Friday, August 04, 2006

Save Films, Save the World part 2

This continues the post about the 11th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival. To see the first part, look here.

Amazing Tales From the Archives
unday arrived bright and early with some 600 folks back at the Castro for a symposium on film preservation called Amazing Tales From the Archives. Admission was free, but – 600 people, most of whom had been at Pandora's Box the previous night? Foregoing a Sunday brunch in San Francisco during a summer heat wave to listen to a bunch of film archivists talk about the technical and political problems of their business inside a theater with no air conditioning?

Maybe there is a god, after all.

(Those of you more interested in movies than in film preservation should feel free to jump down to the next header.)

The panel, assembled by Stacey Wisnia, the Festival's incomparably brilliant operations director, featured:

  • Patrick Loughney, curator of the Motion Picture Department at the George Eastman House
  • Mona Nagai, film collection curator at the Pacific Film Archive
  • Mike Mason, curator of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress
  • Peter Limburg, chief executive officer of Amsterdam-based Haghefilm Conservation
These four represent the top tier of film preservation, that necessary discipline that remains chronically under-funded and misunderstood. The assembled audience had already drunk deeply of the Kool-Aid, and were rapt as each speaker started their PowerPoint presentations, accompanied by 35mm film clips demonstrating various preservation efforts.

Of particular interest (to me, anyway) was Mashan's slide show about the Library of Congress' new National Audiovisual Conservation Center in Culpepper, Virginia. Built inside a series of bunkers that were designed to defend a cash reserve against a nuclear attack, the new facility is a preservationist's wet dream. The nitrate film vaults are designed with individual firewalls and extinguishers, so that if a spontaneous combustion occurs, only the self-immolating reels would be lost. The new center will also provide increased resources for transferring deteriorating recorded media to new forms, including new digital techniques designed for preservation rather than restoration. (For more information on the new center, check out

Much of the funding for this new facility has been provided by the Packard Humanities Institute. David Packard's passion for old media forms has produced an immeasurable benefit for folks in the Bay Area lucky enough to have gotten down to the
Stanford Theater in Palo Alto; this new investment goes a long way to keeping the future in touch with the past.

Also noteworthy was Limburg's presentation.
Haghefilm is probably the leading technical innovator in film preservation and restoration. They preserved Beyond the Rocks, lost for nearly 80 years and found, unlabeled, in the collection of an eccentric hoarder who slept amid cans of decomposing, inflammable nitrate filmstock. (The only film to feature Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino, two of the iconic figures of early Hollywood, Beyond the Rocks was screened by the Silent Film Festival last November.)

Haghefilm designs and builds hardware and software that allows for preservation of a wide variety of film stock
gauges. Although 35mm is the most common gauge (even Thomas Edison used it), a wide variety of different sizes have been used throughout the history of moving pictures, from 8mm, Super-8mm, 17.5mm, 9.5mm 22mm and more, to professional sizes of 65mm, 70mm and 16mm. One of Edison's early experiments mapped moving pictures onto a rotating cylinder.

Limburg demonstrated Haghefilm's preservation of a disc-based format, the Spirograph. Invented in England by
Theodore Brown as a home-viewing device, the 10.5-inch-diameter discs contained 1,200 images, approximately 5.6mm by 4.1mm, allowing for less than two minutes of viewing time. The format was promoted by American expatriate Charles Urban, until his business collapsed in 1924. It's nigh impossible to screen any surviving Spirograph discs, but Haghefilm is on the job.

Using a combination of traditional (film-based) and digital techni
ques, Haghefilm was able to take the extremely small frames on the original Spriograph disc and produce a 35mm print.

