Friday, July 24, 2015

Beatnik Shindig

Beatnik Shindig June 26,27 & 28. 2015. 
Graffiti in Connecticut Yankee’s men’s room: “THERE ARE 10,000 KEROUACS IN THIS CITY!”    
Jerry Cimino has worked for over twenty years to preserve and spread the culture of the Beat Generation. He started with a bus that showed up at local events in the Bay Area. It was a big hit at the North Beach Fair and the anniversary of The Summer of Love. Photos and exhibits in the bus educated or reminded people about Beat history. The van toured much of the country and spread the word of the Beat Generation. Eventually the museum found a home on Broadway in North Beach, where it all happened. The Beat Museum is one of those hidden gems that is off the usual tourist track. 
Cimino wanted to gather as many remaining Beats for a conference in San Francisco. A meeting had been held in Boulder in the early Eighties. North Beach would have been a great home for it, but there wasn’t a good venue for it in the neighborhood, so it was held in nearby Fort Mason. There had to be a sense of urgency to get it organized. The remaining Beats certainly weren’t getting any younger. Cimino organized an impressive gathering of surviving Beat artists and writers. There would be readings and the Beats could mingle with fans and friends during the conference. It would be the largest gathering of Beat artists in over twenty years.  
There were over 36 sessions to choose from, and a Pre-Party the night before the conference opened. Many events were ticketed, but there were many free events.  Sessions that covered local topics jumped out to me as “musts.” 
The weather was great. It was another glorious Bay Area day. Fort Mason is right on the water. There are great, unique views of the Bay. It was a military base until the Sixtes. I was there a little early for one of my “musts,” “The San Francisco Beats 1955: Sex, Drugs, Art & Poetry. Jonah Raskin exhumes the lost bohemian world of San Francisco.” There had to be some good stories at this one. The event would be held in The Fire House, a small building tucked under the hill that leads to Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s one of my favorite unknown spots in the City.  
The program tells us that Raskin is the author of “American Scream,” the first critical look at Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. He has taught for many years. He “was involved with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the Sixties,” and his wife became a fugitive from the law for her activities. The program is a great little piece of Beat ephemera. 
Raskin certainly looked the part. He wore blue jeans, a sleeveless parka and a black baseball hat. He looked like a college professor, but then almost everyone at this event looked like a college professor. There was a short delay while we waited for an “adapter” for the Power Point presentation of Beat photos. People in the audience talked about traveling to come to the Shindig. There were people from South Dakota, Missouri and England. This was an old crowd, but everyone was friendly.
“I did meet Ginsberg at Gary Snyder’s sister’s house.” Raskin was teaching at Sonoma State. “Back then some of the lottery money actually went to the schools.” He was able to get Ginsberg to do a reading at Sonoma State in the early Eighties. Raskin has been able to read many of the Ginsberg papers that are at Stanford and the University of Texas. 
“I learned about the Beats from the article in Life magazine.” It was 1955 and he was fifteen. He went into New York from Long Island and bought a copy of Howl. It was the start of his life in bohemian culture.  
Raskin says that, “I’m still learning about the Beats.” One of the early characters he wants to talk about today is Natalie Jackson, The Muse of the Beats. She’s rarely mentioned now, but she had a big effect on Jack Kerouac. Raskin has written a pamphlet about her and her relationship to Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac titled “The Wild Ones.” 
“Some say Beat was born in New York,” but Raskin believes it really began in San Francisco. It’s true that Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs met and hung out in New York, but Raskin considers this a “gestation period.” “Beat was really born in San Francisco in the Fifties.” There were bohemians and free thinkers in America before the Beatniks, but this was the real genesis of the modern counterculture. “San Francisco was more remote then.” Raskin says it was important for Ginsberg and the other Beats to get away from the “influences of friends and family” that would discourage the bohemian life style.   
“San Francisco was more conservative back then.” The Catholic Church and the police department had much more power and tried to enforce their morality. “Cops liked to raid gay bars.” The authorities sought legal battles. They tried to suppress Ginsberg’s poem Howl and later busted Lenore Kandel. 
“And there was sex!” There was group sex and orgies. Drugs were used, mostly marijuana, which was considered dangerous then. The leaders of the Beat movement used peyote, a mysterious, exotic drug. The second half of Howl has Ginsberg wandering San Francisco while tripping on peyote. The monstrous St. Francis Hotel was the symbol of all that was wrong with America. 
There may have been wild sex scenes, but few of them made it into the literature of the Beats. Raskin tells us he reread “On The Road” looking for sex scenes. There were really only two or three. One of them is Cassady having wild sex with another man.
The Beats in San Francisco were “a confluence of energy. It was synergy.” The sum was greater than its parts. Raskin says that Robert LaVigne contributed more to the Beat scene than he’s given credit for.
