Saturday, July 28, 2012

The King of Kings (1927)

Monday July 30, 7pm, The Paramount, Seattle

The life of Jesus from the conversion of Mary Magdalene to the crucifixion is revealed in beatific splendor.

Directed by Hollywood's master of the spectacle, The King of Kings (1927) featured Cecil B. DeMille's by then standard combination of moralizing melodrama played against dizzying production values, monumental sets, and a cast of thousands. Outwardly expressing disdain for Sunday-school stereotypes, DeMille cast fifty-two-year-old H.B. Warner in the title role, dressed him in flowing robes and bathed him in glowing light, while art directors constructed scenes reproducing the work of 298 old masters. To sanctify Jeannie MacPhereson's anti-Semitic, evangelical Christian with-a-showbiz-twist screenplay, DeMille invited members of the clergy to visit the set, and received the stamp of approval from Will Hayes. Highlights include the spectacular palace of Mary Magdalene, the Calvary tempest and bookending Technicolor scenes.

Grauman's Chinese Theatre held the West Coast premiere for their grand opening, charging $22 a seat!

STG Presents!

Seattle Theatre Group, the Paramount Theater and Trader Joe's present Silent Movie Mondays with Cecil B DeMille's biblical epic The King of Kings, featuring live musical accompaniment performed at the Paramount's original 1928 Publix One 4/20 Wurlitzer by Jim Riggs.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Patsy (1928)

Sunday July 29, 4:00pm, SIFF Film Center, Seattle

"When in Bagdad do as the Bagdaddies do!"

Patsy literally gets the backside of the chicken in her household. She begrudgingly cooks, cleans, and wears hand-me-downs from her sister Grace (Jane Winton). Pat's only comfort is her dear old Dad (Del Henderson), who is equally put-upon.

Marion Davies is tearfully funny as the trod upon younger sister in her first film with director King Vidor, The Patsy (1928). As one of the greatest comediennes of the silent era, this is no great surprise. Quite unexpected on the other hand, is the outrageous performance of Marie Dressler as the girls overbearing mother, a vain and socially posturing doyenne. Davies' role as the youngster, mooning over her sister's boyfriend Tony (Orville Caldwell), her attempts to take his advice and develop a "personality" in order to win the man of her dreams - who happens to be Tony himself - followed by everyone's reactions, and an unforgettable demonstration of mimicry, are utterly priceless.

"After all, a caterpillar is nothing but an upholstered worm."

Seattle International Film Festival presents a celebration of films from the archives of the Library of Congress with W.C. Fields in So's Your Old Man (1926) and Marion Davies in The Patsy (1928), featuring live musical accompaniment performed by Donald Sosin. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Seven Chances (1925)

Thursday July 26, 6:30pm, The Uptown, Seattle

 (Snitz Edwards, Buster Keaton and T. Roy Barnes)

A lawyer appears at the office of two businessmen on the verge of ruin.
 "This man has some kind of a legal paper with him!"
 "Maybe it's a summons!"
On the morning of his twenty seventh birthday, Jimmie (Buster Keaton) learns that his grandfather has left him seven million dollars, providing he is married by seven o'clock on the evening of… his twenty seventh birthday. He immediately proposes to his sweetheart, who turns him down.
"He said he must wed someone, and it might as well be me!"
In a panic, he pops the question to every girl in town and demonstrates why falling asleep in church is always a bad idea.

Beginning with a Technicolor surprise, Keaton's Seven Chances includes the most outrageous chase ever filmed on the streets of Los Angeles, with a heart stopping leap across Beale's Cut. Keep an eye out for Jean Arthur's wedding ring!


Seattle International Film Festival opens their four-day celebration of films from the archives of the Library of Congress with Buster Keaton in Seven Chances (1925) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), with live musical accompaniment performed by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Ben-Hur (1925)

 Monday July 23, 7pm, The Paramount, Seattle

"To be a Roman is to rule the world! To be a Jew is to crawl in the dirt!"

In first century Jerusalem, a Jewish prince is condemned by his childhood friend for a crime he did not commit. His mother and sister are imprisoned and Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro) is cast into slavery. Three years later, a Roman tribune adopts him when he saves his life in battle. With his wealth and freedom restored, Judah seeks revenge on Messala (Francis X. Bushman) as his journey parallels the footsteps of Jesus.

