Christmas at the Capitol: It’s a Wonderful Life on 35mm

IMG_3571On December 20, 1946, It’s a Wonderful Life premiered at the Globe Theater in New York City.

And, 68 years later to the day, I got to see the holiday classic on the big screen for the first time—just the way it would’ve looked for its original audiences.

The Venue

This past weekend, the Capitol Theater in Rome, New York screened a crisp 35mm archival print of Capra’s masterpiece, on loan from the Library of Congress. The 1920s Moorish-style movie palace took on a festive glow for the occasion. A Christmas tree twinkled in in the lobby, a starry pattern of red and green illuminated the ceiling, and an a cappella ensemble crooned by the concession stand.

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The joy of Christmas melded with joy of experiencing film on film—a pleasure so increasingly rare that I traveled 2-and-a-half hours for it! Each year the Capitol shows It’s a Wonderful Life on its carbon arc projector, one of only about 30 still in continuous use in the U.S.

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Up until the 1960s, movie theaters showed films on this kind of projector, its light emitted from carbon electrodes. This means that your favorite classic Hollywood movies were originally screened by the clear intensity of carbon arc light. That’s the way they were made to be seen.

Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the Capitol, and Bob Hodge, the Capitol’s projectionist, let me invade the projection booth.

Before IMG_3551showtime, I caught Hodge winding the film strip onto a different set of reels so that it would run correctly.

As Hodge explained, if he projected the film the way it arrives from the Library of Congress, it would run upside-down and backwards.

Even in the heyday of celluloid, projectionists would run films on the theater’s own set of reels, kept in pristine condition, instead of the rougher set on which the film arrived.

It took all my willpower not to muster my best Jimmy Stewart impression and exclaim, “Merry Christmas, you old carbon arc projector!”

After the film, I got to see a very different kind of projection booth: the digital works at the Capitol’s art house venture, Cinema Capitol, which opened in late November. Jack Theakston, as well as Capitol manager Art Pierce, and Capitol board member Doug Swarthout kindly gave me a tour of the new theater.

After seeing it as essentially an empty office space in October, I was amazed by how welcoming and hip Cinema Capitol looks now. In the 52-seat theater, spectators can appreciate intriguing current releases along IMG_3501with digital restorations of classics. While I was there, I got to peer at Bing Crosby through the projection window as the holiday re-release of White Christmas played for a small but enthusiastic audience (who applauded at the film’s conclusion).

Needless to say, it warms my heart to see 35mm coexisting with digital right next door. From sconces made of old film reels to a retired carbon-arc projector in the lobby, the theater celebrates the old along with the new. Cinema Capitol proves that 21st century technology doesn’t have to replace the beautiful cinematic traditions of the 20th. Rather, they complement each other.

Come to think of it, the Capitol and the staff of movie fanatics who keep it alive remind me quite a lot of the Bailey Building and Loan and its staff of lovable characters. Both triumphed against the odds to preserve something meaningful and attracted a loyal crowd of admirers in the process.

And that, friends, is the true meaning of Christmas. Well, on this blog, at least.

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The Movie

2014 made me change my tune about a bunch of things. The Ghost of Celluloid Past must’ve been chuckling at my reactions all year.

So I went to see It’s a Wonderful Life with a very definite goal in mind. I was hoping to gain some perspective on a Christmas movie that I never greatly enjoyed.

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Can I blame my former lack of fondness for the film on my generation? Then again, viewers in 1946 weren’t crazy about It’s a Wonderful Life either. It turned out to be a box office disappointment for Capra.

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On a big screen, however, the film’s much-reproached corniness melted away like snowflakes on my tongue. The introspective gravity of those ethereal opening shots, as the voices of characters we haven’t met rise in prayer for a man in trouble, grabbed me and never let go.

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The story and, above all, the personalities enfolded me. I couldn’t distance myself from the movie like I could in the security of my house; there was no room to chew on ideological concerns. As never before, It’s a Wonderful Life genuinely entertained me for over 2 hours.

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The movie’s almost continual funniness also took me by surprise. From my dozen or so previous viewings, I’d remembered isolated bits of comic relief in what is, let’s face it, a pretty damn dark Christmas classic. On this viewing, Capra’s warm sense of humor sustained me for the duration and seemed to weave more intricately into the moments of pathos.

