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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Previewing the BSFO's new score for Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman'

Jobyna Ralston and Harold Lloyd in The Freshman
courtesy IMDb
Silent comedian Harold Lloyd had a huge hit in 1925 with The Freshman  (d. Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor).  I've not seen it, and cannot wait for my first viewing tomorrow, on the big screen at the Coolidge, accompanied by the world premiere score from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (BSFO).  I've written here before about the process by which selected elite students of Berklee College film scoring department compose a new silent film score under the direction of Prof. Sheldon Mirowitz, and then premiere it at the Coolidge Corner Cinema, as part of the 'The Sounds of Silents' film series.  (It was one of these performances, six plus years ago, solidified my emerging obsession with all things classic film.)  The reputation of the BSFO has grown to the extent that, on opening night of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in June, they'll be there to repeat this performance.  Yes, opening night of the SFSFF.  And so far no one outside of Berklee has yet to hear the score.

Well, that is almost no one -- last Tuesday I had the good fortune to attend a 'Master Class' from Prof. Mirowitz sponsored by the Coolidge, during which he previewed some of the highlights of the score, and revealed some other interesting tidbits.  Bonus for me- I got to hold in my hands, albeit briefly, the complete published BSFO score for Variété, from 2016.
Sheldon Mirowitz, from
A few highlights:
  • The new score to The Freshman has seven separate student composer-a feat of collaboration perhaps unique at an undergraduate college, but not so unique in the long history of film scoring, said Prof. Mirowitz.  The great film composers almost always have significant support along the way, directing other, unbilled musicians to produce a final score.  
  • Selected to perform the score in live performance, the BSFO musicians are 'the best players in the Boston area.'  Whoa.  
  • The score will be a blend of musical themes that conjure up the past, but are infused with decidedly contemporary sensibilities.  Prof. Mirowitz described that The Freshman, while being 'of its time', is also 'about its time'-and the music needs to reflect that.  A short clip of the 'college theme' was an example, a nostalgic, tuneful march-time 'fight song'.  As a 'sweet' persona, Harold Lloyd's college freshman Harold Lamb, who works hard to achieve status on campus, deserves a bit of 'old timey' flavor to enhance the comedic elements in the film.  
  • The individual student composers will conduct the reels for which they composed the music, but will also take part in the orchestra, responsible for the various sound effects written into the score.  
  • While the release dates haven't been announced, Prof. Mirowitz reminded us that the BSFO was engaged by Kino Lorber to accompany the restorations of The Last Laugh and Variété, both German silent films starring the great Emil Jannings.  
  • Even more exciting, they have been commissioned to compose a score for a new restoration of The Man Who Laughs (1928).  Keeping my fingers crossed for a Coolidge premiere.  
  • New York City cinephiles note -- the BSFO will make their NYC debut on May 20th with a screening of The Freshman, at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, Tony Bennett concert hall.
  • Prof. Mirowitz recently presented a TED Talk, 'What does music DO?' that illuminates his view of the role of music in film and beyond -- check it out below.  To boil it down, the music helps us understand our emotions, which enables us to make sense of the world. 

Per, here are this year's BSFO contributors:
Composers: Vincent Isler (Switzerland), Esin Aydingoz (Turkey), Bernard Duc (Switzerland), Victoria Ruggiero (USA), Andres Gutierrez (Mexico), Jeffrey Gaiser (USA), and Vinicius Pippa (Brazil)
Players: Gabriela Sofia Gomez Estevez (flute/piccolo), Lindsey Stein (oboe/English horn), Stephanie Clark (clarinet/bass clarinet), Dan Pfeiffer (horn), Joey Epstein (trumpet), Ethan Santos (trombone/bass trombone), Kino Lee (keyboard), Eren Başbuğ (keyboard), Tania Mesa (violin), Nathaniel Taylor (cello), Michael Simon (bass), Patrick Hanafin (percussion)

Special recognition to the Coolidge Corner Theatre and Becki and Dr. Martin Norman, founders of 'The Sounds of Silents' film series.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

TCM Film Festival Highlights -- 2017 Edition

Historic Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, home of
the first Academy Awards ceremony, and
headquarters for the Turner Classic Film Festival
The annual Turner Classic Film Festival in Hollywood is akin to Mecca for the classic film fan. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have made the trip for the third time.  As before, it was simultaneously exhilarating, exhausting, and educational.
As expected I didn't completely adhere to the crazy schedule I set for myself.  I missed:  Beat the Devil, Barefoot in the Park, So this is Paris, The Front Page, and Speedy.  Yikes.  Overall, though, I managed to see 13 films in 3+ days, and considering all that was going on, I'm declaring myself guilt-free.
I also took some time to see and hear celebrities and sights in keeping with the classic Hollywood scene.  And, of course celebrating Hollywood magic with old and new friends capped off the weekend perfectly.

