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11.28.07

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CUE THE ELEPHANTS: D.W. Griffith defined cinematic spectacle with his 1916 epic 'Intolerance.'

Silence Is Golden

The weekend brings silent greats Harry Langdon to Stanford Theatre and 'Intolerance' and Garbo to the Castro

By Richard von Busack


TIRED OF ALL that infernal racket in the movie theaters? A miniriot of silent film showing this weekend at the Stanford in Palo Alto and the Castro in San Francisco includes the revival of the greatest of all pre-sound epics plus a feature starring one of the oddest-duck comedians who ever lived.

James Agee's 1949 essay in Life magazine on "Comedy's Greatest Era" mentions Harry Langdon as one of the big four of silent comedy. Contemporary tastes have whittled that number to three: Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Langdon never lived long enough to enjoy the silent-comedy revival of the 1950s, and that's part of the reason his name hasn't persisted.

The essence of humor mystified Langdon: "The oddest thing about this whole funny business is that the public really wants to laugh, but it's the hardest thing to make them do it. ... Maybe that's why so many comedians want to play tragedy. They want a sort of vacation."

A little tragedy and a lot of laughs can be seen in 1926's The Strong Man, playing Nov. 30 at the Stanford Theatre. The film begins and ends with cannon fire, starting in the trenches in World War I, closing with a cannonade against gangsters. Langdon plays Paul, a Belgian greenhorn coming to America. To work his way across the Atlantic, he gets a job as the assistant of a traveling vaudeville strongman. He longs to meet his pen pal Mary (Priscilla Bonner), the blind daughter of a temperance-supporting preacher. Both father and daughter fear the threats of the rumrunners who took over her small hometown.

Langdon makes an unlikely hero to fight them off. He was always an archtwerp, the forerunner of Pee-wee Herman—good ol' Charlie Brown and Borat, too. He had a white-powdered face, bulging chipmunk cheeks and wary, tired eyes. With his too-tight six-button coat and oversize pants, he looked like a suspicious toddler. He walked like he wore diapers, Agee commented.

Every possible threat that could befall a rube hits Langdon's character. In the city, a towering harlot corners him and pitches a faint. She makes him carry her up the stairs as if she were Scarlett O'Hara; she's too heavy a load, and Langdon has to walk her up from a sitting position, butt first.

Later, on the crowded bus out west, Langdon demonstrates a sterling silent comedy bit: the one about the goof who mistakes a jar of stenchy Limburger cheese for Vicks' VapoRub. With exquisite deadpan, Langdon keeps the incident from being too sad; he deftly, repeatedly, sucker-punches a bully who protests against the smell.

Director Frank Capra's energy and sturdy plot sense counterpoint Langdon's wonderful strangeness. The last third of the film is almost a study for It's a Wonderful Life, with its idyllic town turned into a jungle of taverns and aggressive drunks. Rather than weeping for angelic help like George Bailey, Langdon's hero assaults his rowdy audience right from the stage; he leads the charge for generations of aggro comedians to come.

Epic Notions

On Dec. 1, the San Francisco Film Festival (held annually in July) offers a one-day silent celebration at the Castro Theatre. Save some sympathy for the legendary organist Dennis James, who performs Friday night in Palo Alto and all day on Saturday in San Francisco.

Ironically, the opening act (at 11am) celebrates the technological breakthrough that put silent films out of business. In 1927, Warner Bros. released its Vitaphone sound-on-disc feature film The Jazz Singer, which is popularly but incorrectly supposed to be the first talking picture. There had been recorded soundtracks for films as early as 1924. And as Stephen Salmons, artistic director of the festival notes, some experimental forms of sound had been tried from the beginning of the cinema.

By the time Lithuanian yodeler Al Jolson famously donned blackface and rug and declared, "You ain't heard nothin' yet," movie audiences had encountered literally hundreds of talking musical and dramatic shorts. Some 70 of these Vitaphone shorts still exist, preserved at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The screening provides a sampling. They are mostly prime vaudeville: a George Burns and Gracie Allen sketch called Lamb Chops and Spencer Tracy in a short called The Hard Guy.

"The sound is great," Salmons says. "They were recorded on fairly high-quality discs. You expect a lot of hiss and tinny sound, but there's almost no background noise and a rich low register."

At 2pm comes an even bigger noise. Intolerance (1916) was our first American film epic. D.W. Griffith was stung by the racial hatred breaking out after the release of his previous film, Birth of a Nation. "He felt he was misunderstood," Salmons says, "but I feel he was perfectly understood; he was an old Southern gentleman expressing himself on the subject of the end of slavery."

Griffith's follow-up to the huge success of Birth of a Nation was a four-part epic directed out right of his head: "He worked for 18 months without a script," Salmons points out.

Griffith's mad aim was to portray the horrors of intolerance throughout the ages by contrasting a tale of ancient Babylon with the story of Jesus' trial. That highly unfortunate interfaith gathering, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, leads into the last story: a 1920s story of a falsely accused criminal.

After this prodigiously accomplished film was unveiled, time began gnawing upon its edges. The version to be presented by the festival contains full frontal nudity, which Griffith had to cut in various cities. This was the beginning of further cutting and recutting by Griffith. The process was more outlandish than the re-rereleasing of Blade Runner, even. Salmons notes that even after Griffith donated his prints to New York's Museum of Modern Art, the director had to be barred from the projection booth. He was trying to recut Intolerance right before a screening. The eminent silent-film historian Kenneth Brownlow oversaw this sumptuously tinted 35 mm version done by Photoplay Productions, which will be making its American debut.

Greta Garbo fell in love with her co-star John Gilbert during the shooting of Flesh and the Devil (8pm), being shown in a never-before-screened 35 mm print, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Garbo was never more incandescent, as shot by the lady's favorite cinematographer, William Daniels. Daniels' famous scene of a clinch illuminated by the light of one glowing cigarette was accomplished with a tiny arc light disguised as the end of a smoke.

"The plot has the edge of blasphemy to it," Salmons notes. "From the outline, you expect a romance with a broadly played femme fatale in it. When we showed it last time, people couldn't believe the film was endorsing what it seems to endorse." Say no more, but this ambiguous romance befits a star whose sexuality is still an open question.

Within 24 hours we lucky locals get a huge look into a cinematic world so varied that it accounts for Harry Warner's dismissal of the sound film: "Who wants to hear actors talk?"

The event include penances by Anthony Slide, author of Hand-Painted Poster Art From the 1910s Through the 1950s and Christel Schmidt, one of the editors of the new book Silent Movies. They will be on hand during an interscreening party, 6:30–7:30pm.


THE STRONG MAN shows Nov. 30 at 7:30pm at the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto.


THE SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL presents VITAPHONE VAUDEVILLE (11am), INTOLERANCE (2pm) and FLESH AND THE DEVIL (8pm) on Dec. 1 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco; see www.silentfilm.org for details.


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