One of the great things about film festivals is not just all the new films you can see, but also all the old ones. In the case of silent films, they’re often shown with new scores performed live. Though it’s more often the case that a new film you see at a festival will never play again, some of the old films can be quite rare, too. This was the case for SIFF 2014, where one of the films I saw is so rare, even Scarecrow Video doesn’t own a copy.
Though not planned, my Sunday consisted entirely of silent films, accompanied by Donald Sosin and introduced by SIFF board member (and silent movie scholar) Richie Meyer, who was himself introduced by artistic director Carl Spence. To add a little silent film zaniness to my morning, the bus I was on blew out one of its tires. Luckily, it was able to crawl to the next stop, which was only one stop away from mine. And then, on the way back home that night, the bus I was on stalled right before the last stop!
First came the Chaplin Shorts, consisting of “The Kid Auto Races at Venice” (1914-which includes a rare walk-on appearance by Chaplin, as an early incarnation of his Tramp character), “One A.M.” (1916), “Easy Street” (1917), and “The Immigrant” (1917). Meyer mentioned that this year is the 100th anniversary of Chaplin’s first appearance on film. He was signed by Keystone in December 1913 and made his first film with them in January the following year. By the spring of 1914, he was directing his own films, as he hated being directed by others. In 1915 (late 1914, according to Wikipedia), he was signed by the Essanay Company, and in 1916 he was signed by Mutual to a $700,000 a year contract (with a $100,000 a year signing bonus), making him the highest paid person in the world.
Meyer went on to talk a bit about Chaplin’s upbringing. His mother was committed to an insane asylum and his father was a drunk, so he was mostly brought up by his older brother. Chaplin’s early life experiences permeate the 81 films that he made. Of the films we saw, the first one was made while Chaplin was at Keystone, while the last three were made at Mutual. “One A.M.” includes Chaplin as an inebriate; “Easy Street” is where the word “heavy” comes from (as used to denote a bad guy), as the villain in the film is quite large; and “The Immigrant” includes social commentary (and is also the short that the boys see in Au Revoir, Les Enfants). Meyer then introduced Donald Sosin, who had just come from Russia. Coincidentally, he had just played accompaniment for “The Immigrant” there. Then, Meyer called out different themes used in silent films: the hero, the villain, the heroine, the chase, the sad ending, the Hollywood ending. Sosin played a bit of each theme before being cut off by Meyer.
The accompaniment to all of the shorts was excellent, though I’m not sure if Sosin played the original scores for each work or his own (UPDATE 6/1: Sosin played all original compositions, though he did make use of some of the themes in SONG OF THE FISHERMEN). In any case, the shorts improved as they went on. In “The Kid Auto Races at Venice,” Chaplin does little more than come into and out of the shot and hog the scenery. Funny improvisation, but nothing spectacular. “One A.M.,” which he directed (unlike the first short) has some hilarious gags, including an extended one where he tries to reach the second floor of his house, only to be thwarted by the stairs, then the pendulum on a clock, and even a stuffed bear. That sequence, however, goes on for too long. While the gags show off Chaplin’s inventiveness, he hadn’t yet learned how to tell a story in film form. That changes with the next two shorts, both considered among his best work. “Easy Street” sees Chaplin as a man who reforms from a life of criminality and becomes a police officer, only to be assigned the most difficult beat in the city. In “The Immigrant” he plays an immigrant, coming to America with other immigrants on board a sea vessel. Both two-reelers include love interests and are better at balancing the comedy with story elements than the first two, which really have no story. My favorite part of the shorts, however, was seeing young kids approaching Sosin after the shorts were over, and him asking if they liked them.
Without Meyer, SIFF wouldn’t have been able to show the next film, so we were very lucky to see it. Song of the Fishermen is a 1934 Shanghai film making its American premiere. The Stamford Alumni Society was in the audience to see this film, as was a guest from the Beijing Film Institute. Meyer told us it was a pristine restoration (and it was!) and that Shanghai in the 1930s made more movies than Hollywood. This particular film was made by Niwa Studios, which was the leading film studio in Asia, and was directed by Chusheng Cai.
Silent Chinese cinema is a specialty of Meyer’s (which is how he got a copy of the film). In fact, he was selling a book and DVD combo in the lobby after the film was over, which celebrate the star of the film.
Wang Renmei is a fascinating person. She was born right after the fall of the Qing Dynasty and lived through the Communist Revolution. In fact, her father was Mao’s teacher when younger, and Renmei was a favorite of Mao’s. While this is Renmei’s most famous role, she was fired by the studio after making this film for getting pregnant, as the studio felt their audience wouldn’t want to see a pregnant woman onscreen. And yet, she continued to make films, even after the communists took over.
One of the most interesting things about this film is that the studio recorded Renmei singing the “Song of the Fishermen,” and while crude, it was played three times during the film, during which Sosin stopped playing. The effect was a bit eerie, for here is a garbled voice from 80 years ago being heard for the first time in an American theater. This was actually the first time the attempt was made to show it with the movie. In the final scene in the film, it is even matched to the lips.
Before having Sosin play different themes, as he did for the Chaplin Shorts, Meyer had people call out a year, country, director, and genre. Sosin then had to make up an original composition incorporating all of those elements. The first one was 1939, Romania, Kurosawa, Western. The second one was 1972, Russia, Scorsese, porn. He did well with both themes. For the film itself, he played the score composed by Nie Er, who later wrote the national anthem for the People’s Republic of China.
At the beginning of the film, there is a dedication to Jin Chuasong, who died during filming. Meyer explained that it took four weeks to shoot the film, and several crew members got seasick while filming on the boats. There also appeared to be some sections and frames missing, though what was there looked fantastic. While not a great film, it still holds up, including some not-so-subtle jabs at the hypocrisy of the religious. In addition, the suffering of Kitty (Renmei) and her brother, Little Monkey (Han Langen), as well as her entire family, is poignant, if melodramatic (the father dies at sea, the grandmother dies at home, the mother becomes blind, and the children cannot find work).
Afterwards, I bought the book/DVD combo and had Meyer sign it for me. The price was $30 — all of which goes to SIFF. While the book isn’t that long, there are some wonderful photos in it, and Sosin plays accompaniment on the DVD.
All in all, a pleasant day spent with a lost art.