My Film Viewing Highlights

The Magic Box (1951), d. John Boulting -- on Friday afternoon I chucked my schedule and attended the screening of this 1951 British film instead of So This is Paris.  My rationale was that I can see the latter film in June at the Somerville Theatre, with live piano accompaniment.

Not a bad choice as I loved, loved, lovedThe Magic Box.  Introducing the film was eminent critic Leonard Maltin, who explained that the film was commissioned for the Festival of Britain in 1951, when the country was still nursing its collective, severe, war wounds.  The film lined up a 'who's who' of British stage and screen actors, headed by the eminent Robert Donat.  Appearing were Glynis JohnsWilliam HartnellMichael HordernKathleen Harrison, a young Richard Attenborough, and even Laurence Olivier, who delighted in a cameo role as a street bobby, just to name a few.   
Directed by John Boulting, this biopic portrayed the story British film pioneer William Friese-Greene, largely forgotten today, but  considered by some an inventor of the first moving picture camera, concurrent with Edison.  The film is stunningly shot by Jack Cardiff in technicolor, and the film is alternately amusing, nostalgic and bittersweet.  Cleverly scripted using two separate flashbacks, we learn the havoc Friese-Greene's obsession with invention played with his personal life and well-being.  
All actors are perfect, and Robert Donat, while playing a role not unlike his 'Mr. Chips,' conveys boyish enthusiasm, frustration, and melancholy with perfect subtlety.  Whenever I see Donat in anything I'm saddened by his passing at such a young age (53).  I was also taken by the luminous beauty of Austrian Maria Schell, who played Friese-Greene's first wife.  Schell is the older sister of actor Maximilian Schell, and I'm not sure I'd seen her in any other film.

Martin Scorcese cited this film as a major inspiration for his Oscar-winning Hugo from 2011, and along with Scorcese (!) I unconditionally recommend it, especially for Anglophiles.    
Maria Schell and Robert Donat in The Magic Box
Unfaithfully Yours (1948), d. Preston Sturges.  As this was the late film on Friday, I wish I hadn't dozed off for one or two scenes, but caught enough of it to have a fantastic time.  The title of this one sounded vaguely familiar, but only this week did I find out there was a remake with the same title, in 1984, starring Dudley Moore.  I'm glad I didn't know that, actually, as I could enjoy this film without thinking about how it may have been remade. Sturges gives his witty treatment to this dark comedy in which a stuffy orchestra conductor (Rex Harrison) plots three different ways to take revenge on his devoted wife (Linda Darnell) when he suspects her of cheating.  The plotting all takes place in his head while he's conducting, and is set to dramatic classical orchestral works.  The comedy takes off when the unhappy husband attempts to carry out his nefarious schemes.
In his introduction, Eddie Muller mentioned that Linda Darnell was the loveliest female lead of the day, and her calm sweetness is a nice contrast to Harrison's pompous cynicism.  Harrison carries some really funny bits, including an extended solo slapstick sequence in which he never speaks a line, but manages to trash his own living room, and his dignity, in the process.  For those searching for Darnell or Harrison at their peak, look no further.  
Kurt Kreuger, Linda Darnell, and Rex Harrison in Unfaithfully Your
Laura (1944), d. Otto Preminger.  This is a classic 1940s noir, and the draw for me to show up at the Saturday evening screening came from the promise of seeing an original nitrate print of the film; this early technology was replaced mid-century because of its flammability, and good copies of films in this format are not exactly abundant.  While I didn't see Black Narcissus, which was so popular at the festival, I did enjoy Laura quite a bit.  There were a few flaws in the print, causing it to skip on occasion, but it was dazzling to look at in its original black-and-white.  What I didn't appreciate before this screening was subtlety and genius of Dana Andrews in the role of detective who falls in love with the 'dead' woman of the title. Damn, I need to see more of Mr. Andrews.  
Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney in Laura

Chester Morris & Billie Dove in
Cock of the Air
Cock of the Air (1932), d. Tom Buckingham-- yes, this pre-code film is one large double entendre, and it was a gem.  The plot centered around the extended flirtation between an American WWI pilot, played by Chester Morris, and a vivacious French showgirl, played by Billie Dove.  Think Howard Hughes meets Ernst Lubitsch...which may not be surprising considering producer Hughes was the force behind the picture.  

During production there was a colossal battle between Hughes and the Hays Office, and about 17 minutes of footage was cut from the first commercial release.  The film has finally been restored by the Academy Film Archive, although the 17 missing minutes did not have the soundtrack intact.  In the restoration process, modern actors dubbed in the dialogue, and it was this version that we were treated to.  The transitions were seamless, and blended very well.  A small symbol of a film frame overlaid with a pair of scissors decorated the bottom of the film so that we would identify the restored missing footage, which I found very useful and not distracting.  Ironically, some scenes in the cut version of the film were at last as risque as those cut.  
Chester Morris was often a 'second lead' in films of this era, and I wasn't expecting to be blown away by his performance -- yet he combined the right amount of comedic double-takes and the like with breezy cockiness, and a scene that he completed with just a bath towel around his waist was especially enjoyable! I'm a new fan.  Billie Dove was a silent film leading lady who transitioned into talkies but whose film career did not last past the early 1930s.  She lit up the screen with her glamorous, sophisticated, cynical "Lilli de Rosseau'.  I will not reveal any more, but urge everyone to see this if it comes to a nearby cinema.

