Thursday, February 10, 2011

SFSFF—Michael Hawley Previews the Winter Event 2011

The world-renowned San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) presents its annual Winter Event at the Castro Theater this Saturday, February 12. After the fabulously exhausting orgy of last summer's four-day, 18-program SFSFF, it's a relief to see Saturday's line-up tapered down to a modestly manageable threesome. On board is a program of classic Chaplin shorts, followed by a Frenchy doublet of Marcel L'Herbier's L'Argent and King Vidor's La Bohème.

The fun begins at 1:00 P.M. with It's Mutual: Charlie Chaplin Shorts, a trio of comedies Chaplin made for the Mutual Film Corporation. In 1916, Mutual paid Chaplin $670,000 to produce 12 two-reel comedies, establishing him as the highest paid entertainer in the world. Given near complete artistic control, he turned out some of the most inspired comedic moments in cinema history during the course of 18 months. While at Mutual he also assembled an eminent stock company of supporting actors, which included Edna Purviance (with whom he was romantically involved), Harry Bergman, Albert Austin and the unmistakable, bushy-eyebrowed hulk that was Eric Campbell. All four appear in each of these three shorts.

First up in the program is
The Pawn Shop (1916), Chaplin's sixth Mutual film. He plays a shop assistant who battles a fellow employee, waits on customers (with expected disastrous results), flirts with the boss's daughter and captures a burglar. The Pawn Shop has also been noted as one of cinema's earliest renderings of Jewish identity. Also from 1916 comes The Rink, in which Chaplin wreaks havoc in the restaurant where he works and at a roller skating rink. This one does a swell job of demonstrating Chaplin's bewildering physical agility, particularly whilst on wheels. The program finishes up with Chaplin's final film for Mutual, 1917's The Adventurer. Here Charlie is an escaped convict who rescues a rich bathing beauty and her mother from drowning. All's well until the resulting notoriety attracts the attention of the cops, sending him off on the lam once more. This is my personal favorite of the three films, perhaps because it seems to harken back to Chaplin's rough-and-tumble roots at Keystone.

At 3:30 on Saturday comes the Winter Event program I'm most anticipating, Marcel L'Herbier's 1928 L'Argent. This adaptation of Émile Zola's 1891 novel about financial speculation and the corrupting power of money cost a mind-blowing five million francs to make—an irony that wasn't lost upon critics of the time. They also chastised L'Herbier for transporting Zola's tale to "modern" times, which, ahem, occurred one year before the Great Crash. Reportedly, all of those francs are up on the screen in the form of massive, opulent sets and extreme, soaring camera movements that were unprecedented for 1928. (The camera operator was Jules Kruger, who performed the same duty for Abel Gance's

The restored 35mm print we'll see on Saturday was struck from the original camera negative and comes from the Archives Françaises du Film, with special permission by Marie-Ange L'Herbier, the director's granddaughter. This is also the original edit, which clocks in at a butt-busting 168 minutes. Accompanying the film will be the incomparable Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. The main theme of their score is the "Herod Overture" by American composer Henry Hadley, who was also the first conductor for the San Francisco Symphony.
L'Argent's original French intertitles will be translated and read by Stephen Salmons, the festival's beloved founder and former artistic director.

Following a two-hour dinner break—during which time patrons might consider attending the festival's Winter Event Celebration Party in the Castro mezzanine—we return to Paris, or at least a Hollywood version of it, with King Vidor's 1926 La Bohème. Based more upon Henri Murger's 1851 "Scènes de la vie de bohème" than Puccini's 1896 opera, the film stars Lillian Gish as Mimi (her first film at MGM) and John Gilbert as Rodolphe. It's said that Gilbert was so infatuated with Gish, he intentionally flubbed their loves scenes in order to necessitate retakes. Legend also claims that Gish did without water for three days before shooting Mimi's infamous death scene. Personally, I'm looking forward to seeing Edward Everett Horton in a supporting role as Rodolphe's roommate Colline, and the (uncredited) costumes designed by Érte. The new 35mm print that will be screened comes courtesy of the Stanford Theatre Foundation and UCLA Film and Television Archive. Dennis James will do that magnificent thing he does on the Castro Theater's Mighty Wurlitzer.

Cross-published at film-415 and Twitch.

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