsis a full weekend of work: Way Down East and Wings are pretty long movies to be improvising a score to live, and the Pickford program included two shorts along with the feature Sparrows. That opening night was a fairly entertaining evening, all told, starting with a history lesson on Pickford that just reiterated how huge a mark she left on the movie industry. I'd known that she was one of the founders of United Artists, but she also was the first actor in the silent era to insist on billing and some amount of creative control. It was a revolutionary stance at the time - the movies were not considered legitimate art like the stage, so film work was more often moonlighting, and the studios were perfectly happy keeping those involved anonymous. Pickford was among the first to change that, and while her salary demands were considered outrageous, having names to match to faces probably helped make the industry more money in the long run.

One of the shorts shown during the Pickford program, "Their First Misunderstanding", was among the first (if not the first) where her participation was billed, although it was long considered lost until a nitrate print was found in New Hampshire. The Library of Congress restored it, and it has only played a few times since - with this being the first time it has actually played to an audience on film for decades. It's not necessarily great - and it's always sort of an odd feeling when a rediscovered film isn't a masterpiece, like we're being heated out of the end of a fairy tale - but that it's around at all is somewhat amazing, as the print discovered was nitrate, and that stuff can catch on fire all on its own.

That material's inflammability is well-known, and Somerville Chief Projectionist Dave Kornfeld pointed out before running Way Down East that while many places that run silents will often run them at a slower rate than the 24 frames per second that has become standard (and you will occasionally see people grumble about exhibitions or video releases being 24fps), he tends not to because they probably didn't back then - the slower nitrate film moved through the projector, the longer any given square centimeter would be near the extremely bright/hot carbon arc lamps in use at the time, and the more likely it would burst into flames or explode.

As a result of early cinema being considered disposable, volatile, and obsolete once sound came about, only about 20% of silent films survive, which is part of why one should never miss a chance to see them in a theater when the opportunity presents itself. While the silent part of the Centennial program is done, it will likely become a regular monthly thing again come May. In the meantime, there are a bunch of great films making their return to the Somerville this winter/spring - I'm not sure if every film on the schedule had a run there, although it was mentioned that manager Ian Judge did manage to dig up advertising showing that Sparrows and Way Down East did - and if you're in the area, you should certainly spend a little time in their main auditorium.

"Their First Misunderstanding"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 January 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Centennial Series, 35mm)

To be perfectly frank, "Their First Misunderstanding" is more notable for its history than anything that happens in the ten minutes it takes to play out: It's Mary Pickford's first independent film, the first time she (or nearly any actor) was billed as starring in the film, lost for decades before a nitrate print was found in a New Hampshire barn and in 2006 restored to re-premiere in 2013. That's a heck of a story, much more substantial than a pair of newlyweds going to a party and the husband thinking his wife is about to leave him because she strikes up a conversation with another man.

Don't misunderstand; Mary Pickford and then-husband Owen Moore are solid, likable folks in the starring roles, and that Pickford went on to become the first and biggest movie star in the world is not particularly surprising. Like a lot of silent shorts, it can feel madly compressed to today's viewer, as the filmmakers try to compress a full story arc into a single reel of film. Despite that, it earns its ending good feelings - it may be more significant than great, but it's good, which isn't something you can always say about landmarks or recovered films.

"The Dream"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 January 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Centennial Series, 35mm)

"The Dream", while also released in 1911 and featuring much the same cast and crew, is a stronger movie, in part because it's trying to do a bit less. The story is simple - carousing husband (Moore) comes home late, disrespects his wife (Pickford), and has a dream where their roles are reversed. Not complicated, but it gives Pickford some room to show some range, and the broad comedy gets some laughs.

Films from this early are also a fascinating look at how unformed early cinema was, and how audiences hungered for that first taste regardless. The situation is so simple that the characters don't even have names, the camera doesn't move, and everybody gestures wildly with only occasional intertitles (which as often as not describe things the audience can easily see or suss out). There's still an amazing vitality to it, though, especially when Pickford gets to play to the balconies in a dream that may be as artificial as the movies themselves, but remains potent none the less.

