Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Forensic Look At Partially-Restored Silent Films

Did you know what dendrochronology is? Neither did I! First used in 1928, the term (according to Merriam-Webster) is defined as "the science of dating events and variations in environment in former periods by comparative study of growth rings in trees and aged wood." I came across the word in a recently-published article in The New York Times entitled A Master Work, the Ghent Altarpiece, Reawakens Stroke by Stroke. In his article, Milan Schreuer describes the scanning technology (macro-X-ray fluorescence analysis or MA-XRF) used on a 15th-century masterpiece as follows:
“Scientists first bombard a painting with high-frequency electromagnetic waves. This leads atoms inside a painting to ionize and emit electromagnetic waves of their own. The scanner then captures these secondary waves and, through an analysis of their energy, momentum, and angle, identifies each different atom and its place in a painting. This allows scientists to construct images of a painting using one chemical element at a time (such as lead, copper, iron, and mercury). By comparing these images, they are able to separate copper-based red pigments in a superficial paint layer, for example, from lead-based white pigments in an underlying layer.”
The Ghent Altarpiece

Just as new stem cell technologies have allowed scientists to work wonders in modern medicine, 2016 has been filled with discoveries of previously-unknown dinosaur species, bizarre creatures that live in the ocean's depths, and species discovered on land that had never been documented. Consider the excitement of the scientists in the following video as they witness the birth of two silkhenge spiders (a species that weaves a uniquely-shaped nest for its newborn.

As thrilling as 2016 has been in the areas of science and social progress, it has been equally alarming with regard to the actions of conservative forces bent on eradicating the hard-earned achievements of those who have fought for knowledge and equality, who strive to encourage logic and empathy.
While some may think of 2016 as yet another annus horribilis, others will remember 2016 as the year in which an anus horribilis was elected to become the 45th President of the United States.

There's an old saying that "timing is everything." However, I doubt that the programmers at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival sensed the potential for a new wave of media censorship when they scheduled two partially restored (and extremely controversial) films for their Day of Silents in early December.

With increased reports of violence stemming from racism, xenophobia, anti-semitism, and homophobia, SFSFF's screenings of these classics took on much greater relevance than one might have expected prior to the 2016 election. Because each film was essentially missing part or all of its final reel, these screenings also made audiences consider the as-yet unwritten chapters of history that lie at our feet.
  • Both films involve an attempt to blackmail someone for living their lives openly with no qualms about their sexual orientation.
  • Both films demonstrate how the self-loathing of a jealous conservative can have a brutal impact on the lives of total strangers.
  • Both films offer a stern warning about the dangers of living a closeted or sexually repressed  lifestyle.
  • Both films were way ahead of their time and drew sharp criticism from censors.
* * * * * * * * *
Directed by Richard Oswald with cinematography by Max Fassbender, 1919's Different From The Others (Anders als die Andern) is believed to be the oldest surviving film whose lead character is a homosexual. In the film, Paul Körner (Conrad Veidt) is a highly acclaimed violinist who agrees to take on a young student named Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schulz). Although it doesn't take long for their mutual admiration to grow into a sense of deep devotion and genuine affection, Körner is approached by Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schünzel), who attempts to blackmail the musician by exposing young Sivers as a budding homosexual.

Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schulz) and his mentor, Paul Körner (Conrad Veidt)
are approached by Franz Bollek (Reinhold Schünzel)
in a scene from 1919's Different From The Others 

Ironically, Körner first met Bolleck at a gay dance hall. As the blackmail scheme continues, the violinist finally decides to report his blackmailer to the authorities. Although Bolleck is sentenced to three years in prison and Körner to only a week's imprisonment, upon being released from jail the musician discovers that his family has shunned him and his career has been ruined. The only path to avoiding a lonely, shameful, and unbearable future is to commit suicide. In his program essay, Dennis Harvey makes the following points:
  • Among champions of greater sexual freedom and tolerance, few people were more prominent in the early 20th century than the Prussian-born physician Magnus Hirschfeld who, in 1896, published a tract defending same-sex love under a pseudonym. In 1897, Hirschfeld (then 31 years old) co-founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee. Its motto was ‘Through science to justice." Its agenda was to push for greater understanding of sexual minorities and overturn Paragraph 175 (the part of German law that criminalized male homosexual acts as well as other perceived sexual aberrations).
  • On July 6, 1919, Hirschfeld opened the Institute for Sexual Research, which offered public education and counseling. That same year Different From The Others (a film Hirschfeld co-wrote and appeared in) was released in German movie theaters. It became the first movie that, rather than ridicule its homosexual characters, took their desire for understanding and fair treatment quite seriously.
  • Oswald's film was sufficiently controversial to lead to rioting and vandalism at some theaters that screened Different From The Others. It took only 15 months for his groundbreaking film to be officially banned by the German government from public screenings. German censorship laws (whose abandonment in the early days of the Weimar Republic had enabled the film to be made) were re-introduced in 1920. 
  • Coincidentally, 1919 witnessed the founding of the nationalistic German Workers’ Party (which later became better known as the Nazis). As National Socialism continued to crush the Weimar Republic, images of the hirsute and bulky Hirschfeld (a bear ahead of his time) were used in Nazi propaganda to illustrate “the most repulsive of all Jewish monsters.”
  • In 1933, soon after the Nazis seized power, Hirschfeld's Institute for Sexual Research was ransacked by Hitler Youth. Whatever materials from its extensive archives of sexual research that managed to escape being destroyed in a public bonfire were subsequently auctioned off. 
Poster art for Different From The Others