Robert LaVigne’s early life wasn’t a proper preparation for a bohemian artist. He was Catholic and educated by the Jesuits. LaVigne couldn’t figure out how to be an artist in the modern world. It didn’t make sense in the Atomic Age. Why bother when everything was ending in nuclear annihilation anyway? LaVigne had a Victorian house on Gough Street and it became a hang out for many of the Beats. There were “Gough Street fun and games.” 
Ginsberg met LaVigne at Foster’s Cafeteria, a hangout for many of those considered outcasts of society. In a letter Ginsberg mentions meeting Beats and “other bohemians.” This fascinates Raskin. Who were the other “bohemians” in Fifties San Francisco?
Raskin shows us a LaVigne sketch of Natalie Jackson. She’s nude and reading a book with the title, “A True Story.” “Her life story would be quite a story.” Raskin says that Jackson was an overlooked muse to the Beats. She was 5’6” and had a day job at Magnin’s. She led the dual straight/Beat life. 
The slides on the screen show us some familiar, historic Beat photographs. There’s the shot of Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg in New York. Another is of a group of Beats in front of City Lights book store. The pictures show a Beat movement that is dominated by men. The women played a big role, but they were always in the background. Alan Ginsberg said that the perfect society would be a “boy gang.” 
Nancy Peters was a long time employee at City Lights and later an author. Even into the Eighties women were not considered “able to sell books,” which meant they weren’t trusted at the cash register. In an interview, Peters said it’s hard to explain today what women’s roles were like in the Fifties.
Another photo of the boys shows them in front of a Market Street theater. Neal and Jack frolic in front of a marquee advertising a Western, “Tarzan the Ape Man” and  Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.”
A slide shows Natalie’s steamy love note to Neal. She loves him. She loves his body. His wife found it in his jeans pocket when she was doing the laundry. Ruth Weiss told Raskin that you have to give Carolyn Cassady credit. She did not destroy the note. It’s the only writing of Jackson that we know of. 
Raskin tells some other Beat stories. I’ve read so much about the Six Gallery’s poetry reading that unveiled Howl, that I feel like I was there. Raskin notes that, “The most important poetry reading in America in the last half of the Twentieth century,” was not recorded or filmed. He told the story of how Ginsberg fell in love with Peter Orlovsky by seeing a portrait LaVigne had done of him. 
Ginsberg went to see a therapist. He told Dr. Philip Hicks that he was gay. Hicks responded with a “So?” This rare acceptance helped Ginsberg turn his life around. Ginsberg was able to handle his depression and get out of a writer’s block. Ginsberg was charged a dollar a session. Dr. Hicks would be making a presentation at The Beatnik Shindig! 
  A slide shows us an attractive, sexy, but somewhat androgynous looking female. She looks challenging. Raskin says Natalie Jackson was an important influence on the early Beats. She is the model for Rosie Buchanan in “The Dharma Bums.”    
Neal was crazy. Natalie fell in love with Neal. They had a love nest together. He talked her into posing as his wife so he could raid a bank account he shared with the wife. They withdrew ten thousand dollars and headed to the Bay Meadows racetrack. They blew it all on the horses. 
Kerouac said that Jackson was “a writer herself.” No writing by her has been found.  Raskin wonders if some of her writing is sitting in a basement or attic somewhere. 
Neal dreamed of a “rucksack revolution,” but Natalie predicted there would be a police revolution. She feared the cops were going to bust down the door any minute. It became an obsession for her. It was a sign of her mental problems, but most of the Beats were at least a little eccentric. She had attempted suicide before. Only Al Hinkle advised her to get help. Her friends and lovers shrugged off her paranoia.
We’re shown a clipping from the San Francisco Chronicle: “Woman Fights Off Rescue, Leaps 3 Stories to Death.” It’s from December 1, 1955. 
  Natalie had been particularly restless, but Neal had to go to work. He persuaded Jack Kerouac to come over and keep an eye on her. Natalie and Kerouac argued in the apartment. She went onto the roof nearly naked. She broke the glass on a skylight and slashed her wrists. People in the neighborhood could hear and see her and they called the police. 
Natalie had gone back to the apartment. A cop came in and she kept backing away from him, towards a window. She was convinced the cops were there to get her. The cop tried to stop her by grabbing her bathrobe. He got an empty sleeve of the bathrobe, and Jackson fell backwards out the window! 
She fell three floors and was dead on impact. She only had a tee shirt on and had no identification on her, so she was treated as a Jane Doe. They put an X on the sidewalk where she had landed.  
Neal and Jack took off. They considered themselves outlaws, and they didn’t want to face a police interrogation. They had been dragged into the investigation of the murder of David Kammerer in New York. Raskin points out that Neal did have the courage to show up and sign the Coroner’s Register for Jackson. An autopsy found no drugs or alcohol in Jackson’s system.  