Sparrows

* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 January 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Centennial Series, 35mm)

Watch enough silent films, and most will eventually come to appreciate them as a unique art form that had endless potential, even if they did originally think of them as slapstick, mugging for the camera, and girls flailing about tied to the train tracks. The thing is, sometimes they were those things, and sometimes that was good fun. Sparrows doesn't actually have any oncoming trains, but it does have quicksand, and that's the sort of thing that still often works as unvarnished entertainment.

It also has a "baby farm", full of kids whose poor parents had sent them away for one reason or another, and they were put to work. Molly (Mary Pickford) is the oldest of the children there, and the teenager looks after close to a dozen younger kids, because mean old Mr. Grimes (Gustav von Seyfferitz) and his wife (Charlotte Mineau) aren't going to do more than the absolute minimum. In fact, they're not above things like selling one boy ("Spec" O'Donnell) to the grocer or using the farm to hide a toddler (Mary Louise Miller) who has been kidnapped from her wealthy father (Roy Stewart).

Mary Pickford was in her mid-thirties when she made Sparrows, maybe a bit old to be playing someone in her early teens, although with her petite size and signature curls, it's not as crazy a stretch as it may sound. She certainly gets the body language and general attitude of Molly right; even if there were no intertitles, it would be clear that while this girl is uneducated, she's got the common sense and gumption to deal with whatever situation is thrown at her. It can be tough to figure out just how good a performance someone in a silent managed - those of us raised on the talkies often judge acting by how someone delivers lines, and as a result find ourselves "remembering" accents and deliveries based in part on what we see in the captions - but Pickford certainly makes Molly seem like the real deal.

Full review on EFC.

Way Down East

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Centennial Series, 35mm)

Way Down East opens with a declaration - "A Simple Story for Plain People" - which must have seemed kind of patronizing even at the time the movie was released almost a hundred years ago. Maybe not; the working class perhaps felt a more complete separation from the wealthy than they do today, with the rigid morality on display here a point of pride for the common man. That's the way D.W. Griffith plays it, at least, and that sincerity does come through, even if a modern audience might be willing to find a few more shades of gray.

As the story starts, Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) and her mother are in a precarious position in their country home, so Anna is sent to Boston to seek the assistance of wealthy relatives. While there, she catches the attention of playboy Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman) and deceived about the extent of his love for her. This will put her on a path that leads to her being a servant to the Bartlett family, and while David Bartlett (Richard Barthelmess) is quite handsome, he is expected to marry the squire's niece Kate (Mary Hay). Plus, it turns out that the Sandersons' summer home is nearby, and Lennox threatens to expose Anna's history.

It was a different world back then, when pious New Englanders would apparently not look askance at what are apparently first or second cousins being betrothed but would shun Anna for a situation in which she was a victim who had already suffered plenty. Then again, it's not like the attitudes Anna would face have been completely (or even mostly, depending on one's circles) stomped out today, although the story might not need to go through such convolutions to make her clearly the aggrieved party. There's a certain hypocrisy to this - the film sets itself up as being about forgiveness and redemption, but it relies on extenuating circumstances more than actual generosity of spirit.

Full review on EFC.

Wings

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 February 2014 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Centennial Series, 35mm)

It's been a while since I saw Wings, and upon seeing the dogfight scenes again, I'm tempted to pull out my unwatched Blu-ray to see if there are red flames on that copy. Seems likely, if it was taken from this same print struck for Paramount's 100th anniversary, but it also seems like something I would have remembered.

The bulk of the film certainly holds up to a second viewing; the scale of it is downright incredible for the time, especially when it comes to take to the air and fight. Director William A. Wellman may have had to tie some sequences together with title cards more than contemporary filmmakers might, but he gets you in the plane. And there is something genuinely impressive about knowing that the only way a certain action sequence could be done was for the filmmakers to build a French village in the middle of Texas and bomb the crap out of it.

The story does seem a bit weaker on a second visit - Clara Bow's adventures in Europe feel more shoehorned in, especially since there's never any meaningful interaction between her character and that of the pilots. And the climax seems to be establishing needless irony.

Still, the "wow, look at that!" elements of this movie are strong even eighty years on; for that alone, it's well worth a look on the big screen whenever one gets the chance.

Full review (from 2006) on EFC.

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