Saturday, February 23, 2013

SILENT WINTER 2013: MY BEST GIRL (1927)—Introduction by Jeffrey Vance

As Thomas Gladysz has written for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival: "My Best Girl (1927) was Mary Pickford's last silent film. Although she would make four more sound films and win an Oscar®, My Best Girl is the pinnacle of her career, an engaging comedy and an exemplary illustration of what made Pickford the most loved and most popular movie star in the world. Some even consider it their favorite Pickford film. Directed by Sam Taylor (famous for his work with Harold Lloyd), My Best Girl is the story of a Five & Dime stock girl (Pickford) who falls for the store owner's son (Buddy Rogers), who's masquerading as a new employee. The boy's parents, of course, have other ideas about the kind of girl he should marry. Pickford and Rogers (in his first role after the hugely successful Wings) are wonderful together, and their onscreen chemistry is more than apparent. In fact, in ten years time Pickford would divorce Douglas Fairbanks and marry Rogers in a sort of storybook Hollywood romance. Also in the cast of My Best Girl are Lucien Littlefield and Carmelita Geraghty."

Notably, the print shown at Silent Winter contained more footage than the DVD version. Approximately 90 minutes, with an introduction by silent film historian Jeffrey Vance and live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin on grand piano. I was particularly struck by the contemporary tenor of Pickford's performance.

Returning to the Castro stage after his introduction to The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Jeffrey Vance reiterated that Hollywood's first superstars were, of course, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Having published books on Chaplin and Fairbanks, Vance is currently following through with a volume on Pickford. Many years ago he worked as the archivist for United Artists, the company founded by Chaplin, Fairbanks and Pickford. He has also worked as archivist for the Chaplin family and is now working with the Mary Pickford Foundation. So he has spent a good portion of his life researching or working for at some point or the other these three cinema giants, but has never tired of celebrating their legacies or looking at their films. He considers them "the best of the best."

My Best Girl was Mary Pickford's first foray into contemporary characterization and material. It was one of her best films and audiences can still identify with this particular Pickford character, Maggie Johnson, the stock girl at the five and ten cents store. Audience identification was an important part of Pickford's preeminence. She was a superb actress and played a 17-year-old in My Best Girl when she herself was 35 years of age. Beyond Pickford's Maggie, the other characters are superbly drawn with specific character details. Further, the sense of place is fully captured and the love that is depicted within this romantic comedy is enchanting and also quite genuine. The leading man was to become Pickford's future husband: the 23-year-old Charles "Buddy" Rogers.

My Best Girl wasn't a super production like so many of Pickford's films from the 1920s but it's nonetheless a polished film. It was the last Pickford film shot in its entirety by Charles Rosher, her superb cinematographer. Rosher had just finished F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927) and he gave My Best Girl the same care and attention. He even developed a special lens for Pickford's close-ups. "Note, if you will," Vance pointed out, "the opening track shot from the store cash register as five and ten cent sales ring up into a lovely department store merchandise montage."

Emphasizing that My Best Girl was no ordinary romantic comedy, Vance noted that Pickford was one of the great leaders of American film and her productions were always first-class in every respect. She financed her films and was in complete control of them. She watched the dailies with the director, the cinematographer, the editor and the whole crew and then explain all her expectations for the next day's work. They would revise and refine based upon her directives. She was known as "retake" Mary Pickford.

Beyond the polish, beyond the charm, what makes My Best Girl so special is that it captures the miracle of two people falling in love with each other as their characters do. Pickford and Buddy Rogers fell in love while making this film and you can actually see it on screen. It's so hard to capture something on a cold piece of celluloid but falling in love is beautifully immortalized in My Best Girl.

Vance admitted that he came to My Best Girl with special feelings. His interest in silent cinema began with Chaplin, but his first fan letter, his first interaction with a silent film star, was with Mary Pickford. He was eight years old and the books he read indicated that Pickford lived at a famous house named Pickfair, where people used to write to Pickford by simply addressing the envelopes to Pickfair, Beverly Hills, California. So Vance wrote Pickford and received a sweet encouraging letter typed by Pickford's secretary but signed by her and including an autographed picture of her and Buddy Rogers. Pickford died about six months after Vance received her letter, which for him says a lot about her: that she would take the trouble to respond to a child's letter, thereby giving that child such encouragement that it took him on a journey that brought him to working with her foundation and standing on the Castro stage 35 years later introducing this film.

Vance knew Buddy Rogers quite well during the last six or seven years of his life. He described Rogers as a charming man with an outsized personality who came to acting as the result of a national search by Paramount Pictures for young talent. Paramount chose 10 young men and 10 young women to study acting. Upon completion of the Paramount Pictures acting school, Rogers was featured in their graduation picture, a 1926 film called Fascinating Youth. This led to other films, including the great silent aviation epic and the first Best Picture Academy Award® winner Wings (1927). Yet even more than Wings, My Best Girl "made" Buddy Rogers. He became known as "America's Boyfriend."

Vance had the opportunity to watch My Best Girl while seated next to Rogers. His valet Wilson was on Rogers's right and Vance was on his left; they were like his bodyguards. In this manner, Rogers watched half a dozen Pickford films at a silent movie theater around 1995. Before each film started he would always give a speech, basically the same introduction to all the films, and he always knew just what to say, how to get a laugh, how to provoke a tear, and how to end his introduction quickly. Pickford had been dead for over 15 years and Rogers had by this time re-married, but he acted like he was still the widower deep in grieving. His film introductions always ended with him looking upward with a tear coming down from his left eye.

While watching My Best Girl with Rogers, Vance remembered him nudging him about 15 minutes into the film and pointing out a young blonde woman holding onto his arm as they're coming out of the employee exit where Pickford's character was waiting for Buddy. The woman holding onto Rogers's arm was Carole Lombard in one of her earliest film appearances. "So look for her," Vance encouraged, "that's what Buddy would tell you, 'Look for her.' "

The most famous scene in My Best Girl finds Pickford and Rogers sitting in a large wooden packing crate. As Vance watched the film with Rogers, Rogers didn't whisper just to him or his valet Wilson but yelled out to the entire audience, "My first kiss with Mary!" It was, indeed, in that packing crate that Pickford and Rogers shared the first of many kisses. Vance observed that towards the end of the film where Rogers watches Pickford pretending she's a golddigger, Rogers had a tear in the picture streaming from his left eye, just as in all the introductions Vance had seen Rogers give before the Pickford films as the grieving widower. Well familiar with him by that point, Vance asked Rogers, "Buddy, in the last emotional scene you had a tear coming out of your left eye just like in your introductions!" and Rogers looked at Vance with a twinkle in his eye and said, "The Paramount School of Acting!"

Buddy Rogers might be remembered as the man who succeeded Douglas Fairbanks as the husband to Mary Pickford. They married in 1937, 10 years after making My Best Girl, and their marriage lasted 42 years until her death. It was a tumultuous marriage to be sure but it worked. He helped administer her foundation after her death, which continues its important work to this day.