What sets Haghefilm apart is their use of digital technology in service of preservation. Typically digital techniques are used to restore missing or broken elements in a film–create new fill-ins for missing frames, correct faded colors, mask scratches, etc.—but Haghefilm uses its computers to extract and preserve films as they are found. For more, look

Laurel and Hardy
Next up was a textbook example of why film preservation is important. The legendary comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy made their Silent Film Festival debut in a collection of shorts. The reason this duo hadn't been featured in previous years is that there are very few 35mm film prints of their silent-era shorts in good condition. One of the three films screened, Liberty (Hal Roach/MGM, 1929) was presented from a 16mm print. The result was a fuzzy image that filled only half of the Castro's screen. That there aren't 35mm film copies of Laurel and Hardy shorts would be unthinkable if it weren't so obviously true. Yes, there are very nice digital versions on DVD (made from 16mm prints), but these larger-than-life comedians deserve to be seen in a theater full of fans and kids, not just on a TV screen. Although digital projection has gotten much better, it is no substitute for film. In a large theater, film means 35mm.

The Laurel and Hardy program was introduced by Terry Zwigoff, the director of Crumb (Superior/Columbia, 1994), Ghost World (Advanced Medien/United Artists, 2001) and Bad Santa (Dimension, 2003). A lifelong fan of “the boys,” and a member of the Silent Film Festival's advisory board, Zwigoff talked about the importance of understatement in the comedy of Laurel and Hardy. Although the situations they find themselves in are outlandish, their responses are never out of scale to the event, although as events escalate, so do their responses. Zwigoff said that he had difficulty getting Billy Bob Thornton, star of Bad Santa, to understand this basic fact.

The short Wrong Again (Hal Roach/MGM, 1929) provided an excellent illustration of the equation: subtle response + outrageous circumstance = funny. The boys mistakenly deliver a race horse name Blue Boy to a swanky home, where the owner is expecting the return of the stolen painting “Blue Boy” by Thomas Gainsborough. It ends up with the horse standing on top of a grand piano. There's no need to embellish an already outrageous situation, and the result is sidesplitting.

The Laurel and Hardy program concluded with a rare treat: the last home movie ever made of Stan Laurel. Shot at Laurel's Venice home by Bob Chatterton, the comedian performs his trademark facial expressions as he toys with his Oscar statuette and marionettes of Laurel and Hardy. Evocative and touching (a tear came to my eye, at least), the rare color footage was purchased at an auction by collector Ron Merk, and preserved by Frank Buxton, a member of the Silent Film Festival's board of directors and one of the writers of Woody Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily? (American-International, 1966) and the original Casino Royale (Columbia, 1967).

Девyшкa c кopoбкoй (The Girl With the Hatbox)
Девyшкa c кopoбкoй (The Girl With the Hatbox – Mezhrabpom, 1927) was almost as surprising as Au Bonheur des Dames. The slapstick, screwball comedy from the Soviet Union – yes, a slapstick, screwball comedy from the Soviet Union – was a refreshing bracer for anyone familiar with the classic Soviet silent cinema of Sergei Eisentstein, V.I. Pudovkin, Dziga Vertov and other revolutionaries. A print supplied by the British Film Institute, taken from a 1968 Soviet restoration, included an opening scroll announcing that the movie was an effort to encourage the purchase of lottery tickets. Then things got weirder.

Directed by Boris Barnet, The Girl With the Hatbox was part of an effort to compete with an influx of foreign films. Anna Sten plays Natasha, an attractive young woman who lives in the country with her grandfather. She makes hats that she sells at a store in Moscow. A room in the building that houses the store is registered with the Soviet housing authorities in her name, but it's used by the husband of the store owner. Sporadic inspections by officials prompt the store owner to suggest that Natasha stay in the room occasionally. Meanwhile, Natasha and a homeless student, Ilya (Ivan Koval-Saborsky) have met cute on a train. Taking pity on him, she suggests that Ilya use her Moscow room, which annoys the store owner and her husband terribly. At the same time, Fogelev (Vladimir Fogel), a country postal clerk who longs for Natasha, steps up his awkward courtship. Then, a winning lottery ticket is added to the mix, and Barnet sets his blender to screwball frappé.

