Wednesday, June 03, 2015

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2015 Day #03: Speedy, Visages d'enfants, The Donovan Affair, Flesh and the Devil, and Pan

I am not, by and large, a big balcony person when I go to movies, having at some point absorbed Gene Siskel's reasoning that one of the reasons movies are more exciting than television is that you look up, rather than down. Getting down in the lower rows makes the screen bigger, too. But, hey, might as well try a show or two there, just to get better feel of this theater in its entirety:

Kind of pretty, isn't it? I'm torn between thinking it could use a little touching up and liking that the place is showing some age and wear.

The first thing seen from that vantage point was Speedy, the latest to get a touch-up and stand-alone release from The Harold Lloyd Trust, Janus Films, and The Criterion Collection. It was his last silent, if I remember correctly, before he wound up in the awkward position of being excited about the new technology of synchronized sound, fully committed, but not really suited to it. Granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd was there with stories of her grandfather.

Next up was the fairly fantastic Visages d'enfants, looking gorgeous and demonstrating that the French have excelled at this sort of relatively unadorned look at how a child's mind reacts to traumatic situations for roughly as long as there have been movies. Really great, and readily available, but I don't know if I ever would have thought to check it out if I wasn't at the festival.

Then - lunchtime! My sister-in-law Lara recommended Ike's Place, which was a little ways up the road and had a line, but it was absolutely worth it; I had a "Super Mario" sandwich (meatballs, marinara, and mozzarella sticks) on their signature Dutch Crunch Bread, along with chips and a Dang! Butterscotch Root Beer. That is some really good food, and I missed the caramel-green apple lollipop in the bag until Lara mentioned it. Suffice it to say, it all comes highly recommended.

I was going to go back down to ground level after that, but those seats were pretty full up, so I headed back upstairs for the rest of the day. Probably for the best, as I think being close to the cast they had acting out The Donovan Affair might have been even more distracting. They had that cast because the print of Frank Capra's all-dialogue picture in the Library of Congress was missing its soundtrack, and nobody could find Vitaphone discs to match the print. Thus, when it's shown, a cast of voice actors does what they can to line up with it. I'm not sure that I am tremendously fond of the execution - it feels like they sort of skipped past dubbing a comedy to parody - but this "accidental silent" is a different experience, and comes with tales of trying to track down the original play, censorship logs, lip-reading and trailer audio that has no video.

That got us to 7pm, which tends to be the easiest sale of the day, in this case Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil. A local mattress company also handed out fans in the shape of Garbo's face, which... Okay. I don't know if this was necessarily as steamy a movie as the opening talked about, but I did have to take my Brattle hoodie off. I'm going with "heat rises" versus the lower seats having a draft.

Also mentioned in the intro, and probably going to get special notice when you see the movie in San Francisco's Castro district anyway, is that this as much about the two guys as the femme fatale. One really does want to see them just kiss at the end. Given that the filmmaker talked about it killing him to tack a happy ending on for the studio (which was removed, at least for this screening), I wonder if he might have really meant a scene or two that misses the point instead.

Then, finally, Pan, which was probably the most divisive one in the program for the whole weekend, as much as a program of films 85 years old, minimum, is going to be controversial. This Norwegian film was slow and more than a bit weird, with an epilogue that just went on and on (half of the epilogue was said to have been lost until recently, and there were many comments that this may have been for the best). My favorite theory that I heard on the bus back to the hotel and the next day was that the main character introduced it by talking to his dog, and what came after was a dog's understanding of human relationships. Which is goofy, but when a movie has audience members even semi-seriously advocating such an idea, it's a little nutty.

Then it was back on the F-Line - and is it just me, or is it kind of disappointing when that means a regular bus rather than a vintage streetcar? - in order to do it one last time on Sunday.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 35mm (?))