SILENT WINTER 2013: THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924)—Introduction by Jeffrey Vance

As Thomas Gladysz has written for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival: "The Thief of Bagdad shows Douglas Fairbanks at the top of his form. Directed by Raoul Walsh and adapted from One Thousand and One Nights, the story revolves around a thief (Fairbanks) who falls in love with the daughter (Julanne Johnston) of the Caliph of Bagdad. To win her hand, the thief must bring back the world's rarest treasures. This rousing fantasy is replete with flying carpets, winged horses, and underwater sea monsters. Exquisite camerawork and lavish sets support the film's special effects, all of which make The Thief of Bagdad a wildly entertaining spectacle. Also in the cast are Snitz Edwards, Sôjin [Kamiyama], and the lovely Anna May Wong. Inducted into the National Film Registry in 1996 and voted one of AFI's top 10 classics in 2008, The Thief of Bagdad has recently received a crisp new restoration. That restoration will be shown at the Winter event."

Co-presented by Fandor, and introduced by film historian Jeffrey Vance with live musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, The Thief of Bagdad was hands-down my favorite selection from this year's Silent Winter program; an uplifting and spirited fantasy-adventure.

Douglas Fairbanks—along with Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin—was one of the first Hollywood superstars. He was also one of the best creative producers in American film and one of Hollywood's great leaders. Fairbanks came to films as a Broadway star, transitioned into films first as a screen satirist, then as the great screen swashbuckler. Beyond that, he was a civic leader, an independent producer, the first president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the developer of America's first film school, now called the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Fairbanks' film collection was one of the most important and earliest deposits of the fledgling Museum of Modern Art film library. So Fairbanks was at the forefront of many important things; a great leader; a great artist.

The Thief of Bagdad is generally considered to be Douglas Fairbanks's greatest film. It was also his personal favorite of all his own films. The film's superb visual design, spectacle, visual effects and Fairbanks's performance all contribute to making this his masterpiece. It took 65 weeks to make and the sets covered 6½ acres at the Pickford-Fairbanks studio lot in West Hollywood. It was also one of the largest and most expensive films made up until that time. The negative cost for The Thief of Bagdad was a little over 1.1 million dollars; an enormous sum for an American film at that time.

Raoul Walsh was chosen by Fairbanks as the film's director. Although it was the type of fantasy film that Fairbanks wanted to make, it was not exactly Walsh's cup of tea. Nevertheless, Fairbanks was confident of Walsh's capabilities to coordinate the unusually large production and he enjoyed Walsh's sense of humor and practical jokes. Yet Raoul Walsh was hardly mentioned in the reviews for The Thief of Bagdad and that was because it was understood at the time that Fairbanks was the dominant creative force. "I bet it's a hard thing for film critics and people who write about film to understand," Vance commented, "but the past is a foreign country and they did things differently there." Fairbanks was the show. He was the person who put this film together and it disturbed Vance when his friends at the Cohen Film Collection called it Raoul Walsh's Thief of Bagdad, "when it wasn't, it isn't, it's Douglas Fairbanks's Thief of Bagdad."

Fairbanks—not Raoul Walsh—hired William Cameron Menzies, a former commercial artist, as the film's art director. Fairbanks wanted the design of the film to first and foremost suggest the extravagance and imagination that was wonderful in the Arabian Nights tales. Fairbanks was also inspired by the German spectacles he had seen, as well as Diaghilev's ballets, particularly Scheherazade: Diaghilev's great success danced by Nijinsky. Fairbanks had definite ideas for the design of the film. Fantasy pictures up until that point had been self-consciously theatrical. Fairbanks, Walsh, and Menzies worked together to create a new world for The Thief of Bagdad and they developed a design on which the whole production pivots. Applied to the Art Noveau décor, Menzies's pen-and-ink effects—which registered like a drawing on the screen—were revolutionary. Prior to The Thief of Bagdad, set designs and décor in major films had been at best and in most cases a jumble. Menzies's sets for The Thief of Bagdad created a world where the cast and the setting melded in rhythm and motion.

Fairbanks's role of Ahmed in The Thief of Bagdad was different from the roles audiences had come to expect of him. He was less the All-American "Doug" Fairbanks than a ballet dancer in the style of Nijinsky. Indeed, Fairbanks doesn't act the part as much as he dances it. The Thief of Bagdad is a spectacle, a larger-than-life film that demands the big screen, live music and an enthusiastic audience, by which the outsized performances take on a proper proportion. The Fairbanks swashbucklers were like ballet and were also an authentic projection of part of Fairbanks's personality and his instinctive flair for beauty, both in art direction and in movement.

Radiating such a larger-than-life persona, Vance has often been asked, "How tall is Douglas Fairbanks?" As actual fact, he stood 5'8" tall at the time of Thief of Bagdad and was already 40 years old and weighed 150 pounds, which—according to Raoul Walsh—was 150 pounds of muscle, not an ounce of fat. One character in the film with a bit more than an ounce of fat on him is the corpulent Persian prince. The role, however, was played by actress Mathilde Comont in an uncredited performance. Outfitted with a small moustache by the make-up department, this helped Comont create her gendered illusion. The ladies in the film of note who actually play ladies are Julanne Johnston as the Princess and the one and only Anna May Wong as the Mongol slave girl.

Probably the only thing larger-than-life than Fairbanks were the sets he surrounded himself with. These spectacular, background sets were enormous and were upward and outward expansions of his Robin Hood (1922) sets; the same foundations but with different facings put on them that ingeniously transferred Nottingham Castle into the Palace of Bagdad.

As for the visual effects, Vance quoted Charlie Chaplin and said that once a person knows how something is done, the magic is gone. He offered to answer any questions in private so as not to spoil the effect for others. The only thing he offered was that the hardest effect to achieve was that of the flying carpet, which required a 90-foot tall crane with platforms for the camera operators. Margarita Landazuri provides the working details in her essay "The Magic of the Magic Carpet" included in the festival's nifty souvenir program.

The reviews for the film were astounding and included responses from Pulitzer-prize winners like Robert Sherwood and Carl Sandburg who said this was the greatest thing ever put forward on film. The critics were ecstatic but audiences preferred Fairbanks in simpler material with less fantasy so Fairbanks never made anything as ambitious again.

The new 2K digital restoration completed by the Cohen Film Collection in 2012 insures that this great masterwork of world cinema will continue to be enjoyed well into the 21st century. Scheduled to be released on DVD and Blu-Ray the following week, Vance enthused that the Silent Winter audience was truly fortunate to have the Mont Alto Orchestra perform this superb presentation. He concluded by saying, "The Thief of Bagdad is a great work of art; but, it's also a lot of fun. If you find yourself laughing at Fairbanks, you're not clued in on the joke. You should be laughing with him. His spirit is here today, I don't doubt. His family's here. He wouldn't have wanted to miss an audience of 1400 people. He liked applause and encouragement, especially from the young and the young-at-heart, so don't hold back."