Inherited by the fledgling Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corporation, the creation of Ben-Hur A Tale of the Christ (1925) was as epic as the nineteenth-century best seller on which it was based. Plagued with production problems and a budget nearing four million dollars, Ben-Hur was the costliest feature of the silent era, but the enormous popularity and prestige of the film helped establish MGM as a major studio. Highlights include several breathtaking two-color Technicolor segments and the jaw-dropping climactic chariot race.


STG Presents!

Seattle Theatre Group, the Paramount Theater and Trader Joe's present Silent Movie Mondays with Ramon Novarro in MGM's spectacular production of Ben-Hur A Tale of the Christ, featuring live musical accompaniment performed at the Paramount's original 1928 Publix One 4/20 Wurlitzer by Jim Riggs.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mantrap vs. The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna--Day Two of the SFSFF

Day two of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival ended with consecutive screenings of Victor Fleming’s marital comedy Mantrap (1926) and Hanns Schwwarz's romantic drama The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna (1929). Both films concern love triangles centered around sexually independent women, one ends happily and the other tragically, not only because of the genre, but because of the nature of romantic love in each or rather how the men in each do or do not understand the woman that they love. 

In Mantrap, a New York City divorce lawyer Ralph Prescott (Percy Marmont) travels to Mantrap, Canada for a respite from the predatory women who crowd his office. There, newlyweds Alverna (Clara Bow) and Joe (Ernest Torrence) befriend Ralph. Backwoods trader Joe has recently met the flirtatious ex-manicurist Alverna in Minneapolis and they were “married in a fever.” However, despite the brevity of their courtship and marriage, Joe has a sympathetic understanding of Alverna. He acknowledges that she must miss life in the city. He encourages a friendship between Alverna and Ralph, because he feels the Ralph can provide some sophisticated company for her. Alverna eventually becomes infatuated with Ralph and forces him to take her with him when he leaves for New York.  Joe pursues them.

Percy Marmont, Clara Bow and Ernest Torrence, Mantrap
The runaway couple find themselves lost in the woods after their guide abandons them, taking their food with him. Alverna impresses Joe with her bravery during their travails. Subsequently, he falls in love with her.  Eventually Joe catches up with the pair with gun in hand.  Instead of blasting away, Joe discusses with Ralph what he should do with Alverna. The two men agree she should take a city vacation, but argue about where. Amusingly, Ralph has already fallen out of love with Alverna when a little earlier, she flirted with a would-be rescuer. Ralph had assumed when she displayed her bravery that she had changed, rather than realizing this was simply another part of her. He’s too insecure to love her if she displays sexual interest in another man. Even after she points out her motivation was to get them needed rations, he dismisses her as a flirt.

Alverna does an amusing slow burn as the two men plan what she should do. Finally she takes off on her own with the boat. She’ll do what she wants and not what she’s told. Though younger then the men, she’s still sees herself as a woman and not a child. Joe returns home dejected after her departure. Interestingly, when Joe’s busybody neighbor tries to run down the absent Alverna, Joe defends his wife. Alverna returns to him and their touching but wry reunion scene captures why Alverna has found her perfect man in Joe—it’s quite modern but not cynical. I prefer not to detail the final scene and leave it as a delightful surprise. The film’s available in the DVD set, Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938 from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Poster for The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna (1929)
The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna also depicts a love story, but one in in the traditionally tragic mode rather than in the modern sex comedy genre of Mantrap. Nina (Brigitte Helm) like Alverna, enjoys expressing her sexuality for the pleasure it brings her but will also exploit it to get what she needs (or wants). In Lie, Nina falls in love with a naïve and handsome army lieutenant Michael Rostof (Franz Lederer) and leaves the plush villa (and lifestyle) that her lover/keeper General Beranoff (Warwick Ward) has provided her. Or rather, she is order out of it when Beranoff discovers Michael in the villa the morning after the pair meet. He assumes they slept together. He’s wrong, but he's incapable of seeing thatNina is actually speaking the truth when she explains the couple slept in separate rooms.  

