A Reel Odyssey: I’ll Be Covering 4 Film Festivals in 3 Months

hildy

Now, how do I download the TCMFF app on a typewriter?

You can mark down 2015 as the year when I officially (and inevitably) lost my mind. And so early in the year, too.

I have somehow managed to sign myself up for 4 classic film festivals in the next 3 months.

Yes, I’ll spend more time in dark rooms with eccentric, potentially hostile strangers than a character in a film noir. Joking! Actually, classic movie fans are some of the friendliest, most endearing people out there. Just don’t unwrap candy during a screening. Unless you’ve got a death wish.

But, hey, loving movies means never regretting the decision to devote whole paychecks to watching marathons of obscure films without bathroom breaks or proper meals. Isn’t that right, brother and sister cinephiles?

I’ll be covering each of these festivals to varying degrees on this blog and on my social media channels, i.e. perilous holes in time:

  • Twitter (where I spend most of my misbegotten time)
  • Tumblr (where I keep my GIFs)
  • Instagram (where I go to see the world through hipster glasses)
  • Facebook (where I go when I have nothing better to do, which is often)
  • Google+ (where I could post a complete print of London After Midnight and nobody would notice)
  • Vine (I succumbed to peer pressure, okay?)

Without further ado, here’s my beat for the next few weeks… and won’t I be feeling beat at the end of them.

Cinefest 35 – March 19-22 – Syracuse, NY

The festival: This epic geek-out mostly screens ultra-rare silent movies and early talkies—you know, the kind with not a single IMDb review—on 16mm at a hotel convention center.

I’ll be making my first trek to the extravaganza… and also, sadly, my last. The Syracuse Cinephile Society has announced that, after this festival, the 35th, they will stop organizing mylipsbetraythe annual event. However, Cinefest promises to go out with a bang. They’ve put together a dazzling program of rarities and invited a stellar roster of accompanists, including my friend Jeff Rapsis, to score the silents.

What I’m most looking forward to: The surprises! I hadn’t heard of most movies on the schedule and can locate little to no information on them. As I discovered at Capitolfest, a mind-blowing number of good-to-brilliant movies have slipped through the cracks of movie history. Once seen after years of neglect, these buried treasures sparkle all the more stunningly.

The festival’s offerings in the pre-Code dames department sound particularly alluring. We’ve got Second Floor Mystery (1930) with Loretta Young, Once a Sinner (1931) with Dorothy Mackaill, Men on Call (1931) with Mae Clark, and a Fox musical My Lips Betray (1933), starring Lilian Harvey whom I found so beguiling in My Weakness at Capitolfest.

syntheticsinIn addition to a bunch of lesser-known silents, a few high-profile pictures have caught my attention, including the recently rediscovered Colleen Moore vehicle Synthetic Sin (1928) and the supposedly superior silent version of Harold Lloyd’s profitable but clunky first talkie Welcome Danger (1929).

A wide assortment of film and ephemera dealers gather to sell their wares at Cinefest, so I’ll sift through the goodies and pick out a few choice souvenirs.

What you can expect: A nice long write-up (or several) synopsizing and evaluating the obscure movies on the program—no doubt including a passionate plea to get some of them on DVD.

TCM Classic Film Festival – March 26-29 – Hollywood

The festival: It’s basically old Hollywood fantasy camp. I mean, last year I saw Maureen O’Hara, got to ask Margaret O’Brien about Meet Me in St. Louis, and heard Mel Brooks tell an anecdote about Cary Grant—all during the first day!

steamboattcmffTurner Classic Movies brings together film industry legends, great cinema, historic venues, and droves of ardent film fans for a 4-day lovefest. If you consider TCM a lifestyle choice, as I do, it doesn’t get better (or more emotional) than this.

What I’m most looking forward to: The TCM team has really outdone itself this year both with the range of programming and the wattage of the special guests. I plan to devote an entire post to the films and discussions I’d like to see but here are my top 5 screenings for now:

  • Reign of Terror (1949) – with 100-year-old Norman Lloyd in attendance.
  • Gunga Din (1939) – on 35mm, introduced by a witty and knowledgeable duo of Oscar winners, special effects man Craig Barron and sound effects editor Ben Burtt, as part of the “Academy Conversations” series.
  • “The Return of the Dream Machine” – 35mm prints of pre-1915 films shown on a hand-cranked projector? A dream indeed!
  • Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) – with Carl Davis conducting his own original score for a world premiere restoration.
  • Boom! (1968) – in which neurotic, windblown dowager Liz Taylor coerces gigolo-poet Richard Burton to kiss her in exchange for a cigarette. Any movie John Waters calls “the other side of camp” must be worth watching. In fact, this sounds so richly satisfying that I myself might need a cigarette break when it’s over. And I don’t even smoke. I am all in for this midnight screening.

boomIn addition to the movies, I plan on reconnecting with my #TCMParty friends (and meeting some new ones) while sobbing into our Junior Mints over cathartic weepies. If you sit next to me during Queen Christina, it’s gonna get real.

What you can expect: A near-constant stream of updates on social media, hysterical fangirling, and transcriptions of interviews with old Hollywood luminaries. I may be insufferably happy for weeks afterwards.

This year I was also given a special opportunity: I’m helping to promote the festival as a social producer (antisocial producer wasn’t available, alas).

This means that I’m co-running the official TCMFF Tumblr with the talented Marya of Cinema Fanatic! Please check out the Tumblr and follow for festival-related pictures, GIFs, and updates.

Toronto Silent Film Festival – April 9-14 – Toronto (surprising, right?)

finalpc-luluThe festival: A classic film festival with leisurely paced screenings (about one per day) and plenty of time to eat? Is this heaven? No, apparently, it’s just how they do things in Canada. And I’m pleased to be making my first trip to this event and to Toronto itself.

Primarily organized for the city’s thriving cinephile population, Toronto Silent Film Festival screens a selection of silents at area cinemas, as well as at the historic Casa Loma which I’ve wanted to visit for ages.

What I’m most looking forward to: Basically everything. It’s like they wrote down the names of all my favorite silent stars and programmed accordingly: Lon Chaney, Harold Lloyd, Erich von Stroheim, Louise Brooks, and Mary Pickford. What more could I possibly ask for?

Well, I guess I could ask to get there a day earlier—I’m devastated that I’ll miss the screening of Diary of a Lost Girl. I do have to work sometimes. However, I refuse to get all glass-half-empty about that.

safetylastErich von Stroheim at his most leering in Blind Husbands, Lon Chaney at his most dastardly in The Penalty, and Harold Lloyd at his most iconic in Safety Last will all assuage the heartache of my lost chance to see Lost Girl.

Best of all, Toronto will celebrate its biggest little home-grown star with a 100-year-old Mary Pickford film, Mistress Nell, and rare newsreel footage of America’s (Canadian-born) Sweetheart.

What you can expect: Maybe a festival write-up, maybe specific reflections on seeing certain movies on a big screen with live accompaniment. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Nitrate Picture Show – May 1-3 – Rochester, NY

nitratepictureshow

The festival: No, it’s not a film festival in my honor. (I know, I was disappointed, too.) At this intimate gathering, 500 attendees will savor the rare privilege of watching classic movies on lustrous 35mm nitrate prints from the George Eastman House’s collections and other vaults around the world.

Billed as “the world’s first archival festival of film conservation,” the event will even hold workshops on the composition of nitrate stock. It’s enough to make a nerd like me positively combust with joy.

astarisbornWhat I’m most looking forward to: Here’s the thing… the titles won’t be made public until the attendees arrive. Only the opening night movie—A Star is Born (1937), introduced by the director’s son, William Wellman, Jr.—has been released.