Friday, February 22, 2013

SILENT WINTER 2013: THINK SLOW, ACT FAST: BUSTER KEATON SHORTS (1920-1921)—Introduction by Frank Buxton

As Thomas Gladysz has written for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival: "Think slow, act fast" is a quote attributed to Buster Keaton. Even if apocryphal, it suggests the studied approach behind his many popular films. Keaton, whose consistently deadpan expression earned him the nickname "The Great Stone Face," was best known for his trademark physical comedy. At times, it was impossible to take your eyes off him. This program features three early Keaton shorts, each made shortly after Keaton left Fatty Arbuckle to work on his own. On the bill are One Week (1920), The Scarecrow (1920), and The Playhouse (1921), introduced by the legendary television writer and director Frank Buxton and accompanied on the grand piano by Donald Sosin. It's worth mentioning that long before he was involved with TV shows like The Odd Couple and Happy Days, Buxton worked with Keaton in Summer stock.

Frank Buxton arrived on the Castro stage wearing a baseball cap that read "Keaton's All-Stars 1926 Championship Season" and explained that Keaton was a great baseball fan (detailed in an essay by Rob Edelman). Whenever production on a film would halt due to, let's say, a camera breakdown, Keaton would play baseball. He even organized a team in Hollywood, which—as Buxton's cap memorialized—won the 1926 championship among the various motion picture industry teams. Buxton mentioned this because he had come across a Facebook page and companion website opposing plans to bulldoze Keaton's baseball field in Bluffton, Michigan for real estate development. When he was in vaudeville, Keaton and his family would spend their summers in Muskegon, Michigan where they had an actors colony. Joe Roberts—seen in all three Keaton shorts—also lived in that colony, and he and Keaton frequently played baseball.

In 1949, when Buxton was an aspiring 19-year-old theater actor, he had the marvelous opportunity to work with Keaton in a summer stock production. Their friendship began then and lasted until Keaton's death. When Keaton was 21, he quit vaudeville and entered films with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Keaton considered Arbuckle his mentor and never called him Fatty, always Roscoe. Keaton frequently said that everything he knew about motion pictures he learned from Arbuckle; but, Buxton was quick to point out, this wasn't necessarily true. Once Keaton got the chance to make his own silent films, he invented and re-invented all kinds of ways to make his films better, funnier, and more interesting.

When Keaton first worked with Arbuckle, he asked if he could take the camera home where he took it apart and put it back together again. He wanted to see how it worked. He then wanted to understand how to process film in a laboratory and how to edit film. He wanted to understand set construction and everything that went into making a motion picture. Rather than being content to simply stand in front of the camera, Keaton learned to use the camera and applied film technique to make his films that much better. But rather than go into Keaton's background, Buxton referred to Richard Hildreth's essay in the festival's souvenir program (which also features an excerpt from Malcolm H. Oettinger's 1923 article for Picture-Play magazine).

As for the shorts themselves, Buxton noted they were being shown in chronological order. One Week was actually Keaton's second film. Keaton didn't much care for his first film; but, One Week revealed his particular genius, even though Keaton always said that no one could be a genius in a flat hat and slap shoes. "Wrong!" Buxton asserted. The genesis of every single film Keaton made can be seen in One Week. He made more than 45 two-reelers. Each reel of 35mm film ran about 10 minutes and so a two-reeler was, naturally, 20 minutes in length. Within that framework, Keaton had to develop a beginning that would grab the viewer—a wonderful gag in the case of One Week—develop the plot and the gags all throughout and then finally lead to a climax that would leave the viewer laughing.

There's an evident growth from One Week through The Scarecrow to The Playhouse in what Keaton was able to do in the camera. Keaton didn't have green screen and CGI and he didn't have stunt men. He never used stunt men because he always said, "Stunt men aren't funny. They don't fall down funny; they fall down painful." But his growth as a filmmaker is evident leading up to The Playhouse, which Buxton characterized as an amazing technological feat as well as a great and funny comedy. Parenthetically—though there is a politically incorrect minstrel scene in The Playhouse where Keaton dons blackface—Buxton asked his audience to consider that minstrel shows were quite common in the 1920s, to go ahead and be sensitive to the representation, but to not blame Keaton.

To wrap up, Buxton quoted from the Damfinos' online biography of Keaton: "Keaton did more than slapstick. He had a wry wit, a deft touch for satire, breathtaking acrobatic ability and an innate and delicate touch with both black comedy and fantasy. Where his contemporaries pointed the camera at funny people doing funny things, Keaton made the camera his partner and developed a new comic vocabulary with it."

SFSFF 2013: SILENT WINTER: SNOW WHITE (1916)—Introduction by J.B. Kaufman

Walt Disney was a 15-year-old newsboy when he attended a free event at the Kansas City Convention Center in 1917 to see Miss Marguerite Clark on screen in a live-action rendition of a German fairy tale, Snow White. It was one of the first features he'd ever seen and he was hooked. "I thought it was the perfect story," Disney later explained. "It had the sympathetic dwarfs … the heavy … the prince and the girl. The romance … the perfect story."

As part of the Walt Disney Family Museum's celebration of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), and co-presented by the National Film Preservation Foundation, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival proudly presented Disney's original inspiration. Directed by J. Searle Dawley with Marguerite Clark in the lead role, the film was thought lost until materials were discovered in the Netherlands, and a print was preserved at George Eastman House. While the National Film Preservation Foundation's boxed DVD set "Treasures From American Film Archives" features the Dawley silent, that box set has since gone out of print. There was no question among the early morning audience at Silent Winter 2013 that watching the film in the Castro Theatre with live musical accompaniment provided by Donald Sosin on the grand piano was going to be a memorable launch to a day of silent cinema.

Film historian J.B. Kaufman, author of two volumes on Walt Disney—including the recently-published companion volume to the 75-year memorial Snow White exhibit at the Walt Disney Museum—likewise penned the essay for Silent Winter's exquisite souvenir program and took to the Castro stage to introduce the film. Also in the souvenir program is a lovely career profile of Marguerite Clark written by Aimee Pavy.

For those who had never seen Dawley's Snow White, Kaufman promised they were in for a treat. Admitting he could talk about this Famous Players production all day—"I've been asked very nicely not to do that"—he instead suggested that there were two ways to watch the film: as a Disney fan, or as a movie fan. Claiming membership in both groups—and presuming many in the audience could likewise claim membership in both groups—Kaufman said they would experience a double benefit watching the film.

"Watching it as a Disney fan," he explained, "your experience may be the same as mine, in that I grew up hearing how Walt had seen this film as a kid and had been inspired by it to make his own film. The first time I saw it, I was seeing it with that in mind and my first reaction was, 'Where's the connection?' This film is nothing like the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Snow White herself doesn't act or look anything like the Disney Snow White. The Queen and the Witch are still two different characters and there are any number of extraneous characters and scenes that really have nothing to do either with the Brothers Grimm or the Disney film. But then, my experience was that—as you continue to watch it and play close attention—you start to see little things, not so much the big things, but details; details of thematic material or visual cues."

