An archive of articles on the silent era of world cinema.
Copyright © 1999-2018 by Carl Bennett and the Silent Era Company.
All Rights Reserved.
Sweet Dreams Are Made of These
The 2004 San Francisco Silent Film Festival
|Article Copyright © 2004 by Lokke Heiss. All Rights Reserved.
On 10 and 11 July 2004, sold-out audiences at the ninth annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival were transported to another world, a world of dreams . . . dreams of childlike wonders and sinister visions, dreams of humor, tragedy and dread. If we can dream it, we can be it, and we were many things this weekend at the Castro Theatre.
Dreams seem to be the product of a mysterious and largely autonomous entertainment division built into our brains long before the development of language or conscious thought. Maybe dreams are the world’s first stories. Whatever reason we dream, the part of the brain that makes up our dreams has the world’s most secure job. Whether we like or hate our dreams, they are eternally compelling, as dreams have a captive audience. We can forget or dismiss a dream, but as long as we must sleep, we can never avoid dreams themselves.
Dreams and silent film have much in common. Both usually deal with simple, straightforward emotions or actions: love, hate, fight, flight. Dreams and silent movies are often preoccupied with action and imagery, not reason or logic. Because of these powerful, primal similarities, silent films can be especially adept in using dream-narratives for their stories.
A silent movie, with the right musical accompaniment, can produce a reverie, a form of hypnosis unbroken by the harsh reality of the spoken word. An audience in a dark theater, entranced and enchanted by images and music, may experience something as close to a communal dream as we may ever get. Helping to transport us to this other world were many talented musicians, including soloists Jon Mirsalis, Dennis James, and Kevin Purrone.
Wings of Desire
The opening film of the festival, The Blue Bird (1918), is a wonderful example of using the silent film — dream connection to its fullest advantage. The Blue Bird was originally a play by Nobel Prize winner Maurice Maeterlinck. Born in 1862 in Ghent, Belgium, and a lawyer by vocation, Maeterlinck became interested in the French Symbolists and began to write stories and plays incorporating allegory and dream images. Moscow’s Art Theater first performed The Blue Bird in 1908, then versions of the play became popular in Europe and America.
The Blue Bird is the story of a poor woodcutter with two small children, Mytyl and Tytlyl, (played by Tula Belle and Robin MacDougall). The two children refuse to let a sick neighbor’s child play with their pet bird. Then they pester their harried mother, asking her questions about objects in the kitchen. Later, the two children fall asleep and are visited by a fairy, who explains to the children that everything in the world has an essence, a spiritual presence that lies beneath what we see. Sunlight, darkness, the water in the sink, all objects have an essence that lives in its own way; even a loaf of bread has a soul.
The children are assigned a task: to find and bring back the blue bird of happiness. With this goal in mind, they visit the Land of Memory, the Palace of Happiness and the Kingdom of the Future. After many adventures, the two children return empty-handed to their house, where the blue bird appears to be waiting for them. But the children learn that it’s not so simple just to have the bird, to achieve real happiness, they must also be willing to give up what they most desire.
With a talent for visual composition, and with an even more important understanding of the complex subtleties underlying a simple story, Maurice Tourneur was the perfect director for The Blue Bird. In a long and important career, The Blue Bird is one of Tourneur’s most successful films. He seamlessly blends allegory and philosophy into a story of real children who are trying at their young age to come to grips with poverty and illness. The use of allegory can treacherously pull the viewer out of the story, but since silent film has a degree of stylization already present in the acting, perhaps this makes it easier for the audience to accept that the characters can also represent larger truths. The Blue Bird is testimony to silent film’s unique ability to combine myth, dream and allegory into a moving story.
Keeping Up with the Joneses
After The Blue Bird’s heavy dose of metaphysics, the audience was next treated to light froth, with What Happened to Jones? (1926), starring Reginald Denny. Denny, born in England, was a popular Hollywood leading man in the 1920s. He starred in a series of features from Universal, playing a ‘boy-next-door’ character, who from his innocence or bad luck finds himself forced to deal with a variety of perplexing situations.