In fact, one of the biggest laughs arrived at the lowest point of George’s trajectory, in the barren ruin of his home, when Clarence bites Bert’s hand as a diversion. The comedy of It’s a Wonderful Life doesn’t neutralize the disturbing specter of Pottersville. It actively affirms that the same higher power striving to make life worth living also has a sense of humor.

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I joined an audience comprising a wide range of ages in chuckling heartily every few minutes thanks to the film’s masterful pace. As Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, “It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.”

Indeed, if you want to know how amusing a movie is—or how contagious laughter can be—watch it in a darkened theater with a hundred or so strangers.

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For me, the greatest revelation was how much I cared about every character in It’s a Wonderful Life (Potter and his lackeys excepted). On a small screen, Jimmy Stewart dominates the movie so totally that his despair triggers a kind of emotional claustrophobia. Besides, not everyone can be a George Bailey—and even he didn’t want to be one. Does a life only have value to the extent that it serves other lives?

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In an interview, Capra said that It’s a Wonderful Life expressed “the importance of the individual,” an unusual statement about a film that I’d considered a paean to community. As I rediscovered the film a few days ago, however, Capra’s tender attention to each and every person in Bedford Falls came across with poignant conviction. I know my limitations and I’ll never be a George Bailey. But I can aspire to be a Bert or a Sam Wainwright or an Annie. And those are all pretty wonderful things to be, I realized.

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Finally, I noticed many aspects of It’s a Wonderful Life that I’d never picked up on before. As it sprawled across the Capitol’s 20-by-40-foot screen, it gave me more “cinephiliac moments” than I could possibly recount in a single post. Like how you can see the mist of Mary and George’s breath as they sing “Buffalo Gals.”

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Like the dead, hollow eyes of Ernie the cabdriver, once full of such eagerness and humor, as he drives to 320 Sycamore.

Like the glistening, ghostly threads of cobwebs that tremble in the night air when George finds his house empty and abandoned.

Like the way Zuzu doesn’t know the lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne,” prompting George to help her a little.

Tiny stitches in an intricate piece of embroidery, innumerable details—some intended, some improvised, some providential—added up to something I could begin to enjoy. Will it ever be a favorite of mine? Probably not. But my appreciation, like the Grinch’s heart, grew a few sizes.

For those of you who cherish It’s a Wonderful Life, believe me, you need to see it as it was meant to be seen. Treat yourself. Life is short. For those of you who don’t love it, you need to see it on a big screen even more. And, if you can, try to see it at the Capitol.

Merry Christmas to all you cinephiles!

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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.

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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.

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Eight Films in Eight Days: Cinematic Adventures in Paris

cinemaThe French take classic movies, like all forms of sophisticated pleasure, rather seriously.

For instance, if I want to go see a great movie at the Forum des Images, I must do so without so much as a macaron to sustain myself through the screening. Meanwhile, a few meters away, a huge multiplex sells the latest forgettable films on the market—with a full concession stand wafting good smells. I can hear its siren call, “Come over to the dark side… we have popcorn.”

But no, true bliss demands discipline before it bestows its favors. As much as the rigor and intensity of French audiences intimidate me, I also admire their deep respect and love for the fascinating films of yesterday. It warms the cockles of my heart to witness such a wide range of ages attending screenings, from a school group of tweens at the Cinémathèque to dowagers in Chanel suits frequenting the legendary theaters of the Latin Quarter.

In Max Ophüls’s Le Plaisir, the narrator of the first story concludes, “Le bonheur n’est pas gai.” That is, “Happiness is not joyful.” So you’d be wrong to think that solemn spectators in Paris movie theaters were absorbing the films like some kind of bitter medicine. In fact, they’re about as happy as you can get for €7.50.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s a pretty representative sample of what you can see in huit jours (the French often talk about “eight days” when they mean a week) in cinema’s hometown. Lucky for me, I also happened to be visiting Paris during La Fête du Cinéma, a yearly event that reduces ticket prices to €3.50 for a few days.

ritaCover Girl (Charles Vidor and Gene Kelly, 1944)

The Venue: Sadly, the Cinémathèque Française doesn’t live where it used to back in the days when Langlois hand-picked the movies, Musidora helped work the box office, and the likes of Truffaut, Godard, and Rivette hogged the front-row seats. But, hey, look on the bright side: there’s a gift shop. And you can still see a wide variety of classics, from the obvious to the obscure, projected from the archive’s own collection of prints.

