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July 18, 2006

San Francisco Silent Film Festival - July 15, 2006

I began the first full day of the Silent Film Festival by having breakfast with Michael Guillen of The Evening Class. My partner, Lumena, and I exchanged information about each other and had genial conversation before diving into watching the four films of this day.

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The first film of the day, Bucking Broadway, is John Ford's ninth film. Recently rediscovered, the film shows how several motifs associated with Ford had already been established. One of over twenty films Ford had made with cowboy star Harry Carey, one notices elements that would be revisited thirty years later. Ford was in his early twenties when he shot Bucking Broadway which may explain an even greater discomfort in his portrayal of women, a criticism that would continue through Ford's final film, which ironically was about a group of women. The essential narrative of Bucking Broadway is about Carey as a Wyoming cowhand in love with the ranch owner's daughter. Overcoming an awkward courtship, the pair are to be married until the daughter is charmed by a dude from New York City. The daughter realizes her mistake after moving to NYC. Carey responds to her letter and quite coincidentally finds his sweetheart in the same hotel where he is staying. After a free for all fight between Carey and his fellow cowboys with the city slicker and his pals, Carey is reunited with his now wiser fiancee.

One early scene of Carey shows his trying on a suit in response to his well dressed rival. Carey walks out of the general store and spots a black man in the same suit, appearing more stylish than Carey could hope to be. I'm not sure what the original intent of that scene was, but I wasn't sure whether this character anticipated Woody Strode brimming over with a sense of self-confidence rather than Stepin Fetchit, the comic foil who was often much smarter than he appeared to be. It's suppose to be a minor scene, yet is could be read as suggesting homoerotic envy, something Ford of course would deny yet is suggested by the fact that virtually all of his films are centered on men who are usually seen in the company of other men.

While the narrative is straightforward, there was one use of classic montage. Carey, new to the ways of the big city hearts the hissing of a radiator in his room. Ford cuts to a shot of a rattlesnake to create a visual correlative. A bellhop prevents Carey from shooting the radiator by turning off the steam. It's not Eisenstein or Pudovkin, but it's a stylistic flourish that is unexpected. What should probaby be less unexpected is that a film about the simple but virtuous west versus the corrupt and sophisticated east should be made by a star from the Bronx and a director from Maine.

The screening ended with Harry Carey, Jr. and film historian Jim McBride onstage to discuss Ford and Carey, as well as to sell copies of their respective books on John Ford. There were no revelations shared about Ford, Carey or Carey, Jr. with only time for two questions.

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Au Bonheur de Femme is the kind of film that should be shown more often in illustrating the sophistication of the silent film immediately prior to the takeover of sound. Inspired by Zola, the film is about how big business drives out the smaller entrepreneur, The reason to see the film is because of Julien Duvivier's long, sometimes elaborate traveling shots and Dita Parlo's bee stung lips. Like other French filmmakers, Duvivier reminds us (OK, me) that film was invented to photograph cute young women cavorting in their underwear. There is also a brief montage sequence with a swimmer diving in slow motion, a possible inspiration for Leni Reifenstahl. As a document of what early department stores were like, the film is eye opening. To describe the ending is to imagine Metropolis redone as the dream of of a mega-mall.

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I've never been a fan of Mary Pickford. The closeups of her in Sparrows are a reminder that she was way too old to portray innocent young waifs. William Beaudine's film is so much hokum about a "baby farm" in the swampy South, with Pickford watching over ten orphans, the "sparrows" of the title. The children work on the farm of Mr. Grimes, a Dickensian villain, The film is of interest due to the Gothic set design, with a mishpapen farm house and dark, overgrown swamp with quicksand and alligators. Sparrows may have been a visual influence on Night of the Hunter. The sappy sentimentality and heavy-handed slapstick make this a sub-Griffith exercise that Pickford's feistiness can't rescue.

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The evening ended with Pandora's Box. I am not about to add to what others have written about more ably than me except that Pabst's film is spectacular to see on a big movie screen. I only wish I was less tired after seeing the three earlier films. Especially after the faux 19th Century spirit of Sparrows, Pandora's Box has the kind of characters and intrigue that still are meaningful in 2006. It is quite appropriate that Louise Brooks is the "face" of this year's festival.

Posted by peter at July 18, 2006 12:55 AM

Comments

I'm glad you mentioned the scene with the suit at the general store, which was the most puzzling moment in Bucking Broadway for me. I can't deny one possible interpretation that came into my mind was that a white screen hero like Cheyenne Harry would never want to wear the same suit as a black man. I like your suggestions better, perhaps because I'm predisposed toward Ford and have still not reconciled my relationship to films from the past displaying racial attitudes that would be unquestionably troubling in a film made today. This was the scene I most hoped McBride might address, but clearly there wasn't enough time to go into such detail (the interview went over its allotted time as it was!)

Posted by: Frisco Brian at July 18, 2006 02:26 PM

What a beautiful poster of Pandora's Box!

Posted by: Maya at July 19, 2006 03:44 AM