In What Happened to Jones?, Denny plays Tom Jones, a man soon to be married to Lucille (Marion Nixon). On his last night of single life, as he heads off to bed, he is corralled into a poker game with his friends. The poker game becomes a police raid, which becomes a mad dash through a ladies’ night in a Turkish bath. On the run from the law, Tom disguises himself as the priest who is supposed to officiate at his wedding. Tom finds himself at the altar but as the priest, and in his groom’s place is his archrival for his fiancee. Tom must get himself out of the terrible predicament, and what is more important, find out Lucille’s true feelings about their possible marriage.
What Happened to Jones? is an example of a ‘programmer’ designed to provide theaters with a product, quickly and at low cost. In an era before television, many audiences came to the theater for diversion, not high art. Since each major studio had its own chain of theaters, supplying these theaters with a large number of inexpensive films was vital to the studio’s success.
These B pictures served the studios as an invaluable training ground for generations of future directors like John Ford and Willam Wyler (an opportunity sadly unavailable to contemporary filmmakers). A few of these films are regarded today as classics, but most B pictures reflect their budget and intent. What Happened to Jones? is definitely in this ‘diversion’ category, and often I felt I was watching a TV sitcom, perhaps a special silent episode of Friends. This film’s connection with what was to become a situation-comedy genre has its good points, as the cast is likable enough. But missing any urgency for pace, the film drags, especially in the first half.
With the coming of sound, Reginald Denny’s accent became a liability as this All-American Boy was revealed to be a Brit in Yankee disguise. His career as a leading man for American films over, Denny settled into character roles such as “Algy” in the Bulldrog Drummond series. Denny would have a long career as a character actor until his death in 1967.
Enter the Dragon
Japanese silent films have their own unique history. When movies were introduced to Japan at the beginning of the 1900s, these early films were integrated into a theatrical tradition where a performer would recite stories to the audience. In the silent film theaters, these performances became an important part of the film experience, where the performer, called a benshi, would narrate and be the voices of the characters.
In 1913, while the benshi’s contribution to silent film was evolving in Japan, on the other side of the Pacific a young man was about to become a major Hollywood star. Sessue Hayakawa, best known for his performance as Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), was born in Nanaura, Japan in 1889. After an accident cut short a potential naval career, Hayakawa traveled to the United States and enrolled in the University of Chicago. Becoming interested in acting, he helped form the Japanese Imperial Company, with which he toured American cities. Offered a film contract by Thomas Ince, Hayakawa was soon starring in Hollywood films. Unfortunately, with America’s growing fear of the influence (and possible domination) by the Asian countries, he was usually cast as the villain. Tired of reinforcing this negative stereotype of the ‘Yellow Peril,’ Hayakawa created his own film production company. Free from the restrictions imposed by working for another studio, Hayakawa made a series of films trying to help the American public better understand Japanese traditions and history.
To celebrate Hayakawa’s importance in bringing Japanese culture to America, we were treated to a live benshi narration by Midori Sawato. One of the few benshis currently performing, Sawato presented through the film a variety of voices that ranged from a rough countryman to a refined lady. Along with the Mark Izu Ensemble, she provided the accompaniment for The Dragon Painter.
The Dragon Painter (1919) is anything but a B programmer. It is instead, an ‘art’ film, with a capital ‘A’ for art. In the peaceful countryside of Japan, Kano Indara (Howard Peil) a famous artist, tries to pass on his skills of nature painting to a disciple. While Indara despairs of ever finding a worthy successor, he learns of a wild ‘mountain man’ named Tatsu (Sessue Hayakawa). Tatsu paints landscapes as he pines for a past love, explaining to a friend she is a mythical princess who has been turned into a dragon. Tatsu explains he paints scene after scene of lakes and waterfalls because he is painting his love, who is “somewhere below the water.” Indara realizes that Tatsu has talent, and persuades him to come down off the mountain. Tatsu meets Indara’s daughter, Ume-Ko and decides she is the spirit of his lost princess. They fall in love and marry, after which Tatsu stops painting, as he has his princess. Faced with a husband who no longer has the desire to paint, Ume-Ko disappears, leaving a note that she has killed herself by jumping into a river. Tatsu in his grief resumes his work. Ume-Ko then reappears, explaining that she has intentionally staged a suicide so that Tatsu can better understand the difference between his obsession with a make-believe princess and the real woman who loves him. Thrilled to find Ume-Ko alive, Tatsu finally realizes the difference between his love for his wife and his love for painting, and comes to develop a new style of painting that reflects this new understanding.
||Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki in
The Dragon Painter (1919).
