Sherlock Holmes Silent Film Discovered

A note from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) tells of the wonderful discovery of “Sherlock Holmes,” a film shot at Essanay Studios and released in 1916. The film, directed by Arthur Berthelet, stars William Gillette as the master detective Holmes. Gillette played Holmes on stage for many years, and no other film of him doing the character exists. Researchers found Sherlock Holmes in an archive at the Cinémathèque Française about a month ago.

An advertisement for "Sherlock Holmes."

An advertisement for “Sherlock Holmes.”

SFSFF provides a full explanation and technical details of the discovery here. One of the great things about SFSFF and other silent festivals such as Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy, is that these discoveries create a buzz that heightens interest and excitement among the silent film devotees. I remember the excitement in Pordenone last year when their festival found and screened Orson Welles’ funny 1938 silent short “Too Much Johnson.” A long queue of excited silent film lovers waited to file into the theater last October in Pordenone to see that film.

Good news: SFSFF 2015 will present the American premiere of the restored SHERLOCK HOLMES (1916) at their 20th Anniversary Festival, which runs from Thursday, May 28, 2015 to Monday, June 1, 2015. So, the anniversary festival adds an extra day of screenings.

Speaking of Pordenone, I did not get a chance to go there this year for the festival, which ended recently. However, SFSFF provides a wrap-up here.

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Bay of Angels

A couple of interesting things occur in Jacques Demy’s 1963 film “Bay of Angels,” or “La baie des anges (French title).” A man (Claude Mann) gets hooked into a gambling binge by a colleague at work and goes to a casino in Nice where he meets a compulsive gambler played by Jeanne Moreau. Although the couple engage in a romantic relationship, their time together is defined by the power emitted by the gambling urge. They win and lose and the viewer gets the feeling that they will go on doing this forever.

Claude Mann and Jeanne Moreau star in "Bay of Angels."

Claude Mann and Jeanne Moreau star in “Bay of Angels.”

Moreau plays Jackie, the former wife of an industrialist who has given up everything to play roulette. She’s elegant in her Pierre Cardin dresses and gowns, but the ravishes of her slavery to gambling mean she’s long sold her jewelry to squander at roulette.   Mann plays Jean, a bank clerk with a strong skepticism for gamblers and the gambling life who falls prey to an addicted colleague after a single visit to a Paris casino. Jean wins big and decides to drop out by going on a long vacation to the casinos on the Riviera. Eventually, he meets Jackie, who casts a spell on him that can’t easily be dissolved.

Since a lot of the movie happens at the roulette table, many scenes involve the sights and sounds of the croupier. Jean and Jackie pick numbers and colors and we hear the sound of the wheel as the ball comes to a stop. I think the director, Jacques Demy, wanted to stress the monotony of the gambling life. Even when Jackie and Jean win, the excitement seems muted while Demy concentrates on the dynamics of the gambling couple. After a big win, they allow themselves to spend liberally and go off to Monte Carlo for even more gambling.

Jackie clearly states that her motivation for gambling involves the thrill and not the money. Clearly, this must be the case because she’s given up both her rich husband back in Paris as well as her little boy for the gambling life. By the end of the film, we know everything about the gambling couple, so it’s good the film clocks in at only 90 minutes.

The Criterion Collection DVD presents a fine restoration produced by the Cinémathèque Française, with an excellent score by Michel Legrand. Demy presents a black and white film with a black and white “color” palette. Moreau wears a white dress for much of the film, which combined with her white hair, makes her look like a guiding spirit. The restoration also does a good job of balancing the high contrast and washed-out gleam of the brightly lit locations of Nice and Monte Carlo.

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Seventh Heaven

Many years ago, I remember seeing “Seventh Heaven” on TV, a 1937 James Stewart movie about a sewer worker in Paris who helps out a down-on-her-luck French waif played by Simone Simon. I found the film quite watchable, especially because Stewart and Simon seem like such an odd pairing. Recently, I finally got around to seeing the classic and original silent 1927 version of “Seventh Heaven,” and found it to be one of the most brilliant and inspirational romantic movies I’ve ever seen. Frank Borzage directed the 1927 version, and it stars Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.

Janet Gaynor in "Seventh Heaven."

Janet Gaynor in “Seventh Heaven.”

Farrell plays an arrogant sewer worker named Chico, who dreams of being a street washer. He possesses supreme faith in his abilities, but he doesn’t believe in God. He speaks of once laying down some French francs to light some candles at church, but nothing good became of it. Gaynor plays Diane, the abused sister of the violent Nana (Gladys Brockwell). Nana regularly whips Diane and drinks copious amounts of absinthe. A priest comes to Diane and Nana’s door and informs them that a rich uncle is willing to take them in and relieve their impoverished lives. But when Diane puts the rich uncle off, the vengeful Nana chases her down and attempts to strangle her. Chico arrives to save the day, and agrees to let Diane stay at his apartment.