By way of example, for those familiar with the Disney film, Kaufman culled out the scene where Snow White arrives at the Dwarves' cottage and is seen looking in through the window, and encouraged his audience to keep their "eyes peeled" when Snow White arrives at the cottage in this film. Also, the scene where Grumpy refuses to wash his hands and the other dwarves dunk him in a tub and wash him? That's another scene to keep in mind while watching the silent version. "So in little ways," Kaufman suggested, "we can see how the bare outlines of ideas may have impressed themselves on a 15-year-old Walt Disney and we get an idea of how his creative process works and how that seed was planted and later on he made something really unique, special and original out of that. So there is a connection, if you look closely enough."

For those watching Dawley's Snow White as movie fans, Kaufman confirmed that—in that connection—it helped to know that the film was based on a play staged in 1912, wherein Marguerite Clark also played the role of Snow White, which explains how she secured the role in the film. Dawley took some of the ideas that had been developed in the play and used them to greater freedom through the fledgling medium of film. They were able to use beloved properties of cinema to expand the story. For example, Winthrop Ames—the playwright who wrote the 1912 play—introduced the character of the brown bird as an ally that guides Snow White into the forest and comes to her aid in other ways. On the stage, this brown bird was a stuffed bird on a wire waved around in front of the scenery. With film, they were able to use a somewhat trained bird and thereby cobble together a "performance."

Of further interest are the forest exteriors for Dawley's Snow White, which were filmed outside Savannah, Georgia. Kaufman noted that fans of the Brothers Grimm tale or even the Disney animation might consider it odd to see Snow White wandering through a forest draped with Spanish moss, but conceded it was a picturesque touch.

For silent movie fans familiar with the career of Creighton Hale, Snow White affords the opportunity to see him in one of his early roles as Prince Florimond. His career went on to become quite varied. The same with actress Dorothy Cumming who plays the Queen in Snow White but who most fans might recognize from her later performance in Victor Sjöström's The Wind (1928). And, of course, Marguerite Clarke excels in the role of Snow White. Her's is a career nearly forgotten by audiences as the negatives of all her Paramount films were destroyed in a vault fire.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

SFSFF 2013: SILENT WINTER—The Evening Class Interview With Anita Monga

Anita Monga first came to my attention when she was summarily discharged as the programmer from the Castro Theatre after 16 years of devoted service. As Johnny Ray Huston wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian at the time, her dismissal sent a shock wave through San Francisco's cinephilic society and raised concerns over the future of repertory programming, let alone the loss of the Castro Theatre as a community gathering place. At the time I had just started to write about film, and hadn't yet given much thought to the art of programming, but was undeniably riveted by the controversial community boycott that ensued against the theater's owners, demanding Monga's reinstatement. It was then I grasped just how beloved she was in San Francisco (and environs beyond) and—once I began to profile programmers in the Bay Area—she was high on my list of individuals I wanted to interview, especially as she rose above those disconcerting events to reach even more accomplished heights as programmer (along with Eddie Muller) of the Noir City film festival and eventually as the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, returning to the Castro Theatre at both festivals with programming that can only be described as triumphant.

Somehow my desire to speak to Monga never happened until just last week when we finally sat down in the offices of Larsen Associates to discuss archival film festivals and the upcoming Silent Winter event (earlier profiled by Michael Hawley). My thanks to Karen Larsen for setting us up. Photo of Anita Monga courtesy of Lea Suzuki, San Francisco Chronicle.

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Michael Guillén: It's become quite clear to me in the near to 10 years that I've been covering film in the Bay Area that you are a seminal personality in the establishment of repertory film programming in San Francisco. I'm intrigued by at what point the commodification of nostalgia began to play into repertory programming? Or did it ever have any impact for you?

Anita Monga: Explain what you mean by "nostalgia".

Guillén: Well, movies in the '40s and '50s were just the movies they were, and then it seems to me that sometime in the '60s into the '70s people began to look back on these movies nostalgically and a market was created for these back titles, which were reintroduced to a public yearning for Hollywood's yesteryear. Entertainment memorabilia took off. But, again, I'm not sure if any of this influenced how you chose to program at all?

Monga: It's so interesting because I never thought of the repertory scene in San Francisco as being nostalgia-based. I do understand what you mean by that, but of course there was movie memorabilia happening from the very beginning of the industry, with regard to fans collecting things. I am not a collector so it's hard for me to speak to that urge to collect. Sometimes I think people also collect experiences. We'll get people who come to our programs not because they're particularly interested in the film itself but they're interested in collecting every filmgoing experience, though videotape and DVDs have made that easier for people to accomplish.

By no means was I here at the beginning of the repertory scene in San Francisco, which was in full bloom. My husband Peter Moore was one of the founders of the Roxie Cinema. There was a booming repertory scene at the time because, again, at that time people didn't have videotape or DVDs and the only time you could see these images—which were important, people remembered that there had been these images, people wrote books about them—was at a repertory cinema.

Guillén: I remember when I arrived in San Francisco in 1975 that there were several repertory houses, which have since bitten the dust.

Monga: Ah yes, the repertory scene was tremendous at that time. I became involved with the Roxie in 1979. Then I started programming the York Theatre in 1984 and then the Castro in 1988. My approach was to put together the most interesting programs and plumb the kind of history of films for ones that I felt people needed to see to be—I never thought of this as an educational process, but—there are films that people need to see. Everyone needs to see Citizen Kane. To be a well-rounded human being, and to understand Western culture, you need to see certain films, as well as read certain books. So I guess that was my approach. I don't mean to sound like I was thinking didactically at the time; but, definitely for me it was a process of sharing films with people.

Guillén: So repertory programming took off, it was in full flower when I arrived, and then unfortunately one by one we began to lose our repertory theaters. But then a kind of morphing happened. Repertory programming of these older titles became grouped under what would officially be called a film festival. So instead of just having noir programming, we now had Elliot Lavine's noir, "not necessarily noir", precode and film maudit series at the Roxie, or Noir City currently at the Castro. Instead of just showing silent cinema here and there, the Silent Film Festival came into being. Can you speak at all to that transition? Under the aegis of a "film festival", did your programming shift in any way?

Monga: What I can tell you is that cinema going has morphed. People can see films in their homes. As special theaters have closed, as theater going for archival films has decreased, there's a necessity to package these films in a way that gets attention. I can tell you this too: in programming the Castro for 365 days of the year, I would be astounded when someone would come along with a festival and suddenly people would be like, "Oh! I never get to see this film! Let's go to the festival." And it really was a matter of packaging. Suddenly you focused their attention. You said, "Come this two weeks, we're doing a series, and this will be the time you get to see it." But the same programming that we would be slogging away 365 days a year suddenly became extremely special. Packaging films within festivals became a necessity. When you live in a city like San Francisco that has a lot of cultural events, and specifically a lot of film cultural events, there becomes a lot of competition for people's brains and you have to find a way to break through that.

