With over 75 restored features and shorts from 15 countries, the 10th annual “To Save and Project” series at the Museum of Modern Art has been a constant source of discovery. While the election year occasioned a spate of president-themed programs, including Super 8 home movies from the Nixon administration, and D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, I spent my time with ebullient Hollywood pre-codes, silent spectacles, and early Japanese experiments with sound.
The early 1930s were a period of intense creativity for director Raoul Walsh, one of those artists who could immediately capitalize on the possibilities of new technology. In 1930 he filmed The Big Trail starring a young John Wayne, using an early 70mm process that Fox called Grandeur. While a box office failure at the time, it stands today as a masterpiece of the widescreen form, with its epically choreographed masses battling in deep focus. He would continue to experiment with depth effects in the square Academy ratio of The Yellow Ticket (1931), Me and My Gal (1932) and The Bowery (1933), in which the overstuffed frames look like Hogarth etchings. One missing piece from this period, though, has been Wild Girl (1932), a Western that has been preserved by the Museum of Modern Art with support from the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation and the National Endowment for the Arts. An adaptation of Bret Harte’s moldy short story (and later novel) Salomy Jane’s Kiss, it runs through the adventures of the eponymous irrepressible tomboy, who bewitches card sharps and escaped murderers in equal measure in the Redwood forests of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Walsh emphasizes its old fashioned qualities by introducing the cast in a dusty photo album, and adds page-turning dissolves throughout its running time.
Cycling through antic comedy, weepy melodrama and action-adventure, Wild Girl is at least one genre too many, but Walsh seems to be the most energized by the first segment, reminiscent of the knockabout Western one-reelers he worked on in his youth. Shot at Sequoia National Park in California (around where the 1914 adaptation of the novel was shot), Salomy, played with energetic stubbornness by Joan Bennett, is closely identified with nature, shown gallivanting in short pants among the mighty verticals of the trees. Instead of the packed frames of his urban films, Walsh opts to open them up, with the Redwoods pointing up outside the frame, towards an escape from the small time blues that Salomy suffers from. That escape is offered by Billy, a good-natured outlaw seeking vengeance against the local mayor. He’s played by the blandly handsome Charles Farrell, whose monotonously soft-spoken delivery undermines the virility he’s supposed to convey. Eugene Palette steals the film from both of them though as stagecoach driver Yuba Bill, displaying his mastery of horse impressions and cowardly escapes.
Call Her Savage
No one could possibly steal Call Her Savage (1932) from Clara Bow, who gives a performance of loose-limbed, unhinged battiness. She fully inhabits the character of Nasa “Dynamite” Springer, the violently rebellious daughter of a wealthy Texas industrialist. Bow, the former “It Girl” of the silent era, had suffered a nervous breakdown and spent time in a sanitarium in 1931, and was released from her contract with Paramount by mutual consent. Still a force at the box office, Fox signed her to a two-picture deal after her recuperation. Only 27 when Call Her Savage was released, she holds nothing back, a dynamo of sexual and physical aggressiveness. In the opening scene she bullwhips her childhood “half-breed” pal Moonglow (Gilbert Roland), and for the rest of the movie she searches for a masochist male that will take her beatings with equal equanimity. The only other creature who engages in the rough play she desires is the household’s Great Dane, whom she wrestles to the ground in a scene of escalating perversity, capped by a reaction shot of her flushed face and erect nipples. Director John Francis Dillon moves things along with workmanlike agility, which is handy since, like Wild Girl, the movie squeezes every conceivable genre into its svelte 88 minutes.
Another astonishing female performer on display in the series is Anna Pavlova, the legendary Russian classical ballet dancer. To Save and Project screened her only feature film performance in The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916, preserved by the BFI), a stodgy melodrama that comes to life whenever Pavlova moves her limbs. A Universal production that hoped to rival the Italian epics of Giovanni Pastrone (Cabiria, 1914), it adapts Daniel Auber’s 1828 opera La muette de Portici, about a deaf-mute girl who inspires the peasants of 17th-century Naples to revolt against their Hapsburg rulers. Husband-wife directing team Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley certainly put a lot of money on the screen, but it’s all rather inert theatrical posing and fake mustache-twirling aside from Pavlova and the rousing palace raid, shot with an actual cast of thousands. Pavlova is the main attraction though, and astounds in the artful prologue in which she dances in front of a black screen, seemingly weightless as she floats into the heavens. Until, that is, you spot the black gloved hands gripping her waist and lifting her up—an inventive precursor to green screen.
More technical innovations were on display in the Early Japanese Talkies program. Two silent shorts were presented with recorded Benshi narration. Tsukigata Hanpeita (1925) is a samurai action film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa (A Page of Madness, 1926), presented in a condensed 13-minute version intended for home viewing with a sound-on-disc commentary. A familiar story to Kabuki theater patrons is made nigh incomprehensible to newbies through the speed and collision of its plot elements, coming off as slapstick samurai with all its connective tissue removed. That was followed by the intentional slapstick of Harold Lloyd’s 1923 Why Worry, overlaid with the Benshi narration with which it toured Japan in the 1930s. The headliner was Heinosuke Gosho’s The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine (1931), a charming domestic comedy recorded with sync sound, and credited as the country’s first sound hit. It is a culture clash comedy, contrasting the traditional Japanese life of a blocked playwright (Atsushi Watanabe) and his family with their new neighbors, a group of youngsters in Western garb who are rehearsing their “Mammy Jazz Band” (which sounds like a mix of Dixieland and Japanese folk vocals). With its frustrated, henpecked husband and wisecracking kids, it anticipates the modern sitcom, and as I was walking out, an older gentleman said it reminded him of the Dick Van Dyke Show. I’m not sure any episode of that show had a moment as bittersweet and moving as the final shot of The Neighbor’s Wife, though, in which the playwright and his wife reach an accommodation with modernity, humming “My Blue Heaven” in harmony as they stride toward their future.
A decade later that harmony would be destroyed by World War II, and the dark immigration noir The Face Behind the Mask (1941) reflects the anxieties of the period. Peter Lorre, that emblem of Hollywood foreign-ness, gets a rare starring role in this Columbia Pictures cheapie as naïve Hungarian immigrant Janos Szabo, fresh off the boat in NYC. The film begins with the epigram “Just a few years ago—when a voyage to America meant adventure and not flight...” which makes clear that Szabo is not seeking a better life but any life at all. Lorre looks thinned out, which further emphasizes the wide ovals of his eyes, emitting an innocent eagerness to catch a break, but when he descends into criminality, he just as eagerly breaks those who are eager to catch him. His face becomes scarred in a fire, making him unemployable, the U.S. becoming just another land of penury. Szabo arrives with dreams, and ends in nightmares.
From silence to sound, and from dream to nightmare, this is only a small sample of the rarities on display in To Save and Project. A trove of unknown and restored greats is yet to screen, from the Soviet spectacles of Ivan Pyr’ev to Robert Aldrich’s paranoid thriller Twilight’s Last Gleaming (also out soon on Blu-ray from Olive Films). The series is a bracing reminder of just how much of film history lies outside the random bounds of Netflix and VOD. There are films out there—go see them.
“To Save and Project” runs at the Museum of Modern Art through November 11.