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Rare African-American Film, Frank Capra 'Accidental Silent': San Francisco Silent Film Festival

African-American movie Bert Williams in blackface silent film rarityAfrican-American film 'Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day' with Williams (in blackface) and Odessa Warren Grey: Early 20th century rarity.*

Rare, early 20th-century African-American film among San Francisco Silent Film Festival highlights

Directed by Edwin Middleton and T. Hayes Hunter, the Biograph Company's Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913) was the film I most looked forward to at the 2015 edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. One hundred years old, unfinished, and destined to be scrapped and tossed into the dust bin, it rose from the ashes. Starring entertainer Bert Williams – whose film appearances have virtually disappeared, but whose legacy lives on – Lime Kiln Club Field Day has become a rare example of African-American life in the first years of the 20th century.

In the introduction to the film, the audience was treated to a treasure trove of Black memorabilia: sheet music, stills, promotional material, and newspaper clippings that survive. Details of the film's production – for Broadway impresarios Marc Klaw and Abraham L. Erlanger (both of Dracula and Ben-Hur fame) – and its eventual abandonment were fully researched. Lastly, we were provided with the “bad example” representing the lives of American Blacks: clips of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.

Taken from an incomplete project, the restoration of Lime Kiln Club Field Day tries hard to present a coherent account of the story: three suitors compete over who will take the lovely lady Odessa Warren Grey to the annual picnic.

Multiple takes and African-American stereotypes

I'm going out on a limb here by saying I was a bit bored by the multiple takes. Trying to follow a narrative which is already fractured, and seeing the same scenes done over and over again was a bit disconcerting for this viewer. In my view, the restoration should have included just the best of each take – in other words, an edited version, instead of the unedited one.

Lime Kiln Club Field Day really comes to life in the sequences of the Field Day itself, when the cast parades down the main street to a jaunty march that culminates in a fantastic cake walk dance.

However, I was disturbed at the scenes of the attendees all gathering around a gin well. If this was to be an example of Black life minus the stereotypes, then these references of drunkenness should have been mentioned in the introduction. Especially after being shown those clips from The Birth of a Nation, where “crazed Negroes” are seen guzzling booze in the courthouse.

Black actors in black face

* Curiously, in the background of the Lime Kiln Club Field Day image at the top of this post one can clearly see a sign that reads “Lime Kilm [with an 'M'] Club Field Day.”

Also worth noting, it wasn't uncommon at the time for African-American lead actors to perform in blackface.

Lime Kiln Club Field Day / Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913).
Dir.: T. Hayes Hunter. Edwin Middleton.
Cast: Bert Williams. Odessa Warren Grey. Wes Jenkins. In undetermined roles (if the film's IMDb info is accurate): Sam Lucas. Abbey Mitchell. Emma Reed. Walker Thompson.

Frank Capra movie The Donovan Affair Accidental silentFrank Capra movie 'The Donovan Affair': 'Accidental silent' with Agnes Ayres, William Collier Jr. and Dorothy Revier.

Frank Capra 'accidental silent': 'The Donovan Affair'

I attended the screening of Frank Capra's The Donovan Affair out of curiosity for the novelty of having in-house actors providing the dialog for the action on screen. The backstory, of course, is that this 1929 film had both a silent and a talkie version. Eventually, the silent version was lost and the recorded disc for the sound version disappeared as well. The result was an “accidental silent,” as The Donovan Affair was referred to in the introduction.

In all honesty, it took some time to adjust my hearing to the voices coming from the footlights instead of the soundtrack. My impression was that this illusion was hit-or-miss: I really liked the sound effects of the rain storm and the background music, and some of the speaking voices seemed appropriate to the characters; on the downside, some of the others were a bit jarring to my senescent ears.

As for the film itself, the plot strained credibility. For instance, one drop of blood was the only trace from a stabbing victim. Now, I do admit I am not much of a mystery fan, nor do I find Frank Capra's oeuvre very engaging.*

In fact, what fascinated me about the screening of The Donovan Affair was how those actors must have felt projecting their voices to the characters on the screen. It was not quite a stage performance, nor was it like radio. Rather, it was a hybrid affair.

Yet the audience at the 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival responded with less restraint. They roared with laughter and enthusiasm, which had somehow abandoned me.

The Donovan Affair (1929).
Dir.: Frank Capra.
Scr.: Howard J. Green and Dorothy Howell. From the play by Owen Davis.
Cast: Jack Holt. Dorothy Revier. William Collier Jr. Agnes Ayres. John Roche. Fred Kelsey. Hank Mann. Wheeler Oakman. Virginia Brown Faire. Alphonse Ethier. Edward Hearn. Ethel Wales.

Frank Capra Best Director Oscars

* Frank Capra won Best Director Academy Awards for three movies:

Chinese movie The Cave of the Spider Women Feminist twistChinese movie 'The Cave of the Spider Women': Feminist twist.

Early Chinese movie 'The Cave of the Spider Women': A Web of Missing Reels

Due to its missing reels, I was at a loss trying to make any sense of the plot of Dan Duyu's The Cave of the Spider Women a.k.a. Cave of the Silken Web. The storyline was quite confusing, which the narration did little to remedy.

After a holy monk (Jiang Meikang) goes searching for a sacred scroll, he gets trapped in a cave where the female inhabitants force him to eat meat and take a bath with them. Since I am partial to silent film fantasies, I accepted this particular movie's flights of fancy and went along with the ride.

In fact, The Cave of the Spider Women reminded me of a matinee serial, with all the adventure and quick action. I especially liked the feminist twist, as all control and power belonged to the women – chiefly the supreme villainess played by Yin Mingzhu.

