I can only find one Palo Alto theater on Cinema Treasures that predates the Stanford Theatre, and that is the original Varsity Theatre, built in 1912. When the Stanford opened in 1925, the Varsity was soon closed (replaced by another theater of the same name at a nearby location, which is now a Borders). The Stanford Theatre has an attractive marquee, but its otherwise modest façade conceals the splendor that awaits us inside.
The theater's History page lists the weekly programs from its first thirty-seven years in operation. Even if you have never visited the theater, I'm sure this chronicle will be a trip down memory lane for anyone who can remember going to movies during these years. I wish more theaters would make this information available, as it is a valuable record of what was of interest to the public at a given time. Unlike many theaters in San Francisco that held on to big films for an extended period of time, the Stanford showed a different film each week. Favorites like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Gone with the Wind (1939), and The Ten Commandments (1956) hit the Stanford later in their runs and were each rotated out after a week.
In 1987, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation bought the theater and restored it. The theater now shows classic movies exclusively. I was in attendance for the tail end of an Akira Kurosawa film festival, showing eighteen of the director's many films. Prior to this I had only seen two of Kurosawa's films, but have heard his name with a frequency second only to Alfred Hitchcock's.
An elegant box office sits outside, where I found a flyer for the Kurosawa festival. Tickets are sold inside.
Had I not already peeked at some online photos I would have been unprepared for the beauty inside. The concession stand sits elegantly to one side, across from the staircase. They sell a variety of chocolate bars, some vegan. The staff is cheerful and enthusiastic about both the theater and the movies they show.
What seems to me like a medieval chandelier hangs from the foyer's vaulted ceiling.
My second surprise came when I turned into an antechamber, only to find that it lead down a ramp to an exhibit room. Classic movie posters line the walls in thematic groups (such as Fred Astaire movies).
Showcases in the center of the room display information about the history of the theater, and about Kurosawa's films. This is the greatest length I've seen any theater go to to preserve and promote the history of film. Very satisfying. Also, of the many classic films I've seen in theaters so far this year, nearly every one of them is represented by a framed poster at the Stanford.
The exhibit room has its own take on old-style chandeliers.
Cinema Treasures lists the theater's style as Greek/Assyrian, or Greek Revival, apparently the only of its kind in Northern California. I don't know much about architecture, but this wonderful molding around the exhibit room seems Greekish to me.
Here's a shot of the hallway leading from the exhibit room back up to the antechamber off the lobby. Those are more movie posters on the walls, mostly of Shirley Temple movies.
The far end of the lobby, outside the auditorium doors, reveals another staircase (leading to the same upper lobby), and features a large green-tiled drinking fountain set into one wall (not pictured).
The lobby is even more beautiful when seen from the top of the main stairway. Note the gryphons on the rafters and the molding around the edges. Even up high the details flourish.
The upper lobby has a couch so soft and comfortable you should only sit on it after tethering yourself to the nearby column with a climbing rope.
The auditorium seats 1175 between its orchestra and balcony levels, and is absolutely gorgeous. An organist played the entire time between the end of the previous film and the beginning of Sanjuro.
I'm not a great photographer, so imagine that the theater has white walls, with everything trimmed in gold, except for the crimson red curtain at the front. The curtain lifting before the show is complete magic.
More great light fixtures in the auditorium.
And some patterning that, I'm guessing, are the "Assyrian" part of the style.
In contrast to the Paramount, where ushers approach patrons within minutes of the film ending to ask them to leave, at the Stanford the staff seemed happy to have people lingering to admire the theater.
In feudal Japan, nine young samurai sit in a shrine contemplating their fate after having uncovered a conspiracy of corruption. The group's leader, in Greek chorus fashion, relates to his colleagues how he reported the corruption to his uncle, only to have the uncle reveal that he himself is a part of the conspiracy. He warns his nephew not to pursue the matter, as the corruption runs higher than himself, to individuals the nephew would least expect. The nephew, appalled, reports the conspiracy (including his uncle's involvement in it), to the noble Superintendent. The Superintendent is happy to have been alerted to the corruption, and wants to meet with the nephew and his cohorts to discuss appropriate actions. Throughout this retelling, the nephew's team oscillate between horror (that the uncle is corrupt) and elation (that the Superintendent is not). The joy is interrupted, though, by a voice from the back of the shrine. In walks an older samurai, Sanjuro; he has listened to the nephew's account, but come to a different conclusion. He proposes that the Superintendent is the unsuspected evil figure about which the uncle warned the nephew, and that this rendezvous as the shrine has been arranged not to strategize with the samurai, but to kill them. When Sanjuro's theory proves true, and the shrine is surrounded by the Superintendent's army, the samurai prepare to fight, but Sanjuro has another plan in mind.
The dominant conflict in this story is between hastiness and patience. The nine young samurai are quick to anger, to draw their swords, to chase an adversary. The older samurai is cautious and slow-moving. Because he has seen battle, and the other nine have not, he soon becomes their de facto strategist in a plot to rescue the nephew's uncle before the Superintendent can pin the entire corruption on him and get away clean. But the uncle is held captive by an army, so the samurai must soon learn from their new master that the direct approach is not always the best, and that there is no dishonor in being clever.
Between this film and the Kurosawa remakes I've seen (The Magnificent Seven and Last Man Standing), it seems Kurosawa is the pioneer in film of the reluctant hero, the skilled killer who has put aside his violent ways, only to be called upon once again to save the innocent. (This is one of my favorite film archetypes.) Sanjuro is warned by the nephew's aunt that killing people is a bad habit, and he seems seems to agree, chastising his young pupils when their carelessness forces him to kill in their defense. Some among the group are reluctant to accept Sanjuro's help. The group often proclaim things like, "Live or die, the nine of us are together," only to have Sanjuro remind them, "Ten." He risks his life for them in unorthodox ways, and although few of the nine stand out from each other, we can see that over the course of the film the group as a whole becomes wiser, more patient, and better able to discern truth from deception.
The many subterfuges of the film are difficult to follow, but at the crucial moments the film gives us black-and-white conflicts. One of the villains even goes so far to tell Sanjuro, "I'm bad too." How refreshing to have a villain fess up to his evilness. Like in Kurosawa's Rashomon, the acting is extreme, with the nine samurai emoting as if their expressions needed to be visible to the person at the back of a live auditorium, rather than to the camera ten feet away. This style can be wearing, extending even to Sanjuro's exaggerated tiredness and boredom. But the fight sequences are fun and the sets and costumes interesting (like how the samurai use strings to tie back their robes before a battle).
As Sanjuro leads his students down a path of intellect, rather than action, we see a battle of minds, with the two sides (Sanjuro and his nine samurai vs. the Superintendent and his lieutenants) trying to anticipate and outsmart each other. At one point, after Sanjuro has already infiltrated the enemy prepared to tell a specific lie, his students realize that there is a flaw in the lie, one that will betray Sanjuro. Their first thought is to rush to his aid, but instead they wait, rationalizing that if it took them so long to realize the flaw, so too might the flaw elude the enemy, long enough for Sanjuro to make his move. His students have learned well.