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Divine Grace and a Touch of the Devil
The 2003 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Article Copyright © 2003 by Lokke Heiss. All Rights Reserved.

On the weekend of July 12 and 13, 2003, the audience of the eighth annual San Francisco silent film festival found itself perched between heaven and hell. We watched movies that took us from halos and saints to pointed tails and deals with the devil. In other words, we saw comedies and tragedies celebrating the complete range of the human condition.

The festival programmers have topped themselves again in their ability to surround each film with informative speakers. Not only did we see Walt Disney’s early Alice Comedies, we had Russell Merritt talking to Virginia Davis McGhee about being personally directed by Walt Disney. Not only did we see Buster Keaton’s Go West, we had professional clowns Larry Pisoni and Geoff Hoyle talk about the world of physical comedy. It’s tempting to think of this festival as a huge DVD extravaganza with bonus ‘supplementary sections’ before and after each film. Let’s call it “live cinema plus.’’

Besides these extra ‘goodies’ the festival presented the strongest and most diverse musical accompaniment I’ve ever seen for an American silent movie festival. The pianists and organists included Michael Mortilla, Dennis James and Jon Mirsalis and that’s just for starters! The festival also included a folk music trio, an eleven-piece orchestra, and even an experimental piece of music by The Sprocket Ensemble that would have made John Cage stop and listen.

Silent Disney — A Tribute to Virginia Davis McGhee and the Alice Comedies

Virginia Davis in Disney’s Alice comedies
Virginia Davis as Alice.
Photograph: courtesy The San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The weekend started with a choice selection of silent Disney cartoons, focusing on the Alice Comedies, a series that combined live action with animation. The star of the series was a four-year old Virginia Davis, who in each film would find herself in a ‘toonland’ inhabited by strange and wonderful animated animals. After the cartoons were shown, the original Alice herself, Virginia Davis McGhee was brought to the stage to talk about her experiences of working with Disney ‘before he was Disney.’ Asked by film scholar Russell Merritt if there ever was a time when Virginia realized how famous her boss really was. McGhee laughed and answered, “That’s a question a professor would ask.” She explained, “I knew him as just a friend, and that’s the way he stayed . . . he was always the nicest man in the world to me.”

Russell Merritt may like to ask those professor-type questions, but he has previously explained his theory as to the popularity of these cartoons in more earthy and blunt terms. The reason these vintage Disney cartoons are so durable? It’s the ‘butt’ jokes.

One of the oldest and most tried-and-true way for any physical comedian to get a laugh, whether in a film, in a circus, or performing in the street is to fall, get kicked, or otherwise suffer physical violence to the ‘tush.’ I agree with Merritt; these jokes are probably the oldest and most durable the world has seen. A million years ago, an ape slipped on a banana peel, fell down, the rest of the apes laughed at him, and we’ve been laughing ever since.

Walt Disney’s chief animator, Ub Iwerks understood this phenomenon completely and his cartoons are one long parade of exploiting the humorous side of injuring different parts of the body, especially the derriere. Adults will usually get a guilty pleasure from watching these various kicks and pratfalls, but for children between the ages of 4 and 10 these jokes can be hysterical. Merritt explains, perhaps borrowing from the pages of the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: “when kids get older, the smart-aleck Bugs Bunny humor becomes more interesting, but Disney gets them when they are young and even if they move on to other cartoons, Disney has them for life.”

Disney would go on to make 58 Alice Comedies with four different girls playing Alice. As the Disney animators became increasingly confident in their skills, the necessity of having a live action figure in the cartoon became more of a burden than an advantage and the series was retired. Taking many of the lessons learned with these Alice Comedies, the Disney animators would strike gold with the introduction of Mickey Mouse, and Disney would soon become world famous.

