‘Amazing Tales from the Archives’: San Francisco Silent Film Festival & the ‘sound-on-cylinder’ system
Fans of the earliest sound films would have enjoyed the first presentation at the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, held June 1–4: “Amazing Tales from the Archives,” during which Library of Congress’ Nitrate Film Vault Manager George Willeman used a wealth of enjoyable film clips to examine the Thomas Edison Kinetophone process.
In the years 1913–1914, 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.
As to be expected, the device was plagued by synchronization errors. I can only imagine the effect this distorted sound had on the audience.
More ‘Amazing Tales from the Archives’: The Desmet Collection & unsung female documentarian Aloha Wanderwell Baker
Next up at “Amazing Tales from the Archives” was a look – courtesy of Amsterdam’s EYE Filmmuseum silent film curator Eilf Rongen-Kaynakçi – at the Desmet Collection from 1907–1916. Film collector Jean Desmet (1875–1956) managed to save not only films, but a wealth of posters, programs, and other documents. This supports my theory that hoarding and saving are not always pathological.
The last “Amazing Tales from the Archives” presentation – 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 showed her roughing it on airplanes, boats, and caravans, much to the amusement of the locals. Her enthusiasm for film and social anthropology made itself evident 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.
Homage to David Shepard: ‘Magic and Mirth’
One of my favorite pleasures is watching silent fantasy shorts. In this case it was “Magic and Mirth,” presented as a tribute to Blackhawk Films and Lobster Films’ movie preservationist David Shepard, who died last January.
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.
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, predating Walt Disney (e.g., Saludos Amigos, Song of the South) by decades. By the way, Max Fleischer was the father of director Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage).
The Masquerader (1914). A Keystone short featuring Charles Chaplin in drag, this slapstick comedy was a movie-within-a-movie mélange where everything goes wrong. The cast also features popular comedians of that time, including Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Chester Conklin, and Charles Murray, in addition to Mabel Normand in an unbilled cameo.
First Success / First Prize in Cello / Premier Prix de violoncelle (1907), from Pathé Frères. This funny skit showed how hazardous cello playing can be when the whole neighborhood responds to an unwanted street busker by throwing projectiles at him.
Fantasmagorie (1908), from Gaumont. Directed by Émile Cohl, this stream-of-consciousness film had no narrative, thus setting the pace for all future avant garde cartoons to come.
Tit-for-Tat / La peine du talion (1906), from Pathé Frères. Directed by Gaston Velle, this stencil-colored film is also known as The Talion Punishment (meaning: an eye for an eye). Here, a butterfly collector pays a dear price for his hobby.
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), from Pathé Frères. Directed by Ferdinand Zecca, this stencil-colored short 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 Segundo de Chomón.
The Dancing Pig / Le cochon danseur (1907), from Pathé Frères was a grotesque bit of whimsy about a man in a pig costume prancing around with a lady dancer.
The Witch / La fée Carabosse ou le poignard fatal (1906) was a Georges Méliès film I looked forward to seeing. 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.
The “Magic and Mirth” shorts had live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius, which made the experience complete.
Amazing tales & personalities from the archives: From Sergei Eisenstein & Ernst Lubitsch to Ossi Oswalda & Anna Pavlova
Besides the presentations “Amazing Tales from the Archives” and “Magic and Mirth,” the four-day 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival showcased movies by or with, among others, the following:
- The restoration of The Lost World (1925), from Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic novel.
- Battleship Potemkin (1925).
- Body and Soul (1925).
- The Doll (1919).
- The Dumb Girl of Portici.
- The Freshman (1925).
- Get Your Man (1927).
- Outside the Law (1920).
- The Three Musketeers (1921).
More info about ‘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 website.