Sunday, July 17, 2011

Phil attends the 16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival: Day Three-July 16, 2011

Hello again and welcome back to day three of my trip to the 16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival here at the Castro Theater! So far this has been an astounding festival, full of new discovers and some classic silent films that I cannot wait to see. So let's talk about today's programs, shall we?

First off, I took my good friend and fellow film blogger Jason to my favorite place to eat in the Castro. Orphan Andy's is the place to eat breakfast and they're known for having the fluffiest pancakes in town! Also try their french toast and their fresh-squeezed orange juice! It is to die for! I eat here every year during the festival, so if you want ever want to have breakfast with me, you know where to find me!

The first program of the day was WALT DISNEY'S LAUGH-O-GRAMS, which featured some very funny cartoons that Mr. Disney made in his garage back when he was still living in Kansas City, Missouri. Having founded Laugh-O-Gram Studios in 1915, Disney, then a commercial artists, began his legacy and by the early 1930's he would become world famous, thanks to a little mouse named Mickey. These short cartoons were inspiring as well as funny. It's interesting to see how Disney's style of animation evolved with Laugh-O-Gram series, and to see how he stared his empire. In the program, several shorts were shown

NEWMAN LAUGH-O-RAMA (1921): Walt Disney appeared in and did the entire cartoon all by himself and basically was a sample reel. Keep in mind that he did the whole thing in his garage! He pitched this to the Newman Theater in his hometown and was accepted. History was made that day.
THE FOUR MUSICIANS OF BREMEN (1922): Four animal friends are on a madcap adventure. After being thrown out of venues (apparently they are not very good musicians) they play their music to catch fish, with little success. But it's hilarious to watch. They also spend their time avoid being eaten by sharks and fighting off what appears to be members of NRA, only they use cannons! Another rare and fun cartoon to see!
LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD aka GRANDMA STEPS OUT (1922): Directed and animated by Disney, Rudolph Ising as well as some of Disney's friends, this was a rare short cartoon and real treat to see.
CINDERELLA (1922): An early cartoon Disney made and the precursor to his animated classic, it was fun to see this early version of the story. Plus it was fun to see Cinderella's fairy godmother turn her into a flapper girl! Disney was keeping it real folks!
GOLDIE LOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS aka THE PEROXIDE KID (1922): This film was originally considered a lost film, but not anymore. Also, when Walt Disney finally became famous, several of his laugh-o-rama cartoons were re-released by other distributors and renamed.
PUSS IN BOOTS aka THE CAT'S WHISKERS (1922): A boy loves a princess and his cat loves the princess' cat. By having the boy by the cat some very stylish boots, the two of them hatch out a plan to win the King's approval.
JACK THE GIANT KILLER aka THE KO KID (1922): A fun film thought to be lost. Jack tells his tale tale about defeating a band of giants. Another film that was renamed.
ALICE'S WONDERLAND (1923): The film features Walt Disney himself, as well as a young child actress named Virgina Davis. Disney gives her a tour of his studio were all kinds of crazy shenanigans happen.

The next program up was one I was very interested in seeing once again. VARIATIONS ON A THEME: MUSICIANS ON THE CRAFT OF COMPOSING AND PERFORMING FOR SILENT FILM was moderated by Jill Tracy and featured several of the musicians that are performing during the festival. This year's panel consisted of Dennis James, Stephen Horne, Mattias Olsson from the Matti Bye Ensemble, Rodney Sauer from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Giovanni Spinelli, and Ken Winokur from the Alloy Orchestra.

Before the discussion began, another "orphan film" was shown, and it was a talkie! MUSIC FOR THE SILENT NEWSREELS (1930) stars a musician sitting at a grand piano explaining the fundamentals and the various types of music that accompanied the Movietone newsreels.

The forum began with Tracy having a clip of the GOOSE WOMAN being shown and having four of the musicians giving their own interpretation of music for it. Donald Sosin played an upbeat melody, Stephen Horne played a dramatic chase theme, Dennis James played a classical, sorrowful piece on the Mighty Wurlitzer, and finally the Alloy Orchestra played it a weird, slapstick piece for the clip. Each one worked  perfectly, and it showcased how music affects a scene.

After the demonstrations, the conversation began, almost similar to last year's discussion. The main discussion/argument centered on once again having new compositions vs. the original musical scores that were written for the films. Dennis James stands firm on the preservation of the original score for the films, and feels that by composing a new score, it disrespects the historical importance of it. Now Dennis has a point, and he was taught this at the very beginning of his career. He first got his big break when he was hired by none other than silent film actress Lillian Gish (BIRTH OF A NATION, BROKEN BLOSSOMS, THE WIND) herself to perform the music for her films. So Dennis is the link between the historical musical scores and the new world of silent film composing. Once again there was a heated debate between Dennis and Alloy's Ken, which was a continuation from last year, but it was far more intense and personal. Dennis then made an analogy about the "art" of graffiti, and that by creating the graffiti on a side of a building, people will no longer talk about the building, just the graffiti. By analyzing this analogy, you are ruining the artist's original vision