Wallace Reid and Geraldine Farrar in Carmen (1915)
Wallace Reid and Geraldine Farrar in Carmen (1915).
Photograph: courtesy The San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Carmen 1915

A silent film about an opera? Sounds strange at first but silent film and opera have much in common; I’ve always thought of silent movies as operas with some comedy and chase scenes thrown in. This weekend the opera connection was literal, as we watched Cecil B. DeMille’s Carmen (1915). The opera Carmen by Bizet, about the fatal love of a Spanish officer for a Gypsy woman, is arguably the world’s most successful opera DeMille’s Carmen is one of the more famous film versions, starring Geraldine Farrar, who made her fame playing Carmen in opera houses around the world. This may be a silent version of Carmen, but Farrar knows the secret to the character is not voice, but attitude. Farrar struts through this early feature film with an imperious vitality that displays all the attributes we find so compelling in this quintessential femme fatale. The Spanish officer driven to madness by his love was played by Wallace Reid, who in the real world died of a grim and very nonromantic addiction to morphine in 1922.

Mexican Silent Film

From sinners to saints, the next feature on the program was Tepeyac (1917) a Mexican film about the Virgin of Guadalupe’s appearance in Mexico in 1531 that led to the building of a basilica near Mexico City. Preceding this film was the comedy short, Aniversario de la Muerte de la Suegra de Enhart [Anniversary of the Death of Enhart’s Mother-in-Law] (1912). This film is incomplete, missing its head and with possible scenes out of sequence. So while it’s impossible to be conclusive, Anivesario does not seem to be a comedy short made with a large amount of care. Mistakes in camera movement or in the movement of actors are simply taken for granted rather than refilming the scene. What is more important, Vicente Enhart and Antonio Alegria seem to be expecting laughs just for who they are, not for what they are doing. They mug for the camera and clown around, looking for comic business. These actions seem more like a rehearsal than a finished film, as if the actors were improvising on the fly and expecting whatever they got was going to be good enough. One could conclude that in 1912, Mexican cinema appears to be undercapitalized, at least in comparison to the American product. Anniversary of the Death of Enhart’s Mother-in-Law makes you appreciate the advantage that Hollywood filmmakers enjoyed: money, facilities and most important, stiff competition that enforced high standards.

Tepeyac (1917)
Tepeyac (1917).
Photograph: courtesy The San Francisco
Film Festival.
Tepeyac is a completely different kind of film. Tepeyac is a very conscious effort to use a movie as a nationalistic unifying force similar to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation. To achieve this end, Tepeyac uses a device probably alien to most audiences of today, tableaux vivants.

Tableaux vivants, sometimes called living pictures, present actors in poses recreating an important historic or cultural event. The emphasis in a tableau is the grandeur of the composition and design, so movements by the actors are minimal. Tableaux vivants have been around for thousands of years. Paintings and photographs are a modern version of this art form, so with these modern incarnations found on billboards, magazines and walls we are surrounded by hundreds of ‘tableaux vivants’ daily. Still, properly speaking tableaux use real people. Americans are most likely to experience versions of tableaux by going to a parade and watching the people on the floats waving and ‘posing’ as they go by. Another modern version of tableaux can be seen in some Christmas pageants.

Tableaux have long been connected with the sacred and historically significant events, so the use of tableaux vivants for Tepeyac makes sense for both cultural and aesthetic reasons. The film is set up as a series of painterly, carefully composed shots where the actors do a minimal amount of movement in the scene. After such a scene, we then have an intertitle functioning as a text explaining the preceding and following pictures. In this way Tepeyac becomes a film version of an illuminated manuscript, carrying over a medieval tradition of illustrating text with pictures.

I think the use of the tableau is one of the great lost arts in moviemaking. D.W. Griffith and John Ford understood that great dramatic moments need time for viewers to digest what has happened and what is at stake. But having an entire film rely on this device comes at great cost, since the one thing that movies do best is move. At one point in the story Indians surround a conquistador looking to start a fight. With this action the tableau breaks down in the scene and Tepeyac catches a spark of life. A movie threatens to break out! Unfortunately this rebellion in both the story (and how it’s told) doesn’t last as priests dissuade the Indians from violence; we return to the tableaux format for the rest of the film.