Again, with classic film programming you can pretty much program your own festival in your own home—depending upon how fast your internet connection is—at any time of day or night. However, the Silent Film Festival is a little different because we're doing something you can't really do in your own home; but, other festivals—like Noir City for instance—what makes that festival so special is because it has such a huge amazing audience that comes together.

Guillén: You're defining the celebratory—in fact, "festive"—aspect of a film festival?

Monga: Eddie Muller is a great showman. He combines erudition with showbiz and it's a killer combination. Plus getting these films in the best possible prints, which we take great care to project properly in the Castro Theatre. We're working with the great Jeff Root, the Castro's projectionist, to make sure that every print is projected well and—not only that—but not built up on the big reel so we can bring these films in from archives from around the world. They go out in the same condition that they came in. That's what's really important and why the Castro and the Pacific Film Archive and the San Rafael Film Center are such important venues, because they still maintain 35mm projectors reel to reel. Also, the Castro has DCP presentation so as studios are making classic film DCPs, the Castro can show these in the best possible way.

The point I was making about the Silent Film Festival that audiences are unable to duplicate in their own home is the live musical accompaniment, which is impossible at home. You can find a lot of silent films out on the internet but they're not necessarily good-looking, neither framed right nor at the right frames per second, and often with excretable music. What the Silent Film Festival offers is a different approach.

Guillén: The Silent Film Festival is a jewel in the festival landscape; one of my all-time favorites that I anticipate each year in both its winter and summer sessions. I brag about it to everyone I know and thank you for your generosity in allowing me to attend each year.

Monga: It's a magical thing. And thank you too for getting the word out. One of the difficulties the Silent Film Festival faces is that these films are not as easily accessible. People can't educate themselves at home as readily. Often they've been shown silent films at the wrong aspect ratio and at the wrong frames per second, such that they play to all the creaky aspects of the silent era. People make commercials that use overwrought acting that stands in for silent cinema so that moviegoers think the films from the silent era are all herky-jerky movement, overacted, or acting that's not recognizable to contemporary tastes. There's a whole part of the history of film that they have no idea exists and the point is that the silent era was incredibly influential to filmmakers working today. If you're at all cognizant of what happened in the silent era, you can watch movies now and see how clearly some filmmaker was influenced by German expressionism, or a comic turn. Comedy hasn't … well, I'm trying to put a plug in here for Buster Keaton.

Guillén: Please do!

Monga: Keaton was an absolute genius of cinema. And I'm not talking about silent cinema, I'm talking about cinema period. No one has surpassed Buster Keaton in intellectual, physical, or technical prowess. He was a genius at film itself. He understood that form of storytelling. Keaton happened to be making his masterpieces at a time when sound could not be married to the film print; but, that doesn't mean his films don't live forever. That's why virtually every festival we put on has a Keaton program included. People need to know.

Guillén: To backtrack just a bit, you mentioned your husband Peter Moore started the Roxie Cinema and that you started programming there. Had you had any previous experience or training before then? Did you study film programming in university?

Monga: No. There were four original partners at the Roxie: Peter, Tom Mayer, Dick Gaikowski, and Robert Evans, who was my friend Curt McDowell's boyfriend. Robert and Peter worked at the old Mitchell Brothers together and then Robert researched the idea to start the Roxie, which had been an old burlesque house.

Guillén: When I first moved to San Francisco I lived in an apartment on Sanchez Street where I paid $100 for a top floor flat, which dates me….

Monga: I paid $70!

Guillén: [Laughs.] Anyways, the Roxie was a few blocks down 16th Street and—since I didn't have a television at the time—I was really happy when it was converted into a moviehouse because I could use it as my "television" each evening.

But returning to this "transformation" of repertory programming into film festival programming, it's now being distinguished even further as archival film festival programming with an attendant focus on film preservation and restoration. From what you're telling me, you have basically gone through all these transitions and learned about each one of them on the job?

Monga: Yes, I guess you could say that. Again, my whole modus operandi is to share the films that I love with other people. I came to the Roxie through Curt McDowell who was a filmmaker in the '70s. He was at the Art Institute and worked with George Kuchar. They were in a relationship before he met Robert Evans. Curt and I had worked together and decided to throw a midnight show. We came to Robert, his boyfriend, and my future husband Peter and asked if we could do a midnight show at the Roxie. They said sure. Curt and I put together a program of Curt's short films. We did the advertising. The Roxie gave us a spot in their calendar. I designed that. Then it was kind of like, "Oh, I like this."

Guillén: I bet! I've long argued that film programming is a creative cultural act and that's why I've enjoyed interviewing programmers over the years. The craft and art of programming fascinates me. In terms of the "archival film festival"—providing programming by dipping into film archives and securing 35mm prints—were you negotiating with archives from the get-go?

Monga: No. Originally it was all from the studios. In fact, even before I began programming, these were films that sat on the shelves in film depots that were considered useless. Then programmers got the idea to show these in cinemas because it was very inexpensive to do so and they could get flat deals with the studios. Then the studios suddenly realized, "Oh, people are making money off these films" so then they started insisting upon percentage. But for a while there was quite a use for old prints, before video came in and put a lot of theaters out of business.

There was a time in the early '80s when that kind of repertory programming became really difficult and audience attendance dropped. So we had to do some rethinking and that was in my heyday. Part of what I brought to the scene at that time was the idea of approaching the studios and suggesting, "If you make a new print of this film from your original materials, we'll show this for a week at the Castro Theatre as a kind of first run film" and that was quite successful. We would program night-by-night series but then run a new print of Citizen Kane or Rebecca for a week with media playing along to help draw attention to it. Now it's common for the studios to do that and make a big deal about certain titles in their archives; but, yeah, how I've negotiated securing prints for programming has changed a lot.

Guillén: I respect how you characterize your programming as the wish to share films you believe should be seen and distinguish that it's not directly an educational impulse. When I recently spoke with Elliot Lavine, he pretty much said the same thing. He doesn't feel a need to educate his audiences; he simply wants to show them the films and have them come to their own conclusions through their own experience. He doesn't want to be out in front before the movie starts telling audiences what they should be looking for or anything like that. He wants the films to speak for themselves. By contrast, Eddie Muller at Noir City promotes a valuable and distinct literacy through his introductions. What for you is the value of the archive as it is understood for programming today? Is it important for you to show films that are not on DVD or available in any other medium?

Monga: I have to tell you that has always been a funny thing between Eddie and me because I could care less if a film is on DVD or any other media. There remains a value for people to come to the cinema as an experience aesthetic. When you're watching a film in a big room with other people, it's very different from seeing it on your computer at home. I watch films on my computer at home. In fact, I get irritated when I can't watch a film because it's not available by streaming—I want it and I want it now!—but, it is no substitute for the in-cinema experience. A film that is worthwhile is meant to be seen again and again.

