Catching Up: On Film Festivals and Movie Palaces

I enjoy filing journals about my adventures and activities, but during the last couple months I’ve been so busy traveling, preparing this website, and launching my new podcast on the Nerdist network that I’ve fallen far behind. Had I been more on the ball I would have started by telling you about the annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival in early June. Every year this program offers an embarrassment of riches, but I found the latest edition to be especially good—and far-ranging. The musical accompaniment is as diverse as the films themselves, featuring such impressive performers and musicologists as the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Stephen Horne, Donald Sosin, and Jon Mirsalis. But having missed the 2015 event this was my first exposure to the Berklee College of Music orchestra and its film scoring program, under the direction of Sheldon Mirowitz.

These enthusiastic students played their original score for a beautifully restored print of E.A. Dupont’s Variety (1925) and it was nothing short of thrilling. Mirowitz writes the main themes and then assigns one reel each of the movie to a different person; each young composer then conducts his or her portion of the score. I haven’t seen this classic since I watched an 8mm print when I was a kid. It was exciting to rediscover, especially in the magnificent setting of the Castro Theatre. Variety, starring Emil Jannings as a jealous circus aerialist and Lya de Putti as his fickle partner, is a film of big emotions and warrants a “big” score. That’s what the Berklee ensemble provided, and when the film concluded over a thousand people leapt to their feet, cheering. I can’t wait to hear the Boston-based orchestra again accompanying a different silent film.

My other favorite in a long weekend of goodies was the elegant and thoroughly entertaining 1925 comedy A Woman of the World, starring Pola Negri. Her very name conjures up an exotic image, but she started her career in the company of Ernst Lubitsch and was a fine comedic actress. To see her in a playful performance like this is a special treat. The movie is loosely based on a novel by Carl Van Vechten and was directed by one of Lubitsch’s acolytes, Malcolm St. Clair. It could almost be passed off as a film by the Master himself but for some obvious slapstick moments featuring Mack Sennett veteran Chester Conklin. Paramount Pictures archivist Andrea Kalas recently restored the film and we were treated to a pristine copy, which I hope will lead to more screenings.

Andrew Rogers-Detroit Michigan

What’s a classic movie theater without an organist? Here is Andrew Rogers playing before the program at the Michigan Theater in Detroit.

Days after returning from San Francisco, my wife and I journeyed to Michigan for Cinetopia, another wide-ranging festival of contemporary and classic films held in Detroit and Ann Arbor. I had the privilege of introducing a program of Disney shorts (in 35mm) at the beautiful Redford Theater in Detroit, and chatting onstage at the equally majestic Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor with master animator Andreas Deja between a screening of Tyrus, a lively and revealing documentary about 105-year-old artist Tyrus Wong, and the Disney film he influenced the most, Bambi.

Vingate water fountain Michigan Theater

It’s all in the details: a vintage water fountain in the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.

Film didn’t take up all of our time on this trip. We got to visit the Detroit Institute of the Arts, where my friend Eliot Wilhelm has presided over a superior screening series for forty-three years…and where the projection booth still houses 16mm and 35mm equipment along with the latest digital machinery. It also turned out that we were in town the weekend that the Detroit Historical Museum was celebrating the 150th anniversary of Vernors Ginger Ale. As a longtime connoisseur of that beverage I was delighted to visit the museum exhibit and buy all the souvenirs I could, in good conscience. And as we fed our faces at the world-famous Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, my ego got an unexpected boost when the nice fellow who handed me a slice of wagyu salami said he enjoyed listening to my podcast!

Back home, I participated in the Los Angeles Conservancy’s annual Last Remaining Seats series, as I have for more than twenty years, introducing the incomparable Double Indemnity at the Ace Hotel/United Artists Theatre. The ability to watch classic movies in the great movie palaces of downtown L.A. is a joy; no wonder this series sells out as soon as it’s announced every year, drawing Angelenos of all ages to theaters that hold as many as 2,000 people. Because this isn’t an everyday occurrence, I decided to take my son-in-law Scott along, even though he’s not an old-movie buff. (Our daughter Jessie had no choice as she was growing up and has been exposed to these wonders many times.) To my delight, Scott thoroughly enjoyed the movie and, because he works in the theater in England, enjoyed visiting backstage as well. I like that guy more and more.

In the lobby the Writers Guild Foundation exhibited some rare artifacts from its vast collection, including a hand-typed letter by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder’s leather-bound copies of his screenplays. What a delightful surprise to be able to gaze upon such treasures.

Billy Wilder scripts

Billy Wilder’s personal leather-bound scripts. Wow!

Finally, I’ve made a few notable errors on this site. I wrongly assumed that there couldn’t have been a black ambassador in 1890 like the one played by Samuel L. Jackson in The Legend of Tarzan. It turns out there was.

And, despite having checked with a key source, I was completely incorrect in stating that the short ‘Charlie’ on the Ocean was new to home video on the recent Criterion Collection disc of The Kid. Several readers have pointed out that it used to be available on 8mm and 16mm, was on the Warner Home Video release of The Kid a decade ago, and even appears on YouTube!  I don’t know how this eluded me so completely…but I’m happy it’s there on the new Blu-ray.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024