Thursday, July 16, 2009

Silents of the Glams

With all the brouhaha over the recent death of Michael Jackson, one fact has been sorely neglected. The first generation of "Hollywood Royalty" came from the era of silent film.
In 1950, when Billy Wilder directed Gloria Swanson (herself a former star of the silent screen) as the aging, delusional Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Swanson delivered one of the film's classic lines: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces!" This clip offers another insight into the magic of silent film.

Sunset Boulevard (which was adapted in 1993 for the musical stage by Andrew Lloyd Webber) has inspired many a spoof of its overly dramatic silent film star. Few compare to Lisa Donovan's politically incorrect updating of Norma Desmond's final scene:

The recent San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened two films that starred Hollywood titans at the top of their game. One was a classic action adventure. The other might best be described as the longest and grittiest blow job in the history of cinema.

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Directed by F. Richard Jones, The Gaucho (1927) starred -- and was written by -- the one and only Douglas Fairbanks. Co-starring Lupe Velez as the fiery Mountain Girl, The Gaucho was set in Argentina with Fairbanks as an atheistic bandit who lived by his own rules and was known to all throughout the land. Men feared him. Women craved him. News of his whereabouts sent thrills and chills through the populace.
Oddly enough, the film begins with a religious miracle featuring an uncredited appearance by Mary Pickford as the Madonna (Virgin Mary), which serves to set up the plot for the hero's conversion at the end of the film. Prior to the screening of the main feature, the audience was treated to some rare color footage taken of Pickford, along with an explanation of the bizarre mechanism used to create the dazzling halo effect for the shot seen in this clip.

Throughout the film, Fairbanks gets lots of laughs from playing with cigarettes -- indeed this shot was screened during every intermission over the course of the weekend with a message admonishing the audience not to smoke!

Fairbanks' athletic skills also allowed for some bravura stunts and horsemanship. Having learned how to use the Argentinian bolas, the roping tool was incorporated into a fierce tango routine with Lupe Velez (which can be seen below).

The Gaucho premiered in November of 1927. By mid August of 1928, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks had been finished production on their second cartoon to feature Mickey Mouse. Obviously inspired by some of Fairbanks' stunts, their cartoon was named The Gallopin' Gaucho.

The supporting cast for The Gaucho included Gustav von Seyfertittz as the evil, power-hungry Ruiz, Michael Vavitch as Ruiz's first lieutenant, Charles Stevens as the Gaucho's first lieutenant, Nigel de Brulier as the Padre who is eventually befriended by the Gaucho, and Albert MacQuarrie as the Victim of the Black Doom (don't ask). Accompanied by Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, The Gaucho offered a grand opening night to the 2009 festival.
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The following night brought a rare screening of The Wind (1928). Directed by Victor Sjöström, The Wind is one of those rare films in which the force of nature dominates the film. The cast includes:
  • Lillian Gish as Letty, an innocent young woman who travels from West Virginia to Texas to live with her best friend from childhood, Beverly (a man) and his family.
  • Montagu Love as Roddy, a married man she meets on the train who asks her to marry him and eventually rapes her.
  • Edward Earle as Beverly, a cowboy and father of three who is struggling to survive in the Texas wilderness.
  • Dorothy Cumming as Cora, Beverly's miserable, jealous, and humorless wife.
  • William Orlamond as Sourdough, a stereotypical old codger.
  • Lars Hanson as Lige, the cowboy Letty eventually marries, even though she has no attraction to him at all.
Listen to the legendary star of The Wind introducing one of her favorite films.

Although you can watch The Wind in its entirety on Google video, the experience can hardly compare to seeing it on the Castro Theatre's giant screen with Dennis James (who used to tour with Lillian Gish) playing the Mighty Wurlitzer organ and not one, but two wind machines being used for sound effects.

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