On February 16, 2013 I had the pleasure to attend the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s Winter Event. This is a one day festival, fully packed with terrific movies this year. From the listed films, only two were new to me: the 1916 Snow Whiteand 1927’s My Best Girl.
The morning began with a breakfast meeting at the Fairmont Hotel, and then off to the Castro to plant myself in a seat and prepare to enjoy the day-long celebration of silent film. Attending in the neighborhood jewel, The Castro Theater is always a pleasure. With the program the festival had lined up, I knew I would be sharing the experience with plenty of like-minded and appreciative audience members, I was not wrong.
The program opened with the Famous-Players Film Corporation 1916 version of Snow White. The film was introduced by J.B. Kaufman. Commercial plug: do yourself a favor and buy his two recent books on the Walt Disney Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Art and Creation of Walt Disney's Classic Animated Film and The Fairest One of All: The Making of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they're beautiful and so well written. J.B. Kaufman is an eloquent speaker and set up the film beautifully. The print was sourced from a restoration by George Eastman House. Accompanied on the piano by Donald Sosin.
The big reveal for me was the delightful performance by Marguerite Clark as Snow White. Clark is one of many what you might call a silent film cipher. A cipher because so little of her work survives that it is impossible to judge her career. Seeing her as Snow White was enough to whet my appetite and make me long for another feature or two to be miraculously located in an archive. She was quite naturalistic and even though there was what might be called the obligatory “bird kissing” scene, she was charm itself. Like her purported rival, Mary Pickford, Clark showed plenty of spunk as Snow White. She was neither maudlin nor ridiculous, for a stage performer, she was very subtle. The film is a recreation of the stage play, in which Clark originally starred on Broadway. Filmed in Georgia, I found the Spanish Moss charming. The handsome prince was a youthful Creighton Hale and he played his part well. He was quite pretty. Dorothy G. Cumming was the evil Queen and the witch was delightfully portrayed by Alice Washburn. While completely different from the animated Snow White we’ve all come to know and love, it’s easy to see why this inspired Walt Disney to use this tale as the basis for his first feature film.
Next up were a trio of Buster Keaton shorts: One Week, The Scarecrow (both 1920) and The Playhouse (1921). All were produced by Joseph Schneck for Metro Studios. The prints were Rohauer-era prints, and as with similar Keaton presentations past at the Festival, quite frankly, the prints could have been much better. This is my only real complaint/caveat. Better source material for Keaton films is out there and I wish we had the opportunity to see them screened that way. This has been a problem in the past for Keaton films, in particular. Buster deserves better!
One Week is a marvelous short in which the groom (Buster) and his new bride (Sybil Seely) are gifted a do-it-yourself house as a wedding present. All they have to do is put the thing together. A rejected suitor causes havoc by renumbering some of the crates and the house ends up not exactly as pictured. Much mayhem ensues culminating in a house warming party that (literally) turns, wild. As if that is not enough, it is revealed they’ve built the house on the wrong lot and have to move it across the train tracks. I won’t spoil the end. ;-)
The Scarecrow was also produced in 1920. It features roomates Buster and Joe Roberts as farmhand rivals in love with the farmer’s daughter (Sybil Seely). The first thing to love is the wonderfully creative setup they have in their little farmhouse they share. Rube Goldberg on a budget and totally creative, lots of surprises! Fast moving, I won’t spoil it if you ‘ve not seen it. It had been a long time since I had and it is now numbered as one of my early favorites.
Last up in the trio of Keaton shorts is The Playhouse. I won’t give anything about this wonderful short away. It’s probably #1 of my favorite Keaton shorts. If you’ve not seen it, Netflix it or watch it online here.
The Thief of Bagdad is unquestionably my favorite of the big budget productions, the “swashbucklers” if you will of Douglas Fairbanks. I’ve seen this film on the big screen several times, at least once previously at the Castro, and it is always a treat for me. Lush and lavish hardly describes it. It is a fantasy film, balletic in nature, epic, stately and not at all boring. It is called by some to be slow moving, but I never find myself becoming bored nor do I find it slow. It is a languid pleasure!
We were treated to a digital projection for this film, the newly restored film, released by Cohen Media on standard DVD and blu-ray. The source material derives from several prints and the film is sparkling. The color tints are consistent with those at the time of the original release. My only caveat was that I thought it might have been a bit soft, might have been focus, or it might be the print. I took a test drive of the blu-ray at home and it looked very nice on my 40” television, clearer than the big screen. The score was performed by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra with liberal quotations from Rimsky-Korsakov at add that dose of orientalism.
With this film, Fairbanks was at the height of his power as a producer and star. He was also likely to have been at his peak in his personal life, he was 40 years old and was he ever buff! Nary an ounce of fat on him and those semi-transparent harem pants made plenty of the audience members swoon with delight. In his introduction to the film, author Jeffrey Vance indicated that Fairbanks drew upon Vaslav Nijinsky as inspiration for his portrayal of Ahmed the thief. His costuming is quite similar to Leon Bakst’s designs for the Diaghilev ballet Sheherezade (of 1912). Fairbanks moved throughout the scenes with grace and lightness, much like a dancer. He was also quite the dashing and romantic thief. In this film, Fairbanks might also have given Rudolph Valentino a run for his money as a screen lover. Audible swoons from the audience as well as the silent swoons of Julane Johnstone!
Speaking of costumes and sets, it is all one big fantasy of an imaginary Bagdad! Adapting what was standing of the castle from the 1922 Robin Hood, the massive sets were decked out and glistening, oversized jars of oils, oversized turbans and minarets. So much silks and satin! The film is a visual feast.
The massive set for Bagdad!
The special effects in the film compared to the CGI of today are primitive. That said, they still give you the illusion of working and the audience, en masse, let out a whoop and cheer when the flying carpet took off. Doug spent the equivalent of a multi-million dollar budget on the film adn the effects and they work to take you into the fantasy. The audience reaction illustrates abundantly the cinematic magic of the film.
I ended the day with Mary Pickford’s 1927 film My Best Girl which was new to me. Pickford has also long been a favorite of mine and I was expecting to be charmed and delighted by this film, and I was. Pickford in an adult, rather than adolescent role, she still exuded the spunk and charm she’s known for. Her portrayal of the stock girl in the department store was genuine and Pickford was canny in the choice of her leading man in Buddy Rogers. They complimented one another very well. It is said you can see them falling in love in this film. I do not see it so much except perhaps Buddy was smitten, and who would not be?
Pickford, never one to be stereotyped if she could avoid it, had a marvelous sequence near the end of the picture in which she (as Maggie) tries to convince Joe (Buddy) that she was playing him for a fool and was only after money. Pickford was a far greater actress than some people give her credit for. Rarely over the top, she nailed this sequence beautifully. That she was a crackerjack, read that to be ruthless businesswoman, she knew what her audiences wanted and in this film delivered in spades.
I was tired and skipped out on Faust, which is another fabulous film. I’d seen it before and felt dinner bells beckoning with visiting friends. It was, all in all, a terrific day. I never tire of spending the day, or during the summer festival several days, sitting in the dark enjoying silent films. I’m so fortunate The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is in my back yard. They do a great job bringing interesting films and terrific musicians to screen cinematic art as closely as it was seen 80-90 years ago. I’m looking forward to Summer 2013 for the Hitchcock 9 screenings in June. These are the existing nine silent films of Alfred Hitchcock restored by the British Film Institute (get your tickets here) and for the regular festival in July.