I believe in the curated experience. I like to listen to Bonnie Simmons on KPFA, for instance, who has a Thursday night show where she takes you through music that you might know, might not know, but it's the way she puts it together that's interesting. That kind of curation is what archival festivals are doing. I wouldn't call my approach educational but I do think that's what we offer. There's a reason people are going to see Elliot's programs: it's because Elliot put it together for some reason, which is a curated experience, whether or not he stands out front and tells people what the film is about. I agree. I don't like someone saying, "And this is what this means in what you're going to see." But I do find that introductions of Eddie's sort put the film within context and allows you—ahead of time—to look for something you might not have known before as the film is unfolding.

Guillén: In recent years I've been much interested in the distinction between programming and curation. Are you saying that curation is personality-driven? That audiences are choosing certain films by way of curatorial taste and not just the films themselves?

Monga: I have no idea. I can't enter into that discussion. I don't call myself a curator; I call myself a programmer, which sometimes causes people to say, "Oh, you work with computers?" I do think programs bear the personality of the person who programs them, or—if you prefer the term—curates them. Not everything within a program is there because it's a personal favorite; but, every film is there for a reason, to either fill out the program or to bring people in who you really want to see other films in the program. The selection process is not willy-nilly and—when you're doing it well—I don't think audiences necessarily know that the programmer / curator is shaping a program; but, it has been shaped.

Guillén: I'd like to talk to you about the structural rhythm of a film festival and how you situate your selection of films within the festival in a certain shape—as you say—or rhythm by which the spectator experiences (even without knowledge) the feeling of how the films flow. Let's say you've decided upon your program, you've chosen your films, how do you then decide which film to use to profile or promote the festival, either for the festival poster, advertising, or opening night? If a larger festival, your centerpiece and your closing night film? How much thought do you give to that, or is it something of a magical process?

Monga: A lot of thought goes into that, of course, and there are many different reasons for making particular choices. A lot of times the film we choose to highlight has just been through a major restoration. But, yes, I guess it is also a magical process because I can't even put it into words. With regard to the Silent Film Festival, we're conscious of how the music flows. I wouldn't program Faust as the first film in the morning, for instance, and that's why it's showing at night. There are certain audiences you have in mind for specific films, which you realize fit well. Sometimes it's just expedience sake; but, again, it's hard to talk about this because it's intuitive for me as a programmer. Where The Thief of Bagdad and My Best Girl are placed in the program could have been easily interchangeable and flipped, except for the running times. Also, with The Thief of Bagdad we wanted to make sure that families with children are able to come and experience it in the afternoon without it being too late. Yet another factor is that certain musicians have to be taken to the airport to be flown out on specific flights. So there are all kinds of expedient reasons for situating the films the way we do. For our summer festival, it's more a process of rhythm than the winter event.

Guillén: I guess this is on my mind because of something Eddie Muller said on stage this past Monday when he breathed a sigh of relief and said, "We've made it through the weekend and now it's Monday and these films are for you, the diehard fans." I liked that recognition that there's a rhythm to reception.

Monga: Of course. There's no reason to put the new restoration of Sunset Blvd. on a Monday. No matter how many times people have seen Sunset Blvd., a restored version is going to be a big draw so you schedule that on a weekend so that everyone can come and experience that. At Noir City there's always a San Francisco noir night, a Bad Girls night, and there always B-movies that are for the diehards and those get programmed on the weekdays.

Each day has its own flow too. My intuitive sense is that Monday was stronger than Tuesday, but it's not if you look at the box office reports. It took a long time for that to drive home to me because it was a sense that came from my own personal body: I would rather go to a movie on Monday night than Tuesday night. There's not a lot of difference between a Monday night program and a Tuesday night program, but—you do this long enough—and it becomes apparent that Saturday night is bigger than Friday and on Sunday night people don't stay out late.

Guillén: Can you speak to the reasoning behind using the winter event to market the summer event, and how much of the summer program you decide to announce?

Monga: Well, as opposed to having an audience every day of the year, the Silent Film Festival has a captive audience, people who we know are interested, so we … well, do you mean announcing the dates for the festival? Or announcing the actual program?

Guillén: Both, actually. In terms of media relations, I'm intrigued by whenabouts you start announcing? I'm aware that sometimes a program isn't fully in place yet so there are some things that just can't be announced, but I'm interested in how you start enticing your captive audience to mark their calendars? I consider the San Francisco Silent Film Festival a destination event and—especially, let's say, with last winter's Napoleon screenings—people were drawn in from all over the world, necessitating airfare and lodging way in advance. So how do you come up with a marketing plan to entice your targeted audience?

Monga: Well, we're going to be announcing something quite exciting at the winter event. [Anita then shared the news with me, but for purposes of enticement I leave it to the festival to announce.] This development has made it a heavy year for us at SFSFF because that special event will be in June, and then we'll have our summer festival in July, which—even as we talk—I'm lining up films for that program. We tease the event, but we don't tease the individual films. We'll do that at an individual press conference in May. We try to engage the media and keep the event fresh. We unfold certain news to our membership before we offer it to the general public, as an effort to make it special to be a member of the festival.

Guillén: That's interesting how the role of membership plays into the rollout of a program announcement.

Now to wrap up here, let's focus a bit on Silent Winter. I was intrigued by your including J. Searle Dawley's Snow White (1916). This has clearly been the year for Snow White with two big studio productions (Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror Mirror), as well as what I consider to be the most beautiful of the bunch: the Spanish production Blancanieves. Can you talk a bit about why you programmed the early silent version of Snow White?

Monga: J.B. Kaufman of the Walt Disney Family Museum contacted me about a restoration of the Dawley film in the last few years. The film had been thought lost but was found in an archive in the Netherlands. One of the organizations that pushed for that restoration was the National Film Preservation Foundation, which is located here in San Francisco. The Walt Disney Family Museum is celebrating the 75th anniversary of Disney's Snow White with an amazing exhibit. The 1916 silent is, of course, not a Disney picture, and it's live-action with Marguerite Clark as Snow White.

Guillén: But it was the inspiration for Disney's version, wasn't it?

Monga: It was indeed. And that's why we're showing it. That's our modus operandi and why the Walt Disney Family Museum is co-presenting the screening. It was a film that Walt Disney saw in Kansas City when he was a young man. It was a magnificent event actually at the Kansas City Convention Center where they mounted four screens and thousands of people all around the auditorium watched this huge exhibition of Snow White. Disney was there among those thousands and it left a big impression on him. Although Disney's version is very different—animated for one—I think Marguerite Clark's portrayal of Snow White made a huge impression on him. There are elements of Disney's Snow where you can see Marguerite's performance.

Guillén: With audiences becoming more literate about silent cinema—largely through the efforts of the Silent Film Festival, but also the appearance in recent years of films like The Artist, Hugo and Blancanieves—would the SFSFF ever consider a "continuity of image" series that profiles some of these more recent efforts alongside the archival material to show the influence on silent cinema on contemporary films?