The Eastman House has also announced that my personal hero Kevin Brownlow, the patron saint of film preservation, will give a talk. I don’t presume to understand the bewildering ways of the modern world, but I suspect that this is sort of the film geek equivalent of, say, a Beyoncé concert in terms of sheer idol worship on my part. I think I might cry.

What you can expect: Gosh, probably a volume of lyric poetry evoking the shimmer of film projected from nitrate. Plus, you know, lots of ecstatic tweets and a blog post or two.

So, if you’re attending any one of these festivals, keep on the look out for a lanky brunette with a wicked jaw… named Nora (Yes, really.) and please say hello!

Just don’t unwrap candy in the screenings—or I’ll go ballistic.

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5 Movies Announced for TCMFF 2015 (Plus 5 Films I’d Love to See There)

julieandrewsThe blogosphere is abuzz with The Sound of Music!

On January 20, TCM announced that the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood will open with Robert Wise’s beloved musical. With its tense pre-WWII backdrop, the choice is not only a crowd-pleaser, but also an apt reflection of the festival’s theme: “History According to Hollywood.”

And, if that news didn’t already get movie-lovers belting out show tunes, living legends Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer will attend the opening-night gala screening.

A major box office success upon its release in 1965, the lavish adaptation of Rogers and Hammerstein’s hit celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Twentieth Century Fox will release the ever-popular film in a special Blu-Ray edition this March; the recent digital restoration slated for screening at TCMFF promises to be an exquisite one.

Relatively few festival titles—all of them world premiere restorations—have been announced at this point. However, I have full confidence that TCM’s expert programmers will select more terrific films than even the most tireless movie buff could possibly watch in a few days!

January 23 – UPDATE! TCM just announced that a restoration of The Grim Game (1919), a silent action thriller starring illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini, will screen at the festival.

In a press release, Charles Tabesh, the network’s senior vice president of programming, expressed his excitement over the long-unavailable classic: “The discovery, restoration and screening of The Grim Game is the perfect embodiment of the TCM mission to celebrate our cinematic heritage and share it with new audiences.”

Best remembered for its amazing aerial sequence, the film incorporated footage captured during a real plane crash. Not exactly good taste, but quite riveting cinema. You can watch that scene below (although please note that this footage is not a preview of the restoration):


Here are the 4 other movies named so far, plus my two cents.

steamboatSteamboat Bill Jr. (1926)

This non-stop laugh riot includes a justly famous cyclone finale—inspired in part by the storm that literally wiped Buster Keaton’s birthplace off the map—one of Keaton’s boldest and most creative action sequences.

The Great Stoneface plays the dandyish son of a gruff riverboat captain who reluctantly joins the competition against a formidable business rival… while wooing the rival’s daughter.

Add a new score by the masterful Carl Davis, who delighted us by conducting his original music for Why Worry? in 2014, and you’ve got a screening I certainly don’t intend on missing!

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

The first film shown at the first ever Festival de Cannes, The Hunchback of Notre Dame also marked the American debut of an astonishingly gorgeous Irish actress called Maureen O’Hara. An underrated director if ever there was one, William Dieterle imbued the monumental adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel with a grotesque, expressionistic ambiance of paranoia.

I wonder if O’Hara, whom I was lucky enough to see at TCMFF last year, might return to the festival in March?

posterSpartacus (1960)

This movie depresses the hell out of me despite its Kubrickian intensity and Laurence Olivier’s weirdly erotic speech about oysters.

That said, some are speculating that 98-years-young Kirk Douglas might show up to introduce the film. If that’s the case, I’ll bring my gladiatorial sparring equipment and fight anyone for a good place in line!

UPDATE 1/29/15—Spartacus will not screen at TCMFF due to “unforeseen circumstances.”

Apollo 13 (1995)

If a movie 5 years younger than me is a classic, does that make me one too? All sarcasm aside, Ron Howard’s film fits nicely with the festival’s theme. Its impressive special effects will provide an interesting contrast to the less high-tech historical recreations of, say, the 1930s and 1940s.

Now, let’s venture into the realm of possibility. I would love to see the following 5 classics on a big screen… and ideally introduced by any of their living stars. Please note that I am not affiliated with TCMFF and these are merely guesses and fantasies on my part.

The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926)

With haunting cinematography Gregg Toland (The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane), this unconventional Western centers on the perils of irrigating a desert. While that might not seem like the basis for gripping cinema, trust me, it is. With the collective beauty of Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, and Vilma Banky, this silent will leave you quite speechless.

Alternate Choice: John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924)—silent Westerns are where it’s at, partner.

colbertThe Sign of the Cross (1932)

What would a festival about “History according to Hollywood” be without the Biblical blood and bombast of Cecil B. DeMille? Most famous for Claudette Colbert’s milk bath, this orgy of sin masquerading as a pious epic contains some of the most shocking content of the pre-Code era. It’s a decadent feast of “wait, did I really just see that?”

This choice is a long shot since Paramount sold the rights to Universal, a studio notorious among movie buffs for sitting on desired titles (and for knocking down historic landmarks). However, Universal has been releasing more and more previously unavailable films on DVD through their Vault Series as well as through TCM, so there’s a chance this perverse religious drama might make its way onto the TCMFF schedule.

Alternate Choice: DeMille’s Male and Female (1919), with its over-the-top Babyonian sequence that spoofs Hollywood historical romances

blackbookReign of Terror a.k.a. The Black Book (1949)

When Anthony Mann of T-Men and Raw Deal takes on the French Revolution, you know you’re in for history, noir-style. The concept of “period noir” sounds implausible—what’s the genre without trench coats and .45s?—but looks great. In this shadowy cloak-and-dagger political thriller, a dashing spy frantically searches for Robespierre’s list of enemies, bound in a black book, which, if passed to the resistance, could end the dictator’s rule.

The stunning Arlene Dahl, who is still with us as of this posting, delivered one of her most complex performances as a resourceful Girondin femme fatale. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to hear her talk about such an underrated classic?

Alternate Choice: The Tall Target, another noirish period thriller helmed by Mann… also one of Robert Osborne’s favorite little-known gems of classic cinema.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Orson Welles would have turned 100 this year, so I’ll be rather bummed if Hollywood’s enfant terrible doesn’t get some screen time at the festival. Mutilated though it was by RKO, Ambersons remains a poignant and historically nuanced portrait of late 19th and early 20th century America.

Alternate Choices: any of Welles’s Shakespeare adaptations—they’re all life-changing and wonderful.

storyofmankindThe Story of Mankind (1957)

My dream midnight screening movie, this trippy entry into the canon of so-bad-it’s-good offers some of the most puzzling casting choices you’ll ever hope to see. Hedy Lamarr as St. Joan of Arc? Yup. Harpo Marx as Sir Isaac Newton? You bet. Dennis Hopper as Napoleon? Oh, would it weren’t so.

Alternate Choice:  I accept no substitute. Seriously, TCM. You own the rights to this one. Indulge me, won’t you?

Are you going to TCMFF? What titles do you hope to see there?

A Reel Treat: Day Three of Capitolfest

reelsonasphaltSifting through folders of vintage movie stills. Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it? Errol Flynn winks up at me. Valentino smolders from a shiny pocket-sized portrait. And Tyrone Power, well, he just looks like Tyrone Power. That’s enough.

