In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

51. Old San Francisco

Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (Edison Theater)

Having already made short movies up and down California's coast for several years, Gilbert M. Anderson and the western branch of Chicago's Essanay Film Manufacturing Company were looking for a home in 1912.  (Essanay is pronounced ESS-an-AY, like S&A, after its co-founders, George K. Spoor—the 'S'—and Anderson—the 'A'.).  In the early years of cinema, sunlight was still the most efficient way to light the actors.  What appear as interior shots in those old black-and-white shorts is typically a roofless, outdoor stage, made up to look like the inside of a building.  Therefore the natural impediment to the filmmaker was bad weather.  Anderson's troupe had made films in Colorado, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Rafael, but in all cases seasonal changes eventually thwarted their efforts.  In March of 1912, Anderson brought his team to Niles (now part of Fremont) and set up permanent shop.  The weather was good, and the terrain was perfect for the Broncho Billy westerns the studio was turning out weekly, balancing out the comedies still being made at the Chicago headquarters.

The final months of 1913 saw the opening of the Edison Theater (making it one of the oldest surviving theaters in the Bay Area today).  It served the people of Niles for ten years, shutting down in 1923 when a newer theater was erected nearby.  That newer theater operated until 1959, when it burned to the ground.  In 2005, the Edison was reopened as part of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

Essanay's Niles branch closed in 1916, just shy of four years in operation.  In that span, Anderson's team produced 388 films (IMDB has a partial list), complimenting the 275 films they had already released the five years prior.  That's 663 films in nine years; assuming his movies averaged fifteen minutes in length, that's the equivalent of twelve feature films per year by today's standards, or fifty television episodes.  Anderson was a busy man.

The museum is open from noon to 4:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays.  The lobby has photographs from throughout the history of the Essanay studio.

One such photo, below, shows the studio have they had finished construction on their new headquarters.  Note the numerous skylights in the center of the main building; these let natural light into an interior stage.   Many of the troupe lived in the bungalows lining the rear of the lot.

An example of efficient stage crafting (below) depicts two sets (one a general store) being filmed side-by-side.

To the right of the lobby is an awesome museum store.  I imagine there are a great many other cinema-themed specialty stores in the world, but this is the first I've visited.  Most of the memorabilia is from older films, and much of that from films shot in Niles.  They also have DVDs (I picked up a Charlie Chaplin collection and some shorts about San Francisco), movie posters, and flip books.  I also purchased Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company, by local historian David Kiehn.  I'm a hundred-fifty pages into this detailed account and enjoying every page (my paragraphs above have been informed by information in this book).  Kiehn, who is also the theater's projectionist, was kind enough to sign the book for me.

The museum offers membership that grants the member, among other things, access to the museum's research library.  According to a brochure, the museum has charged itself with the "documentation of all films made from 1911 to 1920", and as such they have been amassing books, trade magazines, and archival prints.

There are regular tours during the museum's afternoon hours (my photos come from during the tour).  The movies typically begin in the evenings, but there have been matinees as well.  $5 is the recommended donation for admission to the movies.  Tickets can be purchased online, and I recommend this.  That the ticket price is optional gave me the impression that demand was low.  Not the case; the movies regularly sell out, so plan ahead if you are traveling from afar.  The line to get in was long, and some people were in period costume.

A concession stand sets up shop just past the ticket booth, selling drinks and candy for a suggested donation of $1 each (I opted for Starbursts).

Old movie posters line the hallways leading from the lobby to the auditorium.

The museum's focal exhibits are at the back of the auditorium.  Below are pictured a bank of original seats, Charlie Chaplin's hat, and, I'm guessing, Broncho Billy's hat and lasso.

Props (like the chaps in the showcase, below), photos, and projection equipment fill out the display room.

In the below photo, the strips of film on display were found in the projection booth as the theater was being renovated.  The machine at left is for editing film; pushing down on a pedal advances the film (a nob controls whether the film flows forward or backward), and when you get to the spot you want to cut, you just mark it with a pencil, pull out the film, cut, and splice with another strip.  A film from the 1960s is currently installed in the machine; visitors can operate the pedal and watch the movie (and soundtrack) zip past.

On the right side of the display room we see more projection equipment, a lot of memorabilia donated by surviving family of the Essanay troupe, and a bust of Ben Turpin, a comedian who appeared along side Chaplin in many films.

When it opened in 1913, the theater was advertised as seating 300.  I don't know how that is possible, even assuming the seats reached back twice as far as they do now.  The auditorium now seats 102 in fixed chairs, though there are other chairs on standby for the packed nights.  The narrow, narrow seats look like they came from an old courthouse.  When I entered for my movie, the museum's director handed me a seat cushion, and by mid-movie she had become my favorite person, because those seats are quite stiff.  She later described the Edison as a "journeyman's theater", before the opulent years.