Raskin tells us of his struggle to find documentation of the incident. His younger brother is a private detective. “You can get any information with money.” Raskin isn’t sure if his brother paid to get the documents, but he got them. 
It was one of the first tragedies of the Beat Generation. Kerouac and Cassady were devastated and depressed. Jackson’s mother came from New Jersey and took the body home. Her Beat friends held a “Dirge” for her.  
Raskin finishes with some slides of sketches of Natalie in bed with Peter Orlovsky and Ginsberg, “After Sex.” She looks mysterious and sexy. Ginsberg began a tribute poem to her, “Beat Muse,” but he was shaken when his mother died, and he wrote a poem to her instead. Raskin says Natalie’s death may have prepared him for this. The poem to Natalie was never finished. 
Raskin thanks us for coming out. He says Natalie Jackson was a pivotal figure in the early Beat movement. “I fell in love with her!” We can read about her in “The Dharma Bums.” 
Outside The Firehouse old vintage cars are being lined up for the Hudson Car Show. I’m not a big car guy myself, but these autos were impressive. The program explains that the Hudson was “the race car of choice” for race drivers and Neal Cassady.  
The Fleet Room was the center of the conference. There was a stage and folding chairs were set out. The long room was ringed by vendors behind tables. Most of them sold books. It was quite a collection of Beat literature. Among those showing their wares were Last Gasp, City Lights, The Cassady Family Estate, the artist Momo, The Friends of the San Francisco Public Library and The Beat Museum.  
People were open and friendly. I had expected a bunch of grumpy old people bitching about the state of the world, but the atmosphere was much different. Interest in the Beats was a bond.  

The next event I went to was: “Spontaneous Combustion: Inside the chaotic making of ‘Pull My Daisy.’” David Amram was one of the original Beats. When I came in he was sitting at the edge of the stage and talking with a small group of conference attendees. He’s slim and has a great positive energy about him. His neck is ringed in necklaces. A woman says that, “Everyone is having fun!” People talk again about traveling to get to this event. One guy says he’s from Oklahoma. Amram talks about working with the Red Dirt Rangers and Leon Russell. He’s collaborated with many artists and has been a successful composer for a long time. He was personable and engaging, and obviously enjoyed talking to the small group standing near the stage.  
An elderly gentleman sits in the row behind me. The old Beats are going to each other’s presentations. Someone greets him and I hear the name, Gerd. It’s Gerd Stern, the man accused of losing the Joan Andersen letter. It may have been the inspiration for “On the Road.” The letter has been a missing link in Beat history. Stern had been falsely accused of losing it for years. 
Amram has already started the show with his friendly banter from the stage, but now he really starts. “The Beats were a bunch of no-goodniks.” It was all about avoiding responsibility and having a good time. These were strange ideas for the uptight, Eisenhower Fifties. The whole idea behind ‘Pull My Daisy’ was to have a good time. “It was a party for three weeks.” 
They shot fifty hours of film and consumed much cheap Gallo wine and Thunderbird. The actors didn’t take filming seriously. Director Robert Frank acted as cameraman, and they trying to make him crack up and laugh. The goal was to get him to laugh so hard that the camera would shake and that would show up on the film.
Amram was a bit nervous about being in the film. He talked to Kerouac and said that he wasn’t an actor, “What should I do?” “Just be yourself,” Kerouac told him. Amram tells us that Kerouac improvised most of the narration. There is a second narration done by Kerouac.  
Amram pulls out an iPhone. “You can make a film with this!” We should document our family, friends and neighborhood. “Create something. Put it on Youtube!” “This has been going on since Lascaux, and as far as I know, no one has asked for their money back.” Amram is still creating. There will be a documentary coming out soon:  “David Amram: The First Eighty Years.” Amram is 84. 
‘Pull My Daisy’ was a look at Fifties culture. Some critics said it was a look at the lack of culture. It’s a half hour long and most of it looks like old home movies. It’s silent, except for Kerouac’s manic Beat narration. There is horseplay and comedy. It has the look and feel of a movie made for a high school or college film class. Although Kerouac’s narration is cool, it’s frustrating to not hear what the Beat icons in the film are saying.  
None of the cast had training in acting, except for Delphine Seyrig. She was the only professional. Her biggest role was in ‘Last Year at Marienbad.’ She was a bit leery of the others at first, but then she began enjoying the loose atmosphere and working with the “irresponsible nut cases.”   
Larry Rivers played sax during filming. He had a real Beat attitude towards being a musician. Rivers believed that real Beat musicians didn’t bother with lessons or practice. Improvisation was the important thing. A professional musician was hired to play during Kerouac’s narration. A few years later Amram asked Rivers what he thought of his sax playing in the movie. “I never sounded better!” Rivers told him. Amram tells us it’s a great example of: “Don’t let good taste stand in the way of a good time!” 