Other Sights and Sounds 
It was fascinating to spend time in the company of Lee Grant, a festival honoree, when she was interviewed at the 'Club TCM' -- a fascinating and determined actress, she fought through her time on the Hollywood blacklist during the McCarthy era and picked up her career afterward, as not only an actor, but a director and producer.  At 90 years young, she is still going strong.  I also took the opportunity to see her Oscar-nominated early role in the film Detective Story.

Finally, I thought the TCM Film Festival organizers did a fabulous job honoring Robert Osborne, the face and heart of the channel since the early days, who passed away in early March.  There was a live panel tribute from the TCM staff, with standing room only, a short video tribute that played before every screening on Friday, and visuals like the one below, prominently on display.  While it was bittersweet not to have him there, his legacy was everywhere.  

Some final highlights in photos...
Flowers at Don Rickles star on the Walk of Fame
Rickles sadly passed away when we were in L.A.

Art deco 'Ticket Lobby' at Union Station in Los Angeles,
part of the 'TCM Movie Locations' Bus Tour. 

Shirley Temple costume display
at the Hollywood Museum

Celebratory dinner with film friends at Miceli's

Ruby slippers -- The Wizard of Oz
at the Hollywood Museum
Hand and foot prints of silent legend
Gloria Swanson, star of Sunset Boulevard

Sunday, April 2, 2017

My Picks for April Boston-area Classic Film Screenings

So glad to be seeing some signs of spring around here in Massachusetts, despite the nor'easter that tried mightily to return us to winter.  On the other hand I can't say I'm not excited to be heading to LA and 80-degree sunny days.  As I prepare to jet off to classic movie paradise, I'm highlighting here my picks of classic film screenings around Greater Boston during April.

Harvard Film Archive
April 3, 7:00 PM.  This is so exciting -- the HFA is hosting a special presentation on studio-era stars and their night life escapades in Hollywood, by author and film historian Jim Heimann.  

Titled "Out With the Stars", the presentation includes Heimann's 'unrivalled collection of photos, postcards and menus...".   As the executive editor of TASCHEN America, a publisher of photo and memorabilia books, no doubt he'll have a treasure trove of stories and little seen items.  This seems like the perfect way to get in the mood for my trip to LA -- and I'm going to do my best to get my packing done early to make it there.
Jean Gabin & Marlene Dietrich -- photo from HFA
Sunday April 9th, PM Double Feature.  If you're around next weekend, consider spending some time exploring the darker side in this double feature of famous dystopian tales:  Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the 1966 film version directed by Truffaut, and George Orwell's 1984, the 1984 version starring the late, great, John Hurt.  Both films portray the fight against totalitarian regimes.  I've seen the latter, although many years ago, when I discovered John Hurt and wanted to see everything he made.  I've not seen Fahrenheit 451, but with Trauffaut at the helm and Julie Christie playing dual roles, I'm sure it's fascinating. 
7:00 PM
4:30 & 9:30
Somerville Theatre
Also, Sunday April 9th at 2:00, I'd recommend checking out The Wind from 1928.  It's a silent film and will be screened using a 35mm print, with live piano accompaniment from Somerville regular Jeff Rapsis.  Lillian Gish, one of the top female actresses of the silent era, is the star, playing a young woman relocated to live in unfamiliar territory, both figuratively and literally.  Swede Victor Sjöström directed.  I recently discovered a fantastic film by Ingmar Bergman that starred Sjöström, Wild Strawberries; I've not seen any of the films he directed, and I'm sorry I will miss this screening.
Lillian Gish in The Wind
Coolidge Corner Theatre
May 1, 7:00.  Ok, I'm cheating a little bit with the dates, but for advance planning this has to be included.  It's the next installment of the world premiere performance of a newly composed film score by select students of Berklee College of Music, known collectively as the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (BSFO).  This time, they return to comedy with Harold Lloyd's The Freshman.  This is a romp with boy-next-door Lloyd entering college and having some fun on the football team, all while attemping to shed his awkward persona to become a big man on campus and win his girl, played by lovely Jobyna Ralston.
Harold Lloyd bones up on how to succeed at college (IMDb)

If you haven't attended one of these BSFO premieres at the Coolidge, make sure you prioritize this screening -- it's truly a live performance with terrific artists, both timeless screen legends and budding music stars.