Now, this is where it gets tricky, and what I'm about to say is MY OPINION AND MY OPINION ALONE! I am a big fan of Dennis James, and I have seen him perform up and down the California coast. I understand where he is coming from, being an amateur historian myself. However, there always room for everyone who wants to help contribute to the rich silent film legacy. Sometimes I like to hear the original score, sometimes I'd like to hear something more contemporary, but the bottom line is this: doesn't it compliment the film? On DVDs, fans have a chose to chose what they want to hear, to see the film in a different light. If it helps the film, it works for me! Having a more modern or an avant-garde score, like the Alloy Orchestra, is fine with me. Just as long it complements the film! (Those of you who read my blog know that I said something similar to this in my opening night blog)

Before the 2pm program, the festival screened a fascinating orphan film fragment. THE TRIBAL LAW was originally released in 1912 and starred Wallace Reid. Even though only a small fragment of the remains, it is such an important piece of film, given that this a long lost Reid film. Just being able to see this small fragment was incredible!

The next program was THE BLIZZARD, a Swedish silent film that was released in 1923. Directed by Mauritz Stiller and staring Einar Hanson, Mary Johnson, and Pauline Brunius, the film telles the story of a young man who falls in love with a beautiful musician, but he is soon driven to madness by an amazing and astounding reindeer stampede that really must be seen. He is healed back to health and regains his sanity thanks to love and music, provided by his muse.

The film was once considered to be a lost film, thanks in large part because of missing footage. Now it has been restored and it looked marvelous. This was an incredible experience, thanks again to the Matti Bye Ensemble, who, like what they did last night with THE GREAT WHITE SILENCE, tapped into the emotional subtext of the film, and heightened it with their beautiful score. A fantastic film with a fantastic score equals a fantastic program!

The next film to be shown was another film that I have seen at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, but never at the Castro, so I was looking forward to seeing it again. Another plus factor was that it was a new film print. THE GOOSE WOMAN stars Louise Dresser as a down-and-out prima donna who had to give up her career when she had her illegitimate son Gerald (Jack Pickford), and thus losing her voice. She blames her son for lot in life (poverty and alcoholism), but seizes an opportunity for a comeback when her neighbor is murdered and being the only witness thrusts her back into the spotlight. However, it also may also land her son in jail.

Dresseer's performance in the film is quite amazing, and director Clarence Brown became very sought after upon the film's release back in 1925. The film print came from UCLA and once again Stephen Horne provided the musical accompaniment.

Before the 6pm program, a very cute and adorable "orphan film" was shown. The title of 1921's CHUMMING WITH CHIPMUNKS says it all folks. This short documentary (if you can believe that) showcases one man's obsession with befriending a cute little chipmunk by having nuts tied to the end of strings that were tied to tree branches. Yes my friends, it was that adorable!

The next film up is a silent film classic, starring one of the silent era's brightest stars. MR. FIX-IT stars the great Douglass Fairbanks and was released by Artcraft Films in 1918. Before he became known as a swashbuckling superstar, Fairbanks made a series of light-hearted, romantic comedies, that also showcased his athletic prowess. In the film Fairbanks stars as the happy-go-luck Remington who is attending Oxford with his friend Reginald (Leslie Stuart). After 15 years of nor seeing his family, Reginald knows that his rich, snobby family won't accept his fiancee. To help out his friend, Remington goes to visit Reginald's family, but by  posing has Reginald. Soon, Remington is shaking up the household, thanks to his philosophy on life and by also inviting the lovely Mary (Wanda Hawley) and her younger siblings to stay with him at his house.

This was the perfect film for Fairbanks, showing his comedic timing, his unbelievable acrobatic feats, and his romantic side. This was a great-looking film print, courtesy of the George Eastman House. Accompanying the film was the great Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer!

The last film of the night was the centerpiece presentation of the festival. Introduced by film critic Leonard Maltin and film noir czar Eddie Muller (the man responsible for the San Francisco Film Noir Festival), THE WOMAN MEN YEARN FOR was just unbelievable! I won't tell you too much about the film, so let me just say this: MARLENE DIETRICH. That's it! That is the only reason you should see this film! Actually, there are several reasons to see the film. First off, director Kurt Bernhardt did an incredible job on the film. His tracking shots in the beginning of the film were amazing: the camera gives us the audience of a POV shot of the town as we travel along with some of the townspeople. You will notice this style in several of Martin Scorsese's films. The film also boasts advant garde style shots and quick edits of machinery, fascinating camera set ups, and an incredible fight scene at the end. The film was definitely a precursor to the film noir genre that was launched in the 1940's. And of course, Deitrich looked breathtaking as always. The film was released in Germany in 1929.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanied the film and gave a phenomenal performance! Another highlight of the festival.

After the show was over, Jason and I were waiting for the trolley when I ran into Anne Marie Smatla, a friend that I had met at last year's festival. Anne graduated from the L Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and she was here to help promote the 1st Annual Denver Silent Film Festival, to which she is the associate film director of the festival. So to any of you silent film fans, if you are in Denver on the weekend of September 23rd-25th, stop by the King's Center and check it out!

What a day! I was inside the Castro Theater from 9:30 am-10:30 pm! The perfect way to spend a Saturday!! Just one more day left of the festival! If you still want to check it out, there are tickets still available to purchase. Please visit the SF Silent Film Festival's website at

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the show!

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