Amram goes to an electronic keyboard and plays an improvised version of the song ‘Pull My Daisy.’ He mentions Truman Capote, who slammed Kerouac’s writing as “typing.” More people read Kerouac now. He sings about the Supreme Court decision on marriage and the Gay Pride Parade that will be happening tomorrow. He praises The Beat Museum and Jerry Cimino for running the conference. It’s quite an improvisation.  
Amram will field a few questions from the audience. There are only a couple of questions because Amram gives long enthusiastic answers. Kerouac was a devout Catholic, “He really believed that stuff,” but he studied Buddhism and knew it well.  
What the heck did ‘Pull My Daisy’ mean? Amram isn’t sure, but he said that the phrase ‘Pull My Daisy’ was a code word for the Beats. The title was going to be, “The Beat Generation” but, “Someone named Zugsmith had already made a horrible movie with that title.” 
Kerouac got a reputation for being a grouch in his last years, but Amram tells us about another side of him. Kerouac always encouraged artists and writers to pursue their art, whatever it was.
He went to see the film at Boulder years later. He got excited when he saw the title on the marquee. It made him think about how thrilled Allen and Jack would have been to see that. They had made the film for kicks. They never thought the film would be “that big of a deal.” When they showed the film that night in Boulder it burned up in the projector. It sounds like Amram saved the night by performing.
There are amazing things happening on Youtube, Amram tells us. “You can see Slim Galliard!” ‘Pull My Daisy’ had been posted on Youtube, but it was taken down.  
“I come from comic book culture.” “I’m a Pennsylvania farm boy.” When he went to New York, he appreciated seeing culture. He majored in “hang-out-ology.” Amram still has a fresh, enthusiastic outlook. The spirit and energy of the Beats lives on in him. 

Another must event for me was: “Mary Kerr. The Beach (North Beach in the 1950s) Movie Screening and Q&A with Film Maker.” Kerr introduced the film. “It’s pronounced ‘Car.’” She’s a petite woman that doesn’t appear to have had such a bohemian past.  
“I came to San Francisco in 1960 from Cheyenne, Wyoming.” It was a romantic journey. Her plan was to find an artist and marry him. She says she was lucky to find The Jazz Cellar and an artist husband, Les Carr. She talks about The Black Cat in “The Monkey Block.” It’s now the site of the Transamerica Pyramid. 
The documentary tells the history of the North Beach art scene with interviews of artists, musicians and poets. Bar and gallery owners from the neighborhood add some great stories. Kerr struggled to finish the film. It was shot on a “Super 8” Beta. Money was always a problem.   
The film is a great look at North Beach. You could still find a cheap apartment in the neighborhood, and get a great family style dinner with wine for a few bucks. Beat culture was thriving. The film has shots of paintings from the era and short biographies of the artists. Grizzled veterans talk about the old days. There was Jazz, poetry, art and cheap wine.
It was fun to see familiar spots in North Beach in the film. Kerr interviews Charles Moldeke in the “Lady Psychiatrist’s Booth” in Vesuvio’s. He was the original bar tender in Vesuvio’s, quite a distinction. He tells about how it was bought from an old Italian couple. They decided not to rename the bar. Moldeke showed the art of some of the regulars in Vesuvio’s. They noticed the take at the bar increased after the art was hung. He talked other bars into displaying art.
Kerr says the documentary was more about the art scene than the literary scene. She got much of the Jazz soundtrack from a benefit concert held for Jimbo’s Bop City. It was held at the Grand Hyatt in 1994. Kim Novak was there!  
Kerr talks about The Coffee Gallery. Pony Pondexter was among the Jazz greats that played there. Paul Newman would stop in, “A very nice guy.” Kerr remembers his beautiful, blue eyes.
This documentary captures the spirit of the time in North Beach.
I went back to the Fleet Room to see what was happening. Bob Booker read some cool Beat poetry while Luis “Lucho” played saxophone. The sax really gave the big room a coffeehouse atmosphere. Booker was in black and wearing a beret. His poetry was powerful.
There is always competition from other events on any weekend in San Francisco, but this was also the weekend of Gay Pride. The Supreme court had just announced their ruling that finally legalized marriage. The Parade would be a dramatic celebration, and it had to affect attendance at The Beatnik Shindig.
Jerry Cimino was everywhere. I saw him selling drink and snack tickets, running the Beat Museum table, helping set up the stage for readings, escorting guests and he did some readings himself.
I stopped at the Beat Museum table. Estelle Cimino asked me how the Beat Shindig was going for me and offered me a free ticket to the David Meltzer reading, so I hung out for that. 