The Brattle having two solid weeks of Harold Lloyd movies a decade ago - just before I went to my first Fantasia Festival, if I remember correctly - is a big part of what got me going to silents on a regular basis, but despite having the nifty box set that New Line put out that year, I haven't watched most of those movies since, other than the odd glut of Safety Last! screenings when that was the Janus/Criterion release du jour. A shame, because there are some really funny movies in there, including Speedy.

It is kind of odd now, both with the current economic situation and knowing that The Great Depression was just around the corner, to hear Lloyd's Harold Swift shrug off losing another job, because he can easily get another. Part of the fun of the movie, though, is looking at it as a time capsule of Twenties New York, from the fantastic Coney Island at night footage to just watching a ballgame. It's plenty funny around that, too, with Ann Christy proving one of Lloyd's best female foils, plenty of rapid chases, and energetic slapstick. I still think that the Civil War vets are kind of absurdly active even if you consider that a lot of people enlisted young, but that is a tremendously minor comparing about an extremely entertaining movie.

Original review on EFC.

Visages d'enfants

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 30 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, DCP)

French cinema is speckled with movies that play out from a child's point of view almost exclusively, without a flashback structure to remind the audience that the events shaped the protagonist's adult views or moments that make the kid too witty or clever. Not a great deal - it's a tremendously difficult thing to pull off - but enough for the past ten to stick in one's head. Visages d'enfants demonstrates that this goes back to 1925, and was being tremendously well-done then.

It starts with a funeral, as Jean Amsler (Jean Forest), a boy of about nine, sees his mother laid to rest. He mourns seriously and deeply, visiting the grave every Sunday and seeing his mother's portrait move when he says his evening prayers. Some time away from home is considered a good idea, but summer ends, and when he returns home, it is not just to father Pierre (Victor Vina) and little sister Pierette (Pierette Houyez), but to a new stepmother (Rachel Devirys) and her daughter Arlette (Arlette Peyran). He immediately resents Jeanne, but he hates Arlette, and she is none too fond of him either.

It is natural, and almost unavoidable, for filmmakers to approach stories along these lines in adult terms; even films like this with primarily young casts are generally being made for an adult audience, after all, and they often have the most active, pointed responses. Filmmaker Jacques Feyder, then, must make something that is simultaneously direct and indirect, showing the kids doing fairly ordinary things under a sometimes smothering layer of emotion, but also not burying it, either. Kids may sometimes go quiet instead of yelling, although that is generally not Jean's way, especially once the step-people are in the picture. So for much of the movie, the action is less about what these children are doing than the way that they are doing it.

Full review on EFC.

The Donovan Affair

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 35mm with live dubbing)

I wonder how unusual for films to be half-lost in the way that Frank Capra's The Donovan Affair is. Usually, it seems, some percentage of the film's length is gone, either due to misplaced reels or capricious cutting; here, the entire length of the film is present but the soundtrack is missing. That's a bit of a conundrum for what was billed in 1929 as Columbia's first all-dialogue picture, and though there's no perfect solution, some compromise is worth it, because it's an energetic little murder comedy.

The body-to-be is Jack Donovan (John Roche), who owes money to Mr. Porter (Wheeler Oakman) and a number of other gangsters and had insinuated himself quite thoroughly into the household of millionaire Peter Rankin (Alphonso Ethier) - he's just getting around to dumping Mary (Virginia Brown Faire), the family's maid; friends with daughter Jean (Dorothy Revier), and blackmailing Peter's second wife Lydia (Agnes Ayres). Why he's invited to Peter's birthday party is anybody guess, but there he is, along with Porter, Jean's fiancé David (William Collier Jr.) and family friends the Lindseys (Hank Mann & Ethel Wales), with butler Nelson (Edward Hearn) making sure it all goes smoothly. Well, at least until the lights go out and Inspector Killian (Jack Holt) and rather less brilliant partner Carney (Fred Kelsey) are on the case.