Tepeyac was greatly helped by the accompanying music, a blending of Aztec and Mexican motifs that underscore the point that the Virgin of Guadalupe is a unifying force in Mexican history. Viewers who have a personal connection to this story will be helped by their ability to bring their own cultural knowledge to the experience, like walking into a church and knowing the history of the murals. The rest of us will watch Tepeyac more from a distance, as a work of art hard to appreciate.

James Murray in The Crowd (1928)
The Crowd (1928).
Photograph: courtesy The San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Great Expectations for The Crowd

Saturday night the festival screened King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), the story of everyman John Sims trying to make a living in the dog-eat-dog world of New York city. I’ve always thought that King Vidor’s desire to tell stories exploring contemporary social problems and issues made him the Charles Dickens of American silent filmmakers. The Crowd is his stunning achievement, a film that effortlessly combines elements of Hollywood romance, German expressionism, and even the documentary. The ending, in which John finds his humanity by paradoxically losing himself in a crowd, is justly famous and has inspired generations of later filmmakers, such as De Sica, who would use these themes to make The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D.

Two Films by Germaine Dulac

On Sunday, the festival went to the devil. First up were two films from the French avant-garde filmmaker Germaine Dulac. Her first film, La souriante Madame Beudet [The Smiling Madame Beudet] (1922), is the story of a woman who finds herself in an unhappy marriage to a brute of a man. He tries to force her to go with him to the opera Faust, and when she refuses he plays a strange game of holding an empty gun to his head and pretending to shoot himself. Madame Beudet has no interest in the opera — the Faustian elements of marriage to an overbearing husband are all too clear to her. In desperation she loads real bullets into her husband’s gun, hoping he will shoot himself, but when he starts to play his ‘phantom Russian roulette’ he changes the game, points the gun at Beudet and shoots, the bullet just missing her. Her husband misunderstands the situation, thinking she was trying to kill herself. He smothers her with attention, while Beudet can only smile and writhe in loathing at her impossible situation. Dulac was a woman of contrary impulses but seen today her work provokes strong feminist statements such as the need of women to have their independence.

Beudet’s second film screened was La coquille et le clergyman [The Seashell and the Clergyman] (1928). It was announced at the festival that some people found this film ‘anti-narrative,’ but I think that those of us willing to board the Freudian Dream Train can see a logic in a series of images: an artisan distills a liquid in a series of beakers, these are discarded until the artisan picks up a seashell and drinks the fluid himself. The shell could represent many things: femininity, but also the framework for the story itself, the canvas, a blank page, even unexposed film. Think of the famous painting of Botticelli’s “Venus on the Half-shell,” ask yourself why she is standing on the shell and perhaps you can see a similar connection. Then the film starts an Oedipal fight between two clergymen who appear to be the ages of father and son. Beudet next shows a series of images of desire, repression and displacement — all unsuccessful as the desire for the female image returns in different forms. Yet this very resistance to desire creates its own narrative and a story is born. The film ends as it began with the artist dipping from the well of life and drinking it down.

Lon Chaney as Blizzard in The Penalty (1920)
The Penalty (1920).
Photograph: courtesy The San Francisco
Silent Film Festival
A July Blizzard

After a brush with Faust in the Smiling Mrs. Beudet, the devil himself comes calling, as the character Blizzard, one of Lon Chaney’s most striking characters, in the next film The Penalty (1920). The Penalty tells the story of a young man who has his legs needlessly amputated by an inexperienced surgeon. These psychic and physical wounds cause the man years later to become a merciless crime boss, with a master plan to take over and plunder the town of San Francisco. Blizzard is also keeping tabs on the daughter of the surgeon that took off his legs, and when she advertises for a man that could model as Satan, Blizzard accepts the job, deciding not to only possess this young woman, but also the handsome legs of her boyfriend. Blizzard blackmails her father to amputate the boyfriend’s legs and graft them on to his body. The surgeon, now older and wiser, operates on Blizzard’s head instead of his legs, releasing a blood clot that clears his mind. Blizzard sees the error of his ways, and reforms. Unfortunately, the crime syndicate decides he knows too much and kills him. Blizzard dies, explaining that he has sinned and now must ‘pay the penalty.’

