Magic and Mirthlike
A Selection of Enchanting Short Silent Films
In Fond Memory of Film Preservationist David Shepard (1940–2017)
Presented at SFSFF 2017
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius
Essay by SFSFF Editors
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival owes an enormous debt of gratitude to film collector and preservationist extraordinaire David Shepard, a valued member of the festival advisory board since 1994. Hardly a year has gone by when Shepard’s hand could not be seen in at least one of the programs and this year is no exception, with The Lost World and A Page of Madness restored largely because of his efforts. Since 2000, Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates had been working closely with Serge Bromberg of Paris’s Lobster Films to restore classic films and silent-era treasures. Some are still to come, including Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 epic spectacle The King of Kings and the breathtaking 1933 film La Maternelle, directed by Jean Benoît-Lévy and Marie Epstein (released in the U.S. in 1935 as Children of Montmartre). In honor of his friend and partner-in-preservation who died this past January, Bromberg has selected some early silent-era magic and mirth that over the years made them both smile.
THOSE AWFUL HATS
D.W. Griffith for American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, USA, 1909
Short and sweet, Those Awful Hats was often a bonus film given out to customers of Blackhawk Films, whose collection Shepard later purchased. A gregarious latecomer in a top hat disturbs a screening already in progress but that’s nothing compared to the ladies bedecked in increasingly top-heavy millinery who soon filter into the front rows. Advertised in its day as “a splendid subject to start a show with instead of the customary slide,” the film uses a matte effect to create the movie playing on the theater’s screen. Director Griffith’s then-wife Linda Arvidson plays a troublesome moviegoer, Mack Sennett is the boisterous man in the checkered suit, and Flora Finch is hoisted away in a solution that will be applauded by anyone who’s had to shush chatty patrons or their buzzing cell phones.
Fleischer Studios, USA, 1924
Another Blackhawk favorite, this inventive mix of live-action, animation, and still cutouts from the Fleischer brothers studio was one of the Kodascope prints Shepard began collecting as a teenager. Eventually restored from a 1931 sound reissue, it now boasts a more complete, crisper image. It begins when the artist dips his pen into an inkwell to conjure Koko the Clown, who then conjures his own fun. When an army of toy soldiers wreaks more anarchy than even Koko had bargained for the artist has to shut it all down. Eldest of the Fleischer brothers is Max, the artist seen in Cartoon Factory and inventor of the technique of rotoscoping, which smoothed the jerky movements of frame-by-frame animation to make them seem more realistic. The Fleischers made more history in the sound era with cartoon versions of Popeye the Sailor, Betty Boop, and Superman comic strips and, of course, the sing-along bouncing ball.
Charles Chaplin for Keystone Film Company, USA, 1914
The Keystone phase of Chaplin’s career had been largely neglected until Shepard spearheaded a massive project to restore all Chaplin’s short subjects. In this fifth film Chaplin directed at Mack Sennett’s legendary slapstick studio, the action takes place on a movie set. Charlie is supposed to enter a scene to save a baby from a knife-wielding intruder, but he’s too busy flirting off camera. Fired on the spot, he gets his job back by dressing as an actress. Seeing him in high heels and wrapped in fur startles at first, until the effete gestures of the Tramp we’ve come to know also seem to suit this masquerader.
FIRST PRIZE FOR CELLO PLAYING (Premier prix de violoncelle)
Pathé Frères, France, 1907
Found in France by Lobster Films this unique bit of chaos will make you laugh as mightily as Shepard and Bromberg did when they first saw it. A cellist decides to treat the neighborhood to a serenade, but the neighbors aren’t having it and express their displeasure by vigorously heaving at him every single thing in their homes.
Émile Cohl for Gaumont, France, 1908
Lost for many decades this animation first was returned to the world after one of Shepard’s school chums turned out to be the grandson of a Lumière cameraman in possession of the only print known to survive. In the early 1900s, fifty-one-year-old caricaturist Émile Cohl turned to the cinematographe to supplement his dwindling income. His first film, and the first film to be made frame-by-frame from start to finish, turns a single line into a graphic universe of movement. According to historian Richard Abel, Cohl “made more than seven hundred individual line drawings, recorded each twice (frame by frame), and had the laboratory print the footage in negative in order to produce a white-on-black chalk-line effect.” Cohl went on to more than earn his moniker as the father of the animated cartoon and is an important link to the twentieth century’s avant-garde, with its elemental aesthetic and predilection for satire.
TIT FOR TAT (La Peine du talion)
Gaston Velle for Pathé Frères, France, 1906
Another Shepard favorite, this stencil-colored fairy film was one of a genre popularized by Pathé Frères. A tutor and his two students are capturing butterflies and grasshoppers for study when the beautifully colored specimens suddenly transform into winged women who decide to teach the collectors a lesson of their own. Director Gaston Velle was an amateur magician hired by Pathé to make films to compete with Georges Méliès. He later ran the Italian studio Cines, which produced 1913’s epic spectacle Quo Vadis? Velle’s value as a director is evident in the close-ups of the butterflies trapped under the magnifying glass and another shot high above the tutor pinned to a giant mushroom.
WHEN THE DEVIL DRIVES
Walter Booth for the Charles Urban Trading Corp., UK, 1907
Slated for Shepard and Bromberg’s next collection of short films, this British production about a family’s train trip hijacked by the devil was found in France. Amateur magician turned filmmaker Walter Booth shared the early twentieth-century fascination with the dangers and delights of combustion-powered locomotion, directing titles for British producer R.W. Paul that include A Railway Collision (1900), The Voyage of the Arctic (1903), and The “?” Motorist (1906), whose highlight is a spin around the rings of Saturn. In 1906, Booth moved to the Charles Urban Trading Company, establishing a studio in his own garden in London where he made this film, the first British animated film (The Hand of the Artist, 1906), and several proto-science-fiction subjects in the Méliès vein.
DOWN IN THE DEEP (Le Pêcheur de perles)
Ferdinand Zecca for Pathé Frères, France, 1906
From Shepard’s Blackhawk Collection and the only surviving print, this maritime take on the fairy film has a fisherman’s dreams come true in dazzling Pathé stencil-color. Deep-sea fairies, puppet seahorses, a bug-eyed octopus, and a colossal starfish populate the magical underwater world where he hopes to find treasure. One of early cinema’s most important directors, Ferdinand Zecca was hired to run Pathé’s pavilion at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle and stayed on to make trick films that could compete with those of Georges Méliès. He had a long career that included running the company’s exchange in the United States from 1913 to 1920.
THE DANCING PIG (Le Cochon danseur)
Pathé Frères, France, 1907
A popular music-hall act recreated and filmed for Pathé Frères, this strange delight was a gift from David Shepard to his goddaughter Marie Bromberg, Serge’s eldest child. The actor underneath the pig costume has recently been uncovered as vaudevillian Alfred Latell, whose entire career was built on playing animals.
THE WITCH (La Fée Carabosse)
Georges Méliès, France, 1906
Narrated live by Serge Bromberg
To know his future, a young troubadour consults the wicked witch of fairy-tale notoriety. When he pays for her services with a purse filled with sand, the wicked witch swears revenge. Head of the Star Film Company and an illusionist extraordinaire Georges Méliès charmed the world with his whimiscal “trick” films that set a global standard others strove to emulate. David Shepard owned the camera negatives of the Méliès films distributed in America and restored them in collaboration with Lobster Films.