Looking back from the screen one can see the display room, the museum's office (that's historian David Kiehn hard at work), and the projection room.

The project room still uses some very old equipment, depending on the film being shown.  I was allowed to operate the hand-cranked black projector (below, right).  Can you imagine having to maintain a consistent speed while cranking the film for an entire movie?

Back in the day, film was highly flammable.  The walls of the projection booth are lined with metal to protect the rest of the building in the event of fire.  The tour guide pointed out the graffiti on the wall (vintage, from the theater's earliest years), instructing the projectionist to "spit in box".  Smoking cigarettes in the booth would have been a sure way to set oneself on fire, so instead the projectionists used chewing tobacco.

Originally called Vallejo Mills, the town of Niles was renamed after Central Pacific Railroad attorney Addison C. Niles.  With four other towns, Niles incorporated into Fremont in 1956.  Today, the historic stretch of Niles Boulevard is populated by antique shops, the Edison Theater, and this lovely new park, just completed, including a restored train depot.

A highlight for me in the park are the massive zoetropes (a new word for me), featuring sequences of some of the more famous Essanay characters (Broncho Billy, the Tramp, and Ben Turpin), among others.

Here is the inside of one of the zoetropes, showing a train arriving in Niles.

The museum shows different films every weekend.  Upcoming festivals include Charlie Chaplin Days (first weekend in June) and the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival (last weekend in June).


I was seated next to two gentlemen, Hector and Adam, who live in Fremont and frequent the Edison Theater.  They've been in the Bay Area long enough to have seen the orchards of Concord converted into suburbs.  I haven't yet made my way to Washington Hospital in Fremont, but Hector said the building has on display a photographic history of the city.

The evening's entertainment was in honor of the 104th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  Perhaps you've heard this one before (but I hadn't): an announcement was made that "ladies under 40 must remove their hats; those over 40 may keep theirs on".  And, of course, every woman in the audience removed her hat.  Nice trick.

Our opening short was a "Trip down Market Street".  The film was interesting, but unfortunately the foreground is occupied mostly by cars, buggies, and cable cars, so I didn't get much of a sense of the shops on the street at the time.  However, David Kiehn's introduction to the film is absolutely fascinating.  The Library of Congress lists the movie as having been filmed in September, 1905.  Kiehn was suspicious of this date; considering that the short might have been filmed closer to the earthquake (April 18, 1906), he began a two month research process.  He noticed that there were many puddles on the street.  Checking weather reports, he found that the months around September were dry, but it had been raining just before the earthquake.  The angle of the sunlight suggested that the film was indeed shot in September, or a time approximately six months out from September, when the sunlight would have been similar.  Kiehn couldn't find any mention of the film in the trade magazines of the time, until he looked to just after the earthquake, when the Miles Brothers claimed to have a film shot just four days before the disaster.  Though their San Francisco studio had been destroyed, the negatives had been sent to their New York office the night before, and thus survived.  That clinched it for me, but not for Kiehn.  He also considered the reputation of the Miles Brothers, and concluded that in contrast to other self-promoting filmmakers of the time, the Miles Brothers were trustworthy.  Their presence in the city was verified; they had been in Colma to film a forty-five round boxing match, using a new camera designed for longer continuous takes.  The match ended in eighteen minutes, and they had a lot of extra film to burn.  Why does Kiehn go on?  Clearly he has the right answer.  But he is a tireless historian to be proud of.  He was able to make out several of the license plates of the automobiles encircling the camera throughout the short.  License plates were newly required, and had to be furnished by the motorist themself, but they were on record.  Working his way through layer after layer of California bureaucracy,  Kiehn finally came upon a list of license plates from the time, alphabetized by motorist name.  He had to go through the list one by one, but of the plates Kiehn could recognize, the most recent had been registered in February, 1906, clearly placing the film outside the Library's 1905 timeframe.  Wow.  Kiehn is my new hero.

The second short is a recent compilation of archive footage shot immediately after the earthquake.  In the first short, I had the eery sense of watching an innocent people, unaware of the tragedy that is about to befall them.  The second short pulls a few punches, but mostly shoves the camera right into the action.  Ladies of ill fame were described as "a little disfigured but still in the ring.  Men wanted."  While some still searched the rubble for bodies, others were busy felling freestanding walls, lest they later fall and hurt more people.  The reopening of Market Street (unrecognizable from the film just a few days earlier) was a big deal, as was the renewed operation of the cable car, bringing residents downtown from the parts of the city that had survived the fires.  The short reported that fifty thousand San Francisco refugees made their way to Oakland by ferry.  Can you imagine fifty thousand people coming to Oakland in just a few days, with no place to stay the night?  It would be chaos.

