Saturday, May 31, 2014
Midnight Madness at the SF Silent Film Festival
One of the most significant film festivals in the world concentrates on movies close to 100 years old, and this year's edition opened with one of the silent film era's blockbusters, The Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse, in a remastered version of the 1921 original by British film historian Kevin Brownlow.
I couldn't make it for opening night, which felt criminal, but there were other priorities. I did make it to a Friday afternoon showing of the 1928 Midnight Madness which was introduced by Executive Director Stacey Wisnia above. She explained how the Festival was part of a global ecosystem of silent film enthusiasts who have been doing everything in their powers to archive an oddly fragile art form, namely the birth of film.
The show started with a few new restorations of early documentary attempts, including a couple of Italian travelogues and a truly bizarre series of funny clips of Josephine Baker (on the right) trying to charm small town folks in The Netherlands, with varying degrees of success.
Midnight Madness was a 1928 hour-long "programmer" by the Cecil B. DeMille production studio which soon went bankrupt because most of its product was mediocre. This film was no different, which is part of its fascination. Most of what survives in film history is the cream of the crop, but to really envision a different time, it's sometimes more instructive to look at popular crap, which reveals what the accepted attitudes of the day are better than more refined fare. This movie is about a secretary to a New York diamond merchant who lives with her alcoholic father behind a carnival shooting gallery who hopes to marry her boss. He confesses early on that he's "not the marrying kind," but encourages her to pimp herself out to a rich South African diamond miner who is unaccountably in love with her. She agrees to marry the miner in an impulsive moment, but he discovers her mercenary motives and decides to test her with a honeymoon of poverty in the bush surrounded by man-eating lions. After a number of complications, she betrays him and then redeems herself by saving his life as he's being attacked by one of those same lions. Riches and joy await her at the finale, but in truth the young Clive Brooks above as the miner is so damned sexy that you wonder what the heroine's problem might be, since he looked to be a great match, rich or poor.
The British silent film musician Stephen Horne above performed with his usual mastery on piano, accordion, and flute, in both the shorts and the main feature. He is an amazing artist who elevates whatever he is accompanying, even when the film is popular trash.
You have one more chance to catch the final day of the festival on Sunday, which starts off with a French comedian's attempt at being Chaplin, moves on to an early Ozu film (Dragnet Girl), continues with a Swedish comedy, a very early Sherlock Holmes film, a bleak German film about doomed lower-class characters, and ends with Buster Keaton's masterpiece, The Navigator. All of these have live musical accompaniment by a host of masters. Check it out.