Monday, June 01, 2015

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2015 Day #02: Amazing Tales from the Archives, Cave of the Spider Women, When the Earth Trembled, The Last Laugh, and Ghost Train

Arriving bright and early, after discovering that the donut shop near the hotel is the cheapest/easiest/tastiest way to get something close to exact change to ride the F Line from 6th Street to the Castro.

Second only to not being able to get to a Giants game during this trip in terms of things I'm sad to have missed is the Castro's regular programming, if it can be said to have such a thing. It was closed to the public for a few days leading up to the festival, and though ii found things to do those evenings, the place is famous as a rep house for a reason.

The first show off the day was "Amazing Tales from the Archives", a free showcase that was split into four presentations all touching on film rediscovery and restoration. I didn't get any photos, as the house lights were pretty much down and nobody else had their phones out, so you are spared that.

First up was Jennifer Miko of Movette Film Transfer, a local preservation and digitization business, with a story of how a representative of the Hearst Company came in about a year earlier with some fairly unusual material with emulsion on both sides. It turned out to be Technicolor Process Two footage of William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan shot at the family estate. What they showed us was un-restored, but transferred, and while it was as inconsequential as most home movies, it still looked great for being about 90 years old, and tossed reds and greens popped.

Next up was Robert Byrne, who was one of the restoration team leaders for the 1916 Sherlock Holmes, the festival's main event on Sunday. We got a little history - it was made in 1916, not initially experts because there was a war on, and then finally sent to France as a four-part serial in 1919, and it was a nitrate negative for that version w which was found in the Cinemathèque Française 95 years later. While it needed some work, it seems to have been in pretty good shape, without a lot of reconstruction needed; there was even a single positive frame included for orange tinting of the indoor scenes, though they had to do some research/estimation to choose a "bleu noir" for the outdoor scenes. Then there were some questions about the translation; the "flash" intertitles were in French (an allegedly fairly brutal initial translation), so they had to be brought back to English, which was a bit of a guessing game itself. For instance, the French titles would refer to the title character as "Sherlock", but despite the dialogue they give Lucy Liu on Elementary, he is almost always addressed as "Holmes" in the Canon, and even though trying to recreate the original 1916 film which may have referred to him by his first name, he bent to the Holmesians on that.

Then there was a brief side-by-side of the original and unbaked versions, and while I've been second-guessing my choice to attend this festival, especially once m moving expenses stayed to rear their heads, I cannot wait to see this on Sunday night.
But, the presentation was only halfway over! Up next was Bryony Dixon of the BFI with an overview of newsreels and other material about the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, an action that accelerated U.S. involvement in World War I. One bit of interesting connective trivia was that actor William Gillette of Sherlock Holmes fame had been expected to travel on the ship but did not.

There was actually film recovered from the wreck decades later - a reel of the otherwise-lost Carpet from Baghdad - but the pictures they showed had it too mutilated to be restored. Instead, we got some newsreel footage and Windsor McKay's animation of the sinking (which is pretty nifty), with actor Paul McGann - an avid WWI aficionado who starred in the failed Doctor Who pilot in the 1990s and did many audio dramas in the role after that - reading accounts of survivors and others connected to the tragedy while Donald Sosin accompanied on piano.

The final leg was given to Serge Romberg of Lobster Films, who initially eschewed a sideshow to tell the tale of how something came into his hands, starting with a vintage Buster Keaton poster coming up for sale, and then several more indicating someone had a cache. They had actually been appropriated by the nephew of Gilles de Metries, and when he died, the nephews had the Lobster guys come out to inventory their 1500 cans of film, the only things left in the house because he bequeathed both his two nephews and longtime maids one of his the houses and its contents, and the maid had everything of obvious value moved to her house. Uncle, nephews and maid were all pieces of work, and it took some time to actually get their hands on it, and the last can they opened had the sort film they ran, "Figures of Wax", in rough condition.

After that, there was a good long delay, and then Cave of the Spider Women, which took a circuitous path to get here: Made in Shanghai in 1927, it was found in Norway, where it was found under the title "The Spiders", restored, and then returned to China. For this screening, a new English translation was done, as the original Norwegian distributor apparently took the Chinese intertitles, flipped, repeated, and rearranged them, and then added Norwegian titles that didn't necessarily translate the Chinese faithfully. The new translation attempted to do so, and it was read aloud, so there were potentially the doesn't versions competing for multilingual viewers' attention. "Fortunately", I only recognized the English, so there was no conflict.

Another good chunk of time between movies and then it was time for When the Earth Trembled, which was crazy and preceded by two shorts: The first of several one-minutes snips of footage from the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915, and a restored version of "A Trip Down Market Street Before the Fire", which pieces together all the extant footage for the longest version of this short famous in large part because it was taken mere days before the 1906 earthquake and fire. Happily, playing tourist got me just a bit more context; the railway museum was showcasing the PPIE for its centennial, and had the video playing on a loop. It's one of those things whose natural environment seems to be playing on a loop in a museum, and seeing it stretched out to maximum length in a theater was, well, not the best way to experience it.

