Reviews of the 20th SF Silent Film Festival

by on May 27, 2015

For twenty years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has ably expanded cinemagoers’ understanding of the silent film era beyond the likes of Charlie Chaplin and “Metropolis.”  This year’s anniversary edition, which runs May 29 to June 1 at the Castro Theatre, offers a nice balance of classic and rare silent films.  All festival screenings will be accompanied by live performances, musical or otherwise.

Definitely make time to watch Andre Antoine’s 1920 French drama “The Swallow and the Titmouse.”  This film was considered lost for 62 years before a negative of six hours of perfectly preserved rushes was found in the Cinematheque Francaise’s deposits.  Under film editor Henri Colpi’s direction, these half-a-dozen hours of raw footage got trimmed into a brisk 79-minute tale.

The Swallow and The Titmouse are the two barges owned and operated by veteran boatman Pierre de Groot.  Using these two vessels, de Groot delivers construction materials and other freight up and down Belgian and French canals to areas still left devastated by World War I battles.  The bargeman’s little onboard community consists of himself, wife Griet and younger sister-in-law Marthe.   Entering this small community is Michel, the new pilot.  Michel’s sea-borne skills earn de Groot’s respect.  His handsome features steal Marthe’s heart.  But what the new pilot ultimately wants is to steal the small fortune in diamonds de Groot is smuggling across the France-Belgium border.

A modern viewer of the film will be amazed at the cinematic sophistication displayed by Antoine’s film.  The director’s use of non-studio locations, multiple film angles, and low-key naturalistic acting make Antoine’s work a film deserving of an audience mature enough to appreciate its virtues.

What a distributor contemporary of Antoine’s decried as lack of drama is for modern audiences an intriguing cinematic window into the realities of daily life in post-World War I Belgium.  De Groot’s transportation services feel important once one sees the fragments of brick buildings that have been treated to artillery bombardments and freely flying bullets.  Watching Marthe and Michel manually pulling the Swallow and the Titmouse after the barge engines break down reminds the viewer of the unreliability of that period’s technology.  It also provides a dramatic opportunity to deepen the two characters’ relationship beyond that of cheat and innocent.

The extended Antwerp Ommeganck festival sequence contributes to immersing the viewer in the film’s milieu.  The festival, held once every 25 years, gives a sense of the town’s life slowly returning to normal after the trauma of war.

The film’s naturalistic acting may not blatantly spell out the characters’ emotions.  But these restrained performances make the viewer wonder if the characters’ feelings can be taken at face value.  For example, is Griet’s suspicion of Michel just based on his interest in de Groot’s smuggling?  Or is it also spurred by her protectiveness of her younger sister?

Antoine’s exquisite film ultimately strikes a pleasing balance between immersing the viewer in a long-vanished world and telling a small personal story.

***

The shorts program “The Amazing Charley Bowers” brings together four films from the former Chicago newspaper cartoonist turned stop motion animator.  Serge Bromberg and his Lobster Films organization restored these surviving shorts from a now-forgotten comic filmmaker.

“The Wild Roomer” features Bowers as a rooming house inventor who stands to inherit a fortune from his grandfather.  That possible inheritance depends on Bowers’ demonstrating to his uncle that the big invention he labored over actually works.  What the young inventor doesn’t realize is that the uncle is determined to destroy the machine and keep the grandfather’s wealth for himself.

Bowers’ amazing machine turns out to be a jaw-dropping show stealer.  It performs household chores like dumping trash.  It brings a doll to life.  But the machine’s impressive ability to be driven like an odd double-decker bus is topped by its ability to not draw attention in broad daylight.

“Now You Tell One” recounts Bowers’ efforts to use his miracle plant grafting formula to achieve wealth and fame.  His misadventures lead him to use his formula to help a farmer driven mad by an unstoppable invasion of aggressive mice.  Winning the favor of the young woman hiring him would be good.  Bowers’ efforts are fated for failure, especially given that he’s unaware he’s recounting his miracle invention at a contest to find the world’s best liar.

The short truly takes off when Bowers’ grafting experiments are shown bearing fruit.  But credit also goes to the animal jokes.  A string of animated elephants provide early laughs.  A mouse’s fierceness is demonstrated by its threatening a cat with a tiny gun.  Given the difficulties of literally herding cats, how Bowers managed to film a particular sequence deserves plaudits.

In “Many A Slip,” Bowers plays a basement inventor in his family’s home.  He hopes to strike it rich by developing a formula to kill the bacterium that makes banana peels slippery.  The relatively weakest of the inventor shorts shown, it suffers from an inability to ring any intriguing comic changes on seeing people slipping on a banana peel.

Bowers’ masterpiece “There It Is” closes out the program.  A mysterious bearded man with glasses haunts the Frisbie house.  Scotland Yard detective Bowers is sent to capture the elusive phantom.

This short entertainingly twists narrative logic into corkscrews.   Scotland Yard, for example, looks more like a union hiring hall for men with kilts and magnifying glasses.   Hidden panels allowing for sudden appearances and disappearances make the phantom a sprite-like pest.   But having a frightened superstitious black servant character generates modern viewer sighs.

Bowers’ inventive work is worth a look, but don’t expect prime Chaplin quality material.  The physical comedy may be fun.  But the comedian himself never generates a comic persona or gravitas.

(“The Swallow and the Titmouse” screens at 9:30 PM on May 31, 2015.  “The Amazing Charley Bowers” screens at 10:00 AM on May 31, 2015.  All screenings take place at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro, SF).  Advance tickets can be ordered at www.silentfilm.org .)

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