Photograph: courtesy Pacific Film Archive.
If The Dragon Painter puts to rest one set of stereotypes involving the Yellow Peril, it quickly sets up its own stereotypes involving a romanticized version of Japan where everyone seems to live in an exotic fairyland (the film was shot in the Yosemite valley, a fairyland by most standards). The story has a dreamy, storybook charm. But the most striking aspect of The Dragon Painter is the gender issue. Movies have a long tradition of associating the images and landscape of a space or territory to a female body (usually the lead female character) reflecting male concerns of acquisition, conquest and control. One example of this is The Birth of a Nation (1915), where the battle for Elsie (Lillian Gish) becomes a metaphor for who will have power in the defeated South.
The Dragon Painter barrels headlong into this association between the female body and the landscape. Ume-Ko pretends to kill herself by jumping into a river so that essentially Tatsu will paint it. She might as well be jumping into his canvas. And Ume-Ko means Plum tree in Japanese, a name associated with spring and renewal. So in this story the female character almost literally becomes the land, the air and the water. Except Ume-Ko wasn’t really a princess and she didn’t really jump. Confused? See The Dragon Painter for yourself to further explore these gender questions.
Horseman, Pass By
Film festivals often include a ‘warhorse’ in the program, a famous film guaranteed to draw name recognition and interest from even casual fans. With Saturday night’s screening of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), we had not just one warhorse but four in one movie!
The story of The Four Horseman starts in Argentina, as a rich cattle baron, Madariaga marries off two daughters, one to a Frenchman, and the other to a German. As the years pass, Madariaga would like to leave the ranch to his favorite grandson, Julio (Rudolph Valentino), but Julio seems to prefer to spend his time dancing the tango in local bistros. In his will, Madariaga divides his estate equally between his daughters. But after his death, the sons-in-law sell their shares of the estate and move back to their respective countries. Rich from the sale of the land, both families prosper until they find themselves on opposite sides of World War I. Julio becomes a painter and begins an affair with a married woman. He avoids the war at first, but as the killing and destruction continue, he finally enlists and becomes a model soldier, just in time to meet his cousin in a final battle.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is a silent era version of high concept spectacle: grand designs, huge sets, and a cast of thousands. Director Rex Ingram moves the story from one generation to another and from South America to Europe, showing us the grief caused by a world bent on self-destruction. Ingram moves back and forth between real life and allegory, telling the story of Julio’s personal path to redemption and then the larger story of nations caught in a war that approached apocalyptic proportions.
One problem I have with this film is that the allegory is so much more compelling than the family story. Other than the exhilarating sequence of Valentino’s justly-famous tango scene, the story of Julio’s rise from profligate son to obedient soldier is predictable and slow. Only when the allegorical sequences kick into full gear, such as when we see the Four Horsemen begin their ride of death, does the film really take off. The mundane world of Julio in Paris, and his career in the army is overshadowed by the end of the film, where a neighbor of Julio reveals himself to be Christ. As he stands in the graveyard, where the crosses of dead go on and on, never seeming to end, he raises his arms, and says, “I mourn for them all.” The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse is still a powerful antiwar film, although I wish the segments involving the more intimate family struggles were as well crafted as the sweeping scenes of high spectacle.
Ruan Lingyu is The Goddess
The next morning’s first film was my favorite film of the festival, Shennü (The Goddess). Made in 1934 in Shanghai by director Wu Yonggang and starring Ruan Lingyu, Shennü is the story of a woman forced to work as a ‘goddess’ (a euphemism for prostitute) to make enough money to feed her son. When Lingyu tries to enroll her son in school, she must contend with the prejudice of the community, and when she finally takes violent action to defend herself from a neighborhood bully, she is accused of murder. As she begins to serve a long sentence, a sympathetic school principle tells her that he will take care of her child.
||Ruan Lingyu in Shennü (1934).