A wonderfully loopy mix between a Fritz Lang Dr. Mabuse film and a Republic serial from the 30’s, The Penalty is so gleefully over-the-top that it pulls the audience right along for the ride. How can you not like a film that has the women demimondes of San Francisco forced to sit in a sweat shop and make hats for ‘foreign insurgents’ set on overrunning San Francisco?

My favorite scenes are when Blizzard has his lady friends ‘pedal’ for him as he plays his piano — you can’t get much kinkier stuff in the entire world of silent film. Unfortunately a lot of good will in watching The Penalty is lost when the surgeon concludes that Blizzard’s behavior is caused by pressure on the brain from the same accident that injured his legs. In a deus ex machina, or in this case a medicus ex machina, the surgeon saves the day by operating on Blizzard’s brain, restoring him to sanity. The evil Blizzard is no more and the conflict of the story whooshes out like a balloon stuck with a pin. Too bad the scriptwriters for The Penalty didn’t take one more turn around the typewriter and figure out a way for Blizzard to die as a hero rather than an endorsement for a brilliant medical diagnosis.

New Live Cinema

Next on the program was a short experimental silent called Stupor Mundi (1999), which translates roughly to “This Groggy World.” The filmmaker Rock Ross explained in the program notes that Stupor Mundi was ‘about Liberty, Justice and Death,’ a phrase that echoes the creed of Superman (a name suspiciously close to Stupor Mundi), who speaks of Truth, Justice and the American Way. This politically charged experimental short questions the ‘American dream’ and its fascination with death (perhaps I should say the ‘North American dream’ since the music and dance reminded me of the Mexican Day of the Dead holiday.) The characters Liberty and Justice engage in a ‘dance macabre’ with Death, represented convincingly in this film by a man in a skeleton costume. The ‘dance of death’ with these figures speaks to the contrasting impulses of the American character, illustrating the pursuit of liberty and justice — and the violence that seems to always accompany this pursuit.

After watching this dark quirky version of the American dream, we were elevated back to the heavens with a new silent film, Claire, directed by Milord Thomas. This film, released in 2001, is an adaptation of the Japanese fairy tale ‘Kaguyahime,’ one of the oldest fairy tales in Japanese culture. Kaguyahime tells of a bamboo cutter who finds a baby girl in the forest. Raised by the bamboo cutter and his wife, the girl quickly grows up to be a beautiful young woman, and draws attention and marriage proposals from around the country. The woman explains that she is a princess of the moon and cannot stay on Earth. While her adopted parents watch, a procession from the moon arrives and she leaves to return to the moon. A popular story in Japan, Kaguyahime has been adapted into various art forms such as theater and ballet, and has even appeared as a video game.

The moon princess in this silent film adaptation is named Claire. Two elderly gay men live in a farmhouse out in the woods; one night a moonbeam comes down to their farm. The men follow a trail of light to the barn, finding a small girl inside a stalk of corn. The couple raises the tiny girl, who soon becomes a beautiful young woman. Neighbors and friends gather to marvel at this unique being. Later, during a picnic a young man apparently drowns in a nearby lake, but with Claire’s tears he revives. The happiness of the community on the saving of his life quickly ends when a procession appears to return the princess to her land. Sadly, Claire leaves, but not before she has forever changed the lives of the couple and their friends.

Milford is not afraid to use tricks of old masters for new pleasures, such as when he pulls a curtain across the moon, a shot that Georges Méliès might have used a century ago. Borrowing from the past does not mean that one is trapped by the past, and Claire is an excellent example that silent film need not be vintage film. Milford has grasped what silent film can do best: tell a simple story and tell it with all your heart.