After her expulsion, Nina lives in increasing poverty, her life only brightened by Michael’s visits.  When Michael finally realizes the dire nature of Nina’s economic situation, he determines to help her by gambling.  Beranoff joins the same high-stakes game that Michael has entered at the officer’s club. Beranoff catches Michael cheating and has him sign a confession. He uses the confession to blackmail Nina in to coming back to him. Before returning to the villa, she lies to Michael about why she is leaving him. She tells him that she is sick of living in poverty and will sell what she is giving to him for free. Michael readily accepts her lie, oddly unable to connect Beranoff’s earlier destruction of his confession with her decision to go back to the general. The ease with which he accepts the worst explanation of her behavior seems to indicate that he never truly accepted that she’d been another man's  kept woman, but simply put her past out of his mind. He clearly doesn’t understand the strength of her feelings for him, as he doesn’t comprehend any of the considerable sacrifices she has made for him.
Michael believes Nina's lie

Further tragedy ensues when Nina returns to the villa. Beranoff has disastrously misjudged the depths of Nina’s current feelings for Michael. Possibly if he had simply let nature take its course, she might have come back to him voluntarily, after a brief affair with Michael. While the two share physical passion and a playful rapport, as evidenced by his acceptance of her lie,  Michael doesn’t really understand Nina. This seems to indicate a lack of true connection—the kind that a long term relationship needs to survive and grow. In addition, Michael, though quite attractive, lacks the sophistication and intelligence of Beranoff. How likely is it that the urbane Nina would have stay enamored of him forever? By kicking her out after an unjust accusation, Beranoff provokes the same the same result as the parent that forbids his daughter to see the boyfriend of whom he disapproves. She romanticizes both the man and the relationship. When Beranoff then forces Nina back to him, she becomes fatally despondent.

The lighthearted Mantrap made an excellent prelude to the operatic tragedy of The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna. The questions it teasingly raised about flirtation, sex and love received a more dramatic treatment in the latter film. Interestingly the comedic characters possessed wisdom lacking in the tragic ones. Ultimately, maybe that lack of understanding is what makes for the devastating beauty of tragedy. As Buddha once said, pain in life is inevitable but suffering is not. However, there is something compelling about watching suffering up on the big screen, especially with fine actors, gorgeous art design, stunning costumes and masterful cinematography and editing.

Friday, July 13, 2012

San Francisco Silent Film Festival: Opening Night

Wings (1927)
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival
July 12-15, 2012
Castro Theatre, San Francisco
Director William Wellman on the set of Wings.
The SFSFF got off to a flying start with their opening night screening of William A. Wellman’s Wings (1927)*. This first Academy Award winner for Best Picture tells a fairly simple story, Jack (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen), two small town boys in love with the same girl, Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), enlist in the Air Corps during WWI.  The men eventually bond and face the excitement and horror of air combat together. Meanwhile, the hometown girl that secretly loves Jack, Mary (Clara Bow), joins up with the Women's Motor Corps of America and is stationed in France at the same time as the pilots. The women’s roles and the love story angle are weak; it’s the evolving relationship between the two men that is the most fully developed part of the narration and gives the film emotional depth.

"Buddy" Rogers and Richard Arlen in Wings
But ultimately it’s the breathtaking depiction of aerial combat that make the eighty five year old film more exciting to watch than any contemporary action film.  Director Wellman’s partnership with cinematographer Harry Perry and editor E. Lloyd Sheldon brought to the screen aerial sequences that have never been eclipsed. The dogfights are breathtaking and the affecting use of close-ups puts the audience right into the middle of the action. The sparing use of color also adds to the effectiveness of the combat scenes. The filmmakers tinted the flames shooting out of the machine guns as they fire and from the planes as they are hit—a strong visual shock that conveys the violence of war.

You are there!
Two more factors added to the success of the screening.  The SFFSF showed the fully restored version of the film, funded by Paramount Studios to celebrate their 100th Anniversary. The digital restoration incorporated the original tinting and much of the elements used for it were from a nitrate print. The restored film looks like it was shot yesterday and captures the incredible visual sophistication of silent films of this period.  The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s fine accompaniment was partnered with outstanding Live Foley, created by Ben Burtt and Rodney Sauer. Their team of effects artist used an array of “instruments”, from the traditional thunder sheet to bicycles, to reinforce the feeling of immediacy in the action sequences. Particularly effective was the choice to stop playing music and use the Foley exclusively during the first dog fight sequence. Hearing only the roar of the engines, the machine gun fire, and other sounds of aerial combat was incredibly effective.

