- “Amazing Tales from the Archives”: This year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival spotlighted the primitive sound-on-cylinder movie audio system, pioneering female documentarian and world traveler Aloha Wanderwell Baker, and comedy fantasies of the early 1900s.
‘Amazing Tales from the Archives’: Focus on the sound-on-cylinder system + the one-of-a-kind Desmet Collection + one of cinema’s female pioneers
Fans of the earliest sound films would have enjoyed “Amazing Tales from the Archives,” the first presentation at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, held June 1–4. During the session, Library of Congress Nitrate Film Vault Manager George Willeman used a wealth of film clips to examine Thomas Edison’s Kinetophone process.
In the years 1913–14, long before The Jazz Singer and Warner Bros.’ sound-on-disc technology, the sound-on-cylinder system invaded the nascent film industry with a collection of “talkies.” The sound was scratchy and muffled, but “recognizable.” Notably, this system focused on dialogue rather than music or sound effects.
As with the making of other recordings at the time, the technology was for all purposes purely acoustic. The actors needed to stand perfectly still and shout into horns suspended overhead to make their voices record onto a wax cylinder, which played back when the film was shown.
Unsurprisingly, the device was plagued by synchronization errors. I can only imagine the effect this distorted sound had on audiences.
The ‘amazing’ Desmet Collection
Next up at “Amazing Tales from the Archives” was a look at the Desmet Collection from 1907–1916, courtesy of Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum silent film curator Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi.
Film collector Jean Desmet (1875–1956) managed to save not only movies – more than 900 titles from various countries – but also a wealth of posters, programs, and other documents.
And this supports my theory that hoarding and saving are not always pathological.
Unsung pioneering female documentarian
The final “Amazing Tales from the Archives” presentation, held by Academy Film Archive Film Preservationist Heather Linville, was the one I found the most inspiring, as it focused on a remarkable early female documentarian.
In the 1920s, Aloha Wanderwell Baker (born Idris Galcia Welsh in Winnipeg, Manitoba) practically circled the globe documenting people and places from Turkey to Africa to China.
Photos from the era show her roughing it on airplanes, boats, and caravans, much to the amusement of the locals. Her boundless enthusiasm for film and social anthropology is evidenced by the fact that she was still reminiscing about her travelogues while in her 80s.
Aloha Wanderwell Baker died at age 89 in June 1996 in Newport Beach, California.
David Shepard homage
One of my favorite pleasures is watching silent fantasy shorts. At this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, that was the case with the program “Magic and Mirth,” presented as a tribute to Blackhawk Films and Lobster Films’ movie preservationist David Shepard, who died last January.
Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius provided the musical accompaniment, which made the experience complete.
Here are the screened titles, in chronological order:
Tit-for-Tat / La peine du talion (1906)
Directed by Gaston Velle, this stencil-colored film from Pathé Frères is also known as The Talion Punishment (meaning: an eye for an eye). Here, a butterfly collector pays a dear price for his hobby.
The Witch / La fée Carabosse ou le poignard fatal (1906)
I looked forward to seeing this Georges Méliès film and I was not disappointed. Although this story of love and deceit suffers under too much narration, the magic of Méliès – the master of trick photography – remains unsurpassed. The delicious print and hand-colored tinting particularly stand out.
First Success / First Prize in Cello / Premier Prix de violoncelle (1907)
This funny skit from Pathé Frères shows how hazardous cello playing can be when the whole neighborhood responds to an unwanted street busker by throwing projectiles at him.
When the Devil Drives (1907)
Directed by Walter R. Booth for the Charles Urban Trading Company, this British fantasy-adventure short revolves around an unsuspecting family being hijacked by a satanic figure. Its primitive special effects have charm and wit.
Down in the Deep / The Pearl Fisher / Le pêcheur de perles (1907)
Directed by Ferdinand Zecca, this stencil-colored short from Pathé Frères chronicles a man’s undersea nightmare, which features a mean-looking octopus, sea stars, comely maidens, and pearl-bearing oysters. The muted colors and the lively scenery made this one special.
Cinematography by filmmaker Segundo de Chomón (La maison ensorcelée, Hôtel électrique).
The Dancing Pig / Le cochon danseur (1907)
This Pathé Frères production is a grotesque bit of whimsy about a man in a pig costume prancing around with a lady dancer.
Directed by Émile Cohl, this stream-of-consciousness film from Gaumont had no narrative, thus setting the pace for all future avant garde cartoons to come.
Those Awful Hats (1909)
In this short directed by The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance filmmaker D.W. Griffith, we see moviegoing ladies with increasingly large headdresses being swept up to the roof as a penalty for blocking the movie screen. Something the theater audience approved of raucously.
The Masquerader (1914)
Starring Charles Chaplin in drag, this slapstick Keystone short comedy is a movie-within-a-movie mélange where everything goes wrong.
The Cartoon Factory (1924)
From the Fleischer Studio (Popeye the Sailor, Betty Boop) comes Koko the Clown, as imagined from a drawing pen. The Fleischer Brothers (Max Fleischer and Dave Fleischer) are credited for having pioneered cartoon art and for combining live action and animation, long predating Walt Disney (e.g., Saludos Amigos).
By the way, Max Fleischer was the father of director Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage).
Amazing tales & personalities from the silent era: From Sergei Eisenstein & Victor Sjöström to Anna Pavlova & Clara Bow
Besides the presentations “Amazing Tales from the Archives” and “Magic and Mirth,” this year’s edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened, among others, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Mario Roncoroni’s Filibus, Victor Sjöström’s A Man There Was, Dorothy Arzner’s Get Your Man, and Rupert Julian’s Silence.
Also: Tod Browning’s Outside the Law, Fred Niblo’s The Three Musketeers, Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul, the Harold Lloyd comedy The Freshman, and the restoration of Harry O. Hoyt’s The Lost World, from Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel.
Featured stars included Priscilla Dean, Lon Chaney, Lars Hanson, Lya De Putti, Paul Robeson, Bessie Love, Lloyd Hughes, Clara Bow, Vera Reynolds, H.B. Warner, Jack Mulhall, Douglas Fairbanks, Wallace Beery, and ballet dancer Anna Pavlova in her sole feature film appearance as the title character in Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici.
“’Amazing Tales from the Archives’” endnotes
More info about the series “Amazing Tales from the Archives” at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.
Margarita Landazuri’s essay about Anna Pavlova, Lois Weber, and The Dumb Girl of Portici can be found here.
Images of “Amazing Tales from the Archives” subject Aloha Wanderwell Baker, the devil in the “Magic and Mirth” short When the Devil Drives, and Anna Pavlova in The Dumb Girl of Portici: San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
“’Amazing Tales from the Archives’: Early Movie Sound Experiments” last updated in November 2021.