Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Silent Stella Dallas

The fourth and final day of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on Sunday featured a lot of people who had seen too many movies in a row and were feeling like underground moles. Dave above was congratulating himself on limiting his viewing to one film a day rather than five, exiting from a showing of the Swedish film Erotikon which he called "the first real dog I've seen at the festival this year."

Sue in the Early Entrance line above at the Castro Theatre was complaining about the long delays before each of the scheduled films. "They've been holding this festival for seventeen years, so you'd think they would have gotten their act together by now. Making people wait outside in the cold for an hour is just wrong. And yes, you can tell Anita Monga that."

I asked Andrew Korniej above what he would like to say to Artistic Director Monga. "I'd love to see a Douglas MacLean film in the festival next year. He's one of my all-time favorites."

The silent version of the women's weepie, Stella Dallas, was introduced by San Francisco's Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller above. The film is about an uneducated, tasteless, lower-class mother who eventually gives up her teenage daughter so her upper-class father and new wife can provide the "proper" surroundings, and Muller confessed it was the one movie that always devastates him completely. "That's because my own mother IS Stella Dallas. She's still alive, by the way, at 96 years old."

Stella Dallas is adapted from a 1923 novel by the now obscure New England novelist, Olive Higgins Prouty, and the examination of the distorting forces of economic class is still surprisingly potent. Belle Bennett as Stella Dallas gives an incredible performance of the character, from her pretty, awkward teenage years to an absurdly trashy middle aged dame in a fat suit. The pathos of the story is that all the main characters are basically decent people who love each other, but the inflexible codes of class and education trump all.

The story was remarkably durable, spawning another famous movie version with Barbara Stanwyk (who eschewed the fat suit), along with a daily radio serial that ran for eighteen years which Prouty hated. There was even a more recent remake by Bette Midler that was reportedly a disaster. The silent film version, with live musical accompaniment by the incomparable Stephen Shore above, is probably the best adaptation, and people were openly sobbing in the theatre on Sunday through the whole last third of the film.

Incidentally, Prouty went on to write a series of five novels about a patrician Boston clan, the Vales, and the middle book was none other than Now, Voyager which was turned into the classic Bette Davis vehicle. She was also a Smith graduate where she started a mentoring program for gifted writing students, which is where she befriended Sylvia Plath. It really is a small world.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks for the interesting report. I knew about the Now Voyager connection but not the Sylvia Plath one, which is very amusing.

By the way, I saw Erotikon several years ago (it's available on DVD) and enjoyed it very much. It's not what people usually think of when they think "silent film comedy" but that just makes it different, not bad. In my opinion, of course.

sfmike said...

Dear Patrick: Are you calling David an unreliable critic? (He may be, for all I know.)

I'm still glad I went to Stella Dallas instead.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Actually, I would have gone to Stella Dallas too, since you could always watch Erotikon on DVD but I think the silent Stella Dallas is not available.

You've made me want to see Erotikon again. Which I can do, because it's on DVD! Yeah technology!

Also, I meant to note that the Prouty-Plath conection is the best such thing I've heard since I found out Alla Nazimova was Nancy Reagan's godmother.

AphotoAday said...

By now I should know when to keep my mouth shut, but looks to me like, for a "silent" film festival, there was a whole lot of jabbering going on. Speeches, accolades and a progression of genre experts, flapping their lips excessively and jockeying for position in the social realm. SILENCE seems to be the lost art here. Enjoy it for what it is--that wold be my suggestion.

sfmike said...

Dear Donald: I didn't need the speeches, but Silent movies were never meant to be silent, which is why this festival is so cool. There were half a dozen different musical groups performing live at each film showing, and it makes all the difference in the world.

AphotoAday said...

Understood. Am just being a bit contrarian today. But then I AM the guy who likes to listen to the TV news with the sound turned off, making up my own stories as it goes along.
I heard Beth Spotswood gave a 3 minute speech at one of the performances--that probably was fun.