*If you can, please forgive the terrible pun.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

L'Argent (1928)

Monday July 16, 7pm, The Paramount, Seattle

Gekko à la Bourse

An unscrupulous banker battles for dominance on and off the floor of the Paris Stock Exchange. In a scheme to save his failing business, Saccard (Pierre Alcover) exploits celebrity aviator Jacques Hamelin (Victor Henry) by financing his solo transatlantic flight, then manipulating stock and Hamelin's fragile wife, when false rumors of the flier's death are reported.

A cautionary tale of fraud, corruption and the evils of money, L'Argent (1928) was based on Émile Zola's original 1890 novel and brought to the screen by director Marcel L'Herbier for the princely sum of five million francs. With a dizzying combination of complex camera-work, editing, monumental set construction, locations including Le Bourget Field and the Paris Bourse, L'Herbier's epic also included a literal cast of thousands. Standout performances feature Brigitte Helm as the slinky femme fatale, Mary Glory as the forlorn Mme. Hamelin and Alcover as the greedy whirlwind who goes down fighting.

STG Presents!

Seattle Theater Group and Trader Joe's present Silent Movie Mondays and the luminous Brigitte Helm starring in L'Argent, featuring live musical accompaniment performed at the Paramount's original 1928, Publix One 4/20 Wurlitzer organ by Jim Riggs.

The Cameraman (1928)

Sunday July 15, 7:30pm, The Castro, San Francisco

"I'm a photographer. Could I get a job here?" "Get a job here … with that cocktail shaker?"

The Cameraman marked Buster Keaton's move to MGM in 1928, and the loss of creative control that would lead to his eventual decline from stardom. In spite of this, it remains the ultimate refinement of Keaton's work in silent features, containing his best collection of comedy set pieces within a complex scenario. The Cameraman was also the last time Keaton performed the reckless physical stunts he'd become famous for, which the studio saw as an unreasonable risk to their valuable star.

Buster wanders the city streets with camera and tripod making tintypes for ten cents. In the crush of a tickertape parade he spots lovely Sally (Marceline Day) and is instantly smitten. Keaton possessed the charming ability to express romantic infatuation as though he was hypnotized. As he poses Sally for the photo, she stands head turned to the side while Buster gazes at her and loses himself in the moment. Later, as he waits in the office of the newsreel service where she works, he dreamily peers over his photos and bats his drowsy eyes at her while Sally looks back at him sweetly. His corny slight-of-hand coin trick to impress her seems to say "Oh that was nothing!" In Keaton's hands it becomes a beautifully expressed and touching sentiment. Throughout his career Keaton typically played modest characters, intent on winning the heart of a girl by the use of endearingly pathetic gestures and flourishes, while the actual 'gags' would be seen as accidents of circumstance, often with spectacular results. As Buster takes Sally on a date, they attempt to board a double-decker city bus, but a surging crowd separates the two, with Buster being forced to the upper level while Sally remains below. As it moves down the street and they finally locate one another, Buster climbs down the outside of the bus and sits on a rear wheel fender to be near her. A big bump bounces Buster onto the street, he regains his wits, and chases after the bus, hopping once again onto the fender as they speed along. Keaton's character seems oblivious to any physical danger, blinded by his need to be with and please the girl. When in the end, he ultimately saves Sally from drowning his own peril is never considered. His rival guiltily takes credit for the rescue, leaving Buster alone on the beach, heartbroken with only his camera and an organ grinder's monkey.

Among the brilliant comedy routines featured in this tour de force: A baseball game in pantomime at Yankee Stadium with Buster playing every position, including the umpire! To pay for their date, Buster nearly demolishes his room breaking open a dime bank, then proceeds to scatter the fist full of coins when he removes them from his pocket. Sally's close-up reaction is priceless! After the bus ride, he takes her to a public swimming pool. Buster and another man attempt to disrobe in a three-by-three foot dressing room with hilarious results. "Will you keep out of my undershirt?" As she walks alongside the pool in her swimsuit, Sally is swarmed by overly attentive young men. When Buster finally emerges he has somehow been given absurdly over-sized swimwear. Forced to compete for her attention, he loses his suit when he jumps off the high dive, a routine repeated countless times by others after Keaton. Running gags throughout the film include constant collisions with the same beat cop who's convinced there is something wrong with Buster. "I'll try your reflexes to see of you're goofy." The monkey he appears to have accidentally killed springs back to life and clings to Buster throughout the rest of the picture. In one scene Buster cranks away on his camera, filming a gang war in Chinatown, while the tiny monkey in a sailor suit cranks away on a machine gun!