After a brief break for dinner in which someone noticed and commented upon the Brattle hoodie I've been wearing all week because this city is chilly, there were other visitors from Boston in attendance: The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra was accompanying The Last Laugh, and I'm not sure whether it worked out okay that I skipped these guys accompanying this movie at the Coolidge at the beginning of the month or whether that made it a missed opportunity to go see the Giants in AT&T Park. I fall more toward the former, as I would have had to skip the next movie, too, but it's kind of weird to travel all the way across the country to see something local, isn't it?

(Also, how is The Last Laugh not on Blu-ray? That's nuts!)

Finally, Ghost Train, and though I didn't see formats listed for these movies anywhere, you know it's in 35mm when the intertitles are in French and they decide to have translations read/performed. Sadly, Paul McGann didn't get up on stage for a curtain call afterward, so no horrible photography.

Then, it was a snack at "Hot Cookies" (with the obligatory innuendo-laced name) and back to the hotel on the F line to do it again the next day!

"Figures de Cire" ("The Wax Museum" aka "The Man with Wax Faces")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival: Amazing Tales From the Archives, digital (?))

"Figures de Cire" is notable for being the first (extant) film by Maurice Tourneur, who would go on to do a great many in both Hollywood and France. It's the sort of basic horror that maybe want so basic in 1913: Pierre (Henry Roussel), who claims to have no fear, bets his friend Jacques (Emile Tramont) that he can withstand any spooky situation into which he is placed, so 500 francs rests on him spending the night I in a was museum run by a shady-looking character (Henry Gouget).

Is it contradictory for me to say that was museums aren't scary but that San Francisco is something love the fourth city where I've skipped Madame Tussaud's because I find the places creepy? Perhaps. I actually think Tourneur does a fair job putting that dichotomy to use, as it's very easy to see why Pierre is not initially frightened but does rapidly deteriorate when another element is introduced. Even for a short, it's a quick jump to madness, but Tourneur and his cast do a fine job of making that leap. Not many years later, they would probably have to do more, but this still holds up quite well for a century-old spooky short.

Cave of the Spider Women

* * * 1/4 (out of four)
Seen 29 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 35mm)

As a fan of a fair number of things that intersect in Cave if the Spider Women, I'm curious to what extent China is re-embracing, locating, and restoring the silent fantasies made in Shanghai before much of the movie industry fled to Hong Kong. Even in incomplete form, these movies are a lot of fun, ripe for rediscovery by those who like Asian action or silents, let alone the combination.

This one is a tale from The Journey to the West, with virtuous monk Xuanzang (Jiang Meikung) charged with fetching a set of sacred scrolls from India. On the way, he and his party meet a group of beautiful women whose leader (Yin Mingzhu) apparently sees him as a potential husband - although, given that she is actually a spider spirit, he should probably be more cautious, considering what those arachnids often do to their mates. Trusting as the monk is, it may be up to his half-human disciples Pigsy (Zhou Hongquan) and Monkey King Sun Wukong (Wu Wenchao) to extricate him from this situation.

The restored version from the National Library of Norway runs about an hour and is missing both the first reel and some footage in the middle, but that doesn't make it particularly difficult to follow, especially for those who are already familiar with Journey to the West. The chapter gains indicate that it was originally a serial, but the restored feature version doesn't regularly do much to catch the audience up; director Dan Duyu figures you're there for action and gets to it, even if there is a slightly episodic feel.

Full review on EFC.

"A Canine Sherlock Holmes"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 35mm)

The only cast member listed on IMDB for "A Canine Sherlock Holmes" is Spot the Urbanora Dog, which strikes me as entirely proper. There is a human cast, sure, and they are often fairly entertaining, especially the fellow playing Detective Harshaw, the fellow who knows he can leave the heavy lifting to his dog. And Spot is a great movie dog, outsmarting every two-legged criminal he comes across and engaging in some of the action that gives the impression of superior intelligence.

Mostly, though, it's wonderfully playful. The gimmick for the inciting robbery ("poisoned gold!") is kind of absurd in concept and just as funny in execution, and the film continues in that vein for its entire runtime. Sure, that's probably less than ten minutes, but they're ten minutes where something entertaining is always happening and there is no overstaying the movie's welcome.

"When the Earth Trembled" ("The Strength of Love")

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 35mm)

There's unapolagetic melodrama, and then there's this thing, which is boastful about the sort of movie it is, to the point when it almost becomes self-parody. It's some of the more ridiculous "and then, and then, and then" plotting I've ever seen, but at least it sort of works on those terms.