The Movie: This inventive, flamboyantly-colored backstage musical, about a hoofer who wins a modeling contest, gave Rita Hayworth’s rising star a major boost.

Why I Went to See It: Whereas the Cinémathèque’s founder put together wildly eclectic programs of movies each day, the establishment now heavily favors retrospectives and coherent series. When I go see a movie at the Cinémathèque, I look for movies that belong to the Histoire Pérmanente du Cinéma series, which tends to feature a wider assortment of films, including some real rarities as well as Hollywood classics.

The Print: A 35mm version with French subtitles from the Cinémathèque’s vaults. The well-loved reels started to crackle and break up at their beginnings and ends—resulting in one jump cut so startling that I swear I thought the Nouvelle Vague boys got ahold of the print!

My Highlight: Rita Hayworth, wearing a somewhat plain navy suit with red piping, in a waiting room full of models decked out in chic pastels. The lily needs no gilding.

Bottom Line: Technicolor is a damn good storyteller. 

otherThe Other (Robert Mulligan, 1972)

The Venue: Crammed into an underground mall amongst numerous fast food joints and chain stores, the Forum des Images does not overwhelm you at first sight.

However, since the Forum opened in 2008, its exciting programs and decidedly hip ambiance have won over cinephiles from all walks of life.

With both purple fluorescent lights and a changing collection of real vintage posters hanging up in the lobby, the space revels in an oh-so-French blend of old and new. Did I mention the cinema library, where individual browsers can partake of thousands of films and books about films?

The Movie: A horror film? A coming-of-age story? A psychological thriller? However you categorize The Other, it’s much more than another good-twin-bad-twin movie.

Why I Went to See It: In my humble opinion, The Other also ranks as one of the unheralded masterpieces of the 1970s.

The Print: I neglected to notice that the Forum planned on screening a 35mm print in version française, borrowed from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. That is, with dubbing from the original French release. Listening to all of the characters speaking approximations of their lines in French—and having to provide some whispered translations for my mother—oddly enough gave me the pleasant sensation of watching the film as if for the first time.

My Highlight: The way milkweed silk catches the sunlight as one of the twins carries pods of the fluffy stuff across a bucolic field.

Bottom Line: My respect for this film grew even more after seeing it on a big screen. 

loveLove in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957) 

The Venue: Fortified by some steak au poivre, I returned to the Forum des Images for the second screening of the day.

The Movie: A barely legal cellist tames a notorious roué by regaling him with false tales of her amorous escapades… lifted from the files of her private eye father. I can only describe this silly, tender trifle as an operetta without singing.

Why I Went to See It: Billy Wilder + Paris + Tango Music = Where Do I Buy My Ticket?

The Print: A well-preserved 35mm version.

My Highlight: Back-to-back close-ups of weathered Gary Cooper and weathered Maurice Chevalier in their confrontation scene. I’d weather that weather!

Bottom Line: It’s the sort of movie that makes you want to go kiss the first person you meet in the street. Fortunately I knew better than to ruin my lipstick. 

champo1A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk, 1958)

The Venue: Rue Champollion is the epicenter of Paris cinephilia, lined with art house theaters of which La Filmothèque is my favorite so far. Sure, you might have to elbow someone out of the way to get your tickets, but it’s totally worth your trouble to burrow into a comfy plush chair in a screening room with golden floral sconces.

And, sure, some crazy filmgoer might bawl you out for fidgeting during the movie when you were just reaching for your lip balm, but that’s all part of the thrill. Next time, I think I’ll shush someone who isn’t talking, just for the hell of it.

The Movie: A typical love story set in crumbling WWII Germany, elevated by Sirk’s sometimes lyrical, sometimes gritty, but always arresting use of CinemaScope.

Why I Went to See It: When I was in college, I read young Godard’s review of A Time to letempsLove and it’s a real hoot, ending with something along the lines of, “You don’t know beauty ‘til you’ve seen it.” Well, I’d never seen it… And if I ever meet Godard, now I’ll at least have something to talk about while politely avoiding the topic of the migraine that Weekend gave me.

The Print: A gorgeous 35mm version, recopied from the original negative, with French subtitles.

My Highlight: A platinum blonde chanteuse keeping calm and carrying on signing in a swanky wine cave turned bomb shelter while perched on an enormous wooden keg.

Bottom Line: No, I’m not crying. I just got some irony in my eye…

All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955)

The Venue: La Filmothèque again. Shorter lines, no crazy lady barking at me—such a disappointment.

