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September 4, 2008

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Cinecon 2008 Festival Report, Part One

by HELEN GEIB

It is common knowledge that time and circumstances have not been kind to the physical record of the silent cinema. A tragically large number of films have been lost to neglect, accident, chemical deterioration, and deliberate destruction. While many films completely gone, the enthusiast learns quickly that “does this film survive?” is not a yes or no question. There are partial survivals; some films exist only in fragments and others exist except for a few missing fragments. Some films exist only in compromised versions: a black and white version of a color original, a foreign release print without inter-titles, a film where the only source is a badly deteriorated negative or nth generation print.

Very occasionally a not quite complete film will be released on DVD or shown on television, but the only opportunity to see most incomplete survivals is on the festival circuit. Cinecon, held annually at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles over Labor Day weekend, is one of the major U.S. festivals of silent and early sound films. Alongside a few obscure complete films and a couple of big titles, the silent film slate of this year’s program provided a veritable weekend-long journey through reconstructed, partial, and compromised films, even including one restoration work-in-progress.

Tillie’s Punctured Romance

Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) is evidence that major films suffer the vicissitudes of cavalier mistreatment just as much as obscure ones. Its status as the first feature-length comedy assures it a place in film history, and it stars Marie Dressler, Charlie Chaplin, and Mabel Normand. I thought I had seen the film before, but discovered I had only seen the badly cut-down circulating version that ultimately became the source for the video release. The abridged version, shorter by 15 minutes than the reconstructed original, was the work of many hands at different times and the cut footage survived piecemeal in numerous prints of highly variable quality. There’s a bit of a “Frankenstein’s monster” feel to the reconstructed print as it jumps from one source material to another, but the image is always good enough to clearly see what’s going on (not always a given in film restoration) and for the most part, perfectly good for a film of its vintage.

The occasional visual distraction was a small price to pay to have the real Tillie back again. Admittedly several of the big comedy set-pieces wear out their welcome before they’re done, and only the most devoted fans of Keystone-style slapstick would say Tillie is always funny, but it is funny much of the time and Dressler is a joy in the lead. This is that rare film that stars Chaplin, but is not a Chaplin film. Tillie is the main character and Dressler is truly the star of the show.

The story is a parody of cautionary tales of the innocent country girl in the big, bad city. In the film’s first segment, Dressler, a large, homely, middle-aged woman, comically mimics the expressions and behavior of a pretty young coquette. Later on she plays a “modern young thing” working as a waitress in a café and later still, a nouveau riche society matron. Her size is a running joke; she outmatches Chaplin in all three dimensions and not only can, but frequently does, throw off three or four men trying to pick her up, hold her still, or move her along. But she was also, and quite unexpectedly agile, more than holding her own in the physical comedy department and delighting with several comic dances. My favorite scene of the film is the tipsy Tillie, insolvent but in high spirits, practicing a dance step as she makes her way to the local lockup in the company of a bemused Keystone cop.

The Blood Ship

While I enjoyed Tillie very much, the best silent of the festival was The Blood Ship (1927). The titular ship is a merchant vessel sailing out of San Francisco. The villainous captain, abetted by his equally unsavory first mate, has devised an ingenious solution to the labor situation: he horribly mistreats the crew while at sea, the sailors desert the ship en masse upon reaching port and without stopping even to collect their wages, he shanghais a new crew with the aid of an unscrupulous waterfront tavern keeper. Repeat upon completion of each voyage.

Two of the ship’s crew actually signed on to sail with her. They are an old sea-dog (Hobart Bosworth) with a grudge against the captain that runs deeper than the grievances of a single voyage and a young sailor (Richard Arlen) enamored of the captain’s daughter, who lives on the ship under duress. While Bosworth’s character is nominally the lead role, there are a number of equally well-developed characters in the supporting cast. One of those is a sailor played by Blue Washington. The first appearance of a black character in a silent film always inspires trepidation. Happily this is one of those rare instances where the black character is a character in the film, not a racist stereotype, and Washington joins Bosworth and Arlen in giving one of the film’s most memorable performances.

What the story lacks in originality, the film makes up in pacing and atmosphere. The drama of the situation is enhanced by the confined shipboard setting. The men work, eat, rest, and seethe in close quarters. The end of the voyage seems unimaginably far off, and death is the only means of escape from the enforced misery of the life. Death or mutiny, that is, and the filmmakers play out the suspense very nicely as the crew approaches, retreats from, and approaches again to that desperate last resort.

The Home Maker

The Blood Ship was the best silent film of the weekend, but the most interesting was The Home Maker (1925), a “message film” with a startlingly progressive message about gender roles. Alice Joyce and Clive Brook star as Eva and Lester Knapp. The Knapps have been married 13 years and have three children. Eva is a full-time homemaker renowned among her acquaintance for her efficiency and competence; however, she derives no satisfaction from her accomplishments. Similarly, Lester is neither successful nor happy in his job in the administrative office of a department store. Then Lester becomes disabled and cannot work outside the home. He takes over primary responsibility for the housekeeping and the children and Eva goes to work in the women’s clothing department of Lester’s old employer. He has a talent for homemaking. She has a talent for sales and personnel management. They each find personal fulfillment in their work, their marriage improves, and the children are happier, healthier, and better behaved. And as the film concludes in the final title, why shouldn’t they live this way if they choose?

The film’s conclusion enjoys far from universal acceptance even now and was truly radical at the time of its release. The social stigma attached to the Knapps’ reversal of traditional gender roles is given voice in the film by several characters outside the family. It also underlies the melodramatic plot contrivances surrounding Lester’s injury, as his disability is perceived as a necessary prerequisite to the couple’s job swap. Like many films with a didactic purpose, The Home Maker is not entirely successful as drama. In particular, the film elides the couple’s transition period, jumping from showing the Knapps as unhappy pre-disability to happy post-disability, and the plot point of the injury really does develop in awfully contrived fashion. Nevertheless, despite its limitations I enjoyed the film for the lead performances and the unlooked-for modernity of its message.

Note: I was not able to attend the screenings of The Mollycoddle (an enjoyable Douglas Fairbanks comedy from 1920), Speedy (an enjoyable Harold Lloyd comedy from 1928), and The Poor Nut (a rarity I haven’t seen). (The Mollycoddle is available on VHS in an out of print tape released by Kino Video. Speedy is available on DVD in “The Harold Lloyd Comedy Collection.”) The remainder of the silent program will be the subject of part two of my festival report.

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  1. miriam
    Sep 5 2008

    Movie festivals are a great way to discover films and, as you note, often the only way at all to see many of them. When so many good films still wait for DVD release I can’t be surprised that some partial ones aren’t available, but I treasure the festival experience of seeing several. ‘Paths to Paradise’ and ‘Winds of Chance’ each lack a largish segment, but are still hugely entertaining. I’d buy the DVD in a minute! Unfortunately there aren’t enough sales in Silents to support the restoration and production of more than a small number of DVDs each year. I find it astonishing that major films of well-known, fan-favorite stars like Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino are unavailable.

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