Apparently my idea of heaven turns a little hellish when I have to do it under a time constraint. Because there I was, standing in the lobby of the Capitol Theater frantically searching through soon-to-be-dismantled displays of old movie memorabilia on the final day of Capitolfest. I always leave important work to the last minute.

Operating under duress, I managed to score an obscene amount of glossy stills and star portraits at 25 cents apiece—a price that seems to belong to another era as much as the pictures do.

Cherished favorites like Carole Lombard and George Sanders joined my collection, but I’m also pleased to have adopted pictures of Mary Miles Minter and Fatty Arbuckle. Those two need a good home. Best of all, as I write this post my pocket Rudy, in matador attire, pocketrudysmolders down at me from the base of a reading lamp, making its light seem dull by comparison.

I could hardly imagine a more appropriate souvenir of a weekend spent immersed in classic cinema than a packet of old Hollywood glam shots… but I tried to go one better. You see, as I was leaving the theater with my armful of photos, I happened upon film reels from the festival casually lined up on the sidewalk, waiting to be returned to their respective archives. Although I asked quite reasonably if I could take Forgotten Faces home with me, Art Pierce, executive director of the Capitol, politely declined and I respect that.

Now let’s get to the real goodies: the films I saw on the last day of the festival. (If you’re interested, here are my write-ups of day one and day two of Capitolfest.)

Cradle Song (Mitchell Leisen, 1933)

I confess: the thought of a weepy melodrama about nuns raising an orphan girl didn’t really enthuse me when I took my seat that Sunday morning. Consider me a convert now. Since actresses as different as Dorothea Wieck, Louise Dresser, and Gertrude Michael all play nuns, we get to see religious devotion refracted through diverse personalities; there’s wieckno one “right” path to goodness. Not the least bit preachy or dogmatic, this film exhibits profound respect for the wisdom, insight, and compassion of the women at its core.

A meditation on the challenges of raising a child, Cradle Song also reminded me of Ozu’s Late Spring, which is always a good thing. Both films eschew the conflict-driven narratives we’ve come to expect from melodramas in favor of the wistful inevitability of letting a loved one go. The cinematography, lyrical and mobile, yet still reminiscent of an old master painting, adds to the sweetness of this movie’s sorrow.

Bottom Line: A delight. If this is nunsense, it really is habit-forming.

My Weakness (David Butler, 1933)

A peppy piece of musical fluff, My Weakness showcases Lilian Harvey, the British-born star of the German-made international hit Congress Dances, in her first American film. This glamorous confection gives the Pygmalion trope a decidedly pre-Code twist. One of those drop-dead gorgeous jerks that women in 1930s comedies keep falling for, Ronnie Gregory myweakness(Lew Ayres) bets his stingy uncle that he can turn a mousy chambermaid into a successful gold-digger. Low-class Looloo (Harvey) cleans up so nicely that she sets out to win over Ronnie… by seducing every eligible man in his family.

Harvey’s pixie-ish charisma floats the film, but the supporting actors have even more fun (as usual). Henry Travers—whom you know as Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life—is no angel here. That white-haired screen institution eagerly smooches the effervescent Harvey and, aping Mae West, even invites her to “come up and see me sometime”! Charles Butterworth pulls out all the stops on his wimpy Romeo routine as a carrot-nibbling, stamp-collecting dork who, won over by Harvey’s allure, cries out, “Take me!” in one of the film’s most hilarious scenes. Silent clown Harry Langdon presides over the story as a decidedly fey Cupid, rattling off rhymed couplets and bounding hither and yon with his bow.

A collection of uproarious gags also compensates for the lack of originality where the story’s concerned. For instance, the song “You Can Be Had” is sung not by any of the actors, but by a collection of grotesque statuettes, chintzy figurines, and even the pages of a fan magazine!

Bottom Line: I’m still whistling “Gather Lip-Rouge While You May” to myself. What do you know? This movie is my weakness, too.

Pointed Heels (A. Edward Sutherland, 1929)

With its cliché-ridden plot and love-conquers-all denouement, Pointed Heels soothed and satisfied audiences recently smote by the shock of the Great Depression and pulled in a hefty profit for Paramount. From a modern perspective, this backstage musical creaks here and there, to say the least. Phillips Holmes and Fay Wray look so beautiful that we can almost forgive their characters—a composer disowned by his heelswealthy family and the chorus girl who loves him—for their drippy blandness. William Powell fares slightly better as a suave, noble impresario who lusts after Wray, but does the right thing by her in the end. Eugene Pallette adds some much-needed crankiness to the love-fest. Thank goodness for Skeets Gallagher and Helen Kane, who carry off the show with generous helpings of boop-boop-a-doo and whoopee.

I’d seen an incomplete version of Pointed Heels before at the Internet Archive, but a newly-rediscovered two-strip Technicolor sequence excited me. I love this early color process for its unnaturalness, the way it allows you to see the world as through the vivid, askew filter of a fever dream. The minty greens and coral reds left me spellbound.

Nevertheless, when I ponder the color musical number in retrospect, the unimaginative laziness of the camera, plunked down in the audience like a back-row spectator, irks me. We enjoy a few close shots of Fay Wray as Marie Antoinette (a look she’d reprise in Mystery of the Wax Museum), but the point-of-view remains lethargic and uninteresting. In contrast to an imaginative backstage montage earlier in the movie, the color sequence seems perfectly content with its imperfect imitation of a night at the theater, circa 1929. Then as well as now, it takes a while for art to catch up with technology.

Bottom Line: A waste of talent. A. Edward Sutherland directed some fine comedies in his time, but I want to leave these heels on the shelf.

The Shadow of the Law (Louis Gasner, 1930)

Did I miss something? Some other reviews of the festival praised this drama about a fugitive from blind justice, but I found it rather tepid and uninspiring. The best thing about the movie, William Powell delivers a noteworthy, if unusual, performance as a shadowofthelawman-about-town falsely imprisoned for murder. Shorn even of his dapper mustache in the hoosegow, Powell conveys the dehumanization of the prison system with his blank looks of desperation. When he busts of out jail, Powell builds a new life for himself but spares no expense searching for the one witness who can exonerate him. Unfortunately, she’s not the kind of dame who’ll do a good turn for anybody…

Intrigued? Well, the movie didn’t turn out to be nearly as taut and moving as it could have been. After the opening scenes and a hard-hitting courtroom montage, the plot moved forward in fits and starts. Dragged down by an insipid romance, the tough drama collapsed into an abrupt change-of-heart happy ending. Powell still took full advantage of his big coup-de-théâtre in the third act: he plunges his hands into a mangling machine to destroy his fingerprints and elude recapture. He only screamed with his eyes, but that was enough to make my blood run cold.

Bottom line: Bill Powell’s bald lip (not to mention his dramatic gifts) could incite any woman to lobby for justice reform. But not to watch this movie again.

Sharp Shooters (John Blystone, 1928)

This beguiling comedy ended the festival on just the right note. Hunky navy man George O’Brien woos a girl in every port, until he makes an insincere promise to French dancer Lois Moran… a promise that his two sailor friends force him to keep. WWI’s heavyweight champ of the Pacific Fleet, O’Brien easily turns on his snarky, sharpshooters_postermegawatt charm in comfortable territory. With the aid of some luminous close-ups, Lois Moran transforms a character that might have been irritating and clingy into a surprisingly grounded dreamer who could make even most hardened cynic believe in destiny. The stars’ chemistry strikes a perfect balance between glamorous sensuality as only the movies can do it and a more relatable sheepishness.