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The Movie: A society lady falls for her gardener and his proto-hippie ethos of self-reliance à la Walden, and almost everyone she knows tries to crush her happiness.

Why I Went to See It: The world seems tragically drab after watching a Sirk film. I needed my next fix.

The Print: Another 35mm version in Technicolor with French subtitles. Some days I really like my life…

My Highlight: Jane Wyman standing in blue light, wearing a red dress, gazing at a yellow tree branch in a vase—the primary color triangle, almost phantasmagorically saturated—left me agape.

Bottom Line: I love happy endings, especially when they come with an alarmingly friendly stag that serves as the auteur’s eye-roll to his audience. 

ticketsL’Arlésienne (André Antoine, 1922)

The Venue: The Cinémathèque Française—and I should warn you that the establishment screens its silents without music. This tradition stems from the days when Henri Langlois couldn’t afford an accompanist and thus decided to argue that truly silent silents offer the viewer greater advantages. It’s so quiet you can hear the metallic whine of the projector behind the wall.

Look, I’m up for the occasional surreal film event kind of thing, but I do believe that silent movies, to be properly enjoyed, appreciated, and, yes, even studied, require music. When those films first hit theaters, they had live music and they still cry out for that treatment.

I have this nightmare where someone who’s never seen a silent film walks into the Cinémathèque and emerges with the impression that silent movies are austere, remote relics—when nothing could be further from the truth. So, you’re hearing it from me: if silent movies are as yet undiscovered territory for you, please seek out a screening with live music or at least some music.

The Movie: Frédéri, a farm heir obsessed with a vampy townswoman from Arles, agrees to marry a peasant girl who loves him. Brace yourself for tragedy.

Why I Went to See It: I’d never even heard of this film and, chances are, I’ll never get to see it again.

The Print: This 35mm version, restored in 1990 with support from the Musée d’Orsay, sparkled with sunlight and shadows. The original intertitles—written in that soothing, graceful Art Nouveau font that one often sees on early 20th century French posters—offered an unforeseen treat to the eyes.

My Highlight: An ominous silhouette shot of the woman from Arles watching Frédéri hover in front of her lace-curtained window, like a shadow puppet. But there were so many stunning countryside shots of sheep ambling and villagers dancing that I lost track of my favorites.

Bottom Line: A fascinating and sensual document of rural France in the 1920s weighed down by a waffling, melodramatic plot. Maybe music would’ve helped.

champo2Cléo de 5 à 7 (Agnès Varda, 1962)

The Venue: Le Champo opened its doors in 1938 and has been delighting cinephiles ever since. The movie theater now specializes in retrospectives—as I write, there are series showcasing Ford, Renoir, and Varda. The screening room where I saw Cléo featured a charming canopy of tiny lights, sparkling from the ceiling like distant stars.

Why I Went to See It: A few days before, I got my taste of Paris, Paramount-style with Love in the Afternoon. Just as one craves salty after sweet, I wanted a taste of the real Paris, in all its 1960s chaos and glory, as it appeared to the street-roving cameras of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers.

The Print: Actually it was a 2K digital projection; the restoration and digitization was overseen by Varda herself. I tend to be a skeptic where digital is concerned, but the eloquent crispness of the images proved quite persuasive.

My Highlight: Cléo’s grey kitten swatting at the train of her angelic negligee. Although the switch from color to black-and-white in the opening scene also took my breath away.

The Bottom Line: This movie is heaven for the eyes, but hell on mascara.

spiteSpite Marriage (Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton, 1929)

The Venue: Forum des Images again. This time, before my screening, I tried out the stylish, yet comfy café on the second floor, which I totally recommend. A pot of green tea before a movie does so much to focus one’s powers of concentration, n’est-ce pas?

Why I Went to See It: Buster and his biceps on a big screen. Well, that’s a big part of it, but I also wanted to observe how a French audience would react to a Keaton movie. In his memoir, Buster wrote with pride that the French referred to him as “Malec,” a word that has no direct translation, but which means roughly “the hole in the doughnut” or “a blank piece of paper.” Um… does that mean he represents some kind of cosmic emptiness? And can you laugh at a cosmic emptiness?

The Print: A surprisingly unblemished 35mm version, on loan from the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. I only realized afterwards that this marked the first time I ever saw Buster on 35mm.