What made this film so exciting was the opportunity to see elements of classic Soviet cinema in service of screwball comedy. Early in the film, the forlorn Fogelev is seen walking across the snow-covered countryside in an extreme long shot. The horizon bisects the screen horizontally. Above and below the horizon are expanses of empty white space. Trudging across this horizon is the tiny figure of Fogelev, a black shape moving from the right to the left, each step a struggle in the vast wintry wasteland. But thanks to the set-up (we know that Fogelev is the nice guy who hasn't got a prayer to get the girl, but he keeps trying anyway) the scene is funny–very funny. Montage in the style of Eisenstein is used during the climatic chase for the lottery ticket, ending in a bit of slapstick that could have taught Laurel and Hardy a thing or two.

Sten's performance was a revelation. She is marvelously comic in her interactions with the husband of the store owner, and she is alternately funny and touching when dealing with Ilya. She was brought to Hollywood in 1933 by Samuel Goldwyn, who thought he could market her as his answer to Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. He dubbed her “the Passionate Peasant” and featured her in three films, including Dorothy Arzner's Nana (1934) and King Vidor's The Wedding Night (1935). None of the films clicked, and the trade magazines redubbed Sten “Goldwyn's folly.”

The Unholy Three
I wrote the program notes for The Unholy Three (MGM, 1925), and I got a bit too involved with the strange worlds of Tod Browning and Lon Chaney. Browning is best know for directing Dracula (Universal, 1931) and Freaks (MGM, 1932); Chaney is best known for being the “Man of 1,000 Faces.” They made ten films together. The best is probably The Unknown (MGM, 1927), but The Unholy Three is a very close second best.

From my program notes:

Chaney was a model of American 'bootstraps' discipline – hard work was his path to success–and he learned his craft on the legitimate stage. Browning also worked hard, but learned the tricks of a con artist while a carnival showman. Together they made ten features that explored the tension between two American philosophies: Benjamin Franklin's “God helps them that help themselves,” and P.T. Barnum's “There's a sucker born every minute.”

Both men were—and remain—unique. No one before or since has essayed the believably flawed characters that were Chaney's stock in trade. And no director, not even John Waters, has matched Browning's flair for exploitation while retaining sympathy for the subjects he appropriates for his films. Which brings us to Harry Earles, who made his film debut in The Unholy Three, as the dwarf Tweedledee.

Earles would become legendary when Browning made him the star of Freaks (MGM, 1932), a film that remains notorious to this day. Born Kurt Schneider in 1902 in Stolpen, Germany, Earles was one of four performing midget siblings. In 1914, Kurt and his sister Frieda were brought to the United States by Bert Earles, who booked them as “Hans and Gretel, the Smallest Dancing Couple in the World,” into Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, a touring carnival. Kurt and Frieda started using the names Harry and Grace, and also adopted the last name Earles. They were joined by sisters Hilda (in 1922), who changed her name to Daisy, and Elly (in 1926), who became known as “Tiny.” Together they joined the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus as the Doll Family sometime during the late 1920s. When Bert Earles died in the mid-1930s, they changed their surname to “Doll.” They toured with Ringling Brothers until 1956, when the circus stopped touring by train. They joined the smaller Christiani Circus, then retired to Sarasota, Florida, in 1958, where they had bought a house together.

All of the Earles/Dolls appeared in movies, but Harry's screen career was the richest, with appearances in 11 films, including the talking remake of The Unholy Three (MGM, 1930) The Wizard of Oz (MGM, 1939), as one of the Lollipop Guild Munchkins. He reunited with Browning for Freaks, which also featured his sister Daisy as his wife. Freaks remains singlularly disturbing, as it revels in all of the exploitation possibilities afforded by the circus sideshow, while remaining resolutely sympathetic to its denizens.

Earles is nothing short of brilliant in The Unholy Three. Part of the titular trio, he sets the tone of the picture early on. As part of a carnival sideshow, Earles chafes under the taunts of a crowd that gets rowdier as he gets angrier. When a fight breaks out, Earles takes the opportunity to kick an especially abusive boy in the face, bloodying his nose.

Earles joins Echo, the carnival's ventriloquist (Chaney), and Hercules the strongman (Victor McLaglen) in an elaborate criminal operation. The three open a pet store, adopting disguises. Chaney becomes a kindly grandmother, McLaglen a young father, and Earles a baby. Dressed in baby clothes, Earles smokes cigars and connives against Chaney, establishing an archetype echoed throughout dozens of animated cartoons, such as Baby Herman from Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Amblin/Touchstone, 1988) and even the recent Keenan Ivory Wayans film Little Man (Revolution/Sony, 2006).