Well-played running gags stitch the simple rom-com together and shape amusing characters, like the three navy buddies who, whenever threatened with a fight, coordinate to “Hoist pants for action.” Seasoned with doses of humor, romance, and tension, the gossamer love story really floated my boat (pun intended). And, hey, who wouldn’t want to watch a small army of navy mugs do battle with a speakeasy full of scumbags to defend a maiden’s honor?

Bottom Line: Will destiny please reunite me with this movie? I think I’m in love.

A Reel Pleasure: Day Two of Capitolfest 12

reelsI’m not the kind of person who’d get up before 10:00 on a weekend if you were giving out free money. For Capitolfest, however, I arose at 7:00 sharp with a smile on my face, breakfasted with a coven of fellow film geeks, and headed to the Capitol Theater for another round of ultra-rare films. Movies are more important than sleep.

My favorite day of the festival, Saturday also afforded my friends and I the chance to tour the Capitol Theater. Ornamented in neo-Moorish style with some later deco embellishments, the movie palace harbors all sorts of redolent treasures. Vintage seats with built-in hat racks line the upper balcony. A patriotic display on the second-floor lobby urges spectators to buy war bonds. A shift schedule from the 1940s hangs from a cabinet in the projection booth. It’s time warp in the best sense.

Although the theater plans to accommodate digital in the future, screening 35mm prints for audiences is a top priority for the Capitol team. Up in the projection booth, Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the theater and general fountain of cinema knowledge, demonstrated the inner workings of the Capitol’s carbon-arc projector. Arc lamps, emitting light from extremely hot carbon electrodes, illuminated motion pictures during projection for the first half of the 20th century. As Theakston explained, “I like the fact that we’re running movies in the format they were originally seen in. We’re a movie theater and an entertainment showcase, but we’re also a museum since we present these films in a historically accurate fashion.”

arc

A visit to the Capitol Theater reveals that the value of film as a tangible thing extends far beyond nostalgia. On the contrary, whenever the screen darkens slightly with a projector mishap or a reel countdown interrupts the story, we’re reminded of the tenuous mixture of art and technology bound up in filmmaking. Not only does 35mm look better, but the materiality behind the images—strips and reels and “cigarette burns” in the upper right-hand corner of the screen—also brings us back to André Bazin’s concept of film as the fingerprint of reality. When I pop a DVD or Blu-Ray into a player or tune into a stream of images online, it’s easy for me to mystify classic Hollywood and avoid thinking of the sheer man hours and effort that went into producing, distributing, and exhibiting old movies. Something about seeing the flicker on a big screen teaches you respect for all that toil and trouble, whether you’re aware of it or not.

Without further ado, here are the features I saw at Capitolfest, part II. Click here to read part I.

The Czar of Broadway (William James Craft, 1930)

On the surface, this Universal gangster drama reheats one of the stalest dishes on the pre-Code menu: a ruthless gangster’s young protégé falls for the boss’s moll (Betty czarCompson) and ends up betraying his mentor in crime. However, the devil’s in the details—and speaking of devils, Czar‘s titular gangster (John Wray) added a pulpy, deliciously over-the-top idiosyncrasy to his character with bouts of diabolical giggling. This mobster’s so organized that he sells life insurance policies to his victims before he has them whacked. Pretty neat, huh?

A fashion-obsessed gay hit man and the close bond between the gangster and his friend endow the film with unusually upfront homoerotic overtones. Plus, this splendid rarity busts the myth that early talkie cameras couldn’t roam if they wanted to. Numerous restless camera movements and a fantastic shot of a poker game—through the bottom of the card table—distract you from the fact that this movie was probably made for a song on recycled sets.

Bottom Line: A killer-diller entry into the canon of 1930s gangster movies. I wish you all could see it.

High Treason (Maurice Elvey, 1929) 

What if an eccentric, monocle-wearing British inventor/politician wrote a futuristic epic as a vehicle for his own singular views on militant pacifism? We don’t have to wonder, actually, because Noël Pemberton-Billing penned the story of this whacky sci-fi drama, set in 1940, about the necessity of stopping future world wars. You can see clips of the original silent High Treason in the excellent documentary Silent Britain, but Capitolfest projected the talkie version, the first all-talking movie shot in Britain.

treason

Now, I’m a sucker for cult movies, so I lapped this up—clunky dialogue, metallic cloche hats, swagged-out jet-cars, and all. Britain’s answer to Lang’s Metropolis, sadly High Treason doesn’t come close in terms of quality. It does, however, feature an extended scene of Benita Hume’s scantily clad ablutions in a Flash Gordon-ish deco bathroom, which ought to keep anyone happy. The anti-war message and an apocalyptic bombing montage struck me as startlingly modern. And, hey, Billing predicted Skype, TV as we know it, and the Chunnel. In fact, during the film’s finest sequence, a nail-biting, Hitchcockian piece of suspense, a hidden bomb planted by terrorists ticks away and finally explodes the underwater train to Kingdom come. Unfortunately, the stilted performances brought the movie right back to the dawn of the talkies. Is this the future? Um, it’s the future of the past.

Bottom Line: Part ludicrous, part prophetic. Imagine the bastard child of Fritz Lang and Ed Wood and you won’t be far off.

Morals (1921)

Directed by William Desmond Taylor, better known today as a murder victim than as a highly respected filmmaker, Morals won me over with the vivacity of its heroine and the comic stuffiness of its hero. A British orphan raised in a Turkish harem, Carlotta (May McAvoy) flees from an arranged marriage and, through a chance encounter, becomes the ward of Sir Marcus (William Carleton), a curmudgeonly British noble. Vexed by Carlotta’s excitable disposition and her foreign customs, he sniffs, “I don’t believe that her father was a British Vice-Consul. I think he was Satan!”

coupleBefore you can say “meet-cute”, Sir Marcus has grown accustomed to Carlotta’s face, but will he have the courage to profess his love before one of his backstabbing friends wrecks their relationship? Puckish McAvoy walks a fine line between adorable and annoying, but carries it off swimmingly, especially with the counterbalance of Carleton’s cynical Sir Marcus. Given William Desmond Taylor’s notorious liaisons with younger women, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he could lend credibility, not to mention humor and tenderness, to a May-December romance onscreen.

Bottom Line: An unanticipated highlight. So many silents—even the ones we haven’t necessarily heard of—are golden.

Steady Company (Edward Ludwig, 1932)

My least favorite movie of the whole weekend, this noncommittal programmer romance set against the world of boxing would take a dive in the first round if not for the miraculous likability of two character actors. As the heroine’s best friend and fellow switchboard operator, Zazu Pitts demonstrates her talent for bone-dry comebacks. Hit on by one of those ubiquitous Depression-era creeps, she drolly replies, “I’m sorry, but your line is out of order,” and turns back to her switchboard. Henry Armetta, the most Italian Italian in the history of Hollywood, steals his share of scenes as a cuddly old cobbler. The unflinching ferocity of the boxing ring scenes stood out, but a saccharine conclusion majorly undercut the movie.

Bottom Line: Didn’t pack enough of a punch for me.

Forgotten Faces (Victor Schertzinger, 1928)

I appreciate and praise all kinds of movies for all kinds of reasons, but movies that blow my mind on pretty much every level come along only once in a blue moon. They are rare. They are precious. This, folks, is one of them. In my opinion, it belongs in the pantheon of great silent movies.