My Highlight: Tough to pin down, but I think the prize goes to Buster’s fierce frowny face, hissing the villain from the play in which his lady love plays the lead.

Bottom Line: A doughnut hole-in-one. You could probably hear the laughter for blocks. Apparently happiness can be joyful…

Lost and Found: Reflections on an Evening with Mary Pickford

cameraLast night, I was part of the first audience to see a long-lost film for over 80 years.

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that.

This story starts with a condemned barn in New Hampshire, marked for demolition. In 2006, contractor Peter Massie did a routine sweep of the site. Let’s just say it’s a good thing he did, because, to his surprise, Massie discovered a 1920s Monarch projector and seven reels of film.

How those films ended up in the barn remains a slight mystery, although they were probably shown as part of a boy’s summer camp once located on the land there. Massie contacted Dr. Larry Benaquist of Keene State College, who sent the fragile nitrate film—the strips stuck together and the sprocket holes shredded—to Colorlab Corp. for the challenging restoration. Out of the cache, the lab identified four films presumed lost, including the 1911 Mary Pickford vehicle “Their First Misunderstanding.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint the last time when this film was shown; it might have been reissued a few years after its initial release. It might have been seen sometime in the 1920s, but it had almost definitely not been projected since the dawn of the talkies.

Until last night, when “Their First Misunderstanding” saw the light after so many years of darkness.

At Keene State College, this short film had its re-premiere, projected on a big screen from a digitized copy. Professor Benaquist and Christel Schmidt, a Pickford scholar and editor of Queen of the Movies, introduced the program. In addition to the rediscovered film, the screening included another Pickford one-reeler, “The Dream” (1911), and perhaps her greatest film performance in Sparrows (1926), all with live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis.

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(Poster design by Caitlen Brown.)

“Their First Misunderstanding,” a concise one-reel marital dramedy, might not seem like anything special out of context. However, Schmidt explained the significance of the rediscovered film. The short movie represents a crucial piece of cinema history: it’s the first film that gave Mary Pickford billing under her real name, as well as her first film with the Independent Moving Pictures Company, or IMP.

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(Frame from the collections of Keene State College and the Library of Congress.)

Pickford also wrote the scenario for “Their First Misunderstanding.” This wasn’t particularly unusual, since she shrewdly sold many scenarios to the production company she worked for, as well as to others, as a way of earning extra income. Nevertheless, I enjoyed knowing that Mary’s genius for cinema pervaded the short film, not only through her performance but also through all of the “bits of business” she had concocted. When Mary toyed with a cigarette, beat the hell out of a suitor with an enormous bouquet, or snuggled sadly by a fire, all of those actions came from her nimble, vivacious mind.

Although “Their First Misunderstanding” survives astonishingly intact for having languished in a New England barn (without the protection of a film canister) the years had taken their toll. The one-reeler begins and ends a bit abruptly due to missing footage.The opening scene of the film, which mostly likely started with a scene of the couple’s wedding, has not survived. However, in its present state, it opens with a brief shot of Owen Moore’s character frantically packing for his honeymoon.

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(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)

From there, the newlyweds meet at a train station where their families ambush them with well-wishes and a cascade of rice. From her first appearance, luminous Mary Pickford looks elegant in a luxurious travel outfit of white fur, which she adjusts and preens daintily, the image of a new bride wanting every last detail to be simply perfect. Among the crowd on the train platform are an unrecognizable Ben Turpin (with nary a googly eye in sight!) and a very recognizable and dapper Thomas Ince who bobs up and down like the center of attention, seemingly unaware that he is not the star of the film. The newlyweds embark on their honeymoon, filled with hope and love.

But the intertitles warn us that marital bliss doesn’t last forever: “One Year Later: Oh! How Different It Is!” It’s always a joy to listen to a modern audience laugh at intertitle jokes, and, last night, we roared at this 1910s equivalent of the CUT TO: juxtapositions that movies still use as punchlines.

Apparently, one year later, the husband has grown into a self-absorbed lout who mostly ignores his chic wife. Mary tries various tactics to get his attention—pretending to smoke one of his cigarettes, massaging his scalp, and going into full-on melodrama mode—but none of them work. When the couple attends a party, hubby goes off into another room with a society cutie, leaving poor Mary alone to fret and worry. Never one to sit around and do nothing, she decides to do a little flirting of her own with the ludicrously caricatured poet-pianist—think Snidley Whiplash as Romeo—who’s playing at the dinner party.

