1915 is arguably the year that the first modern movies were made. On AFI’s list of the 100 greatest American films, 1915 is the year of the earliest selection (The Birth of a Nation). Theda Bara’s A Fool There Was and the Earle Williams-Anita Stewart vehicle The Juggernaut are still widely enjoyable to audiences today. Chaplin defined his Tramp character, Douglas Fairbanks got his start, and Fatty and Mabel were at the peak of their powers. Films made prior to 1915 typically feel like dated relics of an inaccessible past. In 1915, the cinema began to show a resemblance to the art form we know and love today.
I recently had the opportunity to view two very different films from 1915 in two very different formats. Around the time Flicker Alley’s new release of Mary Pickford’s Fanchon the Cricket arrived in my mailbox, I headed into Hollywood for Retroformat’s screening of William S. Hart’s On the Night Stage. One film is presented as a stunning 4K restoration that is the result of international collaboration between esteemed archives; the other was screened from a half-century old Blackhawk 8mm print. One film is accompanied by a newly-commissioned score; the other featured a lone piano player improvising his way through the screening.
The aftermath of these two films left me torn—which was a better experience for consuming a silent film? How were these movies meant to be seen when they were made—and should that have any bearing on how they’re watched today?
First, a brief word on the films themselves. Despite their obvious differences, Fanchon and Night Stage might have more in common than meets the eye. Neither film is particularly representative of its respective star. For Pickford fans, 1923’s Rosita (recently screened at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival) and 1925’s Little Annie Rooney (also released by Flicker Alley) are almost certainly more enjoyable than Fanchon, while fans of Westerns would be much better served by Hart’s later work in The Toll Gate (1920) or Tumbleweeds (1925). Fanchon and Night Stage are perhaps best left to the completists; it is hard to imagine someone enjoying either without the additional context of Pickford and Hart’s careers.
But enough about what is being consumed; for the last month my mind has instead been focused on how these silent films were and are consumed—both a century ago and today.
It goes without saying that Fanchon the Cricket is an absolutely beautiful presentation—as is everything Flicker Alley puts out these days. A joint effort between the Mary Pickford Foundation, the Cinémathèque Française, and the British Film Institute, the film is crisper and sharper than a film from 1915 has any business being—it certainly looks nicer today than it ever did in Pickford’s lifetime.
I must confess, though, that silent films in 4K on a MacBook Retina screen sometimes leave me with an uneasy feeling. The clarity sometimes translates into surrealism, as if the restoration has stripped the picture of some of its essence. I’m far from the first person to make this observation, as evidenced by the media circus around Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight 70mm roadshow. I am far from a film snob (I cut my teeth on low-quality rips uploaded to YouTube), but there were several instances where I found myself more distracted by the quality of the image than the content of the film.
Then there is the issue of music, which is such a matter of personal taste that I always hesitate to dwell on it in a review. USC graduate Andy Gladbach worked with Julian Ducatenzeiler of the psychedelic rock band Mystic Braves on a contemporary score. Some may like it, others may find it distracting, but what no one can deny is that it is anachronistic. While I appreciate efforts to modernize silent film music, I think that even a simple piano score would be an appropriate alternative offering for such a high-quality release as this. Let the viewer choose that they would like to hear.
If Fanchon is jarring in its extreme clarity, On the Night Stage sometimes left me squinting and straining to figure out just what was going on. While Blackhawk Films defined an entire generation of silent film fans from the 1950s through 1970s, watching one of their 8mm prints today can be an inconsistent experience. At one point the projector bulb went out, leaving the audience in the dark both literally and figuratively. Poor contrast, scratches, and jump cuts were practically the stars of the show.
I’m young enough to never have had to rely on Blackhawk for my silent films; but in that moment, I could relate to the countless stories I have heard about carefully inspecting the mimeographed catalogues and selecting a title or two to purchase. The communal aspect, too—a dozen or so people taking time out of a Saturday night to watch an obscure William S. Hart picture, over a century old—was not lost on me.
With a live piano player (the very talented Cliff Retallick) interpolating contemporaneous songs, it was perhaps the closest possible analogue to what filmgoers would have experienced in a small town in 1915. The imperfections on the print? Maybe the result of the film being shown a dozen times in as many towns. The poor contrast? An inexperienced projectionist. Yes, the film was far from perfect—but isn’t that kind of the point when watching something made before the First World War?
Ultimately I have nothing but praise for both Flicker Alley’s release of Fanchon the Cricket and Tom Barnes’s Retroformat series of screenings at the Egyptian Theatre. It is impossible to compare the two experiences, just as it is impossible to compare the careers of Mary Pickford and William S. Hart. The former utilizes the latest and greatest technology to provide an experience that would have been impossible as recently as a few years ago; the latter does not try to fix something that it does not perceive as broken.
Which leads me to conclude: 4K BluRay or 50-year-old 8mm print? Both have their merits, and both have their shortcomings. So I’ll leave that decision to you. I for one am thrilled to live at a time when both options are available.
Fanchon the Cricket is now available on DVD & BluRay from Flicker Alley.
For more information about forthcoming Retroformat screenings at the Egyptian Theatre, visit their Facebook page.