The forgotten Mae Busch also stands out in The Unholy Three. Just hard enough to be believable as the carnival's resident pickpocket, whose affection for Echo leads her to join the thieves, she is also not so hard as to be unsympathetic. In this respect her performance rivals that of Chaney's.

Jon Mirsalis, a leading expert on Chaney's life and films, provided an effective piano score that aided the strange machinations of Browning's film.

Show People
This was one of the films I was most anxious to see, because it's considered to be Marion Davies' best film. She is remembered mostly for being the very public mistress of publisher William Randolph Hearst. As such, her reputation is confused with that of Susan Alexander, the talentless singer forced into an embarrassing operatic career by the Hearst doppelganger in Orson Welles' debut film Citizen Kane (RKO, 1940). Because her films are screened so rarely, her actual talents are largely forgotten.

In the foreword to The Times We Had, a compilation of Davies' journal entries edited by Pamela Pfau and Kenneth S. Marx (Bobbs-Merrill, 1975, Ballantine 1979), Welles himself wrote:

As one who shares much of the blame for casting another shadow—the shadow of Susan Alexander Kane—I rejoice in this opportunity to record something which today is all but forgotten except for those lucky enough to have seen a few of her pictures: Marion Davies was one of the most delightfully accomplished comediennes in the whole history of the screen. She would have been a star if Hearst had never happened. She was also a delightful and very considerable person.

Welles was right. In Show People (MGM, 1928), Davies delivers a sidesplitting performance as a naïve Southern belle who comes to make her fame and fortune in Hollywood, is rejected, then humiliated, then finds success, becomes conceited, suffers failure because of her hubris, learns the value of humility, has her initial success reconfirmed, and discovers true love along the way.

Reflexive pictures are common in Hollywood. Show People stands out because it still feels fresh, some 78 years after it was made, thanks largely to the performance of Davies and her co-star, William Haines. They manage communicate a sense that they are having fun, and that they know they're fortunate. As Davies' character, Peggy Pepper, makes her way up the Hollywood ladder, many of the era's biggest stars, from Douglas Fairbanks to Norma Talmadge, appear in cameos. Pepper shuns an autograph seeker, only to learn that the man was Charles Chaplin who looked like he was having the time of his life on the set. (He was a frequent guest of Davies at Hearst's San Simeon estate.) Davies even makes her own cameo, running into Pepper on the fictional studio lot.

Gloria Swanson essayed similar territory in Stage Struck (Paramount, 1925), which the Silent Film Festival screened in 2005. That film opened with a stunning two-strip Technicolor sequence of Swanson dressed in an architecturally outlandish costume as Salome, mocking the clothes-horse roles she had been playing in Cecil B. DeMille's blockbusters like Male and Female (Paramount, 1919). Funny as that was, Davies sent up the Swanson glamour more effectively and simply when, at the height of Pepper's fame, she poses for photographs while simultaneously pursing and opening her lips, producing a comic combination of Swanson's trademark “bow” lips and a drunken chipmunk.

As proof of the the timelessness of Show People, Silent Film Festival researcher Margarita Landazuri said that she saw a mother with a daughter of about 10 years outside the theater following the film. The girl was practicing Davies' pursed, opened lips pose, which is funny to look at, even for those unfamiliar with Gloria Swanson.

The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Recovery, 1906-2006
Adding to the cornucopia of this year's festival was a collection of short films related to the centennial commemoration of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

Before Seventh Heaven, the film known as A Trip Down Market Street was shown. An actuality that shows nothing more than a trip down Market Street to the Ferry Building from the vantage point of a camera strapped to a cable car, this film was thought to have been made in 1905. Early in 2006, David Kiehn, a historian with the

Niles Essanay Film Museum in Fremont, California, and the author of Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company, discovered that the film was actually shot a mere four days before the big earthquake. The Miles Brothers, San Franciscans who had one of the earliest motion picture companies on the West Coast, took the footage on a train to New York, which kept it safe when their offices were burned in the post-earthquake fire.