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(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)

To his dismay, Mary’s husband walks in on her intimate conversation with the poet. Soon the would-be romancer is visiting the couple’s home. The husband decides to rig up a little bell on the house door, so that he knows when any visitor comes to call. This, of course, leads to a number of false alarms, as the husband nearly suffers a fit of apoplexy… only to discover a deliveryman at the door. In another adorable scene, the poet does come for a visit, but has to do his wooing from the entrance of the room to keep the bell from ringing. Is this seeming like a lot of plot developments for 11 minutes? Because it’s not over yet. Mary’s scenario packed in an abundance of comedy and drama in an impressively short time.

The husband finally buckles under the suspicion and decides to leave his wife, writing, “You’re not the woman I supposed you were.” He leaves her to the poet. Mary, however, had no intention of going away with the second-rate scribbler. When the fawning suitor appears, she whips him out of the house with a bouquet of enormous flowers!

curlsDesolate over the loss of her husband, Mary crawls into his study (read: mancave, circa 1911) and curls up with his smoking jacket to comfort herself. Let me mention that the naturalistic light in this final scene, seemingly from the single source of a fireplace, resembles a moving Rembrandt: hauntingly exquisite and warm.

The husband returns, shambling in, filled with remorse; as he looks down, he unexpectedly sees his wife. Overcome with happiness at finding that she never ceased to love him, he goes in for a kiss and she shares his joy. Until she smells the tobacco on his breath and coughs. But snuggles with him anyway. The sophisticated mixture of melancholy and humor in this conclusion save it from pure sentimentality. (One suspects that Chaplin picked a thing or two from watching Pickford one-reelers.) We realize that these flawed young married people have lost a few illusions, but gained a firmer bond of friendship and consideration. Knowing how it feels to get hurt, they will try not to hurt each other anymore.

You can watch “The Dream,” the second film on the program, online, and I eagerly recommend that you do, if only for the pleasure of watching alternate-universe Mary Pickford totally trash a living room. In the brief fantasy-allegory, another less-than-ideal husband goes out drinking and treats his wife horribly. Crashing on the sofa, he has a dream where his wife acts like him—a brazen, sardonic lush, who goes about drinking, shattering the china, and staying out late partying. He wakes up screaming, relieved to find his sweet real-life wife just as she was, and recognizes the treasure that was under his nose all along.

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(Library of Congress.)

Both short films humorously advocate for equality and trust within marriage. The one-reelers focus on women who start to behave like their wayward husbands (whether in real life or in fantasy) and, in so doing, force their husbands to recognize the error of their own ways. Ironically, Pickford’s life mirrored her art—but without the happy ending. According to Schmidt, Pickford married her co-star Owen Moore two days before the release of “Their First Misunderstanding.” The nightmare marriage paralleled the bad relationship that we witness at the beginning of “The Dream” and ended in divorce. Alas, Moore didn’t learn from his onscreen acts of repentance.

It’s hard not to detect feminist undertones in the onscreen depiction of macho spouses who neglect their wives and expect them to deal with it—but who freak out when their wives pay them back in kind. The movies astutely illustrate how a husband’s lack of respect for his wife, combined with the abuse of his greater social freedom, can ruin an otherwise happy union.

I especially appreciated the nuances that Pickford brought to her character in “Their First Misunderstanding.” Unlike the droll polar personas in “The Dream,” she doesn’t strike us as either a passive bride or a scarlet woman, and flirts with another man only after her husband starts misbehaving. She may not be perfect, but she certainly comes closer than her husband. Pickford’s light touch for this sort of romantic farce comedy makes us sympathetic to her plight; we enjoy her enjoying herself, but ultimately root for her to make the right decision and turn her husband back into the man she married. Because she is clever, beautiful, and loving, she succeeds.

While these films still place most of the burden of keeping a marriage together on the women, at least they honor that burden. I imagine that Pickford’s performances and scenarios motivated quite a few husbands in the audience (in 1911 and last night) to appreciate their wives more, lest they threaten to run off with the next leering poet they meet!

