For the last few years I've been attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, a great and glorious occasion held each July at the Castro Theater. Here are some notes from this year's festival:
WINGS – a brand new restored gorgeous print, with live music from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and live foley sound effects by Ben Burtt. The film is beautifully made, no question, with some still damned impressive aerial fight sequences that only get more amazing when one remembers that those are real planes really zooming around like that. WINGS was the first Oscar winner for Best Picture and it sets the template for so many Best Pictures to come in that it manages to sidestep any serious issues that it might have dealt with. The movie just plain hasn’t got much on its mind, especially in comparison with earlier World War I related films like Vidor’s remarkable THE BIG PARADE, which is far more forthright about the real horrors of war in general and WWI in particular. WINGS settles for being a romance with a wartime setting, and even then it leaves a lot to be desired. CASABLANCA it ain’t. A good part of the blame has to go to Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, who doesn’t let the horrors of war do anything to diminish his essential Bright Eyed And Bushy Tailedness -- no one has ever seemed less affected by the experience of war. On the other hand, there are some fine performances from Richard Arlen, who actually manages to imbue his character with a measurable IQ, and of course the magnificent, irresistible Clara Bow. There’s even a cameo from a pre-stardom Gary Cooper. Cooper, who can’t be onscreen for more than three minutes, frankly obliterates Arlen and Rogers in a dazzling display of what I can only describe as Magnetic Underplaying. He’s absolutely natural and at ease onscreen in ways that Rogers in particular can’t come near.
Next up was a film from Ernst Lubitsch, THE LOVES OF PHAROAH, a German super-production made with some backing from Hollywood. Big sets, big story, lots of stuff going on all the time, and unfortunately it just never got off the ground somehow despite all the spectacle and wackadoo plot games. A big story like this demands a painterly eye and some real control behind that camera, which means that it required the Fritz Lang of METROPOLIS or DIE NIEBELUNGEN to get it going and keep it interesting. There’s one moment early in the film when the Pharoah makes a grand entrance through a gigantic pair of doors, and I remember thinking at one point in the film that Lang would have made damn sure that both parts of that door swung open at exactly the same time, and Lang’s big set pieces never fall as flat as the ones in Lubitsch’s film.
Lubitsch did get some fine performances from Emil Jannings and Albert Basserman in particular. Emil Jannings really goes for broke here – heavy emoting and stylized hyper dramatics, culminating in one of the most remarkable stunts I’ve ever seen an actor pull off. Basserman, who was one of the last German actors to escape Europe before WWII really broke out, has a tiny moment of real power that I can’t describe without giving away some hellacious spoilers, but trust me on this – he was marvelous.
And then came MANTRAP, a comedy from Victor Fleming that I can’t believe hadn’t come my way before. The plot concerns Ralph, a successful divorce lawyer who seeks to escape his flirtatious clients by going on vacation in the wilds of Canada. Ralph is rescued by Joe, a local shopowner married to the alluring Alverna. Ralph soon falls victim to Alverna’s charm, hardly surprisingly as Alverna is embodied by the impossibly appealing Clara Bow. Plot, schmot. The movie is really about how we must all fall madly in love with Clara Bow, and I can’t imagine anyone not falling madly in love with Clara Bow. It can’t be helped. Her energy and enthusiasm and sex appeal and just sheer total animal joy are absolutely intoxicating, and it is to the film’s credit that it resists the temptation to go all Moral on us, tacking on a righteously lecturing ending. Everyone lives happily and presumably sexily ever after. Works for me. We should all be so lucky.
THE WONDERFUL LIE OF NINA PETROVNA was next, a German film starring Brigitte Helm, best known for her work in Lang’s METROPOLIS. Here she plays the a woman who falls for a junior military officer, the problem being that she’s already the kept woman of a higher-ranking military officer. Love and tragedy ensue. After all these years of knowing Helm only from METROPOLIS it was a real pleasure to see her do something else, not bound by the rather rigid demands of playing Extreme Purity (METROPOLIS’s almost too saintly Maria) or Extreme Wickedness (Robot Maria from the same film). Her Nina Petrovna comes off as a prototype of a von Sternberg heroine, sacrificing all for love. She’s got some wonderful moments during her big seduction of a rather clueless Lederer, who keeps not getting the idea that he’s supposed to make the first move. A lovely performance in a fine film that deserves to be better known, I think.
One of the real pleasures of the festival was a program of silent Felix The Cat cartoons, from the era when Felix was more popular than Mickey Mouse. Several shorts were shown, all of which had delights. There were plenty of marvelous gags, including some flat-out bizarre moments of the kind that Disney never really got into. One strange cartoon set in Toyland featured the silhouette of a lynched clown suspended over a chessboard, for example. A wonderful program.
These extraordinary works were followed by an extraordinarily ordinary little film called THE SPANISH DANCER. I don’t have a lot to say about it. Despite some fine flourshes and a rather entertaining climax, the film never quite got as much steam going as I’d wished, due at least to a lackluster male lead, one Antonio Moreno, who was no Douglas Fairbanks, as was made all too evident at the screening of Fairbanks’ great comic adventure THE MARK OF ZORRO the following day. Fairbanks, as Zorro, has a great time in the dual roles of the kinetic Zorro, merrily doing improbabl stunts with the greatest of ease, and Zorro’s altar ego Don Diego, virtually immobilized with boredom and doing strange tricks with his handkerchief. The plot is rather unwieldy, and if I have to say that Fairbanks’ more serious moments can be a bit of a drag on the film, well, the plot moves quickly enough and Fairbanks is never very serious for very long.
The real attraction this year, though, was a glorious restoration of G.W. Pabst’s PANDORA’S BOX, starring the luminous Louise Brooks as Lulu. I’d seen the film before, of course, but never on a screen as huge as the Castro’s, and never in such sparkling clarity, and the score by the Matti Bye Ensemble is one of the finest in my experience. I was just plain staggered by the film. I felt like it finally made total sense this time out, in ways that I can’t really put my finger on, and I had friends in attendance who felt much the same way. My friend Phillip and I had to go for a walk afterward to get our bearings, we were so hammered by the experience. The film is the story of Lulu, a kept woman in 1920s Berlin who seems able to charm any living male and many living females. Lulu’s no seductress or Garbonian vamp: she’s completely delightful in every way, able to make everyone she meets believe that they’re the most important person in the world. Not the least of the seduction jobs Lulu pulls is the one she plays on the audience, as American actress Louise Brooks could seduce the Pope himself. The film charts Lulu’s rise and pretty terrible fall, as well as the rise and pretty terrible fall of those in her orbit. Poor Lulu’s ugly fate is particularly interesting when contrasted with the fate of MANTRAP’s Alverna, who will clearly keep on delighting all those lucky enough to bask in her magical, infuriating, delightful presence. Of course, MANTRAP is a comedy, a film of the light while PANDORA’S BOX is very much a tragedy, a film of the shadows. I think it is a measure of MANTRAP’s accomplishment that I can think of it at the same time as I think of PANDORA’S BOX without feeling that a disservice is being done to either film. A great comedy is the other side of the coin from a great tragedy.