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Gentleman thief Harry ‘Heliotrope’ Harlow (Clive Brook) comes home from a heist one night to find his wife Lily (Olga Baclanova) in bed with her lover. Harry shoots the other man and, not wanting his infant daughter to be raised by her wicked mother, secretly entrusts the baby to a rich couple who’d recently lost their child. Leaving his sidekick Froggy (William Powell) to watch over the girl, Harry turns himself in. Fast forward 20 years: Lily discovers her daughter’s new identity and threatens blackmail. After winning release from prison, Harry vows to stop his spouse’s plans at all costs… while keeping his promise to the prison warden not to lay a hand on her.

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Though the plot might sound needlessly contrived, Forgotten Faces exemplifies the unrivaled art of silent movies in their final flush. It uses the film medium to the fullest, evoking both the seen and the unseen to draw out the audience’s emotions. Even the lack of sound, theoretically a disadvantage, bends to serve the film’s aesthetic—for instance, a key gunshot, unheard by the audience, lends an eerie stillness to the murder scene. Expressive, fluid camera movements gracefully tell half the story with jaw-dropping long takes that echo the exacting elegance of its protagonist.

I can barely scratch the surface of this movie’s brilliance in a paragraph or three and hope to devote an entire post to it soon. Stay tuned.

Bottom Line: Hey, Criterion Collection—get on this, will ya? Forgotten Faces has been forgotten for too long. Far and away the best of the program.

Laughter in Hell (Edward L. Cahn, 1933)

If I were a little 1930s shop girl or factory worker who toiled ridiculous hours all week, I wouldn’t want to see Pat O’Brien being beaten and whipped on my day off. As much as I’d like to assume the condescending tone of a contemporary highbrow and start whining about how this movie didn’t get the respect it deserved in 1933, I can understand why. My inner mogul shrugs and thinks, well, ambitious as it is, commercial it ain’t. 

hellLaughter in Hell stands as a testament to harsh social criticism that pre-Code movies could pull off. I consider it even more daring and ambiguous than I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, not least of all because our protagonist really is guilty of a double homicide. And, as the film shows, even he doesn’t deserve the inhuman punishment of a southern chain gang. Too strong for its era—and maybe too strong for many people today—a horrific lynching sequence hits you with all the impact of a martyrdom shot in real time, the visual equivalent of “Strange Fruit.”

Bottom Line: It hurts and it should. Concession stand candy will be needed to sooth your nerves.

A Reel Joy: Day One of Capitolfest 12

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William Powell, featured star of Capitolfest 12, in a still for “Ladies’ Man”

The good news: there are more quality classic films out there than even I suspected. The bad news? Well, let’s just say they can be mighty elusive.

But, hold on, there’s still more good news, because each year a cozy festival in Rome, New York screens some of the rarest films on the planet. A small, but passionate crowd of spectators settles into the seats of a vast 1928 movie palace, the lights go down, and films unseen for decades flicker up on a huge screen.

Out of the 17 features on the festival’s roster, I was familiar with only two of them. Nearly all of the obscure films surpassed my expectations. From zany curios to one bona fide masterpiece, the program showcased a range of stimulating movies that renewed my faith in early Hollywood’s ability to surprise and delight me (not that I ever really doubted it). Capitolfest confirmed that I’ve only been chipping away at a single vein of classic cinema: commercially available movies. Meanwhile, there’s a whole cache of obscure, but exceptional films waiting to be to rediscovered.

This year marked my first pilgrimage to Captolfest. Needless to say, I’m hoping it won’t be my last.

I had the good fortune to share the experience with two wonderful bloggers, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Annmarie of Classic Movie Hub, as well as my extraordinarily understanding mother (@MiddParent on Twitter). I also got to meet Beth of Spellbound by Movies, who flew in from San Francisco for the festival, and Shirley and Mark of the Toronto Silent Film Festival. You really ought to check out their respective blogs and sites, if you haven’t already.

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Me, Aurora, Annmarie, and Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the Capitol, in the theater’s projection booth.

As I struggled to condense my opinions about Capitolfest, it occurred to me that all of the movies deserved at least a few lines. I couldn’t stop myself from writing a mini-review of each. One of my favorite aspects of the program, the abundance of short subjects almost made me believe that I really was sitting in a movie theater circa 1930, gearing up for the big feature or double bill. However, if I wrote about every newsreel or Vitaphone morsel that I saw, you’d be reading a three-volume treatise instead of a blog post (although I realize that, with me, it can be hard to tell the difference).

So, with a heavy heart, I’m confining myself to the feature films and decided to split my festival recap into three parts. Here’s what I saw on the first day of Capitolfest…

Partners of the Sunset (Robert H. Townley, 1922)

Oh, 2014, you think you’re so cutting-edge. When a woman proposes to a man in the movies nowadays, critics and fans alike lavish praise on the clever gender inversion. Well, then, how are we to respond to a movie that did the same thing almost 100 years ago? In this obscure Western, two impoverished sisters—one in love with nature, the other alleneenamored of high society—inherit a ranch in Texas and decide to claim it. When a greedy local landowner tries to force them out, the rugged Patricia joins forces with a windmill engineer to face down the baddies and defend her new home.

The little-remembered Allene Ray, catapulted into the limelight after winning the 1920 Fame and Fortune Contest, grew up on a Texas ranch in real life and earned a reputation for doing her own daring stunts in Westerns. In Partners of the Sunset, she imbues the strong female protagonist with an earthy, almost elfin spunk. Whether frolicking barefoot by a river or pulling a pistol on her would-be captors, Ray acquits herself as one hell of a boss lady. Inspiring outdoor long shots and refreshing action sequences helped this film launch Capitolfest in style.

Bottom Line: Go west, young woman and kick some serious butt! My favorite from the first day.

Derelict (Rowland V. Lee, 1930)

Two ships’ officers (George Brent and Jed Graves) wage a war of petty one-upmanship—until one steals the other’s girl and the rivalry turns potentially lethal. This tough, grimy little pre-Code drama impressed me with the realism of its scenes at sea. The artful simulation of its hurricane sequence proved thrilling, violent, and remarkably convincing. Amazing what you could do with industrial fans, water tanks, and camera angles as opposed to CGI, huh?

derelictThe script also crackled with some enjoyable tough-guy banter. Reduced to working on a banana boat, Brent calls out the captain’s cowardice by snarling, “You’ve been carrying bananas so long you’ve turned their color!” At the end, once the old enemies have buried the hatchet and Brent’s walking off to the altar, the pair can’t resist a final jab:

Brent: You can be the best man.

Graves: I always was.

Plus, I relished the chance to watch Jessie Royce Landis, Cary Grant’s mother in North by Northwest, play a tempting nightclub singer.

Bottom Line: Testosterone in celluloid form. Snappy, economical, and well worth its short runtime.

Horse Play (Edward Sedgwick, 1933)

I can’t remember the last time I cackled so loudly in a movie theater. I kept expecting a surly usherette to escort my rowdy companions and me from the premises. When a lovelorn hick from Montana strikes it rich, he and his pal Andy gatecrash the British aristocracy in search of Slim’s sweetheart. Slim Summerville, whom I like to think of as Gary Cooper redesigned by a five-year-old, delivers the goods in terms of belly laughs.

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The mixture of crude yokels and snooty nobles brewed up a broadly comic variation on the traditional comedy of manners. For instance, in perhaps the film’s funniest scene, Slim and Andy invite two curious grande dames to their hotel room at the Ritz for a little drink. CUT TO: the aforementioned scions of the aristocracy swigging whisky, firing rodeo pistols, and suggestively saddling up furniture. As one of the ladies who lets her hair down with the cowboys, Una O’Connor looks more primly sexy than you might imagine she could—and demonstrates that her comic chops extended far beyond that famous paint-peeling shriek of hers.