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William Beaudine’s Sparrows features one of the strongest, feistiest female protagonists I know of. Pickford’s performance as Molly, a spunky teenager who leads a group of orphans through miles of dangerous swamps in a desperate escape from a brutal “baby farm,” inspired the steely role of Miss Cooper in Night of the Hunter (1955). Lillian Gish immortalized that part, but as Christel Schmidt noted, this was unusual, considering her frail star image in the silent days, in contrast to Mary Pickford’s up-by-her-bootstraps persona. “Lillian Gish would get trapped on an ice floe and need to be saved by Richard Barthelmess, whereas Mary Pickford might save Lillian Gish from an ice floe.”

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It was inspiring to savor the audience’s vibrant reactions to the film. Some of us even hissed and booed the vile Mr. Grimes and his nasty family. Unfortunately, the DVD print projected was not a good one, but accompanist Jeff Rapsis more than compensated for this by creating a delightfully suspenseful score. Having seen the film on DVD with a recorded score, I admired how Rapsis delicately underplayed the maudlin aspects of the film, instead highlighting its rich blend of poignant humor and tense action, all graced with glimmers of tenderness. I also have no idea how Rapsis managed, at certain key moments, to ring a bell WHILE playing his keyboard, but somehow he did. He’s also written up a wonderful piece on his blog about creating a score for the rediscovered one-reeler, which makes for terrific reading.

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Without a doubt, the entire evening will take an honored place among my filmgoing memories. However, I keep circling back to those 11 minutes that no audience had collectively experienced for almost a century. As Christel Schmidt said, “This film wanted to come back to us.” This encounter was meant to be.

I found my mind drifting to the Japanese concept of ichi-go-ichi-e, or “one time, one meeting,” the idea of something that happens only once in a lifetime, that acquires a tremendous weight of destiny through its uniqueness. Cinema is almost the opposite of this—a film is the same every time you see it. Or is it? You never see the same film twice, because you are different each time. The screening of “Their First Misunderstanding” brought on this epiphany, because of the sheer onceness of that particular encounter. We live in the midst of this onceness and never quite realize it. The moviegoers who went to see that film in 1911—could they have imagined how irreplaceably precious it would become to us?

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(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)

Cinema is my personal religion, so I can only describe what I felt last night as a vision, in many senses of the word. The imprint of light, of time, is caught on celluloid. Once that celluloid is gone, the soul of that moment returns no more. What was rescued from a little New Hampshire barn, then, wasn’t merely a museum piece, but a relic, something saturated with long-lost memories. At the risk of sounding a little too Proustian, the screening of “Their First Misunderstanding” last night was the restoration of lost time, the opening of a portal to another world that had been closed to us for longer than the span of the average human life.

In 1911, there were still a large number of people who scoffed at the idea that images produced by a machine could provoke laughter, tears, affection. But Mary Pickford knew different; she publicly heralded film as an art when few others would’ve dared to use the word. I think that she would have been proud to witness her films flood into a theater so removed from their time and place, yet magically connected to those bygone days through the power of the seventh art.

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Screening Report: Laughing and Jammin’ with the Silents in Brandon, Vermont

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I live in the middle of nowhere. Hope it doesn’t shatter any illusions for you, dear readers, that I’m not sitting by the pool of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel with a Piña Colada.

I follow the screening reports of my blogger friends Will of Cinematically Insane and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen with interest and, if I’m honest, a fair dose of loving envy.

So, needless to say, when film culture comes to this sleepy neck of the woods, I do my best to be there.

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Each summer, writer-educator-composer-awesome-guy Jeff Rapsis enriches the little town of Brandon with a series of silent films and shows them as they were meant to be enjoyed: on a big screen with live accompaniment. Last night, Rapsis lent his musical talents to improvising along with Harold Lloyd’s Dr. Jack and Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances on his 70-pound musical synthesizer.

In a recent interview with the Rutland Herald, Rapsis likened his original performances to “‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ for movies. When it works well, nothing is better—you can’t write down the kind of music you come up with when it’s working right. I don’t even know where it comes from sometimes, I sit there as amazed as anybody when it comes together.”

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It certainly came together in Brandon Town Hall last night. The best screen comedy continues to feel fresh and imminent even years after its release—as though the ending might turn out different every time, as if Harold Lloyd might not win the girl, as if one of those great big papier-mâché boulders really might wipe out poor Buster. Rapsis’s splendidly paced improvisations enhanced that sense of risky timing, creating the illusion that the gags and pratfalls were unfolding spontaneously.

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For several years, the town of Brandon has been restoring its majestic town hall, which Rapsis praises for its beautiful acoustics. This marks my third summer travelling there to watch Rapsis perform along with a varying selection of silent films, from The General to The Phantom of the Opera.