Another earthquake related treat was Fatty and Mabel Viewing the World's Fair at San Francisco, 1915, which screened prior to The Unholy Three. San Francisco struggled mightily to host The Pan-Pacific Exposition, which was intended to mark the opening of the Panama Canal, but became a celebration of the resurrection of a devastated city that had been nearly completely rebuilt from the ground up in less than nine years. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand were two of the biggest comedy stars of the day, and they were shown taking in the sights of the city and the fair, mugging with the city's mayor, “Sunny Jim” Rolph. The newsreel was an excellent fit with Tod Browning's film, as Arbuckle and Normand spent several minutes enjoying an exhibit of torture devices, including an iron maiden.

Before Show People, a brand-new silent newsreel of the 2006 earthquake commemoration was shown. Produced by the

Niles Essanay Film Museum, the color film captured the pre-dawn events at Lotta's Fountain, where the anniversary of the earthquake is noted every April 18 at 5:12 a.m. Legend has it that Lotta's Fountain was one of the few sources of fresh water in the days immediately following the fire, and it became a gathering place for people seeking lost loved ones. The new film used classic silent newsreel techniques, and the hand gestures of Mayor Gavin Newsom were transformed into high comedy by an intertitle proclaiming “Gavin's fish story.”

The official attendance figure for the 2006 Silent Film Festival was 8,700, up from 7,500 in 2005. It's still peanuts compared to what Talladega Nights will draw on its opening weekend in the Bay Area, but that's an unfair comparison. Talladega Nights is a purely commercial endeavor, a product for mass consumption supported by an international marketing system that actively brainwashes people into thinking they want to drop $10 for a ticket to watch it and a bunch of pre-show commercials. Of course, when Show People, The Unholy Three and Seventh Heaven were first released, they too were purely commercial endeavors, supported by an international marketing system that brainwashed entertainment consumers. Even The Girl With the Hatbox had commercial aspirations – it was intended to promote the Soviet national lottery.

The difference is that the films in the Silent Film Festival have stood the test of time – eight or more decades since they were made, they're still here, and they're still worth watching. There were many bad films made during the silent era. Even the coveted long-lost relic Beyond the Rocks turned out to be rather inconsequential—the best thing that can be said about it is that it had Swanson and Valentino together for the only time. London After Midnight, a 1927 Tod Browning-Lon Chaney vampire film, is the Holy Grail of lost films, but all but the most slavering fans suspect that if it were found, it couldn't possibly live up to the expectations created by the surviving stills and descriptions. (A rough idea of what the film might have been like can be gleaned thanks to Rick Schmidlin's recreation, which can be found on TCM's Lon Chaney Collection DVD set, which also has The Unknown.) The nerdiest of film historians can become passionate about the discovery of nearly any film relic (see the Spirograph entry in the From the Archives section above), but just about anyone can enjoy a film like Show People, because it is a good movie, and a good movie remains good, regardless of its age.
Past Silent Film Festivals have featured films from Brazil

Sangue Mineiro), India (Prem Sanyas, Shiraz) China (Shennü, The Peach Girl), Mexico (Tepeyac), and Italy (Maciste All'Inferno). It's also run Within Our Gates, one of the surviving silent films by pioneer African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, and its first-ever program, produced by its far-sighted founder and one of my greatest inspirations, Melissa Chittick, was Ich möchte kein Mann sein, a 1919 German film that involves cross-dressing, gender politics and issues of sexual identity.

These films speak to us across time. The subjects of these films are, at their core, the same issues any people have to deal with in any era or any location. The problems facing Marion Davies in Show People are the same facing Lindsay Lohan in real life right now. The lives portrayed by Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor in Seventh Heaven aren't really so different from those faced by any young working couple faced with the prospect of an imminent call-up to service in Iraq. The central issue of Au Bonheur des Dames is being played out by communities resisting a Wal-Mart invastion.

The slogan of the Silent Film Festival is “True Art Transcends Time.” It's true. It's really true.

Copyright 2006 by Richard Hildreth. All rights reserved.


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