Thursday, July 22, 2010

SFSFF 2010: THE STRONG MAN (1926)—Kevin Brownlow Introduction

Matthew Kennedy hosted a brunch in honor of Photoplay Productions, this year's recipient of the Silent Film Festival Award, whereat he introduced me to Kevin Brownlow. Brownlow was quick to disavow credit for the discovery of the Metropolis print found in Buenos Aires, Argentina, though he remained flattered by Fernando Peña's sentiment at the previous evening's screening that—if it were not for Kevin Brownlow—many archivists, Peña included, would not have become enamored with and dedicated to the preservation and restoration of silent films.

Brownlow carries himself with Old World elegance, mannered and respectful, though a bit cautious when strangers rush up to fawn over him. This is, perhaps, the wisest policy. On stage, however, he is in full command of his persona: erudite, generous and compelling. He and his colleague Patrick Stanbury accepted the 2010 Silent Film Festival Award from SFSFF Executive Director Stacey Wisnia on behalf of Photoplay Productions, who provided SFSFF the 35mm print of Frank Capra's The Strong Man (1926), courtesy of Douris, Ltd. As Brownlow mentioned earlier to Wisnia, he has been studying silent film longer than the era of silent film lasted.

"When I first started involving myself in screening and presenting silent films 40+ years ago in the 1960s," Patrick Stanbury stated in his acceptance of the award, "I couldn't dream of the possibility of not only restoring films but bringing them back to a large audience in such a wonderful theater as this. I'm delighted to be here in San Francisco and very grateful for this award. Photoplay has always believed in putting back the best possible quality prints on the screen and the film you're going to see today—The Strong Man—is an exceptional print made off the original negative, better than which you should not be able to get. And here to tell you more about this...." Stanbury conceded the microphone to Kevin Brownlow.

Expressing that it was marvelous to be at SFSFF at long last, Brownlow admitted he was most impressed "in every direction" with the souvenir program and its well-researched essays. He wondered what he could possibly add to Roberto Landazuri's contribution? He was equally impressed with the enthusiasm of the audience and hoped to ship them all out to England when they do their silent film festival. Confirming as "very true" the SFSFF slogan—"True art transcends time"—, Brownlow added that it is equally true when they say that art is the concealment of effort. Nothing proves that more than The Strong Man, starring Harry Langdon.

"Once upon a time," Brownlow reminded, "Harry Langdon was the fourth great comedian. Now he's fallen into undeserved obscurity. Certainly, he was a quieter comic than the others—you had to concentrate harder—but, he was highly rewarding. His was a simple child-like and immensely vulnerable character who stared at the world like a startled white mouse.

"This masterpiece comedy somewhat disconcertingly starts in WWI, Harry being a Belgian soldier captured by a German who turns out to be Zandow the Great [Arthur Thalasso]. After the war this strong man is invited to America and takes Harry as his assistant. They search for Mary Brown, a girl who wrote to him in the trenches and a surprising number of women admit to being Mary Brown. Capra and co-writer Arthur Ripley and, incidentally, an uncredited Tay Garnett cleverly weave the social problems of the 1920s—prohibition, organized crime, prostitution—into the comedy.

"Harry manages to meet Mary Brown and finds she's blind. Her father, a pastor, objects to Harry marrying her because of his work in the music hall. One night when he has to stand in for the strong man, he causes a riot. It's interesting that Charlie Chaplin should choose a blind girl for his own love interest in his own great comedy City Lights. Chaplin had one of those magpie minds that would pick up an idea, forget where it came from and it would come out as his, which I think is a legitimate artistic method of production.

Priscilla Bonner who played the blind girl remembered Frank Capra as 'very sure of himself'; but, you know, there are so many conflicting facts about this picture and no two historians ever seem to agree on them. ...But Langdon was so reassured—and this comes from Photoplay, after who we named our company—that he went on a golfing holiday, leaving Capra and Ripley to work on the story for the next film Long Pants and that proved to be a miserable experience.

"Capra told me that Langdon read the wonderful reviews from New York—people went crazy for this man—and [Langdon] just couldn't handle it. He couldn't handle the renown and success. So when he made Long Pants, he said, 'I want to do more pathos.' [Capra] said, 'No, no, pathos is already in your comedy.' [Langdon] said, 'Do you know more than those critics in New York?'

Joseph McBride talked with Priscilla Bonner and she described the difficult situation that followed: Langdon and Ripley freezing Capra out in a situation that left a most unsatisfactory film for Langdon—that was Long Pants—and also for Capra. Langdon fired Capra with the next film. That was the end of what might have been an incredible run of comedies had Capra and Langdon stayed together. Getting rid of such a brilliant partner was the kind of dumb thing that Langdon might have done in one of his comedies.

"Last year in Bologna we saw a series of exceptional films—silent and early sound—which demonstrates that Capra was among the brightest talents in a business already crammed with talent. ...Joseph McBride's book is called Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (1992). Yes, he was full of self-confidence. Capra claims Langdon did not create his character, he did! He and Arthur Ripley. This has been contested by biographer Joyce Rheuban [Harry Langdon: The Comedian as Metteur-en-Scène, Rutherford, New Jersey, 1983] who says the character was well-established in vaudeville before Langdon went anywhere near pictures. What Ripley and Capra were able to do was to recognize what made Langdon unique and to let him be himself on film.

"Whether you agree with McBride's study of Capra's character or not, you have to acknowledge he was a superlative film director and—in this case—he was working with a superlative comedian and a superlative cameraman Elgin Lessley, Keaton's cinematographer, who was the main cameraman on The Strong Man.

"By coincidence, it was the first silent film that I saw on a nitrate print from the Museum of Modern Art who totally by accident had sent it to the National Film Theatre. I hope you get something of the same thrill that I got." [That coincidence is fondly remembered in
Brownlow's recent Sight and Sound essay on "the luster of nitrate."]

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