Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Horribly Lost and Wonderfully Found

If, according to Wikipedia, paleontology is "the study of prehistoric life, including organisms' evolution and interactions with each other and their environments" -- and archaeology is "the science that studies human cultures through the recovery, documentation, analysis, and interpretation of material remains and environmental data, including architecture, artifacts, features, biofacts, and landscapes" -- then how do we describe the ongoing research being done with regard to silent film?

The cultural, societal, political and financial forces involved in the race against time to rescue, restore, and redistribute silent film are almost identical to those faced by Aaron Lansky when he first started collecting Yiddish books from old Jews.

Lansky's efforts led to the creation of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, a resurgence of interest in Yiddish literature and Jewish culture as well as the chance to convert so many lost manuscripts (books as well as music) into digital media.

Like Lansky, silent film historians face some incredible challenges:
  • A great deal of silent film was made on stock that has either deteriorated, been destroyed, or been so badly damaged that it cannot be restored.
  • Many silent movies were made using nitrate film that was unstable and highly flammable.
  • The onset of the "talkies" led to the sudden and quick demise of silent film as studios tried to adopt new technology.
  • Some silent films were destroyed after a certain period for contractual reasons.
  • Due to poor record keeping (and sometimes none at all), various bits of film from trailers, outtakes, and misplaced reels are extremely difficult to identify.
  • Many recent "discoveries" have led to silent treasures that remained hidden for decades in basements, attics, and warehouses around the world.
  • With a global recession, funding for the arts is increasingly limited.
  • The clock keeps ticking.
Like many nonprofit arts organizations, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is not just focused on having a good time. It helps raise money for film restoration and is acutely aware of the need for educational outreach. According to its mission statement:
"We believe the best way to truly appreciate the power and beauty of a silent film is by seeing it as it was meant to be seen: on the big screen with live musical accompaniment. For over thirteen years, we’ve hand selected the finest 35mm prints, engaged leading musicians to compose and perform live era-authentic musical scores, and invited filmmakers, authors, stars, archivists, and scholars to provide context and commentary for each film.We are committed to exploring the broad spectrum of silent film. Our programming is a lively and thought-provoking mix of education and entertainment which combines established American classics, lesser-known gems, rare and/or recently restored films, and important international work, including films from China, India, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, France and Russia."
Many Bay area arts nonprofits offer "free" outreach activities in their efforts to attract new audiences and develop new sources of support.
Each July, during its three-day festival at the Castro Theatre, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offers a free educational program as a way of making silent film available to people who cannot afford the price of a full ticket or who have had little if any exposure to silent film. This year's installment of Amazing Tales from the Archives included some rare shots of Constance Talmadge in a trailer from 1922's Polly of the Follies.

Constance Talmadge in Polly of the Follies

Anne Smatla (the winner of the 2008 Silent Film Preservation Fellowship) described her work in collaboration with the George Eastman House’s L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and San Francisco's Monaco Digital Film Labs in restoring a short film from the Screen Snapshots series. You can see another short from the Screen Snapshots series here.

Other restored or recovered shorts that were shown over the course of the festival included:
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Just as the discovery of a new species of dinosaur fossil -- or a previously hidden Egyptian mummy -- creates a worldwide sensation, the announcement that a salvageable print of 1926's
Bardelys The Magnificent (a silent film that had, for decades, been assumed lost to history) had been found in a cellar in France sent frissons of ecstasy through the international community of silent film fans.

The fifth and last film to star John Gilbert and be directed by King Vidor, Bardelys The Magnificent was based on one of Rafael Sabatini's popular swashbuckler romance novels. Although Gilbert enjoyed great popularity as a matinee idol, in this film he also did some pretty impressive stunt work.

Playing opposite Vidor's wife (Eleanor Boardman), Gilbert portrays a vain, handsome member of the court of France's Louis XIII. Bardelys is a man who could have any woman he desired and whose sexual appetite is seemingly never diminished.

After being rejected by the beautiful young Roxalanne de Lavedan (whose parents do not support the king politically), a rival of Bardelys challenges him to win and marry the aloof Roxalanne (Boardman) or else forfeit his castle. Thus begins a long and complicated farce of mistaken identity in which only the villain, Chatellerault (Roy D'Arcy) or the king himself (Arthur Lubin) can save Bardelys from the gallows.

Because MGM had only licensed the rights to adapt Sabatini's Bardelys The Magnificent for 10 years, when the contract came up for renewal in 1936 (and talkies had suddenly become all the rage), the studio opted to destroy all of the known prints of the film as per the terms of its contract. Eight decades after its premiere, all but one reel of the film was found in France, was digitally restored and is now available on DVD with musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (which performed at last weekend's San Francisco screening).

John Gilbert & Eleanor Boardman

Bardelys The Magnificent proved to be great fun, with a wealth of comedy and derring-do (not to mention some magnificent period costume work). Trivia freaks will be thrilled to know that this was the movie in which a very young John Wayne made his professional debut in a bit role.

In the middle of the film there is a sequence of such lyrical beauty that it's hard to imagine why anyone in his right mind would have been willing to relinquish the distribution rights. Watch the clip below and you'll want to see the entire film.

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The final screening of this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered a perfect example of how film historians can give us greater insight into the evolution of the movie industry. The last silent film to be directed by D. W. Griffith, Lady of the Pavements (1929) starred William Boyd (who would subsequently achieve far greater fame as the star of 66 Hopalong Cassidy films which were eventually shown on television), Lupe Velez (who was noticed by Fanny Brice while working in vaudeville), and Jetta Goudal (who won a landmark lawsuit against Cecil B. DeMille).

Filmed when D. W. Griffith was experimenting with ways to make the transition from silent film to talkies, Lady of the Pavements included a scene in which Velez sang Irving Berlin's plaintive "Where Is The Song of Songs For Me?" A flashy costume drama, Lady of the Pavements also allowed Velez a chance to demonstrate her formidable physical skills as a comedienne.

In order to recreate the way the film was screened in many theaters around the country, accompanist Donald Sosin had his wife (Joanna Seaton) worked together so that she would sing Berlin's song while Velez was mouthing the lyrics on the screen. Imagine my surprise when I came across this recording of Velez singing the lyric:

The film includes some lovely supporting performances by George Fawcett as Baron Hausmann, Henry Armetta as Papa Pierre, and the great Franklin Pangborn as the dance master, M'sieu D'Ubrey (who tries to transform Velez from a poor cabaret singer into a noblewoman).

Although Lady of the Pavements opened to rave reviews, it was not a great success at the box office and -- as the film industry's focus shifted to talkies -- it eventually fell into oblivion. The screening at the Castro Theatre, however, boasted an unusual amount of old world charm (a rare quality that is in great demand these days). I was fascinated to see a young William Boyd appearing as a romantic lead and astonished by Lupe Velez's versatility. All in all, a very satisfying way to close out the festival.

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