Heaven refers to many things in this film, including religion, Chico’s apartment, the heights of romantic love and relief from hopelessness. The expressive faces of Gaynor and Farrell draws the audience into an intimate empathy for Diane and Chico. And when the movie suddenly thrusts itself into World War I — which separates Diane and Chico for a long stretch — the film manages to keep the focus on their relationship by using a clever but believable dramatic device.

Gaynor delivers a remarkable performance as Diane, who gradually loses her sense of hopelessness and gains significant moral strength as Chico goes off to war. The film tempers its unrelenting romanticism with a couple of funny vignettes involving supporting characters. In particular, Albert Gran plays a roly-poly taxi driver who provides a lot of comic bluster.

The beginning of the film shows title cards that point out the power of dreams, of rising from the sewer to the stars, and believing in the power of transformation. To achieve the these heights, one must climb the ladder of courage. The film then goes about proving this theme wonderfully.


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Silent Rewind

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) Silent Autumn presentation flowed wonderfully tonight at the Castro Theater, with a glorious and well-enjoyed program of features and shorts. It started with 3 Laurel and Hardy silent shorts, including the hilarious “Big Business(1929),” and ended with a showing of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Although I thoroughly enjoyed the entire festival, I must say I particularly delighted in the showing of Buster Keaton’s “The General (1926).” I consider it a perfect film, full of expert comedy timing and ingenious gags involving a railroad.

Anita Monga, the Artistic Director for the SFSFF, told me tonight that the Silent Autumn festival replaces the SFSFF winter event, usually held in February. Now everyone should reserve May 28-31, 2015 for the SFSFF 20th Annual Festival. It will be held, as usual, at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, California.

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Silent Autumn

It’s only a week away from “Silent Autumn,” the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s (SFSFF) event to be held at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. On Saturday, September 20, 2014, the SFSFF will present an all-day program of silent features and shorts that include classics such as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” from 1920 and “The General,” from 1926. The great thing about the festival is that it only costs $60 for the entire day. Click here for the schedule.

Buster Keaton in "The General."

Buster Keaton in “The General.”


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Miss Lulu Bett

The 1921 silent film “Miss Lulu Bett” tells a familiar story about about a downtrodden women cast into a life of drudgery while her supposedly better-looking sister wins a husband. However, often the actress playing the poor sister, or (in some cases), the loyal secretary, is much more appealing. I’m thinking of actresses such as Joan Blondel and Eve Arden, who play second-fiddle in a lot of productions, but would be clear favorites for romance in real life.

Clarence Burton and Lois Wilson in "MIss Lulu Bett."

Clarence Burton and Lois Wilson in “MIss Lulu Bett.”

In Miss Lulu Bett, the gorgeous Lois Wilson as Lulu must endure a life full of loneliness and oppression before she emerges from a cocoon of low esteem to get the man of her dreams.  Of course, he is there all along, in the character of Neil Cornish (Milton Sills), who’s a school teacher with a profound crush on our heroine Lulu. But overbearing families can get in the way of romances, and the plot gives Lulu time to learn valuable lessons about loyalty and personal freedom before she finds happiness.

It’s hard to believe that an unmarried woman can become a domestic slave during the first part of the 20th century if her marriage prospects don’t pan out, but the story makes a statement about the issue. The film gets its story from a novel written by Zona Gale, which became a play that won a Pulitzer for its drama and important message. In the book, Lulu is older and less pretty, and I think that makes the story more poignant. Nevertheless, the young and beautiful Wilson gives a good performance, especially when she finally gains the strength to strike out on her own.

The Deacon family household, where Lulu labors tirelessly, is a madhouse full of selfish characters, especially the pompous father, Dwight (Theodore Roberts). Lulu gets little affection from him or from her lazy grandmother and aunt. The house goes to ruin when Lulu leaves to marry Dwight’s traveling salesman brother Ninian (Clarence Burton) because the Deacons hardly know how to feed themselves without Lulu’s help. The Deacons don’t seem terribly interested in work at all, yet they live in a reasonably well-furnished house and project the kind of upper-class values that makes them look down on Lulu.

Lulu’s young niece, Diana (Helen Ferguson), hates the Deacon household so much that she’s willing to elope with a local boy. Imagine the horror of an elopement to a family so afraid of scandal that they have to dodge the petty gossipers pointing their fingers at them after the Sunday church service. What Lulu decides to do by the end is heroic and much more meaningful because she’s not only taking on her family but the entire population of a small town whispering about her every move.