Keaton was also well known for his effective use of props in outrageous sight gags. The motorcycle in Sherlock Jr., the enormous ladder in Cops and the tiny gun in Go West are a few. In The Cameraman, Keaton's constant companion is the large and ungainly camera and tripod that virtually becomes another character with a mind of it's own. He stumbles over and into it, inadvertently knocks the cop unconscious with it, uses it to engage the girl and manages to break the same window with it repeatedly throughout the film.

Buster is a hopeless romantic, regardless of what it may cost him. His finances, social status and personal dignity are always on the table. And yet, he is shy and his desire is initially hidden from Sally, revealed only to the camera when she's not looking. Buster usually found a way to win the girl over by the final reel. Of course in Go West, the girl was replaced by a cow,

The 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, The Exploratorium and The California Film Institute present Buster Keaton in The Cameraman, with live musical accompaniment performed by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Never Silent

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival
July 12-15, 2012  
Castro Theatre, San Francisco

“Silent film” is a misnomer. Although the films created before the advent of the “talkies” didn’t have a synchronized soundtrack, they were accompanied by live music, sometimes sound effects and even narration. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has selected a varied collection of musical artists to bring to each screening a substantive accompaniment that will complement and amplify the visuals of each film.   By choosing artists who utilize both traditional and innovative accompaniment, the festival highlights the diversity of its programming.

Organist Dennis James takes a bow at the SFSFF 2011 Winter Event
An organist coaxing an astonishing variety of music and sounds from a pipe organ is probably the most traditional accompaniment for a silent film (or at least the most familiar to modern audiences). Musician Dennis James embodies this archetype. Hearing him passionately accompany a lush Hollywood blockbuster on the Castro’s Mighty Wulitzer transports the viewer to the golden age of silent films when movie palaces possessed magnificent built in organs. James employees the technique and music of the film’s period and, when possible, uses the musical score sent out by studios with the film’s print to the theatres.  Appropriately this year, James will accompany Ernst Lubitsch’s biblical epic, The Loves of the Pharos (1922) and Fred Niblo’s The Mark of Zorro (1920) starring the irrepressible Douglas Fairbanks.

The solo pianist playing a prearranged or improvised score was, and still is, another common style of accompaniment for silent films. The gifted silent film pianist is able to modify his style to match the tone of the film he’s accompanying and to bring to each scene music that deepens the emotion of the action. This year’s festival includes the return of two outstanding pianists, Donald Sosin and Stephen Horne. Sosin, who also scores silent films for archival prints and DVD release, will display his musical agility by playing for two stylistically divergent films.  He will accompany Sun Yu’s Little Toys (1933) set during the political turmoil of China in the 1920s, as well as Josef von Sternberg’s gritty Docks of New York (1928), an important antecedent to film noir.

Similarly Horne, the BFI’s house pianist, will accompany a trio of dissimilar narratives. He’ll accompany Victor Flemings high-spirited Mantrap (1926), William Beaudine’s adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s dramatic romance The Canadian (1926) and the original screen adaption of Stella Dallas  (1925) directed by Henry King. Horne often turns his solo performances into ensembles with his impressive ability to simultaneous accompany his own piano playing with the flute or accordion.

Pianist Stephen Horne accompanies himself on the flute at the Cheltenham Film Festival
In the silent era, larger movie houses often employed ensembles, and even  orchestras, to provide film accompaniment.  Two ensembles, with quite different styles, will be featured this year. The Swedish based Matti Bye ensemble will present a fresh score to the newly restored print of Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s expressionistic masterpiece Pandora’s Box (1929), starring the iconic Louis Brooks. They will also accompany Mauritz Stiller’s Erotikon (1920), an apt choice as ensemble leader Bye scored the film for the Swedish Film Institutes restoration.

The second ensemble, a quintet of Coloradans, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, has a different approach to scoring. Instead of creating a completely new score for their accompaniment or using a studio score, the group compiles their scores from period music, a technique use by ensembles as well as pianist and organist during the silent era. Mont Alto will provide accompaniment for Hanns Schwarz’ romantic tragedy The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna in which Brigitte Helm (Maria from Metropolis) stars as the eponymous heroine who sacrifices luxury for love.

