The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

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director Robert Wiene
viewed: 09/15/2018 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

As a kid, I’d read of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as being “the first ever horror film” and long desired to see it. It wasn’t until my first film class in junior college that I heard the term German Expressionism and came to realize that term more accurately described the numerous German silent films I had longed to see.

Robert Wiene’s 1920 film utilizes wild, literally Expressionistic set designs to stage the foremost and “quintessential” Expressionist film out there. And initially, I was pretty disappointed that other classics of Expressionism didn’t use as much crazy set-design and make-up as Wiene and company employ here. Much like the poster, it’s as if Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” came to life, in the film the lurid color translated to black and white, chiaroscuro, shapes and forms.

This viewing of Caligari was a special show at the Castro Theatre, accompanied by the Club Foot Orchestra, part of a day-long performance of their “greatest hits” alongside other classics of silent cinema. This was the only showing my son and I hit.

Dragnet Girl (1933)

Dragnet Girl (1933)

director Yasujirō Ozu
viewed: 06/01/2014 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

In Film Noir and its literary analogues, there is the “hard-boiled” tough-guy world.  In Yasujirō Ozu’s uncharacteristic genre gangster film, we might have a slightly more “soft-boiled” criminal underground.

Shown as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Ozu’s 1933 Dragnet Girl is a stylish oddity in the oeuvre of Japan’s venerated cinema master.  But this is the thing about early Ozu, particularly silent Ozu, his later post-war films for which he is so well known were yet to come.  Ozu himself and the whole Japanese film industry was very different, a different man and a different world.

Interestingly, from the few films that I’ve seen of pre-War Japanese cinema, it seems that genre was alive and well.  And in this case, it owed a lot to the popular American forms of the time.  Dragnet Girl in particular owed a lot to the gangster movies of Hollywood.

But this is no mere knock-off of a film.  There are aspect’s of Ozu’s later style that seem imminent, such as the low camera placement in scenes and the ultimate melodrama that drives the film.

It’s a story about a low level gangster and his moll, Joji Oka and Kinuyo Tanaka respectively.  It is the moll who is the title character, after all.  When a young wannabe tough guy tries to join his gang, the wannabe’s straight-laced sister tries to pull him back to the right side of the tracks.  Her quiet goodness and beauty influence both gangster and moll, throwing their sense of what they want in the world awry.

Ultimately, I call it soft-boiled because it’s more melodrama than gangster pic.  Which is not to discredit it at all.  In fact, the cinematography, framing, and camera work make this film constantly interesting, a fascinating construct largely outside of genre.  Though it’s also quite interesting on that genre front too.

Kinuyo Tanaka seems quite the interesting figure herself, compared by Eddie Muller to a Ida Lupino, she seems definitely worth investigating more.

The Patsy (1928)

The Patsy (1928) movie poster

director King Vidor
viewed: 07/19/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

This year, I only managed to see two films at the always anticipated San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Yasujirō Ozu’s Tokyo Chorus (1931) and King Vidor’s The Patsy, considered to be star Marion Davies’ finest performance.

Davies is a scream in The Patsy, a comedy of romantic errors about a young girl Pat (Davies) who pines for her older sister (the very beautiful Jane Winton) Grace’s boyfriend.  It doesn’t help that Grace is rather capriciously chasing a different young rich man, or that their mother, the impeccably hilarious Marie Dressler, is all for Grace and none for Pat.  Her father, Dell Henderson, sides with her, but typically folds to the overbearing Dressler in all cases.

The script is funny, certainly.  Oddly packed with verbal jokes, it’s more significantly the set-up for these consummate performers.  Marie Dressler is one for the ages.  She pulls faces, does double-takes, even enunciates remarkably when she is shouting, a definitive comedic actor.

But Davies is the core of the whole.  Known more for being the William Randolph Hearst’s mistress, and pawn to his attempts to make her a star, she shines vividly here with her pronouncedly unique personality and gags.  She has any number of wonderful facial and physical responses, but her three comedic impressions of actresses Mae Murray, Lillian Gish and Pola Negri are a total scream.  She’s as funny and adept as an screen actress in any movie ever.  And it’s quite a shame that this is one of such few films that she had to really show her stuff.  At least we do have it.

None of what I’m saying here is new.  This film has been highly regarded for these very reasons for ages.  I’m just adding my two bits to the same.

Tokyo Chorus (1931)

Tokyo Chorus still (1931)

director Yasujirō Ozu
viewed: 07/19/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Yasujirō Ozu, cited in the introduction to his 1931 silent film Tokyo Chorus, shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, as “the most Japanese of Japanese directors” is certainly among the most important of Japanese film directors.  Though I’m quite familiar with Ozu and his style, I really don’t sit in a place to offer any insight or expertise.  I’ve only seen a couple of his films.  I’ve only written about one other, Early Spring (1956), which means that I’ve only seen one other of his films in the last decade.  And I’m no expert on Japanese cinema, though I’ve seen a fair amount of Japanese films.