This film milked its gags for maximum screen time. Nows, sometimes that works brilliantly. If you push a gag past the funny mark, it gets unfunny, but it turns out there’s a sweet spot just past unfunny where a gag becomes absurdly funny again. For instance, Slim and Andy have a slap-happy fight with collapsible top hats that lasts about five minutes, and I never wanted it to end. Other times one had the distinct impression that a dead horse was being beaten.

Bottom Line: Uneven as a whole, but the side-splitting antics of Slim and company made you forget its failings.

The Bright Shawl (John S. Robinson, 1923)

One could argue that this fine historical thriller runs too long, but if the movie needed that much time to cram Richard Barthelmess, Dorothy Gish, William Powell, Mary Astor, Jetta Goudal, and, yes, even Edward G. Robinson into one movie, you won’t hear brightshawlme complaining! An ambiance of tropical sultriness and wide-open spaces confer a special vibe of authenticity on the film, since the cast and crew travelled to Cuba to shoot exterior scenes on location.

In this adaptation Joseph Hergesheimer’s novel, a naïve American visits Cuba with his resistance leader friend and joins the movement himself after witnessing the cruelty of the Spanish oppressors. However, in the end, our hero escapes with the girl he loves only by the grace of a foe’s merciful whim. And who else to play that gallant, sympathetic villain but William Powell in his fourth movie appearance! Even without the advantage of his voice, Powell displays the insouciant, dandyish charm that would serve him throughout his career. Everybody else does their darndest, too: Barthelmess is earnest and indignant, Gish is naughty but nice, Astor is pure but feisty, Goudal is slinky and sinister, and Robinson is full of mighty rage and grief as a bereft father.

Bottom Line: A dream cast in a handsome production, albeit one that feels too much like a filmed novel at times.

Ladies’ Man (Lothar Mendes, 1931)

Get in the queue, girls, ’cause William Powell makes one dapper gigolo! Interestingly enough, Ladies’ Man presents a gender-flipped version of the fallen woman sagas that 1930s audiences ate up with such gusto. As Powell’s character explains, “I look at women the way women look at men”—that is, as meal tickets. The difference is, the hookers and courtesans played by the likes of Garbo, Crawford, and Stanwyck often got their chances at redemption. When a man prostitutes himself, though, the penalty is death. How’s that for a double standard?

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Kay Francis having her gown mended on the set of “Ladies’ Man”

Elegant escort for a rich society lady, Jamie Darricott also indulges in a liaison with her wild daughter (Carole Lombard). As if that weren’t awkward enough, a mysterious woman from out of town (Kay Francis) wins his heart and convinces him to leave his sordid occupation. Unfortunately, Jamie’s powerful paramour and her jealous husband won’t let him escape their world unpunished.

In a distinctly amoral role, Powell oozes savoir-faire and never falls into the trap of sanctimoniously renouncing his, ahem, profession. The actor supposedly disliked this part, believing himself too unattractive to pull it off. (Yeah, right, Bill.) You’d never know it, though, from the confidence and breeding he projects in even the most embarrassing situations. Herman Mankiewicz’s sophisticated dialogue, spoken by Powell’s velvety baritone, likewise boosts the value of what could have been a tawdry melodrama.

Do I wish that Powell, Lombard, and Francis had been drafted into, say, a Lubitsch comedy instead of this? Well, yes. But I can still appreciate the film for its luscious Travis Banton gowns and its stars’ vivid performances.

Bottom Line: An unapologetic yet occasionally heart-rending portrait of a man who lived and died beyond his means.

Roman Scandals (Frank Tuttle, 1933)

Call it politically incorrect, trashy, or flat-out goofy, but first try to stop laughing. One of the more famous films on the Capitolfest program, this trippy pre-Code musical centers on a sweet-natured loser from the corrupt modern town of West Rome. Magically transported back to ancient Rome, he finagles to save an imprisoned princess—and his own skin.

lucyEasily sustaining the pace of a big-budget musical extravaganza, Eddie ‘Banjo Eyes’ Cantor jumps around like a bunny on speed, singing, dancing, cracking wise, and offending pretty much every possible demographic. Busby Berkeley arranged some of his weirdest musical numbers for this film, including a hymn of hope sung by evicted families in the streets and the infamous slave market sequence.

I’d seen clips of the cult classic before, but the dazzling quality of the 35mm print left me breathless. Say what you will about Sam Goldwyn, but the man sure could harness star power. If I’d been around in ’33, this piece of box-office bait would have reeled me into the theater for repeat viewings.

Oh, and whenever a certain young platinum blonde popped into the frame, knowing individuals in the Capitol audience burst into spontaneous ovations. The blonde in question would be a very young Lucille Ball. If you ever get to savor this nutty confection, keep an eye out for her.

Bottom Line: This movie has all the good taste of a gladiator fight. Fortunately, my tastes aren’t much better. By all means, bring on the bread and circuses!

“it will always be modern”: Emmanuelle Riva Revisits Hiroshima Mon Amour

poster“Happy” isn’t a word that comes to mind when we ponder Alain Resnais’s harrowing, innovative Hiroshima Mon Amour. However, according to Emmanuelle Riva, it was a joy to make.

At the Reflet Medicis movie theater in Paris, the stage and screen veteran shared mostly glowing memories of the intense production in Japan and France. “I can still feel the happiness of those days, it hasn’t left me,” She told a rapt audience. “It was so extraordinary to live that adventure.”

Elegant and lively at age 87, Riva introduced a screening of the New Wave masterpiece under the auspices of the Paris Cinéma Festival, which launched a series showcasing 50 of the greatest female roles. More than deserving of its place in the program, Hiroshima Mon Amour presented Riva with a unique challenge in film history. And, in only her second movie appearance, she rose to it.

Her character in the movie, a French actress, embarks on a torrid affair with a Japanese architect in Hiroshima, thus reawakening trauma from a doomed liaison with a German soldier during WWII. Within the context of a nonlinear movie, Riva movingly conveyed one woman’s passions and sorrows while still grappling with the film’s abstract themes of memory, loss, and identity.

“I was very pleased with the role because it will always be modern,” Riva said of the complex, liberated woman she played. “Her freedom exists naturally within her.”

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Riva with Noël Corbin, Paris Director of Cultural Affairs, and Aude Hesberg, Director of the Paris Cinéma Festival

Penned by Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima Mon Amour also used Riva’s crystalline voice to hypnotic effect through extended voice-over monologues. “Marguerite has her own rhythm,” Riva noted. “There’s a precise, childlike quality in her writing that you can’t ignore. You can’t escape it, but it’s actually a pleasure.”

Still, Riva wanted to set the record straight about those famous voice-overs. “Not long ago,” she recounted, “I was listening to some old interviews and I heard Alain Robbe-Grillet talking about Hiroshima… He said that Marguerite Duras had sent out cassettes of the text. I must have listened to them—and there was nothing left for me to do but mimic her. And he laughed and laughed.”

“Well, I never heard these cassettes,” She attested. “It’s totally untrue. And I’m very glad to have the chance to tell you this!”

With a subtle glimmer of accomplishment in her eyes, she explained, “I didn’t have to imitate. That doesn’t interest me at all. I like to create.”