I was troubled with a few aspects of Claire, mainly the princess herself. Whether it was the actress or how she was portrayed, I never felt as compelled by her as the characters in the story seemed to be. There must be some powerful attraction toward Claire going on to make the story work, even the attraction of innocence, and I never felt it. Claire feels feels thematically similar (if not in the story line) to many of F.W. Murnau’s films and as such it’s not surprising that Milford borrows Murnau’s weakness as well as his strengths, such as portraying the women in the film as types rather than people.

Still, this is a minor quibble, and I think Claire serves as a blueprint for filmmakers looking to carve out a piece of the film world for themselves. Silent films carry the possibility of dramatically lower production costs than ‘talkies’ and have greater flexibility in their editing and presentation options. There is no reason we couldn’t have a small but dedicated market for contemporary silent films. We’re ready for your next movie, Mr. Milford.

Go West, Young Clown

The ‘Pickle Family Circus Clowns’ Larry Pisoni and Geoff Hoyle were on hand Sunday night to take part in a special presentation, ‘Talk About Funny.’ Moderated by Frank Buxton, these comics discussed the business of comedy and their guesses how the silent film comedians developed their scenes and gags. As great an idea as this presentation was, I think the Castro audience had too much of a good thing. It was odd to see Pisoni and Hoyle struggle to give real answers to questions about silent film comedy at the same time they felt the need to be ‘on,’ that is, to keep performing. Probably this reaction was to be expected since they are trained as clowns, not comedy lecturers, and had a natural aversion to explaining the ‘trick behind their magic act.’ To paraphrase Mark Twain, dissecting a joke is like attending an operation gone bad. Nobody has a good time, and the patient dies. Still, with some fine tuning, the idea of a lecture about a silent film topic is terrific (I especially liked the video clip presentation) and I hope these discussions find a place in future festivals.

Buster Keaton in Go West (1925)
Go West (1925).
Photograph: courtesy The San Francisco
Silent Film Festival
The devil made his final appearance in the unlikeliest of all places, the festival’s last film, Go West (1925) starring Buster Keaton. Buster plays Friendless, an out-of-luck Midwesterner who heeds Horace Greeley’s call and rides the rail west to cowboy country. Arriving at a cattle ranch, Greenhorn Buster must quickly learn the ways of the cowboy, from saddling a horse to getting to the dinner table in time to eat, all the while earning the affection of the ranch owner’s daughter and a winsome cow named Brown Eyes. To save his boss’ ranch, in perhaps Keaton’s wildest finish in all of his movies, he must stampede a herd of cattle through the center of Los Angeles.

Go West doesn’t have the dramatic continuity of some his best films like Sherlock, Jr. (1924) but does have two priceless gags. The first is when Buster, gambling, catches a cowboy cheating at cards. When Buster accuses him of cheating, the cowboy raises his gun to Buster and says, ‘smile when you say that,’ putting Keaton in a unique existential dilemma. If he smiles, he can’t be Old Stone Face Buster, but if he doesn’t smile — no more Buster! Keaton solves the problem by propping up his lips into a ridiculous grin with his two fingers, keeping his reputation of being Old Stone Face, and giving a hilarious homage to Lillian Gish’s desperate smile in Broken Blossoms (1919). The second great moment is when Keaton finds the cattle in downtown Los Angeles roaming out of control. Remembering that bulls are made angry by the color red (at least in the movies) Buster dives into a costume shop and puts on a devil suit. Jumping out into the street, Keaton races for the market with the angry herd at his heels. The scene of Buster Keaton dressed as a devil, running away from a stampede of cattle, is one of strangest and funniest of all of Keaton’s entire career.

The Eighth Annual San Francisco silent film festival was an intriguing mix of the old with the new, the celestial with the commonplace. The festival also challenged the audience to see that silent film has possibilities yet untapped. Let’s hope next year’s festival will be another collection of terrific films, as always filled with the saints and sinners that live in all good stories.

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