An elderly man came in on crutches. He had white hair and bright red cheeks. He looked confused, and Jerry Cimino greeted him and gave him the Beat VIP treatment. It was David Meltzer.   
There’s a bit of a delay before they let us in the house. Other audience members are familiar faces by now. Jerry Cimino and Bob Booker are onstage getting things ready. The podium and microphones are being put in place. I can hear Bob Booker talking about how Ginsberg always made a meticulous check of the stage before a reading. “It was like a ritual.” Everything had to be in place. Meltzer says he certainly understands. 
Meltzer looks weak and frail. He asks for a handkerchief, “I’ve got schmutz.” I have to wonder if he’s going to make it through a couple of poems. “I’m an old bard,” he says. It’s a small crowd, but I make sure to get an aisle seat. Gerd Stern is in the audience again. It was interesting to see the old Beats checking out each other’s readings.  
Meltzer tells us he started writing poetry 67 years ago. When he was a kid he attempted to write a “four volume history of everything.” Each volume would be two hundred hand written pages long. He found writing prose too limiting. There were other problems. He used carbon paper to make extra copies. He got sick of dealing with the carbon paper. 
Meltzer grew up in Brooklyn. “It’s a Brooklyn that’s gone now.” He says again that writing prose was too limiting for him. A teacher, Mrs. O’Callahan, suggested that he try free verse. Meltzer wisely nodded and then went home and asked his father, “What is free verse?” His father told him that, “It’s poetry that doesn’t rhyme.” Meltzer decided that he would “invent poetry for myself.” His first book was published on an old hand press in someone’s basement.  
The first poem he wrote was about the subway, “Forms beyond the actual.” He seems shaky at first. His voice quavers. After the poem, he talks about the surge of popularity Beat had. There were weekend “Beatnik Kits” that squares could by so they could pass as a Beatnik on the weekends. “We called it ‘Beatmerch.’” The Beat movement may not have been the original bohemians, but they might be the first movement that was commodified.   
Meltzer reads another poem, “The Idiot.” The next is “Vision.” After a slow start he really starts cranking them out: “Here’s another raga: ‘Revelation.’” He seems to gain strength with each poem.    
“Night Before Morning.” Meltzer seems transformed. He’s still old, but he looks strong. His voice is steady. “It goes on and on... The poetry goes on and on.”  
A loud cell phone goes off. The ring is loud, customized and obnoxious. It’s a guy in the row behind me. He scrambles out of the seat and stumbles a bit in the aisle. It has to be embarrassing. Meltzer takes it in stride. “Music,” he mutters. He reads “For Bela Lugosi.” “Luna Park.” “Sonic Fragments.” “Blackest Rose.” 
“Lew Welch was a crazy mentor!” They both had work published in a magazine called Bread. He reads a poem with “utopian edge,” “Lamentations.” 
Meltzer says he’s a city kid. “In Brooklyn, everything was concrete.” Their idea of nature was a box of dying plants on the roof. “It’s Simple.” 
“North Beach was a Beat Disneyland.” Meltzer notes that Italian landlords were used to having artists and musicians as tenants. Maybe Meltzer senses his audience is fading. “If you’re tired you can get one of the Beat pillows and take a nap.” Just another stab at Beat merchandising. 
My attention was riveted again when Meltzer talked about the Science Fiction Magazine, Astounding Stories. In one issue there was a story by John W. Campbell, “The Thing.” It was later made into one of my favorite movies. James Arness of Gunsmoke fame was the alien, “Crashing around the Arctic in a rubber suit.” Meltzer reads, “Beat Thing.”  
Meltzer talks about the end of World War II. It seemed like it was the end of everything. The Atomic Age could mean nuclear annihilation. A couple got up to leave. They had to pass by him, and they were apologetic, “We have to leave.” “It’s OK. Cut and run.” It sounds cold, but Meltzer seemed amused. He reads the last poem: “When I Was a Poet.” 
The four events I attended were only the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t attend any of the events at night, and I heard they were great. Among the presenters I missed were: Will Durst, Neeli Cherkovski, The Cassady Family Estate, Ron Turner of Last Gasp, V. Vale, the ubiquitous Jack Hirschman, Brenda Knight, Ruth Weiss and Al Hinkle, the last survivor from ‘On the Road.’
The Beat Museum e-mail news list said the conference lost ten to fifteen thousand dollars. The conference couldn’t have happened without generous sponsors that included: The Condor, The Hungry I, Last Gasp, Tony’s Pizza, Friends of the San Francisco Library, Vesuvio’s. Hotel Triton. Museo Italo Americano, The Mexican Museum and Uvaggio. Cimino hopes to have another conference next year. Be there or be square.  