The screwball mystery is a neglected genre today - I'm not sure how often it even shows up on stage, which was the original home of The Donovan Affair and probably where the genre works best. This is a good one, serving the audience a good mix of characters with some motive or another without requiring the party to be almost entirely an assembly of horrible people, which is nice, if you're going for light comedy rather than a group of psychopaths. The script is mostly fun, and does the audience the service of making sure that when it is stupid, there's some sort of payoff for it.

Full review on EFC.

Flesh and the Devil

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 35mm)

Though Flesh and the Devil was both the film that solidified Greta Garbo's image as a sex symbol in America and where she and co-star John Gilbert began their passionate real-life love affair, it's also the sort where one eventually wishes the two male leads would just kiss already. That's not happening in 1926, obviously, and trying to make the movie fit that narrative means discounting a lot of what's actually going on, but... Well, this film has enough heat for the main pot to boil over, and the overflow's got to go somewhere!

It starts in the army, where aristocratic young soldier Ulrich von Eltz (Lars Hanson) is frantically trying to cover for bunkmate and lifelong friend Leo von Harden (Gilbert), who has been on the town into the wee hours again. Though put on grunt duty, they are eligible for furlough a few weeks later, and at the first dance of the season, Leo ignores Ulrich's sister Hertha (Barbara Kent) and makes a beeline straight for the sultry Felicitas (Garbo). Alas, she turns out to be married, which leads to a duel, which leads to an exile to the African colonies, and when Leo returns, it seems everything but his and Felicitas's attraction has changed - but not to make things simpler.

The stories of how Gilbert and Garbo came together on this set - including a day where director Clarence Brown didn't yell "cut!" but just quietly speed the camera and left the set with the crew so that the stars could take the love scene to its logical conclusion - are Hollywood legend, and that heat certainly does make the screen. There's a fiery directness to Garbo's Felicitas, whether lusting after Leo or reacting to Ulrich innocently mentioning that he is quite wealthy; even after the audience gets some idea of how mercenary she can potentially be, it's not difficult to recognize her ability to draw men into her orbit at all.

Full review on EFC.

Pan (1922)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 May 2015 in the Castro Theatre (San Francisco Silent Film Festival, DCP)

There were some weird theories being spun on the bus after this screening of Pan, one of the relatively few films to come out of Norway during the silent era. That's okay; it's an odd movie that will occasionally try the patience of viewers looking for something out of the ordinary (which, admittedly, is nearly everybody going to a Norwegian silent movie at 10pm on a Saturday night). I mostly liked it, but of all the films at this festival, it's the one I'm least likely to recommend to my friends who don't already really like silent and/or foreign films.

After a brief introduction that says "this happened two years ago", the audience is given a proper introduction to Lt. Thomas Glahn (Hjalmar Fries Schwenzen), who lives in a cabin in the north of Norway and, being an excellent hunter, is able to live off the land with his dog Aesop. He's not a complete recluse, though, and becomes friends with Mack (Hans Bille), a local merchant, and as such acquainted with his daughter Edvarda (Gerd Egede-Nissen). Their attraction is immediate, but jealousy is not far behind, as Edvarda is also getting attention from the local doctor (Rolf Christensen) and Glahn has noticed the blacksmith's daughter Eva (Lillebil Ibsen).

Pan is a love story, though the introduction hints at something that doesn't last. It's got an air that isn't quite muted but which nevertheless seems to skip some of the high points one frequently sees and inverts others. And yet, for all that the emotional volume isn't turned up to the maximum, Glahn and Edvarda are having a frequently unnerving courtship, filled with jealousy, actions which admittedly are likely to raise more eyebrows now but were likely still off-putting ninety years ago (and others which seem utterly random), and oddly-reserved reactions. It is like watching two people who don't know how to be in love stumbling far worse than most who find themselves in such a situation.

Full review on EFC.

1 comment:

Christine said...

Thanks for this rundown--I can never afford to see all the films at the festival I would want to see, and I had to skip Saturday entirely, so it was nice to get a sense of what it was like.