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Over the course of a month of filming in Japan and two weeks in France, Riva found plenty of opportunity to create, both onscreen and off: “I took pictures while Sylvette Baudrot [the script girl] and Alain Resnais figured out how the film would be shot. I had about 4 or 5 days and I walked around the entire city that was still largely in rubble. I photographed everything I saw… I ended up putting together a series of very precious photos, because soon afterwards the city was totally reconstructed.”

Her stunning street photography has since formed the basis for an exhibition and a book. Riva’s own interest in documenting the changing face of Hiroshima no doubt informed her contributions to a movie preoccupied with history as both a collective narrative and an individual experience.

As for the production itself, Riva fondly recalled the atmosphere of “sympathy” that reigned among the cast and crew. Resnais directed his actors with sensitivity: “[He] would come up close, talk with each of us intimately, and quietly tell us what he hoped to achieve in the scene.” The actress also praised her co-star, Eiji Okada: “He learned all his lines phonetically… His work was just amazing and he has a magnificent presence in the film.”

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Riva shared only one negative recollection of the production, but a painful one at that. During the drawn-out tearoom scene, interspersed with numerous flashbacks, Riva’s character breaks down as she tells the story of her tragic first romance. Reacting to a moment of borderline hysteria, her lover slaps her with such force that the entire restaurant turns to gape. “This was very difficult, because the camera was on a crane that would drop on a certain syllable of a word—it had to be that precise,” She explained. “So, I received quite a few slaps. And I got very angry, because I’d had enough of being slapped.”

A key part of Riva’s most difficult work didn’t take place on the set, however, but during a week in the recording studio: “The film was entirely dubbed, since we had a camera that squeaked.” As for re-recording dialogue after the fact, “I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s very tough, working from recording with lots of background noise.” The conviction and unsettling honesty of the dialogue scenes in Hiroshima Mon Amour stand out as even more impressive, considering that the emotions had to be recaptured.

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In the 55 years since the movie’s acclaimed release, nearly all those involved in the production have passed away. Riva noted, “I’m the last one left from Hiroshima Mon Amour,” apart from her friend Sylvette Baudrot, the film’s script girl. The actress lamented the recent death of Alain Resnais this past March, “I was really stunned. I’d grown to believe that he would live forever.”

These days, when Riva is called upon to watch Hiroshima Mon Amour, as when Argos Films invited her to present a new restoration at Cannes, she never does so willingly: “It’s as though I were watching somebody else.” Just as the film reveals the surreal distances injected into our experiences by the passage of time, Riva observed, “We each have many lives. And Hiroshima is in another life for me.”

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Nevertheless, the actress—who estimated that she’s on her seventh life—expressed her pleasure at seeing so many young viewers in the audience. (This is the point where she smiled at me in the front row and I nearly passed out.) Asking how many first-time viewers were present, she exclaimed, “Wonderful!” at the significant show of hands.

As the actress cheerfully shared clear, detailed memories of a production long ago, her deep love for her craft, at its best and its worst, seemed to illuminate her from within. Grounded and sincere, she’s the very epitome of humility, yet her every measured movement and syllable seems to announce, “This, kids, is a pro.”

Only unimportant people try to seem important. Great artists don’t have to. So, it’s fitting that, when her interviewers thanked her for coming, Emmanuelle Riva smiled and simply replied, “I live quite close.”

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Please note that all quotations from Riva in this article are my own translation of her words. For an article about the screening in the original French, I recommend this one on Paris Cinéma’s own site. You should also watch this interview (with subtitles) that Riva gave at Cannes in 1959. It’s great. 

You can also  learn more about the 50 Grands Rôles de Femmes series at the Reflet Medicis, which will be continuing until December 2014.

Thank you to Paris Cinéma for allowing me to include their photos of the event, taken by Clara Baillot and Camille Griner, on this blog.

Seeing the Light: Serge Bromberg Unveils Cinematic Treasures by the Seine

sergenitrateThe film strip burst into a jet of bright yellow flame, cutting into the damp riverside air. As photographers snapped furiously, the nitrate exhaled its cloud of potentially toxic heat, sending waves of undulating shadows across the huge inflatable screen.

These pyrotechnics put the literal flamme in Serge Bromberg’s show Retour de Flamme—the play on words also means “backfire” or “flashback”—an anecdotal foray into film history through rare and recently discovered old movies.

When Bromberg lights up some nitrate stock, he’s not just performing a parlor trick. Rather, he’s reminding audiences of what might have happened to many of the precious films that he has spent his life hunting. As the director, producer, and founder of Lobster Films explained, “Classic cinema is an endangered part of our heritage. About half of the movies ever made have been lost.”

However, last night at the Berges de Seine Bromberg gave the crowd hope for the future of film preservation. Movies consigned to oblivion until a few months ago—or even a few weeks ago—saw the light again. And, more important, those movies elicited laughter and gasps of excitement from their spectators. Projected onto an enormous blow-up screen and accompanied on a piano by Bromberg, the strange assortment of once-lost films did what they were intended to, what their makers wanted them to: they entertained.

If movies have souls, and I suspect that they do, a few more just escaped from limbo.

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The presentation opened with “Paris sous les eaux,” an actualité documenting conditions in the city following the calamitous 1910 flood. As the footage showed, entire streets were submerged, turning Paris into a temporary Venice, only navigable by boats. Groups of mustachioed municipal workers paddled down the rues, pushing debris aside to clear passage.

Diving into his selections, Bromberg celebrated the centennial of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp by screening Lobster Films’ new restoration of the two-reeler A Night in the Show (1915). The rowdy comedy showcases early Chaplin at his most disruptive, playing a tuxedo-clad drunk bent on upstaging a vaudeville performance with his own antics.

anightintheshowAs Bromberg noted, from 1908 to 1913 Chaplin’s performance of an almost identical scenario in Fred Karno’s Mumming Birds sketch, a hit since 1904, gave the young comedian his first taste of fame and paved the way for his cinema debut. After establishing the Tramp as a character in 1914, Chaplin returned to material from his stage career, but altered the sketch enough to avoid being sued by Karno.

Remastered from many elements, including some from the Musée d’Art Moderne and the Cinémathèque Française, the image quality of A Night in the Show was astonishingly sharp. After years of fuzzy, crackly Chaplin viewings on YouTube, I was amazed to see every spangle on Edna Purviance’s headdress! Plus, the pearlescent clarity of the restoration brought out the surprisingly refined feel of the short comedy—making the slapstick bits that much more hilarious.

Next, Bromberg dazzled audiences with a world premiere. About a month ago, he stumbled across a length of film on an online auction site and bought it for 7 euros. Well, actually, with shipping it turned out to be 11 euros, but that’s still a small price to pay for a complete version of Émile Cohl’s Le cauchemar de Fantoche (1908). The second animated cartoon ever made, this groundbreaking work was thought to exist only in damaged fragments before Bromberg’s discovery.

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Restored to its trippy glory, Le cauchmar de Fantoche or The Puppet’s Nightmare provokes a mean case of the heebie-jeebies. With a series of simple white figures on a black background, Cohl captured the bizarre logic of bad dreams where clocks turn into boogiemen, hats morph into prisons, and huge lobster claws prowl in search of the unfortunate Fantoche. The imagery is unremittingly morbid; for instance, a butterfly becomes a spider and spins a giant web across the screen. The short cartoon ends not with Fantoche waking up in his bed, as I anticipated, but with a huge knife cutting him in half.

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Émile Cohl, father of the animated cartoon and cultivator of fine moustaches.