Ozu’s style, what he is most known for, is a combination of visual style, narrative style, and narrative focus.  His interest was in contemporary Japanese family stories, melodramas soft on drama, quiet yet exemplary.  He’s also noted for his indoor camera style, shooting from a perspective close to the floor in a Japanese house in which most people would have sat on tatamis.

Interestingly, Tokyo Chorus is considered the first of “mature” style.  Tokyo Chorus is Ozu’s 22nd film.  His first was made in 1927.  That’s a lot of films.  It’s interesting because the film is a mixture of comedy and drama.  Apparently, a number of his earlier films were largely comedic, which isn’t really what one thinks of when one thinks of Ozu.

Tokyo Chorus begins with a comic scene in which a class of Japanese teenagers are lining up to be inspected by their teacher.  They are disorderly, sassy, and various shades of silly.  The primary character, Shinji Okajima (Tokihiko Okada), is followed in later years, a young father with a small family and a job in a Tokyo insurance office.  When he stands up to his boss for firing an older employee, he winds up unemployed himself, and is faced with the hardships of unemployment, a period akin to the American Great Depression, in which glimpses of poverty in the big city are captured.  He ultimately has to sacrifice his honor to do work considered degrading (not really that bad, one would think).

The story is a snapshot of Japanese culture in this transitional time.  Ozu handles the family in subtle shifts of emotions, through the changes that they have to accept to stay afloat and honorable.

It’s a remarkable film, though in some ways unremarkable.  That has been my personal feeling toward Ozu.  I’ve liked and appreciated his work, but it hasn’t drawn me.  Obviously, for all the films I’ve seen in the last decade, that this is only the second of his films is telling in that regard.  It’s hard to describe the film’s strengths and charms, though they are evident throughout.  I guess that I feel that Ozu requires a bit more from an audience, to understand Japanese culture of the time to appreciate nuance and subtlety.  I hope I’m not utterly discrediting myself in saying this.  Especially since I actually enjoyed the film quite well.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) movie poster

director Raoul Walsh
viewed: 02/16/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The opportunity to see a newly restored print of Douglas Fairbanks/Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad was an opportunity not to be missed at this year’s Silent Film Festival Winter Event.  Frankly, I’d gladly sit through it all, but I dragged the kids through Snow White (1916), a collection of Buster Keaton shorts, and this epic epic of nearly 3 hours in itself, I felt we’d done pretty darn well.

We had watched The Thief of Bagdad (1924) once before on DVD when the kids were much younger and I was just exposing them to silent film.  Felix and another girl his age loved it and remembered it as awesome for years afterward.  Much later and not terribly long ago, we watched the British Technicolor remake The Thief of Bagdad (1940), which was brilliant as well in its own way.  But now, the kids are older, much more experienced in watching silent films (no longer necessarily needing me to read the inter-titles anymore.)

Frankly, I enjoyed it more than they did this time around.  My own memory of the film proved pretty concrete.  The first half of the film is a joyous, lush, fantastic and comical tale of the titular hero, a happy-go-lucky thief (the marvelous Fairbanks) who “takes what he wants” and lives as he pleases.  Only when he goes to steal from the Caliph’s palace, he falls in love with the princess, and realizes his bon-vivant life needs redemption, which he can achieve under the guidance of religion and the successful accomplishment of a great quest.

The quest is the second part of the film.  The princess’s suitors are sent to the ends of the earth to find the rarest of treasures, with each one trying to outdo the other.  Fairbanks goes the farthest, battles a number of creatures, achieves the ultimate goals, of course, and then has to come back to Bagdad to save the princess and the who city from the conniving Asian villain.

The sets are big and lush, the action is big and wonderful.  In a lot of ways, it’s not at all unlike the kind of popcorn movies that Hollywood has been churning out most summers ever since.  Action and adventure and what would have been some top special effects of the day.  Certainly a few of the creatures bear the silly weakness of their technical limitations, but the flying carpet is done in a marvelous stunt and has all the magic that cinema can offer.

In the introduction to the film, it was suggested that Fairbanks “danced” his role, perhaps with a nod to Vaslav Nijinsky, and it was interesting taking that notion in through the film because Fairbanks’ performance is very physical.  Even with the full-body emotive acting style of the silents, his movements are outsized and broad.  But considering the intention, the fluidity and musicality of his movements, the performance is much easier to fully appreciate.  He has an action that he does with his hands to indicate that he’s “wanting” something and while its all far from subtle, it certainly has a vivid energy and sense of “lust for life” that truly embody the character.