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Paths of Glory

Stanley Kubrick is one of those directors that make me super aware of the film-making process. While presenting pure technique of camera placement and sound, Kubrick manages to maintain the tension and focus on the actors and story. Add to this the fact that Kubrick tackles very masculine and contentious subjects, and it seems his films project a haunting hyper reality made even more remarkable by the richness of the black and white photography. It takes a lot of vision and work to balance these elements, especially when Kubrick presents one stagy scene after another.

Kirk Douglas in "Paths of Glory."

Kirk Douglas in “Paths of Glory.”

The performances of Kirk Douglas, Adolphe Menjou, Ralph Meeker and others propel “Paths of Glory,” released in 1957, to the highest level of filmmaking. Douglas plays Colonel Dax, a serious and competent commander of a French World War 1 regiment. Dax, dug in with his men opposite a German stronghold called “Ant Hill,” faces severe problems with his men, including declining morale and diminished loyalty to the cause. General George Broulard (Menjou), through Dax’s commanding General Mireau (George Macready), orders Dax to take Ant Hill, a suicide mission that will result in thousands of casualties.

When the mission fails, Mireau demands that Colonel Dax and his men take the blame. Mireau sets up a kangaroo court martial for three men chosen from Dax’s ranks, including the very brave Corporal Paris (Ralph Meeker), whose only crime amounts to getting knocked cold early in the battle. Despite vehement protests from Dax, Mireau refuses to grant leniency or change his mind about the court martial. Broulard, believing that the court martial and the resulting death penalty will set an example for the entire regiment, allows the trial to proceed.

Having seen many courtroom movie trials over the years, I find that they often go on too long and tend to waver from reality with last minute pieces of information that suddenly and illogically appear. However, Kubrick handles the trial brilliantly, showing Dax’s extreme confidence and ability to defend his men even though his military superiors force a pre-ordained outcome. Dax makes a strong point about military justice and corruption in the officer corps.

Menjou provides a remarkable performance as General Broulard, a man whose flexibility makes it hard to best him. If not for the grinding trench warfare, Broulard may have suffered worse consequences of his ill-advised decisions and tactical incompetence. Macready’s General Mireau is a buffoon who faces retribution sooner rather than later.

Kubrick films the trenches with long tracking shots, while Ant Hill is shown in the misty distance. Bullets and shells rain from the German positions, but the film shows no German soldiers or hand-to-hand combat. The director and the screenplay makes it seem that the French are only fighting themselves.

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It should be easier to see every Anna May Wong film, but since I mostly rely on Netflix and film festivals to unearth rarities, most of Wong’s work remains unseen. She made over 50 movies in America and Europe and always provided a credible if not terrific performance. Despite being typecast as an obvious Chinese type in many of her parts, she never displays a limited range and always seems natural. A true movie star and a great professional, she is extremely riveting in both her silent and sound roles. She’s definitely an unusual and much loved screen icon.

Anna May Wong in "Piccadilly."

Anna May Wong in “Piccadilly.”

In “Piccadilly,” a 1929 British silent film directed by Ewald Andrê Dupont, Wong plays Shosho, a nightclub scullery worker who displays a fine talent for dancing. The Piccadilly nightclub’s top act, the dancing duo Mabel Greenfield (Gilda Gray) and Victor Smiles (Cyril Ritchard) bring in capacity crowds nightly, much to the delight of the club owner Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas). But Victor likes Mabel too much, which gets on her nerves. Mabel likes Valentine a lot, and soon Gil is shown the door.

One night, a fastidious diner, played wittingly by Charles Laughton, complains about a dirty plate. This causes Valentine to trek to the scullery, where he encounters the exotic (to him) Shosho dancing on a table while entertaining the scullery maids. He immediately terminates her, but relents when he sees her later after she’s forgotten her bobble-head mascot of Confucius. An off-screen audition lands Shosho a job dancing at the club. When she appears onstage, the audience becomes transfixed as she dances an Asian-themed sway that epitomizes her beauty and grace. She becomes a sensation in London while Valentine falls for her. Wong shows her wonderful acting skills as we visibly see her rapid transformation from a shabby scullery girl to a modern and popular dancer.

Although Wong effortlessly draws your eyes to her, Gilda Grey’s Mabel provides a capable and sympathetic rival. Grey, like Wong, is very pretty. Shosho utters some cruel lines about Mabel being too old for Valentine, but I think she’s really making a comment on the allure of something entirely new. This melodramatic movie doesn’t wait out the details of this love triangle, but instead ties it up rather hurriedly and in a coarse fashion. At a time when screen conventions would not allow true love between people of different races, nobody really fares well at the end. But Anna May Wong’s scenes really stand out and provide a great look at her subtle talents.