Employing another technique of the silent era, Mont Alto will collaborate with Foley artist Ben Burrt to bring together music and sound effects for the opening night film, William A. Wellman’s Wings.  On closing night, Mont Alto will play both for Buster Keaton’s final silent film, The Cameraman (1928) and for the short preceding the feature, Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon. During the latter, actor Paul McGann will read the narration that Méliès created for the short, recreating the film’s original style of auditory presentation. During the festival, McGann will also collaborate with Stephen Horne to partner words and music to images. He will read the letters of the explorer Ernest Shackleton during the screening of Frank Hurley’s documentary South. The film depicts the events of Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition to Antarctica utilizing footage shot by Hurley, the expedition’s official photographer.

The Alloy Orchestra hard at work--note the bedpan behind the percussionist.
The Alloy Orchestra will bring another kind of aural twist to the screenings. In addition to traditional percussion, wind and keyboard instruments, they use found objects and electronic instruments to create powerful and almost discordant scores for silent films. Their scores are perfect for modernist films that explored an age marked by political strife and social upheaval. Appropriately, they will accompany an avant-garde adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s nightmarish look at bureaucracy, The Overcoat (1926). In another suitable pairing of film and sound, the Toychestra, an all woman band that implements a variety of toys to create distinctive aural experience, will collaborate with Donald Sosin to accompany the program The Irrepressible Felix the Cat!—a collection of silent Felix cartoons.

Each soloist and ensemble that plays for the festival, whether employing traditional or novel styles and instruments, brings a unique soundtrack to each film.  By combining these live musical performances with pristine 35mm prints of the films and the setting of an authentic movie place, the SFSFF both recreates and expands on the traditional presentation of silent films. Presenting the films in this manner allows the audience to discover the emotional power, artistic majesty and historical importance of silent film.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Sunday July 15, 10:00am, The Castro, San Francisco

"Fear not - their wits are as slow as their blades."

In Old California, an effete member of the aristocracy disguises himself as a masked avenger and rallies his community to overthrow their corrupt oppressors.

 The creation of United Artists Corporation brought greater artistic freedom to all of its founding members. Already an established star, Douglas Fairbanks caused a sensation in 1920 with The Mark of Zorro, the first in a series of costume spectacles that launched an entire genre and defined his contribution to popular American culture. Nowhere is Fairbanks' almost superhuman athletic ability more apparent than the final two reels of this film. Alistair Cooke described the "delicious moment" of crisis when "Doug" pauses to consider his options, a reoccurring theme in The Mark of Zorro, his subsequent films and an essential ingredient in Fairbanksian action-adventure. Marguerite De La Motte as the love interest, with Noah Berry and Robert McKim as the villains, complete the package in archetypal performances.

Where action heroes come from …

In the spring of 1915, Douglas Fairbanks hopped a train and headed west, for Hollywood. Already an established Broadway star, Fairbanks' disdain for "the movies" was satiated by the whopping $2000 a week Triangle Corporation was offering. A man of many hats in his youth, Fairbanks had dabbled in acting, finance, manufacturing and law, tramped around Europe and finally settled back on what he did best to support his wife and child. Prior to 1915, motion pictures and their newly developed technology were held within the iron grip of the patent holders. Actors were viewed as property and on-screen credit was generally avoided. The film companies feared the commensurate salaries that came with star recognition. While his future wife, Mary Pickford began her career in 1909 with Biograph, working in anonymity for ten dollars a day, Fairbanks was becoming a bankable name on the Broadway stage. From his beginning at Triangle, D. W. Griffith saw the thirty-one-year-old actor as an undisciplined disruption. Fairbanks boisterous good nature in the end however, became his making. In his 1940 monogram Douglas Fairbanks: The making of a Screen Character, Alistair Cooke describes the essence of the restless and high-strung, but jovial prankster, "Fairbanks all his life loved this rather elaborate sort of joshing and would often hold up the making of a picture, at considerable expense, to change into costume as alien as possible to the period and style of the picture." Fairbanks never took himself too seriously and found enjoyment in all things. By his third film, a dower and scrutinizing Griffith had seen enough.

Fairbanks was eventually teamed with director John Emerson and legendary Hollywood writer, Anita Loos. Their first collaboration had him leaping from an ocean liner and pummeling a boxing champ to try and get, His Picture in the Papers (1916). The film was a roaring success, and "Doug" was born. He went on to appear in a string of films featuring his athletics and buoyant enthusiasm while a Fairbanksian vocabulary filled with clever eccentricities and ridiculously verbose intertitles, slowly developed. Fairbanks also began working with Griffith protege and renowned Hollywood workhorse, director Allan Dwan in 1916 and they produced ten features together over the next thirteen years.