Certainly, you can see this film on DVD and hopefully then on a screen of good size, but it cannot be beat to see it on the big screen with live orchestration.  Top notch film-going experience.

Snow White (1916)

Snow White (1916) movie poster

director J. Searle Dawley
viewed: 02/16/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival started their winter program with a 1916 version of Snow White.  Presented in part with the Disney Family Museum, the showing tied together with a show at the museum about Disney’s version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).  This is because this Snow White inspired Walt Disney’s notion to make his first feature film.  And accordingly, the notes and introduction suggested a handful of key elements that one could see connections to in the Disney version.

Interestingly, to me at least, was how this silent Snow White, starring Marguerite Clark as the little heroine, resembled the far more recent adaptation Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), featuring more of the more elaborated version of the backstory, of Snow White’s mother, pricking her finger and dripping blood on the snow, and of the eventual usurping of power by the evil queen, who imprisoned (or in this case forced labor upon) the little would-be princess.

But there are many elements one can see in the Disney version, from the cute humor of the dwarfs, to the inspired connection that Snow White has with animals, and even on through the crystal coffin in which she is lain when the evil witch/queen has poisoned her.

The film’s staging features a fair amount of theatricality, with the witch and her make-up and her human-sized cat.  But it also features some interesting location shooting (according to the introduction, it was filmed in Georgia) and the resultant woods are coated in Spanish moss, perhaps quite unlike Germany.

It’s a lovely fantasy, a magical, evocative vision at times a bit reminiscent of Georges Méliès.  The kids enjoyed it, and I thought it quite nice that we had managed to see both the Disney film and the museum show in January, making this little addition a nice circuit in regards to Disney’s first feature film.  That said, they were not too wow’ed by it, the first of three shows that we sat through for the Silent Film Festival on a rather sunny Saturday.

Erotikon (1920)

Erotikon (1920) movie poster

director Mauritz Stiller
viewed: 07/15/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

First off, Erotikon sounds like something it’s not.  What it is: a modern (for 1920) comedy of the sexes.

From Swedish director Mauritz Stiller, one of the two most important silent directors from Sweden in the silent era, it’s a surprisingly light romp in the homes of the well-heeled society of the time.  It centers around an entomologist, his wife, her would-be lovers, and a rather precocious niece in a romantic pentagram or quadrangle that is constantly morphing shape.  The entomologist, at one point, explains in a lecture the sociology of particular type of beetles what turns out to be a ripe metaphor for the levels of friction in the human world.  Apparently the beetles are happy polygamists, with two or more females on hand, never happy with just one (the amusing intertitles featuring bugs and other amusing illustrations make this even more comical).

Not really knowing where the film is going made for a bumpier, odder ride.  In some ways, it’s a comedy of miscommunication and misunderstanding, kind of like a former Three’s Company, if you will.  What is as amusing as anything in the film is its resolution, a charmingly brisk and cheerful break with societal norms, which turns out to be the only way for everyone to find happiness.

The film has been noted as an influence on many that came after it, most significantly Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939).  It’s far lighter and fluffier than that film, in fact, it’s pretty much a cinematic confection.  It’s cute and quite amusing, though its title certainly lead you to imagine otherwise.

The Docks of New York (1928)

The Docks of New York (1928) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 07/15/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

My second favorite film that I saw this last weekend at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was the second Josef von Sternberg film that I’d seen there in recent years.  A couple of years back I’d seen his film Underworld (1927), which I had liked.  Both Underworld and The Docks of New York starred George Bancroft, but the real impact of the film, its heart and character arise from its female lead, Betty Compson.  Like Underworld, the film was introduced by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation, was a much more astounding, moving, and remarkable film.

The film opens in the shadowy depths of a stokehold on a steamship, where the stokers pump in the coal and start planning their night ashore with women and booze.  When Bancroft’s big, brawny stoker rescues Compson from a suicidal drowning, carrying her limp form to a soft warm place above a teeming, seething, lusty waterfront beerhall.  When she rouses, she regrets having been saved, but Bancroft promises her a world of fun, talking her into joining him for a night out.  Bancroft’s character is a brute, barely passable as a gentleman, though he’s certainly refined in contrast to the captain under whom he’s served.  Compson is a stark contrast in a sense to the flapper girl of Clara Bow from Mantrap (1926).  Compson’s character isn’t much older but is a thousand times more played out and experienced.  Beyond world-weary to world-worn.