As it starts out, Mr. Giraud (Bartley McCullum) and Mr. Sims (Richard Morris) are business partners, at least until Sims telegrams attorney John Pearce (Peter Lang) that Aims is an idiot, he's dissolving the partnership, and instead going into business with Paul Giraud Junior (Harry Myers), who has met and married Sims's daughter Dora (Ethel Clayton) in Paris. Giraud does not appear to be an idiot, but he is vengeful, setting out to ruin the new partnership, not realizing that it will culminate in his son being lost at sea six years later, just as Dora and their kids are left homeless by the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

Forty-eight minutes was long for a movie in 1913 - three whole reels! - and just doing half again as much as a typical two-reeler didn't seem to be enough. That's not always a bad thing, but it quickly starts to play like the story was just a list of events with little room to breathe or get any sense of the characters beyond what leads to the next scene. Its short length may not make it able to hold the record for "x days later" captions in a film, but it may still be the benchmark for number per hour as they lurch the movie forward because this crew hasn't yet figured out how to show the passage of time through visual cues and editing.

Still, the very ambition of the movie, despite being well beyond the storytelling tools that the filmmakers have mastered or developed, is appealing. This thing does its best to stretch from Philadelphia (where it was actually made) to Australia over the course of its running time, and even if its destruction of San Francisco is limited to a few buildings coming apart inside, that's sharp (if dangerous!) special effects work. And when it gets to the end and a character literally pulls the plot device of the previous ten minutes off and throws it away, that's almost a wink at the camera played perfectly straight.

The movies were evolving quickly in their early days, which is why "When the Earth Trembled (or The Strength of Love)" can be both an impressive leap forward and something quickly surpassed. It's a missing link of sorts, but one that can still entertain if you accept its limitations.

Der Letzte Mann (The Last Laugh)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 35mm)

The Last Laugh is a remarkable movie in almost every respect, from the central performance to the direction, and the way studio interference changed the ending. It is, in many ways, a film about a tiny story told in the grandest possible style, deservedly considered a classic.

That small tale is that of the doorman at the Atlantic Hotel (Emil Jannings), who has been the job for a long time and takes a great deal of pride in it and the fancy uniform he wears; he is generally liked in his working-class neighborhood as well. One morning, just a day after the manager sees him need a rest after moving a heavy trunk, he arrives at work to find that another man has replaced him, and he had been reassigned as a lowly bathroom attendant. Though expected to turn in his uniform, he spirits it away so that he can wear it as he leaves his apartment and returns at night, lest his neighbors learn if his demotion.

If you have never seen this particular F.W. Murnau classic, open another window and find a picture of Jannings and, in particular, the mustache he sported in the film. That is some amazing facial hair, and in some ways it exemplifies what is going on with this prideful character as much as anything else Jannings and Murnau do: It is a surface-level affectation that impresses when seen in its full glory, but which requires a great deal of preparation and maintenance to be just so; make that difficult and it's a shambles. Jannings's theatrical performance emphasizes that about the man himself, not so much adding and collapsing when his point of pride is taken away, hobbling through the movie with such exaggerated feebleness that a modern audience used to seeing little but naturalism will perhaps scoff, seeing it as either scenery-chewing or as evidence that the manager did not go far enough. Let it sink in a bit, though, and Jannings is doing exhilarating work, communicating with terrific clarity but still having a level of nuance that reveals itself when Murnau zooms in to show detail.

Full review on EFC.

Ghost Train (Der Geisterzug)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 35mm)

Ghost Train is long for a silent film, or at least one that is not a prestige drama, at 93 minutes, and you can see that filmmakers trying to fill it - which is kind of odd, considering that the original play must run roughly this length or more, and doesn't have some of the bits clearly designed for film that this one has. It's a fun little movie at times, but it's not hard to see why it sort of fell by the wayside.

If I were laying out a nation's railroad system, I think I might avoid making my passengers transfer at a place named "Hellbridge". In fact, I have some real questions about the people who both decide that this would be a fitting name for their community and continue living there. But, that's the name of the town where one transfers to get from Andover to London, and some folks are about to be stuck there: Miss Ophelia Borne (Ilse Bois), a priggish temperance activist; newlyweds Peggy (Hilde Jennings) & Charles Murdock (John Manners), newlyweds on the way to their honeymoon; Richard (Erno Verebes) & Elsie Winthrop (Agnes Korolenko), not-so-newlyweds heading for a divorce; and Teddy Deakin (Guy Newall), who caused them to be late by pulling the emergency stop when his hat flew out the window. Now they're sick in the station overnight, with station-master Saul Hodgkin (Louis Ralph) seeing the scene by telling them about how the previous person in the job caused a derailment by dying at the switch, leaving the station haunted and prone to mysterious deaths ever since.

The film starts off with some slick opening titles, as a skull's eye sockets dissolve into tunnels from which model trains emerge, and that's not the end of the nifty special effects that pop up in this movie. The train derailment is some very nice miniature work, for example, and while the ghosts are primitive in appearance, director Géza von Bolváry uses them effectively, either for scares or comedy, when the right moment arrives. There's even some impressive mixing of live-action and animation when a character gets drink enough to start seeing things.

Full review on EFC.

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