This is the year I've had to admit that I know very little about film; but—rather than that being distressing news—I see it as a welcome opportunity to learn and to fill in the gaps of my knowledge, film by film, auteur by auteur, genre by genre.
This weekend it's silent film at San Francisco's 11th Annual Silent Film Festival, venued at the Castro Theatre. Artistic Director Stephen Samuels was kind enough to provide me a press pass for which I am deeply grateful. I'm also informationally indebted to Jonathan Marlow for his erudite overview for The Greencine Daily, Johnny Ray Huston's recommendations for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and—though David Jeffers of SIFFBlog admits it's a daunting task writing about silent classics that have been the subject of books, college courses and even organized fan clubs—he nonetheless provides insightful spins on Seventh Heaven, Sparrows, Pandora's Box, The Unholy Three, and Show People (with more to follow, no doubt). Anne M. Hockens is helping him out over at SIFFBlog with her own takes on why silent film matters and Seventh Heaven. And—as if that isn't enough to chew on—the program guide for the festival is a rich collection of well-written essays by David Kiehn, Margarita Landazuri, Aimee Pavy, Laura Horak, Christel Schmidt, Shari Kizirian, Stacey Wisnia, Anna Avrekh, Richard Hildreth, and Scott Brogan. So there's really not much need for me to comment on the films themselves other than for shooting from the hip emotionally and I'll focus instead on the on-stage appearances, of which the festival programmers have provided plenty.
Friday's opening night feature was a brand new print of Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. Clark Wilson provided dynamic accompaniment on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer and Janet Gaynor's son, Robin Adrian, delivered a heartfelt centenary tribute to his mother.
"Its syrupy melodrama and creaking sentimentality can still bring tears to your eyes," Jonathan Marlow cautions and that's exactly what happened. I found myself crying—not for anything necessarily sad on the screen—but for the hopefulness of love and the dream that it can even exist in a world too cynical to grant it credence or—as David Jeffers phrases it—the film's "rapturous and poetic fulfillment of young love." Gaynor—who, incidentally, was once an usherette at the Castro Theatre—won the very first Best Actress Oscar for her heartwrenching portrayal of Diane, and Charles Farrell as Chico was so damn handsome you could completely understand why audiences used to go to movies to dream. "What makes the film great," Anne Hockens pinpoints, "is the change wrought in Diane by the redemptive power of love." She adds, "Isn't it amazing that a love story created about 80 years ago can still profoundly move a modern audience?" That's exactly what I felt. I guess, when all is said and done, we still go to movies to dream and are enraptured when movies are so finely crafted that they allow us to dream.
Margarita Landazuri, writing for the program guide, identifies Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell as "one of the great romantic teams in movie history" whose first film together "is the transcendent film romance of the silent era, and is also the first of three films starring Gaynor and Farrell directed by Frank Borzage. It established him as a director whose films focused on love as a spiritual force tested by hardship, and the transformative power of faith—which critic Andrew Sarris called 'a genuine concern with the wondrous inner life of lovers in the midst of adversity.' "
"Co-workers claimed that Borzage would weep while directing a sad scene," Landazuri continues, "and in a 1933 interview he talked about directing the actors to draw the audience into their emotions: 'Make the audience sentimental instead of the player. Make the audience act.' " That is the achievement I felt watching Seventh Heaven Friday night at the Castro. Emotion poured out of me into the screen. I wasn't passive in the slightest and neither was anyone else around me. We were all collectively participating in emotions summoned up from within us and, as Hockens noted, many were sobbing while applauding.
Gaynor's son, Robin Adrian, thanked the festival for inviting him. "As I'm sure you know," he said, "I was not born until after the end of her silent movie career and really her talkie career so all I can say are a few words about what she was like as a mother and it's kind of hard for me to believe that it's been a hundred years since her birth.
"She didn't really consider herself a celebrity even though she and my father—the designer Adrian—were considered celebrities. Both of them were extremely down-to-earth people and, as an example, I didn't even grow up in Beverly Hills. I grew up way out in the San Fernando Valley which is now all housing tracts. But at the time it was really the country. We had nothing north of us. It was all hills and three ranches went in about 1947 and we thought it was getting crowded. The town of Northridge, just as an example, was a block and a half long and all of its stores were on one side of the street. Certainly not a celebrity type of atmosphere.
"My mother finished her career when she married my father. She'd always been very hungry for knowledge and she felt like she had done her acting career, when it was over it was over and she went on to other things. My father being an artist, he exposed her to the art world. She got interested in painting, started that as a second career, and she said that one of her proudest moments was when she was featured in an article in American Artists magazine. She said at last she was considered a true artist, not a celebrity who painted, so she was very proud of that.
"When you see her in these movies you think of her as this poor little waif or this helpless little creature. She was not that way at all. She was actually quite a brave person. She and my father went to Africa in the late '40s. She drank blood and cow's milk with the Masai. They got out of there just before the Mau Mau uprisings where there were a lot of murders that took place. She had quite a few adventures. Then they moved down to Brazil in the middle-'50s, bought a coffee farm down there and the only way they could get there was either by flying in or by dirt road. So she certainly wasn't a pampered creature.
"My father had a rather early and untimely death and she ended up a few years later marrying a Broadway producer, Paul Gregory. They had a fantastic life together. They lived in an old refurbished farm house out there in Palm Springs. They had a great life together.
"As many of you know she was involved in a horrendous car accident right here in San Francisco. She never really fully recovered from that but, I'll tell you, she was a good sport and very upbeat until the end. The rest of it has to speak for itself. I can just tell you the Janet Gaynor who I knew as a mother and I was proud to have her as a mother."
Just before he sat down at the Wurlitzer, Clark Wilson addressed his audience to advise that the score he was going to perform would be a compiled score, utilizing the original 1927 love theme written by Erno Rapee for the film with additional light classic themes and various things that he hoped would fit this tremendous movie. He admitted that when he first saw Seventh Heaven he was bowled over by the beautiful love story on the screen between Gaynor and Farrell. He wanted to strive to get his music to fit under that. "I feel very small in trying to do this," he confessed, "but we'll do the best we can. Good Lord, it's a fabulous picture. So, as always, settle back in the perfumed twilight of this wonderful old electric pleasure dome and enjoy the feature you're about to see, the timeless and ageless Seventh Heaven."
07/19/06 ADDENDUM: Peter Nellhaus has added his perceptions to the screening of Seventh Heaven at Coffee, Coffee & More Coffee.