Filmed entirely on a soundstage, von Sternberg controls the aesthetics of the docks to a dark, dismal place, though a place not without poetry.  The image of Compson we first see, is her reflection in the water before her jump, a nameless,faceless female amid the shadows and darkness.  The tracking shots entering the beerhall are beautiful and elegant, deftly crafting this contained, imagined world into something concrete and recognizable.

As Muller noted before the film, it’s slim on plot.  The couple rush into an impulsive marriage among the booze and boozehounds.  The hopes and realities play out against each other, and the tragedies or near tragedies are the stuff of movie magic.  There is a poignancy to Compson’s lost soul, as there is to the brutish modicum of a soul beneath the hunk of a man of the stoker.  I really enjoyed the film a lot, romantic or anti-romantic as it may be.


Mantrap (1926)

Mantrap (1926) movie poster

director Victor Fleming
viewed: 07/13/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

My favorite of the five films that I saw at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year was Victor Fleming’s Mantrap.  Adapted from a novel by Sinclair Lewis, the film is a comedy of the sexes starring the wonderful, amazing Clara Bow at the top of her “It girl”, “Perfect Flapper” heights.

There are many other charms of this 86 minute film, which features James Wong Howe’s typically vibrant cinematography.  But this film belongs to Bow.  Noted in the film’s introduction from clips of the time, Variety stated “Clara Bow just walks away with the picture from the moment she walks into camera range.” And per Photoplay “When she is on the screen nothing else matters. When she is off, the same is true.”  True then, true today.

Mantrap of the five films I saw was by far the most modern of the films.  From the opening shot of a female client’s foot scaling her attorney’s (Percy Marmont), the play and verve of the film feels more like a whip-quick 1930’s screwball comedy, sharper, more clever, and pointed.  Bow herself is a sex bomb of her time.  When she leaps into the lap of her backwoods sugar daddy, Ernest Torrence, she’s more woman than any of the men in the picture could handle, all in the young, tiny, self-sufficient package.  Fleming gets a lot from the character actors who make up most of the background of the film, the hilarious inhabitants of Mantrap, Canada.

What can I say about Clara Bow that hasn’t been said before?  All I really need to say is that Mantrap is top fun and that if you haven’t seen it, you really, truly should.

The Loves of Pharaoh (1922)

The Loves of Pharaoh (1922) movie poster

director Ernst Lubitsch
viewed: 07/13/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Each year that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival rolls around, I eagerly look through the schedule to see what most tickles my fancy.  Usually, I’m picking and choosing, having neither time nor money (nor endurance) to sit through the entire program (no matter how much I would like to).  This year, I scheduled three in a row for Friday and took the day off.  After watching Little Toys (1933), it was time for Ernst Lubitsch’s The Loves of Pharaoh.

Lubitsch is a name that I’m very familiar with, but not actually a director whose films I’ve actually seen.  I’ve had them in my rental queue for years no doubt, but from his classic American films to his prior German films, I’ve never seen any, famous or obscure.  The Loves of Pharaoh comes from his German years, though the film was actually financed by Hollywood with the intention of bringing it and him there as Hollywood culled the European filmmakers of the day.

Once considered a “lost” film, it played at the Castro in a digital reconstruction, which looked amazing.  For all its reconstruction, the film is still missing about 10% of its footage.  While the print reconstructed these missing scenes with intertitles and still images (when available), it actually made for a significantly diminished experience.  The film is an epic, with massive sets and a cast of hundreds (maybe thousands), including star Emil Jannings.  And while it’s still very instructive to see the film, it’s hurt by its broken rhythms and “lost” sequences.

The epic drama at times builds to dramatic moments, some of which exist, some of which are simply explained.  This is what it is.  Film preservationists have for years been cobbling together these lost films, masterpieces or not, finding pieces of usable footage in one place, another in another, working from shooting scripts, whatever documentation that they have available to put the thing together as completely and as true to its original form as possible.  For historians like Kevin Brownlow, who has dedicated much of his life to this kind of work, it’s a nearly eternal process.  Even the versions that I’ve seen in recent years of Napoléon (1927) and Metropolis (1927) both suffer still from missing much of their original breadth.  And who knows whether they will ever get any closer to their original states than now.

For The Loves of Pharaoh, the breaks and missing elements suck away at the film’s potential power.  Perhaps if I was better familiar with Lubitsch I could better appreciate what was on screen rather than purely yearning for that which was not, but such was the case.  It’s an epic about a selfish Pharaoh who falls in love with a slave girl who belongs to the king of Ethiopia (a rather embarrassing Paul Wegener (The Golem (1920) dressed in a crazy African get-up.)  It’s certainly enjoyable enough and entertaining but it’s a lot harder to fully appreciate without its missing parts or without enough context to override them.