The hall’s idiosyncratic projection system occasionally adds extra nail-biting tension to the screenings. When the picture started to skip and freeze during the poker scene in Dr. Jack last night, I nearly cracked under the pressure. Fortunately, the hall has no heating, and a pre-autumn draft quickly cooled me down. However, such foibles only make the experience more pleasurable and genuine. Today’s technical difficulties just substitute for the projection room mishaps of the 1920s.

vlcsnap-2013-09-15-22h20m49s254I love that the packed audiences filling the town hall echo the crowds that a Keaton or Lloyd film would’ve drawn back in the 1920s—people of all ages, looking for a good laugh. I mean, I’ve watched silents in total silence with a pretentious crew of proto-Godard hipsters at the Cinémathèque Français, and I infinitely prefer the down-to-earth glee of Brandon’s audience members, who go because it’s fun, not because it’s trendy. It warms the cockles of my heart to sit there chuckling along with whole families, from toddlers to grandparents, at movies made almost 100 years ago. I frequently worry that silent movies will only become more and more distant to today’s public, but the screening last night confirmed the universality of silent comedy and dispelled my fears.

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Hey, Buster, lighten up! We all still love you!

Jeff Rapsis not only provided delightful keyboard accompaniment for each film, but also said a few words to contextualize the two comedies. Offering a brief plot summary of Dr. Jack, he explained, “It takes place in a little town… which I always think of as Brandon, Vermont.” Sure enough, when Harold Lloyd encountered a roadblock of cows (what we call Vermont gridlock), the audience roared with laughs of recognition. Now, if I can just find a reasonable Dr. Jack equivalent in my town to cure my ills…

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Although I’d say the audience howled equally at each film, Dr. Jack seemed like the revelation of the night. I could perceive viewer reactions shifting from “Harold Who?” to “I LOVE him!” Unfortunately Lloyd’s own sensitivity about how and when his films could be shown have kept his masterpieces in relative obscurity. As Rapsis noted, “He kind of lost his audience over the years, but now he’s being rediscovered by a new generation.” Thanks to the evocative music, spectators quickly got into the spirit of the proceedings. The first big laugh actually came in response to an intertitle, for crying out loud! 

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Rapsis channeled Dr. Jack’s charming blend of sly trickery and quaint goodwill. I marvel at how the live score alternated between creating ambiance, commenting on the action, and even taking the place of sound effects—as with the thundering chords to punctuate the football that lands Dr. Von Saulsbourg’s hat in his own soup. The music also amped up the frenetic humor of vampire-ish Harold Lloyd as “Humpy” the escaped convict and the manic hijinks of the household he terrorizes to “cure” imaginary invalid Mildred Davis.

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Throughout Seven Chances, the score included a number of funny variations of Wagner’s Wedding March from Lohengrin. The upbeat tune, better known as “Here Comes the Bride” comically sounded out in ominous keys during James Shannon’s many marital strike-outs, as he rushes to get married in a matter of hours to inherit a fortune. However, when Buster finally walks off with the girl he loves, it was Mendelssohn’s joyful march that we heard. I was particularly impressed by how Rapsis sustained suspense throughout the climactic mob of brides chase sequence, which, just as it seems like it can’t get more absurd, somehow does.

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In a few weeks, on September 28, Jeff Rapsis will again be performing a live score for Seven Chances at the 21st Annual Buster Keaton Celebration in Buster’s birthplace of Iola, Kansas, so it was a real privilege for me to enjoy a taste, an intimate preview, of that wonderful event without having to fly across the country. Although he has provided a live score for the movie before, Rapsis told me that he specifically chose Seven Chances for the Brandon program far in advance, as an opportunity to “warm up” and “get the movie in my head” shortly before the big day in Kansas.

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 5.25.59 PM The electric combination of a brilliant recorded performance and a pitch-perfect, astonishingly synchronized live performance not only impressed me last night, but also will doubtlessly make Dr. Jack and Seven Chances feel a bit more alive when I watch them next—albeit with less interesting scores! Screenings like those at the town hall were the first to help me understand why every movie theater needed at least a violin and a pianist to provide live music in the silent era. You haven’t really seen comedies like Dr. Jack and Seven Chances until you’ve seen ’em this way. So, last night the quiet little town of Brandon vibrated with laughter, proving that silent comedies were never really silent—and neither were their audiences.

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