With live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin on piano, December's screening of Different From The Others attracted a large audience to the Castro Theatre. While the historical importance of the film was obvious, the fact that the final reel is lost forever remains a major point of frustration. As Dennis Harvey explains:
“Thought entirely lost for many decades, then recovered just in fragmentary form, Different From The Others remains a less-than-complete artifact. A sole surviving partial print of Hirschfeld’s Different From The Others at Gosfilmofond in Moscow allowed its rediscovery as a forgotten milestone in LGBTQ culture. The Outfest UCLA Legacy Project’s new restoration, incorporating materials from numerous sources, is the most comprehensive version available in at least 80 years. But even it is missing whole characters, subplots, and scenes, including a set piece (glimpsed only in a surviving still) in which the protagonist imagines Da Vinci, Tchaikovsky, Ludwig II, Oscar Wilde, and other historical figures who suffered for their sexual orientation. Intertitles fill in many gaps left by footage unlikely ever to be found (the Nazis made a point of destroying all the prints they could lay their hands on after they came into power in 1933).”
Kurt Sivers (Fritz Schulz) weeps at the funeral of his mentor, Paul Körner
(Conrad Veidt), in a scene from 1919's Different From The Others

* * * * * * * * *
Late in 1916, W. Somerset Maugham was traveling through the South Pacific on board the SS Sonoma when the ship stopped at the territorial capital of American Samoa (Pago Pago). Among his fellow travelers were a medical missionary and his wife and a woman from San Francisco. Those three passengers became the inspiration for Maugham's short story entitled Rain, which was originally published in April 1921 under the title of Miss Thompson. Today, the boarding house in Malaloa where Maugham stayed is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and known as the Sadie Thompson Inn.

Gloria Swanson in a scene from 1928's Sadie Thompson

With a climate resembling a tropical rainforest, Pago Pago is subject to frequent showers. In primitive societies, rain is often regarded as an important part of the crop cycle and a symbol of fertility. There can be little doubt that the legend of Sadie Thompson has inspired the fertile imaginations of numerous creative artists.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival's recent screening of Sadie Thompson was preceded by a special treat. To the surprise of many people in the audience, Bevan Dufty (who had represented the Castro District during his two terms as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors) was introduced as Gloria Swanson's stepson. Dufty regaled the audience with memories of time spent with Miss Swanson in her later years.

Raoul Walsh and Gloria Swanson in a scene from Sadie Thompson

What many people forget is that Swanson was an extremely savvy woman who chose the cast for her silent film and was not afraid to take on the censors. In her program note, Farran Smith Nehme explains that:
“The film was being produced under United Artists, where Swanson had her own production unit. Studio head Joe Schenck called Swanson on the carpet for being behind schedule and over budget, and, as Swanson recalled in her book, got an earful of his old friend’s frustration: 'When Irving Thalberg reshoots a third of a picture, you call him a genius. When Sam Goldwyn does it, he’s maintaining his reputation for quality. But when I do it, you treat me like a silly female who can’t balance her checkbook after a shopping spree.' Rather than have Schenck pick up the costs and wind up beholden to him, Swanson sold her house in Croton-on-Hudson. The last print was discovered in Mary Pickford’s collection, and nitrate decomposition had already claimed its last reel. In the late 1980s Kino International reconstructed the final scenes using a montage of stills, and damage is visible in other scenes as well.”
Gloria Swanson in a scene from 1928's Sadie Thompson

Although Swanson is also famous for her performance as Norma Desmond in 1950's Sunset Boulevard, most cinema fans consider her portrayal of the fun-loving Sadie Thompson to be the finest performance of her film career. With Donald Sosin again providing live musical accompaniment on the piano, Swanson's performance began with that famous incandescent smile and confident strut and ended up with Sadie an insecure ghost of her former brassy self. Raoul Walsh demonstrated a goofy masculine charm as Sergeant Tim O'Hara and Lionel Barrymore didn't hesitate to chew the scenery as the film's villain.

Gloria Swanson in a scene from 1928's Sadie Thompson

One doesn't often think about missing footage while watching a film, but as Different From The Others and Sadie Thompson neared their final reels, the obvious breaks in the story (and, in some moments, evidence of nitrate deterioration) brought an extra layer of sadness to the event. Each film had a wonderful plot, some great actors, and historical importance. Perhaps some of us have become spoiled by the wave of digital restoration bringing new life to silent films. As much as we want to see "lost" films in all their glory, sometimes that experience remains maddeningly just out of our reach.

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