Photograph: courtesy China Film Archive.
If 1934 seems late for a silent film, remember that years of civil war had caused such economic turmoil that most theaters in China could not afford to buy sound equipment. Silents were made in China even in 1936. There were some advantages to the legal anarchy present in the country, as filmmakers were able to skirt the vague production codes to make whatever films they wanted, often giving them leftist themes. Some filmmakers used their films to agitate for reform, similar to the ‘social tendency’ films in Japan.
Shennü is a Chinese version of a social tendency film, sympathetic to the plight of thousands of women, who through no fault of their own, were forced into prostitution. Shennü is not an ersatz talkie laden with dialogue-heavy titles. Instead, director Wu Yonggang instills into Shennü all the skills and art he has learned by seeing movies from East and West. In particular Wu learned from Hollywood the art of crafting a film to make the actors bigger than life — the understanding that close-ups, lighting and staging can turn actors into icons, into ‘stars.’ Actress Ruan Lingyu, who plays the lead in Shennü, is such a star, magnificently expressive and charismatic in the lead role. This film would lead to a cult of personality that would draw 300,000 mourners to her funeral after her suicide in 1935. Wu also learned lessons in camera work and editing from watching Soviet movies. The result is a film no one should miss: Shennü is a street-smart ’30s movie with the snap of Soviet editing and the sheen of Hollywood glamour.
The Original ‘Action Hero’
After waking us up with the bracing social message of Shennü, the festival delivered us to the dream and fantasy world of Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks is often remembered for the swashbuckling roles he played in the 1920s, but his comedies from the teens are frequently forgotten.
In The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) Fairbanks plays the detective Coke Ennyday. Taking the cue that Sherlock Holmes had a cocaine addiction, Ennyday is a brilliant investigator, but also has a huge drug habit. This makes him struggle between two contradictory interests: solving crimes or getting high. The seven-percent solution? Do both at the same time! A high-flying Ennyday keeps his monkey fed and still manages to track down opium smugglers who are using inflatable rafts to bring dope into California. The film is shot in a jarring surreal style, giving us a feeling that not all we see is real, a feeling confirmed when the last scene reveals this is all a pitch for a script that Fairbanks is trying to sell to the studio heads. His friends wave him off, saying “Doug, stay with your acting!”
In the feature film, When the Clouds Roll By (1919) Fairbanks plays Daniel Boone Brown, an incredibly superstitious man who goes to a psychiatrist, Dr. Metz (Herbert Grimwood) for support and advice. What Daniel Brown doesn’t know is that Metz has just escaped from an insane asylum. Posing as a doctor, Metz puts Brown through a brutal regime of diet and exercise in an effort to drive him to suicide. Under the burden of Metz’s care, Brown’s troubled sleep provokes a spectacular dream sequence where Brown takes a tour of his own body, followed by a topsy-turvy walk around the side and top of a room, a scene that predates the famous Fred Astaire ‘dance on the ceiling’ routine by thirty years. Brown meets an equally superstitious woman Lucette Bancroft (Kathleen Clifford) and after enduring a series of disasters such as train wrecks and floods, they are married.
The Chinese action superstar Jackie Chan is often compared to the silent comedians like Buster Keaton, but in watching When the Clouds Roll By, it becomes clear that the ‘original’ Jackie Chan is Douglas Fairbanks. At one point in the film, Fairbanks’ superstitious character tries to enter a building, but before he can get to the door, a black cat walks across his path. Fairbanks considers a moment, then simply climbs the wall of the building and pops in through a window. Problem solved. Fairbanks’ direct physical acting, brilliantly displayed in When the Clouds Roll By, serves as a standard for all subsequent action heroes.
From the roaring spectacle of a Fairbanks film, the festival caught its breath with the quiet, intimate pleasures of Lady of the Night (1925). The film is a romance about two women in love with the same man, with the twist that both women are played by Norma Shearer. Growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, Molly (Norma Shearer) is adored by her friend Chunky (George K. Arthur), but she has set her sights on neighbor and inventor David (Malcolm McGregor). David’s work on security devices takes him to a wealthy businessman’s home, where he meets Florence (also Norma Shearer). As David spends more time in this world of the rich and privileged, Florence falls in love with him. With the benefit of a split screen special effect, Molly confronts Florence, her rival, who is also her alter ego. After this meeting, Molly realizes David is better suited for Florence. She heroically gives up her claim, to give him a chance at a better life.