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Kanchenjungha, the third highest mountain in the world, is the highest mountain in India. It’s a fitting analogy for the heights the characters strive for in Satyajit Ray’s 1962 film of the same name. They labor to understand their relationships and the power of personal choice. Kanchenjungha” tells the story of a family’s visit to the hill station of Darjeeling, India, where the mountain rises high above the misty hills. The Bengali language film stars Chhabi Biswas as Indranath Choudhuri, the patriarch of a wealthy family that balances between tradition and modernism. Besides going to Darjeeling for holiday, Indranath wants to give consent to a marriage for his daughter Monisha (Aleknanda Roy), who is scheduled to meet her proposed fiance for the first time during their stay.

Arun Mukherjee and Aleknanda Roy in "Kanchenjungha."

Arun Mukherjee and Aleknanda Roy in “Kanchenjungha.”

The story unfolds as various members of the family walk around the hills of Darjeeling. Monisha hears advice from her brother-in-law, that she should follow her own desires. It becomes obvious that Monisha doesn’t feel a strong attraction to her suitor, and when they begin their awkward walk along the path, she welcomes interruptions from a bird watching uncle and a young idealistic student who’s meant to represent the strength and naivety of modern India. Monisha and the student, Ashoke (Arun Mukherjee), develop a bond, and his presence forces her to think seriously about her position and her happiness. Ashoke’s shows his independence when he turns down a position offered by Indranath, who feels insulted and bewildered by the young man’s refusal. In Indranath’s mind, young men should not be foolish enough to turn down once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Satyajit Ray’s first color film offers excellent visuals of Darjeeling, and effectively shows both the mountain’s grandeur and the spooky mists that cling to the hills. The mists become a metaphor for a India. Those that can see the future more clearly through the misty present know that the younger generation desires opportunities based on personal choice. In this rather talky movie, the familial tensions juxtapose the traditional and famous venue of Darjeeling. It’s a jarring effect enhanced by the film’s color photography. A true debate ensues regarding duty to parents, personal choice and freedom (expressed by Ashoke) to explore the future unbridled by traditional mores.

Indranath, old enough to see it all yet willing to conjure new beliefs, openly gives credit to advances brought about by the British colonization. Yet, his own successful choices in life rely heavily on tradition and the strength of the family. One gets the feeling that the old patriarch will see even more rapid changes in his lifetime. He learns in this film that things do not always go as planned.

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The Furies

In an attempt to blend film noir with the Western, Anthony Mann made a 1950 movie called “The Furies,” which stars Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Houston, Gilbert Roland and Wendell Corey. While I would have preferred the movie to be more brightly lit, The Furies offers Stanwyck in a terrific performance and some garrulous acting by Houston. A lot of shouting goes on while Houston’s character, T. C. Jeffords, figures out how to save his Furies Ranch in New Mexico from a conniving banker played by Corey. Stanwyck plays Vance Jeffords, the strong and capable daughter of T. C. They come into severe conflict when T. C. decides to marry a city woman named Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson in a fine performance), who Vance (rightly) takes for a gold digger.

Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyck star in "The Furies."

Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyck star in “The Furies.”

Two other things complicate T. C.’s relationship with Vance. She falls in love with the conniving banker, and T. C. and the bankers want to throw all the squatters off the Furies Ranch.  But Vance wants T. C. to allow a close childhood friend and sqatter, Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland), and his family to remain on the property. Juan loves Vance dearly, and they are really soul-mates, but their social classes keep them from a real romance. When T. C. and Vance finely reach irreconcilable differences, the movie delves into a twisted tale of double-crossing and revenge with the clever Vance leading the way. Ironically, director Anthony Mann manages to prevent T. C. from being a totally unsympathetic character. We’re made to think of him as a product of the age of stout and irascible Western men, but Huston’s natural appeal helps too.

Corey does well playing banker Rip Darrow, who T. C. earlier cheated out of some family lands. Darrow wants his family’s land back, and isn’t above cheating both T. C. and Vance to get it. At first glance, a love affair between Rip and Vance doesn’t seem like it would work, but Corey plays it so cool to Stanwyck’s heat that the chemistry works. I kept my eyes on Stanwyck, of course; she looks great and bounces around the film with perfect kinetic energy.

A key scene in the movie involves T. C.’s move against the squatters on his land. Director Mann plays the scene so darkly that it’s hard to see exactly what’s going on except a lot of shooting and yelling on some high rocky ground. What happens during this extended scene is horrific enough without all the dark, shadowy black and white screen. Other than that, I enjoyed the direction and especially the acting by Stanwyck and Huston.

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