Monga: What we do in that regard and how we approach the subject is that each year we have what we call the "Director's Pick", where we invite a filmmaker to choose one film out of our series and talk about how that film has had an influence on his or her career (we haven't had any hers yet). What we're trying to do is to let people know that these images aren't just set in the distant past that has no relevance to our contemporary world; but, that the cinema we see today has an indirect or direct connection to the silent era. I get why people think that watching a silent film is going to be boring, antiquated or an "old-timey" experience, but the Silent Film Festival is trying to do as much as possible to reverse that presumption. People still go see Shakespeare's plays or listen to symphonies of classical music or read Dickens' novels. True art transcends time.

SFSFF 2013: Michael Hawley Previews "Silent Winter"

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival's (SFSFF) one-day winter program has become a welcome tradition, helping silent film fanatics endure the long months between the organization's main festival held each July. While last year's winter event took the form of a triumphant mounting of Abel Gance's Napoleon at Oakland's Paramount Theatre, this year it's back to the Castro Theatre for a single 13-hour marathon of silent era classics. Transpiring on Saturday, February 16, Silent Winter 2013's five programs—a silent Snow White, a trio of Keaton shorts, a Douglas Fairbanks blockbuster, Mary Pickford's last silent and F.W. Murnau's Faust—are all SFSFF premieres and I can't imagine missing out on any of them. Here's a closer look at what's in store.

10:00 A.M. Snow White (1916, USA, dir. Searle J. Dawley)—Legend has it that a 16-year-old newsboy named Walter Elias Disney attended a free screening of this movie at the Kansas City Convention Center in 1917, and it became the prime inspiration for his 1937 feature debut, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Director Dawley already had film versions of Hansel and Gretel (1909), Frankenstein (1910) and A Christmas Carol (1910) under his belt when he adapted Winthrop Ames' popular 1912 Broadway stage play. Actress Marguerite Clark, who starred in the original stage version, returned to portray Snow White at the age of 33. Standing 4' 10" tall, the diminutive Clark was Hollywood's second biggest movie star in the years immediately following WWI (Mary Pickford being first), and of the 40 movies she made only three exist today. Snow White was also considered lost until materials discovered in a Dutch film archive led to a new restoration by the George Eastman House. This screening will be introduced by J.B. Kaufman, author of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Creation of a Classic, which was released in conjunction with the Walt Disney Family Museum's ongoing exhibition of the same name. While the film is considered static and stagey even by 1916 standards, it is appreciated today for its imaginative art direction and Clark's spritely performance. Incidentally, the dwarfs in this early version of Snow White are named Blick, Flick, Glick, Snick, Plick, Whick and Quee. Accompaniment will be provided by Donald Sosin on grand piano.

12:00 Noon Think Show, Act Fast: Buster Keaton Shorts: One Week (1920), The Scarecrow (1920), The Playhouse (1921) (USA, dir. Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton)—Almost every SFSFF event includes a movie spotlighting the comic genius of Buster Keaton, and rightly so. This program gathers three shorts made immediately after The Great Stone Face outgrew the aegis of Fatty Arbuckle and began directing his own films. One Week is the hysterical tale of newlyweds attempting to build a house from a do-it-yourself kit and is the only one of the day's films I've seen previously. (I first encountered One Week at a 2003 screening in Paris that was introduced by Japanese director Hideo Nakata (The Ring, Dark Water) and saw it more recently at 2012's SF International Film Festival, with rock band tUnE-yArDs providing musical accompaniment.) The Scarecrow is best known for the Rube Goldberg-ian space and labor-saving devices that share a cramped house with Keaton and actor Big Joe Roberts, as well as some spectacular chase sequences. The Playhouse's claim to fame is a variety show in which Keaton, through some extremely innovative camera trickery, plays all the performers and audience members. This program will be introduced by SFSFF board member and Keaton acquaintance Frank Buxton. Donald Sosin again accompanies on grand piano.

2:30 P.M. The Thief of Bagdad (1924, USA, dir. Raoul Walsh)—After being thrilled by the daring-do of Douglas Fairbanks' The Mark of Zorro at last summer's festival, I'm psyched that SFSFF has programmed another of his famous vehicles this soon. Thief was Hollywood's first million dollar production and was supposedly Fairbanks' favorite amongst all his movies (he was 40 at the time of filming). Apart from seeing Fairbanks himself, I can't wait to spend two hours and 40 minutes savoring William Cameron Menzies opulent set design, numerous special effects which include flying carpets, winged horses and sea monsters, and last but not least, Anna Mae Wong as the princess' Mongol slave. I've heard some grousing about the film's digital projection, albeit in a new 2K restoration, but the opportunity to see this on the big Castro Theatre screen, at least for me, trumps any quibbles I might have over format (everything else at the SFSFF Winter Event will be in 35mm). Introducing the film will be Jeffrey Vance, author of the definitive 2008 biography, Douglas Fairbanks, and Fairbanks "aficionado extraordinaire" Tracey Goessel. Accompaniment will be by the incomparable Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

7:00 P.M. My Best Girl (1927, USA, dir. Sam Taylor)—Following a short dinner break, the evening's program begins with Mary Pickford's farewell to silent cinema. Released just three weeks after The Jazz Singer, this romantic comedy is considered by film scholars to be one of her best. (Pickford would win a Best Actress Oscar® for her first talkie, Coquette, but it was considered more of a testament to her power in Hollywood than a vote for the performance itself.) My Best Girl finds "America's Sweetheart" playing a Five and Dime stock clerk forced to train a handsome new employee (Charles "Buddy" Rogers), who in short order is revealed to be the boss' son in disguise. Pickford claimed to have prepared for the role by working as a salesclerk disguised with horn-rimmed glasses, until customers started getting wise. Rogers, fresh from his triumph in the previous year's Oscar®-winning Wings, would marry Pickford in 1936 following her divorce from Douglas Fairbanks, a marriage that lasted until Pickford's death in 1979. Be on the lookout for an uncredited appearance by Carole Lombard as a "Flirty Salesgirl." Once again, Donald Sosin accompanies on grand piano.

9:00 P.M. Faust (1926, Germany, dir. F.W. Murnau)—As it so often does with the SFSFF, a long day at the Castro Theatre fittingly ends with something dark and creepy. This time it's Murnau's acclaimed adaptation of the Faust legend, in which a learned man sells his soul to the devil. Coming just four years after his equally eerie Nosferatu, this masterpiece of German Expressionism would turn out to be Murnau's last European film. Indeed, when Faust premiered in Berlin, Murnau was already in Hollywood shooting his immortal Sunrise. Due to its elaborate production design and numerous special effects, Faust took six months to shoot and was German studio UFA's most expensive film to date, at least until the following year when they took on Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Actor Emil Jannings, who worked with Murnau previously on The Last Laugh (1924) and Tartuffe (1925), is said to give a "brilliantly nuanced, subtly comic performance" as the devil Mephisto. Accompaniment on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer will be provided, not by Dennis James, but by Christian Elliott, who is to the best of my knowledge making his SFSFF debut.

Cross-published on film-415.

Friday, February 08, 2013

NOIR CITY 11: THE OTHER WOMAN (1954)—Eddie Muller Introduction

"Who doesn't love a bad girl?" Bill Arney—the "Voice of Noir"—asked his Thursday night Noir City audience, "even when there's a hell of a price to pay? Have you really lived if you haven't lost your heart, your mind and your pocketbook to a bad girl?"