In The Matrimaniac (1916), the numerous telephone calls between Doug and his girl are connected by a cherubic angel-baby switchboard operator, surrounded by hearts and flowers, who laughs at their happiness and weeps at their misfortune. Reggie Mixes In (1916), features a spectacular brawl with the gangster who has been menacing Doug’s girl Agnes (Bessie Love), while The Half-Breed (1916), has Doug battling a forest fire. In The Americano (1917), Doug single-handedly saves an entire country from a military overthrow. A Modern Musketeer (1917), was the harbinger of Fairbanks’ ultimate mastery of action-adventure. In it, D’Artagnan is seen for the first time as a fantasy, intercut with the modern story. When the Clouds Roll By (1919), begins with title credits featuring images of production crewmembers at work as their names appear. The story includes a bizarre plot to give Doug nightmares by feeding him raw onions, lobster and mince pie before bedtime. The resulting gastric distress is shown as the meal dances in his stomach, then chases Doug through the countryside in his pajamas. His Majesty the American (1919), begins with Doug bursting through the titles to introduce the film. "Gee, folks, I hope you like it!" The Mollycoddle (1920), has Doug playing a monocle wearing eastern dude and ex-patriot from Arizona. A disappointment to the memory of his heroic ancestors, he ends up changing his ways "all for a girl" and the picture finishes with a fight at a Hopi cliff village in which Doug throws Wallace Beery through an adobe wall, after a spectacular landslide, "…some bally fool tipped a mountain on me." By 1919, the stage was set…

Visiting the set of The Kid (1921)

At this point, Fairbanks career, and his place in film history underwent a profound and monumental change. With the forming of United Artists in 1919 by Fairbanks, Pickford, Griffith and Charles Chaplin, a successful attempt was made, to circumvent the distributors insistence of block booking, and also to retain the creative control many other stars were slowly losing within the new studio system. Fairbanks had become increasingly involved in all aspects of his work, from screenwriting to production design, and broke from his contemporary American hero / action-comedy formula to and produce a costume drama, The Mark of Zorro (1920). At precisely the same time Hollywood art direction, camera technology and its ability to present a visual narrative was at its peak, Fairbanks produced a series of films that set the standard for the action-adventure genre. His work from this period is among the most memorable of the late silent era. The combination of Fairbanks popular screen image and athleticism, along with beautifully conceived and executed productions make The Three Musketeers (1921), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Black Pirate (1926), The Gaucho (1928) and The Iron Mask (1929), the most thoroughly entertaining and original films of their kind.

The 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro, with live musical accompaniment performed by Dennis James on the Castro's 4/21 Wurlitzer organ.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Pandora's Box (1929)

Saturday July 14, 7:00pm The Castro, San Francisco


 "Watch out for this girl!"

 With a spate of popular Hollywood films under her belt including The Show-Off (1926), A Girl In Every Port (1928) and Beggars Of Life (1928), Louise Brooks thumbed her nose at Paramount Pictures and broke her contract to star in what would be her two best remembered films, Pandora's Box (Die Buchse der Pandora) and Diary of a Lost Girl (Das Tagebuch Einer Verlorenen), both with German director G. W. Pabst in 1929. They would elevate a great director to near-legendary status, made a cultural icon out of Brooks years later and virtually destroyed the rest of her acting career. Returning to Hollywood in 1931, she was relegated to supporting roles and B movies, before retiring in obscurity less than ten years later.


Based on two plays written by Frank Wedekind, Pandora's Box is the story of Lulu (Brooks), a tempting, amoral beauty no man can resist, usually with tragic results. Pabst created a separate and distinct mood for each part of the story, which follows Lulu from her privileged life as a kept woman, through a disastrous marriage, into fugitive flight and her eventual demise in poverty. The theater sequence with its animated backstage chaos, scantily dressed dancers, acrobats and stagehands, is a dazzling showcase with Brooks as its centerpiece. The arrival of her "patron" Dr. Schoen (Fritz Kortner) with his fiancée sparks sexual tension that is matched only by Lulu's ferocious kicking, screaming tantrum and its erotic overtones. When Lulu and her friends flee Berlin after her conviction at Dr. Schoen's murder trial they find themselves aboard a claustrophobic, smoke filled gambling boat they are soon desperate to escape. Arriving in London, which Pabst shrouds in murky darkness, they languish in the squalor of their hiding place. Pabst' lingering images of Brooks, sparkling in jewels and bursting with energy are the embodiment of pure sexuality on film. Considered too controversial by 1929 standards, Pandora's Box was extensively cut by German censors who objected to elements of pandering, prostitution and lesbianism in the story.