Monta Bell, who usually worked in a quiet, restrained style, is one many talented Hollywood directors who are mostly forgotten today. Bell directed most of Norma Shearer’s important silent features and was largely responsible for her rise to become one of MGM’s top stars in the late 1920s. Monta Bell had a real gift for finding a visual way to describe his characters. In Lady of the Night’s best scene, Chunky is in Molly’s apartment, watching ‘his girl’ in love with his rival. Light streams from a crack in door, and Chunky reaches out in an attempt to grab the motes of dust circling around him in the light, an effort as futile as his love for Molly. With a simple gesture, Monta Bell sets the entire mood for this story of desire, love and sacrifice.
A Chaplin Carnival
The closing film of the festival is a ‘forgotten’ masterpiece, Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus (1928). The reasons for this film being so little known are probably related to the misfortunes and accidents that overtook Chaplin in the two years it took to make this movie. From 1926 to 1928, a series of problems — including a scratched negative, a fire on the set, and a bitter divorce — caused long delays and setbacks.
Despite these distractions, The Circus is one of Chaplin’s most polished films, examining the odd and paradoxical impulses that lie beneath comedy. Looking for work, the Tramp gets a job in a circus as a janitor. When things go wrong during a show, the circus proprietor quickly finds that the Tramp is unintentionally the funniest man in the ring. So Charlie starts a new career as a clown, but to his surprise, the moment he tries to be funny, the humor is instantly gone. Meanwhile, the Tramp develops a crush on a girl riding horses for the circus (Merna Kennedy). The romance is short-lived as he learns she loves Rex, the tightrope walker (Harry Crocker). When Rex fails to show up one night for the act, the Tramp volunteers, and finds himself high up over the crowd, without a net, wrestling a band of wild monkeys. The Tramp survives the ordeal, and reunites the girl with Rex. The two lovers leave with the circus, but realizing that ‘three’s a crowd,’ the Tramp chooses to stay behind. Scuffling a toe in the dirt, he watches the cars drive off. The circus has left town.
||Charles Chaplin in The Circus (1928).
Photograph: Copyright © The Roy Export Company
Establishment. All Rights Reserved.
Clowns have a long tradition in Western culture. From Italy’s Commedia dell’arte and from France, we have two kinds of clowns, Harlequin and Pierrot. Harlequin is a brash, young, upstart clown, while Pierrot is a sad, older, dignified clown. A clown, and by extension, a man, will progress in life from a Harlequin to a Pierrot. In The Circus, we see the Tramp playing the Pierrot role here, giving up the girl to Rex. This is after Rex goes missing and Charlie must perform Rex’s duties. So why is Rex deserving of the Tramp’s sacrifice? It seems to me that Chaplin is missing a scene excusing and explaining Rex’s behavior. But with all the distractions happening during the filming, it’s probably a miracle that the film holds together as well as it does.
Despite this minor plot point, The Circus remains one of Chaplin’s funniest feature films, and deserves a place with the best of his work. Setting his film in the world of a circus lets Chaplin use a ‘layering’ effect with stories inside stories. The smallest stories are the short routines the Tramp has with his fellow clowns. Then we have the romantic triangle between the Tramp, the girl, and Rex. Overriding these stories is the need to give a nightly show, a show more important than the small, petty concerns of the performers. The crowd, waiting impatiently in the dingy seats of the big top, expects no less.
The last ring of this expanding circle is literally off the screen. We, sitting in a movie theater, are the ultimate audience, and all of these stories are secondary to the most important goal of all, to please us. Chaplin is honoring a trust, a time-honored bond between performer and audience, which can be summed up with just two words: entertain me! At the very end of the film, the Tramp watches the last of the circus cars roll away into the distance. He gives himself a moment to look around. There is nothing left. The Tramp walks away, as we the audience must do on this Sunday night at the Castro Theatre. The show is over, now only a memory, a ghost . . . the stuff dreams are made of.