After the shorts there was a raffle for a quilt, and for merchandise from the museum store.  The director made several community announcements, giving me the impression that I was attending a town hall meeting.



Old San Francisco (1927)

In San Francisco's earliest days, Spanish landowner Don Hernandez de Vasquez skewers his brother's murderer, a mutineering employee eager to steal the Vasquez horses and head to the hills in search of gold.  "A Vasquez avenges a Vasquez", Don Hernandez says.  Flash forward more than fifty years, and Don Hernandez is now an old man.  A city has erupted around his estate, with various shady businessmen eager to pry the Spanish land grant from Don Hernandez's hand.  At first his only allies are his last remaining employee, and his daughter Dolores (Dolores Costello, grandmother to Drew Barrymore).  When a scheming businessman comes along with his protege nephew in tow, the nephew, Terrence O'Shaughnessy (Charles Emmett Mack, in one of his last roles), immediately falls in love with Dolores, and aspires to help her family evade his uncle's clutches.

The uncle works for Chris Buckwell (Warner Oland, of Charlie Chan fame).  (The movie is full of ringers: Dolores looks like Zooey Deschanel, Terrence like Barry Pepper, and Buckwell like Tim Curry.)  Buckwell has a stranglehold on much of the city, but especially on Chinatown, where there is no lost love for him.  His secret, though, and one he keeps from his fellow businessmen and from the Chinese community he extorts, is that he is "Mongolian", i.e. "one of them".  He passes as caucasian while keeping his dwarfish brother (Angelo Rossitto) in chains in the basement.  (You know a guy is the villain when he is a self-hating racist, a maligner of little people, and on the outs with his own family, all rolled into one sexist criminal.)  Buckwell is eager to aquire the Vasquez property, but also to ensnare Dolores (whether for his own keeping, or to sell her into slavery).

Despite the movie being silent, there are some great lines of dialog.  "A Vasquez avenges a Vasquez" is spoken both in triumph, and in pathetic defeat.  Terrence defends Dolores at every opportunity, spitting out, "That remark is insolent" when her honor is questioned.  Most of the moments between Terrence and Dolores are enjoyable.  She plays hard to get; he picks flowers (from her own garden) to woo her; he acts nobly when he learns she's engaged; she rushes to tell him it was a misunderstanding; etc.  Young love.  At one point, she is forced to lie, to save Terrence's life, and so she lies, but as quickly as she can she both secures Terrence's safety and proclaims the truth.

What I thought would be Dolores's ultimate victory, putting Buckwell to the sword (and getting her shot at shouting the family slogan), ended up as a strange supernatural intervention.  The heavens literally part and reveal to Dolores that Buckwell is Mongolian.  Now she knows, and he knows she knows.  Why is it a big deal?  Well, as a member of the Chinese community, apparently Buckwell would be subject to their own laws and punishments.  "Racketeering" and "coercing women into opium dens" might be a gray area in White law, but not so for Buckwell's angered countrymen.

Back before Hollywood decided to make entire movies about disasters, those epic events served as mere bookends or catharsis.  In the case of Old San Francisco, just as the movie is coming to its climactic showdown, the 1906 earthquake shakes things up.  I was impressed at the level of special effects employed during this sequence, from burning and collapsing buildings (models, but better than I could build), to people running amidst dangerously falling debris (two images overlaid, in the early equivalent of green screening).

With an epic name like Old San Francisco, the movie promises more than it delivers about the land of the "thrice seven hills" (ever heard that one before?).  We see very little other than the Vasquez courtyard and Buckwell's mansion.  Dolores and Terrence are charming, but they along cannot keep the film from being boring.  The plot's racial thread has not aged well.  The movie is sympathetic to the city's Chinese citizens in that it distinguishes them from Buckwell's malice, yet still his heritage is shameful (even God bothers to part the clouds and out Buckwell as a believer in Mongolian deities).  I was disappointed on behalf of the generation that came after the earthquake, who have this as their entertaining testament to the event.

(Frederick Hodges was excellent on the piano.  In his introduction, the theater's director reminded us that though the movie is silent, this is a live music performance, and so we shouldn't "talk out loud".  The man to my right was curtly hushed by the woman behind him, who said, "This is a silent movie".  That doesn't quite ring true for me; although I imagine audiences paid rapt attention during the silent era, I can also imagine that theater etiquette as we now know it might not have yet existed.  Something to research.)

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