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July 20, 2006

San Francisco Silent Film Festival - July 16, 2006

I devoted my last couple of days after the festival to enjoying being in San Francisco. Wednesday was spent flying back to Miami Beach where as part of a captive audience on United Airlines, I mostly ignored The Shaggy Dog (Tim Allen version) and Ice Age: The Meltdown. While I was in San Francisco, I had the opportunity to have lunch with Brian Darr of Hell on Frisco Bay on Monday afternoon. I should also note that prior to viewing Seventh Heaven, my partner Lumena made a point of our taking advantage of the free showing of Drawing Restraint at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. There were some interesting moments in Mathew Barney's film, mostly in the pre-credit sequence, but ultimately I feel the film is a weird hybrid of Titanic with Saw.

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Can comedy, that is to say, why something is funny, be explained? All I know is that while the comic stylings of Mary Pickford left me unmoved, Laurel and Hardy almost never fail to elicit a chuckle, and at their best can provoke belly laughs. The three shorts Wrong Again, Liberty and The Finishing Touch were all directed by Leo McCarey and photographed by George Stevens. (Jokes about Oakland aside, no one involved in the Festival made note in any way about Stevens' Bay Area connection.) Each film had at least one great gag, with The Finishing Touch the most consistently funny of the three. One of the earliest teamings of Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy, The Finishing Touch features the visual gag of house builder Stan carrying a very long plank of wood both at the beginning and the end, a gag used in future films. The opening of Liberty shows Stan and Ollie literally in each other's pants, trying to find an appropriate place to change which turns out to be the top of a tall building under construction. The premise of Wrong Again is forced with a horse named Blue Boy confused with the famed painting. There are laughs with Stan successfully coaxing the horse to stand on top of a piano. My previous experience with silent Laurel and Hardy was seeing Putting Pants on Philip, with Stan Laurel in a kilt anticipating Marilyn Monroe's date with an air vent by thirty years. What was remarkable about this screening was that parents took young children, who responded to Laurel and Hardy much the way their parents and grand-parents had. A closing bonus was the screening of a home movie with a much older Stan Laurel playing with Laurel and Hardy marionettes. The marionettes danced and bumped into each other while the puppet master beamed with his inimitable smile.

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My only previous knowledge of Boris Barnet was his appearance in the title role as the Harold Lloyd twin "Mr. West" in Lev Kuleshov's film. Two shots in Girl with a Hat Boxthat would be almost meaningless on a television screen help illustrate why some films have to be seen in 35mm, in a classic theater like The Castro. Walking away from her would-be suitor, only the top of Anna Sten's head is seen in the horizon, the screen made of two fields of white snow against a bright sky. The audience can only see a small black dot that disappears. A couple of shots later, we see the suitor running across on the horizon, a small black figure dashing from right to left. Made during a more open time in the infant Soviet Union, Girl with a Hat Box pokes fun at Soviet bureauocracy, fashion and the state lottery.

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The Unholy Three was one of several films Tod Browning made with Lon Chaney. The film also includes Harry Earles who appeared most notably in Browning's Freaks and Victor McLaglen as a strongman not too disimilar to the role of Gypo Nolan. Chaney can be seen without special make-up or physical contortions through much of the film with the exception of the scenes where he portrays the mother of Mae Busch. A much needed suspension of disbelief is needed with a silent film in which one of the main characters is a ventriloquist, not to mention the presence of a gorilla in the basement of a pet store.

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One of the more disturbing aspects to King Vidor's Show People is to realize how quickly Hollywood became institutionalized in less than twenty years, with its giant studios, bureaucracy and class distinctions. Also shocking was the state of deterioration of the film, with several scenes marred by mottling that resembled tire tracks in the middle of the frame. The film is notable for Marion Davies making fun of herself, an imitation of a Mack Sennett film that shows how quickly Sennett's style was forgotten while mimicking the content, and as one of the more available films starring William Haines. Some of the humor of the cameo appearances has been lost with the passing of time with Douglas Fairbanks remaining more recognizable than such peers as Rod La Rocque and Norma Talmadge. Gags such as Davies being sprayed by a bottle of seltzer water still elicit laughs. Vidor also took time to poke fun at himself as a frustrated director who walks off the set while Davies and Haines remain in embrace after the director yells "Cut".

Before the films were shown, there was a brief presentation by several film archivists and preservationists. What was pointed out was that even with the advent of digital restoration, there are limits to rescuing and restoring film. A demonstration of the work of Haghefilm shows the difficulty in work with volitile chemistry and a variety of film formats such as 22mm. The audience also saw the new film preservation facility built for The Library of Congress. Acknowledgement was also made to the George Eastman House and The Film Foundation. All in all, these presentations were reminders that there is more to film history and preservation than keeping a quality print in a well ventilated vault. Even while some of the films remain more watchable than others, they all had value as remaining examples of silent film as art and entertainment.

Posted by peter at July 20, 2006 05:45 PM