Friday, July 3, 2015

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival

There can’t be a better event for a look into the past than the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The Castro movie theater is the perfect venue for watching these classics as they were meant to be seen and heard. On the big screen with live musical accompaniment. The Art Deco Castro theater was built in the Twenties. Stepping into it is stepping back into time.
The Opening Night film is the classic All Quiet On the Western Front. Tickets are $22, but that includes a program for the festival that was worth at least half the price of admission. It has descriptions of all the films in the festival and reprints of magazine articles printed when the films were released. Most of the film facts and anecdotes in this post are from the program, or, The Internet Movie Data Base. David Thompson wrote the All Quiet On The Western Front entry in the program. 
It was great to see many familiar faces from the San Francisco International Film Festival. “The gang’s all here!” Since all the films will be shown on one screen at the Castro, it’s possible to see all nineteen films over the next five days. So, the big question among the hard core is: “Are you going to see them all?” The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
It is a festival. The audience arrives early and lines up outside. There is no Wurlitzer organ tonight, but music of the twenties and thirties is played. Slides with film facts, ads of the time and ads for the sponsors of the festival kept us relatively entertained. In a sign of the times even the Silent Film Festival audience were on their cell phones checking e-mail while waiting for the program to start.    
The President of the Board for the Silent Film Festival, Robert Byrne, started things off. He thanked sponsors and the audience. Ron Meyer, the Vice Chairman of NBC Universal, was brought onstage to make “an important announcement.” The company has restored thirty films since 2012. Twenty-five more will be restored, fifteen of them over the next four years. 
This announcement was met with applause from an audience very supportive of film preservation. Studio executives were ruthless when it came to spending any money to preserve films. Most silent films had been left to rot. I’m glad they’re doing it now, but is it too little, too late?   
It was a lively crowd. There were whoops and yells from the crowd when some sponsors were announced. Michael Mashon gave an articulate description of the Opening Night film, All Quiet On the Western Front. It had been a huge gamble for the studio. The stock market had crashed just two months before filming started. It cost 1.5 million dollars to make. This was a huge investment at the time. 
Mashon asks the question: Why is All Quiet On the Western Front being shown at a silent movie festival? Many theaters across the country were not equipped with sound technology yet, so two versions were made. Title cards were created for each version. There was a “sync-sound” ‘silent’ version with title cards, orchestral score and its own sound effects. The sound version was distributed. The silent version “shot concurrently” didn’t premiere until it was shown on TV in 2011. 
Some critics say the silent version had “smoother editing.” Leonard Maltin is quoted in the program: “some film scholars prefer this smoothly edited edition ... to the familiar talkie because of its vigorous pacing.”
The film was based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque. Remarque was born Erich Paul Remark in Germany. He served a month on the Western front before being injured by shrapnel. He was struggling as a writer before his realistic account of the war became a sensation. 
Carl Laemmle, Jr. was the head of production at Universal and the son of the founder. They were German and deeply shaken by the war. Father and son were strongly motivated to make the film.  
All Quiet On The Western Front was directed by Lewis Milestone. He was expected to bring World War I to life. The battle scenes are epic and realistic. It was filmed ten years after the war, but it still has an air of authenticity. Director Lewis Milestone was known for creating aerial tracking shots. There are great views of trench attacks. The producers worried that the violence of these scenes was too much for the audience. It was decided that the violence in the film was justified because of the film’s antiwar message. David Thompson points out that the Production Code wasn’t really enforced until 1934, so it really was up to the producers.  
The trenches and sets for the battle scenes were so realistic that the chief sanitary inspector for Orange County insisted on inspecting the trenches. Milestone looked for German veterans in the Los Angeles area. He wanted them to authenticate uniforms and weapons. So many of them turned up that they were used as officers in the film.
The gamble paid off. The film was a huge hit, and it won the Best Picture Academy Award in 1930. It was the first “talkie war film” to win an Oscar, and it was the first Best Picture winner for Universal. Milestone won Best Director. 
It was one of the first antiwar statements of any kind. It’s a great war film, maybe the best. Maybe any great war film has to be an antiwar film. It was filmed in California and that may have helped it keep its antiwar message. The war had been over for ten years, but there was still much bitterness over the carnage of the war. European film makers might have watered down the antiwar intensity of the film. It faced much controversy when it was released in Europe
Milestone did not use music because of the “seriousness of the subject.” He learned “to his chagrin” that theaters were adding their own music, which was the custom at the time. Most movie theaters across the country had their own live orchestra or at least a band. Tonight the film would be accompanied by music and live sound effects by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.  
The orchestra sound effects are perfectly timed. A kettle drum simulates the thunder of artillery barrages. The sharp snaps of rifle fire are short cracks on a snare drum. The uncanny timing is taken for granted as the film goes on.  