The 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, The McRoskey Mattress Company and Barbara Osheer ProSucia Foundation present Pandora's Box starring Louise Brooks, with live musical accompaniment performed by The Matti Bye Ensemble.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Little Toys (1933)

Friday July 13, 7pm, The Castro San Francisco

Saturday May 26, 2:30pm, The Harvard Exit, Seattle

 "To kowtow before a tiger means to be his food."

An artisan toymaker is forced to leave her bucolic village and move to Shanghai when her husband dies and cheap foreign imports ruin her business. The change has tragic results for Ye Dasao (Ruan Ling-Yu), swallowed up by the violence and anonymity of city life, as she descends into madness.

Released by the Lianhua Film Company in 1933, Xiao Wanyi (Little Toys) was the third and final pairing of the "Great Poet" director Sun Yu and "The Garbo of Shanghai" Ruan Ling-Yu. Sun paints a sentimental portrait of country life with the lyrical imagery of handcrafted toys and masterful choreography of large groups. The jarring transformation to an urban nightmare is propelled by a dogged undercurrent of anti-imperialist propaganda. Of particular note are bookend images of tears on Ye's hands and an innocent image of toy tanks in playtime, which suddenly transports the viewer into the horrific reality of war.

The 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Center for Asian American Media present Sun Yu's Little Toys, starring Ruan Ling-Yu, with live musical accompaniment performed by pianist Donald Sosin.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Wings (1927)

Thursday July 12, 7pm, The Castro, San Francisco

"D'you know what you can do when you see a shooting star?"

Two boys from the same town become pilots in the Great War. They battle the enemy over France and each other over a girl back home. Jack (Charles 'Buddy' Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen) both love Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), while Mary (Clara Bow), the girl next door, secretly pines for Jack and joins the ambulance corps to be near him.

Wings (1927) astonished moviegoers with wide-screen "Magnascope" and breathtaking effects achieved filming the actors in-flight from fuselage mounted cameras. Adding authenticity, director William Wellman, writer John Monk Saunders and Arlen all served as fliers during the War. The United States Army enthusiastically loaned Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation hundreds of aircraft, vast amounts of Texas real estate and an infantry division, over and above their astronomical $2,000,000 budget.

Wings shared the first Best Picture Academy Award with F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927). Roy Pomeroy also won the first Oscar for Special Effects.

The 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents William Wellman's epic of the air, Wings, featuring live musical accompaniment performed by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra with Foley sound effects by Ben Burtt.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Piccadilly (1929)

Monday July 9, 7pm, The Paramount Seattle

"Just imagine the whole place being upset by one little Chinese girl in the scullery."

A failing nightclub owner abandons his star for a beautiful Chinese dishwasher, who becomes an exotic sensation. Shosho leaves her old life behind and blossoms in the spotlight, while bitter, jilted Mabel withers on the vine, setting the stage for a tragic confrontation. Directed by a cornerstone of Weimar cinema, the great E. A. Dupont, and exquisitely photographed by Werner Brandes, Piccadillly was British International Pictures "…most expensive and prestigious production at the time." Featured performers include Thomas Jameson as Valentine the amoral boss, Gilda Gray as his faded star, Cyril Ritchard as her fawning partner and Anna May Wong in a dazzling role as the drudge turned star who saves the Piccadilly Club. Charles Laughton's cameo as a drunken, temperamental patron is memorable. In spectacular fashion, Piccadilly exposes the seedy underbelly of nineteen-twenties nightclub life, from the box-office to the scullery, and the fish rots from the head down.


STG Presents!
Seattle Theatre Group, the Paramount Theater and Trader Joe's present the return of Silent Movie Mondays with E. A. Dupont's Piccadilly (1929), starring Anna May Wong, featuring live musical accompaniment performed at the Paramount's original 1928, Publix One 4/20 Wurlitzer organ by Jim Riggs.