'L'Argent' (1928) speaks to the present moment in depicting fortunes made and lost overnight.

Silent Film Festival Is in the Money

Michael Fox February 10, 2011

It’s hard not to see the SF Silent Film Festival’s 2011 Winter Event—a three-program canoodling with cinema’s early masterworks at the Castro this Saturday, February 12—as a sly comment on both our current economic plight and the relevance of century-old movies. As the country digs ever so slowly out of the landslide collapse precipitated by greedy bankers and real estate speculators, the festival examines the timeless rivalry between the haves and the have-nots. (When one side wins all the time, is it a rivalry or something less amusing, like injustice?) French director Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent (Money, 1928) and King Vidor’s Paris-set La Boheme (1926) remind us most effectively, thank you, that plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. As for the other immortal artist on the bill, well, you could hardly be a money-grubbing reactionary and play the Little Tramp, could you?

Charlie Chaplin jump-starts the festivities with the three most popular shorts of the dozen he made at Mutual Film Corporation in the teens. An all-ages program, needless to say, accompanied by Donald Sosin on the baby grand, It’s Mutual (1:00 pm), finds the Little Tramp as a both an oblivious and willful force of anarchy—often within a two-second span—wreaking havoc while keeping one eye on the girl and the other on the main chance (or whatever expression beggars and grifters favor). He’s the perpetual underdog, by dint of social status as well as size, even if he’s smarter, quicker and more coordinated than everyone else in the picture (even the sweetly ubiquitous Edna Purviance).

The Pawnshop gives us Chaplin at his most agile as a low-level employee of the titular establishment with a breathtaking talent for balletic slapstick. The Rink also shows off Charlie’s athleticism in a couple of lengthy scenes at a roller rink, following an amusingly malicious shift as a devious waiter. As an escaped convict in The Adventurer, which feels like a step back with its sophomoric and endless butt kicks, Chaplin makes sure to give the Tramp a comically heroic sequence rescuing a drowning woman within jumping distance of, presumably, the Santa Monica pier. Although there’s usually a class difference between the Tramp and his nemeses, at this stage of his career our hero is more interested in spoofing propriety than skewering social inequities.

The winter event’s centerpiece, and its revelation, is the three-hour predatory-banker saga, L’Argent (3:30 p.m.). Made, and set, shortly before the crash of ’29, the movie is somehow both prescient in its depiction of fortunes made and lost overnight and unaware of just how close the apocalypse is. Adapted from a Zola novel, the film is set in motion by the back-channel stock manipulations of the banker Gunderman, which almost bankrupt his rival, the business magnate Saccard. Welcome to a glitzy but ruthless world where appearances, rumor and gossip are king.

An opportunity unexpectedly presents itself, however, in the person of the aviator and explorer Jacques Hamelin and his lissome, upwardly mobile wife Line. Hamelin has discovered oil in Guyana (there’s an unexpected San Francisco connection for you), but needs a backer. Saccard agrees, and Hamelin insists on attempting a solo, record-breaking flight as the first step of their partnership. L’Argent is full of creative and pleasurable shots and sequences, but Hamelin’s drawn-out departure—with L’Herbier cutting from the plane warming up to Line’s anguished face to the overexcited stock market—is the high point of this pathbreaking blend of melodrama and newsreel footage.

Not quite the high point, actually, but I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that Saccard makes the most of the long flight, reports of plane spottings and the stock market’s volatility. There’s a marvelous little montage of emerging technologies—radio, telephone switchboards, typewriters—underscoring that the big-money insiders are plugged in to the social network and privy to vital information, while the little guy is days and dollars behind. Here as elsewhere, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s sublime live accompaniment adds tension and wit.

Curiously, though, we don’t see all that much of the man in the street. Hamelin and Line, innocents among wolves, stand in for the average folks. (It may cross your mind that Hamelin presages the heroic yet naive aviator in The Rules of the Game a decade later.) Hamelin, of course, also represents the fraternity of inventors and innovators who actually create things in this world. The film does suggest that financiers are needed to fund the research, development, manufacture and marketing of those goods, but the way the profits are split isn’t exactly fair.

L’Herbier falls a bit too much in love with crosscutting, but he has an extraordinary eye for composition and shadow effects. He spoils the viewer with an abundance of eye candy, and not including Brigitte Helm of Metropolis in a supporting role. A taste of L’Herbier may get you hooked, in which case you’ll be happy to hear that the Pacific Film Archive screen his 1924 film, L’Inhumaine, February 24.

In case you forget that this is the Silent Film Festival’s winter event, La Boheme (8:15 pm) opens with a shot of Notre Dame astride a snowy landscape. Welcome to the Left Bank (via a Hollywood backlot), where Paris’s bohemian artists scuffle and dream in the Latin Quarter. (Nowadays we call them “freelancers.”) Rodolphe (the rakish John Gilbert) is an aspiring playwright forced to sell stories to Cat and Dog Fanciers’ Journal to make the rent; Mimi (the saucer-eyed Lillian Gish) is a poor embroiderer (she’s much more gifted than a mere seamstress, you see) who lives in a garret in the same building.

An idle aristocrat espies the virtuous Mimi on the street one day and starts coming around uninvited on a semi-regular basis. But she and Rodolphe fall in love, and the aristo’s main function in the movie (rather than representing a genuine lifestyle choice or difficult compromise) is to make Rodolphe jealous. La Boheme is a tale of sacrifice and deception, garnished with misunderstandings and bad luck. Count on Dennis James to wring every tear from the Wurlitzer.

I shouldn’t be flip about this timeless melodrama, beautifully directed with blessed grace and a hint of poetry by the great King Vidor (The Crowd). And respect, or awe, is warranted when the leads are played by such ravishing creatures as Lillian Gish and John Gilbert. Gish, in particular, is remarkably convincing as a starving boho, though her delicate, vulnerable performance is kind of an unexpected bonus. Her face is enough, to make you fall for Mimi, and to yearn to give her a better life.