When Eddie Muller asked Miss Noir City Audra Wolfmann if she had a definition for "bad girl", Audra arched her eyebrow and retorted, "Men! You can't live with them and you can't skin them and make expensive handbags."

Muller was thrilled to introduce Hugo Haas' The Other Woman (1954) because of its pristine 35mm print, courtesy of Schawn Belston and 20th Century Fox. Belston wasn't even sure if the print had ever been through a projector. As fortunate as that was for Noir City, it reflected sadly, if indirectly, on the troubles Hugo Haas had with distribution. "Bad Girls" night at Noir City has, in recent years, become Hugo Haas night. Haas, in effect, made a career out of bad girl movies. He was a poor man's Orson Welles; a Czechoslovakian émigré who came to the United States, primarily as an actor who had a great theatrical background in Czechoslovakia, but who soon discovered when he came to Hollywood that the way to make it was to control his own product, so he would produce, write, direct and star in his own movies. "He made the same movie over and over and over," Muller joked. "They were all derivations of The Blue Angel in some way, in which a middle-aged Czechoslovakian émigré was tortured and browbeaten by some buxom, blonde bombshell. Not a bad way to make a living, I suppose. As long as he didn't spend too much money, they let him keep making the same movie."

Obviously, in the 1950s, Haas was relegated to the scrap heap—he was tasteless and no good—but, actually, his films have a lot of merit to them. They are a subset of noir and, thereby, have achieved status as a fascinating footnote in film history. The Other Woman is of particular interest because—not only was it perfect for "Bad Girls" night—but, it could easily have been slotted as the bookend to Sunset Blvd. on Noir City's program of Showbiz Noir. The Other Woman is about a director courting deals in Hollywood and the tragedy of his own making in many ways.

Of related interest is the off-the-presses publication of the fifth edition of the Noir City Annual, wherein Milan Hain has contributed a sympathetic profile of Hugo Haas. There is enthusiasm in (the former) Czechoslovakia regarding Hugo Haas being rediscovered in the U.S. and his films resurrected, primarily through Noir City festivals. This has led to a renewed appreciation of his work in his homeland. In his essay, Hain argues eloquently: "Haas was always working in the interstices between Czechoslovakia and the USA; between the center (as actor in the 1940s) and the edges of the Hollywood film industry (as producer/director in the 1950s); between dependence (on distributors and audiences) and independence; between entertainment and serious art; between fiction and autobiography; between ambition and reality. Those hybrid qualities made his work obscure and easy to dismiss. A reexamination of his work reveals, however, that these very qualities are what make Haas' films rich, interesting, and worthy of our attention as objects of both entertainment and serious study. While he is clearly not Fritz Lang or Billy Wilder, Hugo Haas was much more than a B-movie hack. In his haunted, often shambling way, he is proof that at least a portion of the auteur theory is a valid lens for examining film production." (Noir City Annual, 2013:104)

As for The Other Woman, Hain writes: "The Other Woman is Haas' most ambitious film, with many themes and motifs mirroring his own career: life in exile characterized by disillusionment and entrapment, loss of one's identity and social status, hopeless struggle with the Hollywood machinery, and the impossibility of fully realizing one's artistic visions." (Noir City Annual, 2013:101)

Cleo Moore has, perhaps, never looked so delectably curvaceous in outfits that emphasize her hourglass figure, captured affectionately by cinematographer Eddie Fitzgerald. Readers of The Evening Class might recall my earlier appreciation of "The Queen of the B-Movie Bad Girls" from Noir City 8, accompanied by a magazine rack gallery, and her swimsuit collection. Recently, watching Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) bid for the role of Marilyn Monroe in the T.V. series Smash, it occurred to me she would be perfectly cast in a biopic on Cleo Moore. I can dream, can't I?

Thursday, February 07, 2013

NOIR CITY 11: THE COME ON (1956)—Eddie Muller Introduction

Eddie Muller expressed a couple of caveats regarding the rare screening of Russell Birdwell's The Come On (1956), the second entry in Noir City's annual "Bad Girls Night". He warned that the film was so rare in fact that the print we were about to see suffered for quality, being—as far as he knew—the only 35mm print left in existence. Muller was sure that Castro Theatre projectionist Jeff Root was going to have to work very hard and "ride focus" on this film. "It doesn't really bother me to show one film in this series that is not in really good condition," Muller said, "because it does point out how significantly films can deteriorate and how important it is to do the work to preserve them."

The dilemma, Muller explained, is that some films suffer from what is called "vinegar syndrome", which is a communicable disease that films can share amongst themselves. The film actually begins to warp and deteriorate and archivists will always tell you—if you open up a film can "and it smells like a salad in there"—that's a very bad thing. "This film is starting to seem edible at this point," Muller admitted.

The Come On was an independently-produced movie made in 1956 that did not have the backing of a big studio; it's an Allied Artists picture. It was produced and directed by Russell Birdwell, who was primarily a Hollywood publicist—and though Muller claimed that The Come On was the only movie Birdwell ever directed—IMDb lists a few other projects (namely, The Girl in the Kremlin, 1957). "He is a man who is completely devoid of style," Muller confessed, then qualified, "Well, I don't know if he's a man devoid of style; he's a filmmaker devoid of style." Notwithstanding, Muller deemed the script terrific and a chance to see Sterling Hayden, Anne Baxter and John Hoyt.

As Muller synopsizes in Noir City's snazzy souvenir program: "Sexy married cougar Anne Baxter catches the eye of sunbaked seafarer Sterling Hayden and—wouldn't you know it!—before their swimming suits are dry, they're plotting the murder of her husband (über-creepy John Hoyt). Alas, all is not as it seems in Whitman Chambers' snaky scenario, a '50s version of Body Heat in which one character won't stay dead and the sleazy private eye is America's favorite washing machine repairman (Jesse White). Sun and sand replace the asphalt, but there is more than enough lying and larceny to go around in one of the most scarcely seen titles in the noir canon."

The Come On is one ripe piece of fruit, with Anne Baxter chewing up the palm trees and crossing her eyes when feeling emotionally overcome. Sterling Hayden leans against said palm trees at a nearly inhuman angle, which nonetheless gets him the girl. But perhaps my favorite scene is when Baxter gets Hayden all hot and bothered and then feigns exhaustion, needing to be sent home in a cab. Hayden saunters off but Baxter has the cab pull over to the curb once he's gone around the corner out of sight. As she tosses money at the cabbie to pay her fare, you hear him quip, "I thought he was kind of cute!" Best throwaway gay line ever. Speaking of which, here's a shout-out to the fifth and latest edition of the Noir City Annual, wherein Eddie Muller kicks in a wickedly wry tenspot of Film Noir's gayest couples. A must-read.

NOIR CITY 11: EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962)—Lobbycards Gallery

For a movie that is lustrously shot in black and white, these tinted lobbycards reveal a deceptively lurid production.