College students are whipped into an enlisting frenzy by their very enthusiastic professor. Most of them are fearless and eager for glory. A few are hesitant, but peer group pressure gets them to join up too. It will be the adventure of a lifetime! 
They’re disenchanted with military life from the beginning of basic training. The young recruits first contact with the enemy is a nerve wracking scene where they lay wire in no man’s land. One of the German veterans had done this in the war and showed the other extras the proper techniques. It’s a surprise and a shock to see their comrades wounded or killed. They quickly learn the horrible realities of war. The war drags on. 
The film had a big problem in Germany. The film shows the weakness and foibles of enlisted men. This would not be tolerated by the Nazi elite. It didn’t reflect the iron will that they would need from their fighting men. Brown Shirts released rats and stink bombs in theaters that showed the film. They burned the novel. When the Nazis gained power the film and the novel were banned. The authorities said it was a demoralizing “discredit to German military resolve.” 
People crave the truth. Special busses and trains carried Germans to France, Switzerland and the Netherlands to see the film. In a strange twist it was banned in Poland for being “pro-German.” It shows what a powerful and emotional experience the film was. 
All Quiet On The Western Front was also banned in France. Authorities didn’t want audiences to watch enemy soldiers and realize they were human. They were young men just like in their army.  
Remarque escaped to Switzerland. His sister, Elfriede remained in Germany and wasn’t as fortunate. Apparently she was too outspoken about the war. In 1943 she was arrested. The Nazis said that she had declared that the war was lost already. She was tried, convicted and beheaded! 
Remarque had “rumored affairs” with Hedy Lamarr, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and later married Paulette Goddard. This guy was luckier than Sinatra!  
Lew Ayres (Then Lewis Ayres.) played Paul, one of the college recruits who had his doubts about going to war. During a battle he winds up in a trench with a French soldier. He mortally wounds his opponent. Then he agonizes over what he’s done. Ayres was a popular star until World War II, when he declared that he was a conscientious objector. Public outrage ended his career. His films were “banned in a hundred Chicago theaters.” He did work in the medical corps.  
The French soldier that Paul kills in the trench was played by Raymond Griffith. He had been a very popular film star in France. Griffith had lost his voice because of a childhood illness. The end of silent films meant the end of his career.
All Quiet On the Western Front was a gutsy choice for the Opening Night film. Most of this audience had seen it before, but the live music and sound effects made it worth a trip to The Castro. 
I wouldn’t be able to “see them all,” but I did make it back to see The Donovan Affair, a “dark-house comedy whodunnit.” It was day three of The San Francisco Silent Film Festival. 
Anita Monga, the popular programmer, introduced Bruce Goldstein. Goldstein is a personable and entertaining speaker. He was the programming director for The Film Forum in New York when they were putting together a “comprehensive” showing of Frank Capra’s films. They couldn’t find a copy of his first talkie, The Donovan Affair. It was one of the first films he directed and it was his first “100% all dialogue picture.” Why was it so hard to find? 
Goldstein learned why when he found a copy in the Library of Congress. There was no soundtrack. It was the early days of sound technology and the soundtrack was recorded on sixteen inch Vitaphone disks. A colleague of Goldstein’s brings one of the disks onstage and holds it aloft. It does look huge. There had been eight disks for The Donovan Affair. None of them have been found. One of the first talkies almost disappeared because no one could find the soundtrack. 
Goldstein was trying to preserve the films of the past, especially Frank Capra’s early work. He tried to find the script for The Donovan Affair, but even Columbia Pictures, the studio were it was made, didn’t have a copy. He couldn’t find a copy of the Owen Davis play it was based on.  
In an ironic twist, he found a “dialogue list” at the New York State Board of Film Censors. The “dialogue list” had originally been intended to find lines that were risque.  
One of the enforcers of the new Production Code had become a way to restore the dialogue of the film. It wasn’t totally accurate, but it was a start.
Goldstein wanted to show The Donovan Affair at The Film Forum’s Capra retrospective. He could show it as a silent, but he knew that would only confuse and frustrate the audience. He really wanted to show it using live actors “instantaneously dubbing” the dialogue with live sound effects. The actors would have to be familiar with the acting style of the time. He tried a solo test run at the Library of Congress and was excited to realize it could be done. 
He found kindred spirits in Steve Sterner, the Film Forum accompanist for silent films and Glenn Taranto. With their help, Goldstein began to piece together the script. They gathered a cast of ten and studied video versions the film. The timing had to be exact. Lip readers helped them decipher much of the dialogue. They put the script back together piece by piece.  
One problem was that Capra had experimented with the new phenomenon of sound in movies. He would have actors speak off screen or with their backs turned. Everything about sound was new then. It made it harder to recreate all the dialogue. Goldstein says it was a work in progress: “It took twenty-three years!”  