Fluid transformations explore the potential of animation to show the impossible and foreshadow similar madness in Fleischer and Disney cartoons two decades later. As Bromberg noted, “It’s absolutely stunning to imagine that one man alone could invent the animated cartoon and then create an animation of this quality in a month.”

Cohl’s cartoon seemed like a tough act to follow, but Bromberg then projected a film that even he calls “époustoflant”—in English, we might say mind-boggling.

We know that Chaplin cribbed his basic premise for A Night in the Show from Fred Karno’s vaudeville number Mumming Birds, but he took pains to modify the scenario and avoid legal infringement. By contrast, in 1907 Charles Pathé had no qualms about copying the act more or less exactly for the short film Au Music Hall. Because Pathé did run into legal troubles, the one-reeler had been presumed lost for years.

Until about two weeks ago, when Bromberg’s research led to a print in Mexico among UNAM’s holdings.

A Pathé reproduction of a famous stage act might not sound particularly historic, but this one occupies an unusually sacred place in film history, uniting two great film artists. As Bromberg told the audience, “Frankly, what you’re going to see is a miracle. In fact, it’s probably a film that Charlie Chaplin saw before he started his vaudeville career. It might have inspired him to join Karno’s troupe, take on the famous act, and become Charlie Chaplin.”

And who else could have inspired Chaplin to become Chaplin… but the great French comedian Max Linder?

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 “Qui? Moi?”

So, for the first time in probably more than 100 years, an audience watched Max Linder shamble though the Mumming Birds routine, giving a performance that likely lodged itself in Chaplin’s memory.

In Au Music Hall, Linder plays a prototype of the disastrous dandy persona that would make his fortune. Drunken Max falls out of his carriage and stumbles into a vaudeville theater. Proceeds to heckle or hinder every stage act put before him, he squirts a singer with a seltzer bottle, spoils a magician’s trick, and smooches an exotic dancer. Finally, when a strongman wrestler enters the stage with a lifesize doll for demonstration, Max tackles the doll… and loses the fight. Undaunted, the pint-sized fop tears off his jacket and goes fisticuffs with the wrestler, before ultimately being carted away by the theater manager.

chaplinlinder1918Primitive though Au Music Hall seems on the surface, and it’s basically two shots, Linder’s surprisingly graceful drunk routine and well-timed pratfalls elevate the short and hint at the future of screen comedy. Whereas vaudeville sketches and early films often relied on interchangeable stock characters, Linder conveys the impression, even in long shot, of somebody we want to get to know better. His little bits of business, like repeatedly conking his head on a tassel in his theater box or flipping a mass of unruly black hair out of his face, cry out for a close-up or two.

Chaplin called Linder his “professor” for a reason. In 1907, this little Englishman may well have watched this little Frenchman and seen a glimmer of personality, of photogénie to which he could aspire.

Bromberg’s following selection was the only part of the program announced ahead of time: Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith with recently rediscovered footage.

If you’ve seen The Blacksmith as it’s been circulating for years, you might have noticed a flaw in the comic structure. After squirting oil all over an immaculate white horse, Buster pulls almost the same routine on an immaculate car. I love Buster Keaton for his refreshing versatility of gags, so this repetition always fatigues me a little.

The rediscovered footage really creates an alternate version of the film—and a superior one, in my estimate, complete with an action sequence, some risqué humor, and a very Keaton proposal scene. Although the endings of the two versions vary slightly, the main difference occurs in the early middle of the film.

In the cut I saw last night, Buster leaves the confines of the blacksmith shop and takes his burly, surly boss’s beloved car for a joyride. Alas, Buster runs into Mr. Surly himself who futilely gives pursuit. They only pause to sit down and admire the silhouette of a nubile young lady disrobing in front of her window. When she prematurely turns out the light, the chase is on again, until Buster locks Mr. Surly into a shed.

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Not only does this sequence inject more movement into the film, but it also strengthens Buster’s relationship with the snooty equestrienne he ends up marrying. In all previous versions, Virginia Fox’s character interacts with Buster only towards the beginning and then at the end of the film. Gorgeous though Buster is, I don’t quite buy that Miss Snooty would elope with him on the basis of two meetings. Well, in the rediscovered footage, while fleeing Mr. Surly and running around a house, Buster bumps into Miss Snooty, drops to bended knee, and proposes… before running around the house again to elude Mr. Burly… and then he proposes again. And so forth. This charming vignette lends just enough credibility to the romantic subplot without wasting a second of screen time.

Bromberg recounted how this extraordinary footage, instead of hiding out in an attic or a basement all these years, was waiting in plain sight—in a film archive, no less. After receiving a phone call from Fernando Pena, who also found the full cut of Lang’s Metropolis, describing the alternate Blacksmith, Bromberg asked him to bring the footage to France so that he could examine it.

Pena, however, suggested that wouldn’t be necessary: the alternate version was probably the print of The Blacksmith that was generally distributed through Europe in 9.5mm, a home viewing format. Bromberg checked the 9.5mm version at the Centre National de la Cinématographie and there, sure enough, was the alternate cut—as well as a 35mm version with yet more unseen footage. It had been there for years. Moral of the story: never take anything for granted.

shock

I get the feeling that somewhere Buster is laughing at us.

To wrap up the program, Bromberg played two wacky trifles that I won’t soon forget: Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912) and Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969). The former, a short British crime thriller, lives up to the promise of its title with a hyperactive Jack Russell terrier who thwarts a group of bank robbers. This manipulative little pooch even gains entry into the bad guys’ lair by curling up in the middle of the road and pretending to have been run over. Could anyone—even a hardened criminal—resist the desire to nurse little Spot the Dog back to health?

In the latter film, animator Marv Newland makes good on his title when Bambi, after grazing in a field of flowers for the duration of the credits, is smashed by a reptilian foot from above. “We gratefully acknowledge the city of Tokyo for their help obtaining Godzilla in this film.” The End.

The end of Bromberg’s spectacle arrived just as abruptly for this spectator, who could have stayed at the Berges watching classic film snippets until dawn.

Sitting scrunched up in a beach chair by the Seine as the night breeze floated off the water, I witnessed film and life mingling mysteriously. Boats passed, sirens warbled in the distance, cooing couples walked on the quai above. At one point, a gaggle of inebriated young ladies started singing and calling out to the screen. They didn’t realize that they were echoing Chaplin via Linder via Karno, but they added another layer Mumming Birds-esque commentary to the show.

As the sights and sounds of the world now gently (or not so gently) filtered into the world then as projected in front of me, I pondered the strange lives of the films themselves.

Not unlike a human life, a film destroyed forever unravels the fabric of time in a way that cannot be repaired or even entirely understood. A work of art is never lost alone; it wipes out a network of influences, preparations, moments, dreams, footnotes, and possibilities.

Conversely, a lost film found might knit together the threads of innumerable lives. Charlie Chaplin watched Max Linder, so now when I watch Max Linder, I’m watching Chaplin through Linder. When I watch Chaplin, I watch Linder through Chaplin. The next time I watch Godzilla, I’ll think of Bambi. And the next time I watch Sherlock, I’ll think of Spot the Dog. Even the curiosities, the baubles, the trinkets of film history affect our brains—and sometimes our culture as a whole—in powerful and unpredictable ways.

As a film event, Bromberg’s Retour de Flamme resonates so profoundly, I believe, because it alerts audiences to the mystical dialogue between movies themselves and between movies and lives.

May the yet-undiscovered nitrate reels remain stable, but may the cinephile flame keep on burning. Amen.

berges