Accompanying The Cave of the Spider Women were shorts from “modern China.” Not only is the viewer taken away to a place on the other side of the globe, but also back 100 years or more in time. And that's what is so special about film.

The Cave of the Spider Women / Cave of the Silken Web / Pan si dong (1927).
Dir.: Dan Duyu.
Scr.: Guan Ji'an.
Cast: Yin Mingzhu. Jiang Meikang. Wenchao Wu.

Avant-Garde Paris Menilmontant 1926'Avant-Garde Paris': 'Ménilmontant' 1926.

'Avant-Garde Paris': Violins and a One-Man Band

I knew I was taking a chance by going to see something called “Avant-Garde” – in this case, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's program “Avant-Garde Paris.” I expected there would be little or no narrative or storyline; rather, this would be a kind of sensory experience of sight and sound. And I was right.

First on the program was Emak-Bakia (1926), directed by Man Ray. I was familiar with Man Ray through his unconventional photography, as the visual half of the short film attested. Now, although I also have great respect for the musicians who perform for such films, I have a critical note for this one.

In the program description, I noticed that there would be some string instruments included in Earplay's score for “Avant-Garde Paris.” Unfortunately, I practically had to plug my ears to deafen the sound of the screechy violin, viola, and cello that accompanied the first half of Emak-Bakia. The cacophony was not unlike a hand file scraping against the strings of these marvelous instruments until it finally gave way to more soothing sounds as the movie progressed.

'Ménilmontant': 'Transcendent' actors

I liked the second “Avant-Garde Paris” film much better: Ménilmontant (1926), directed by Dimitri Kirsanoff, and featuring a wisp of a story about two sisters and a boyfriend.

Named after a Parisian neighborhood, Ménilmontant had the lighting, the framing, and the beautiful close-ups of any mainstream film made at that time. The actors were probably chosen for their lack of movie-star good-looks, but they were transformed into something so transcendent that the film kept me fascinated. Although I could not make sense of what I was seeing, I enjoyed its innovation.

Honorable mention, as usual, goes to musician Stephen Horne, who masters at least three distinct instruments simultaneously. Horne is the embodiment of the One-Man Band. Each time I hear his scores I am more impressed.

Emak-Bakia (1927).
Dir. / Scr.: Man Ray.
Cast: Kiki of Montparnasse. Jacques Rigaut.

Ménilmontant (1926).
Dir. / Scr.:
Dimitri Kirsanoff.
Cast: Guy Belmont. Nadia Sibirskaïa (director Kirsanoff's first wife). Maurice Ronsard. Yolande Beaulieu. Jean Pasquier. M. Ardouin.

Sherlock Holmes 1916 William Gillette Amazing Tales from the Archives'Sherlock Holmes' (1916) with William Gillette (left): SFSFF's 'Amazing Tales from the Archives.'

SFSFF 2015 'Amazing Tales from the Archives': From Hearst Castle to 'Sherlock Holmes'

The 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival program “Amazing Tales from the Archives” began with a stroll along the gardens of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California, shot in early two-strip Technicolor. This limited system for using color in film was the beginning of a process which would be perfected in time. Still, it was beautiful to see William Randolph Hearst's “La Cuesta Encantada” as it was in 1915.

Next up was a program about the discovery and restoration of Sherlock Holmes (1916), directed by Arthur Berthelet, and starring William Gillette in the role later made world-famous by Basil Rathbone and, more recently, Robert Downey Jr.

The Sherlock Holmes backstory traced the restoration all the way to boxes of old nitrate film containers stored for 100 years at the Cinémathèque Française. The complete process from lost to found was explained in detail by preservationist Robert Byrne.

The sinking of the 'Lusitania,' early Maurice Tourneur short

From the British Film Institute came Lusitania, which documented the sinking of the British passenger liner by a German U-boat in 1915. Taken from contemporary accounts, the tragic story was told by narrator Paul McGann.

Lastly, we were treated to a 1914 short film directed by Maurice Tourneur (father of Cat People director Jacques Tourneur), The Man with Wax Faces / Figures de cire (lit., “Wax Figures”). The story was based on a theme which would prove to be a much copied cliché of horror house features to come: a gambler bets he could stay all night in the house of wax figures without being frightened, with predictable results.

The Man with Wax Faces / Figures de cire (1914).
Dir.: Maurice Tourneur.
Cast: Henry Roussel. Emile Tramont (as M. Tramont). Henri Gouget (as M. Gouget).

The Deadlier Sex Blanche Sweet silent film star'The Deadlier Sex' with Blanche Sweet, major silent film star of the 1910s and 1920s.

'Spiritual component' to film

In conclusion, for me motion pictures have some kind of spiritual component to them. They resurrect the dead; people who have long ago passed away become vital once again, appearing at their most youthful and attractive best. With film – even in unedited, truncated form like Lime Kiln Club Field Day – there really is life after death.

And finally, kudos to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for starting their programming on time. They seem to have the crowds under control and the events I attended all ran smoothly.

One suggestion is that they provide more small combos as accompaniment. The piano is appropriate at times, but there is nothing as good as a live orchestra to get the full silent film experience.

Other San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2015 screenings

Besides the movies discussed in this post, among the other screenings at the 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival were the following:

 

Image of Odessa Warren Grey and Bert Williams in the early African-American film Lime Kiln Field Day: Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Image from the early Chinese movie Cave of the Spider Women: Courtesy of the National Library of Norway.

Blanche Sweet The Deadlier Sex image: Courtesy of the Academy Film Archive.

Images courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival:

  • Agnes Ayres, William Collier Jr., and Dorothy Revier in the Frank Capra movie The Donovan Affair.
  • William Gillette in Sherlock Holmes 1916.
  • Ménilmontant.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.

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