Goldstein does have a sense of humor. Why would one of the first talkies be shown at a silent film festival? It’s a “transitional” film that shows the evolution of sound in movies. Goldstein says it will be the first time the film “has really been heard” in eighty years. The Donovan Affair was the first “all talkie” for Columbia.  
The Donovan Affair was made in 1929 with Frank Capra directing. Jack Holt played hard boiled inspector John Killian. Dorothy Revier is Jean Rankin. It’s rumored that Revier was the model for Columbia’s “torch lady” who appeared with the studio’s logo before every movie.
  The film premiered at the 5,900 seat Roxy Theater in New York. There was also a live stage show: “The Roxyettes” who later became the Radio City “Rockettes.” The dubbed Donovan Affair was first performed in 1992 at the Film Forum. The first line brought nervous laughter, but then came the sound effect for ice clinking into a cocktail glass. It brought a huge laugh from the audience, and the same thing happens later tonight.
Goldstein did find another version of the Donovan talkie without sound. It was at Wesleyan University, which has most of Capra’s papers. He also found a trailer with sound. He plays the audio for us, so we do get to hear the original voices. 
  The actors are a group called The Gower Gulch Players. The Gower Gulch players are: Glenn Taranto, Rick Pasqualone, Hannah Davis, Ashley Adler, Steve Sterner (piano) Yelena Shmulenson, Allen Lewis Rickman, Bruce Goldstein and Frank Buxton. They sit behind lit up music stands near the stage. Steve Sterner is at the piano and also dubs a couple of voices. The players know the movie inside out. Their timing is precise. They’re so skilled that the audience forgets about dubbed lines and sound effects. The plot is a bit dated and corny. The program calls it “an ancient potboiler.” The audience gets caught up in the murder mystery. 
John Roche plays Jack Donovan, a man about town with a lot of enemies. He must have been quite the ladies man. We first see him cruelly dumping an apparent mistress. He’s having an affair with Captain Peter Rankin’s daughter and seems very familiar with Rankin’s wife. Agnes Ayres plays Lydia Rankin. She was better known as Valentino’s love interest in The Sheik. There are many people who want to see Donovan dead. He’s just no good.
  A bunch of gangsters are hanging out in a hotel room. One prepares some drinks and we hear the ice cube tinkling effect. It does break the ice for the sound effects. The gangsters are comparing notes on Jack Donovan and they don’t like him. He owes several of the gangsters money, and they learn he just dropped ten thousand dollars at the track! Will Donovan be able to pay any of them? One of the gangsters gets ready to leave. “What are you going to do?” “What do you think I’m going to do?” is his ominous reply.  
Captain Peter Rankin is getting ready for his birthday party. He’s begun to strongly suspect that his wife is seeing Donovan. It seems like everyone at the party wants to kill Donovan. We learn later that even the gardener has an axe to grind. The gangster who left the hotel room is at the party too. 
The Captain’s birthday party will be a formal affair. Donovan is announced by Nelson, the butler. Donovan is surprised to see the gangster at the party. Not everyone wants Donovan dead. There is a society matron and her hen pecked husband. They’ve just had twins and add some obnoxious comic relief. 
Donovan is wearing a ridiculously large ring and the society matron is fascinated by it. The gardener has been lurking at a window and jumps when he sees the ring. Donovan says it was stolen from a temple in Asia. Someone says that it glows in the dark. Donovan reluctantly admits that it does. The society matron insists on a chance to see the ring in the dark. 
Nelson the butler turns off the lights and the ring starts to glow. It’s a large dot on the big screen. There are sounds of a scuffle, and the dot disappears from the screen. The lights go back on. Donovan lies slumped on the table with a knife in his back! He’s dead! 
The first cop on the scene is Carney. He’s played by Fred Kelsey, who later played in many Three Stooges shorts. Carney is abrasive and bumbling. Everyone is now a suspect. Carney bullies them until Inspector John Killian shows up. 
Inspector Killian starts rattling off questions. For some reason they had moved the body upstairs. Killian is aghast and sternly warns Captain Rankin that if there is another murder in his home he should not move the body! 
Some of the humor is dated. Killian and Carney have an annoying schtick. Killian tells his assistant to do something: “Get those suspects into the dining room!” Every time Carney responds with, “Now boss?” Killian gets more exasperated each time. Maybe it was funnier when it was acted out onstage as a play. The play was a big hit.  
It starts raining heavily. Killian has the dinner guests herded from room to room. Maybe they’re stunned from the shocking aftermath of the murder, but the suspects are very obedient. No one objects or asks for a lawyer. There’s a mysterious note found and Killian gets a writing sample from everyone at the party. Nelson the butler is very helpful. The gardener lurks by the window in the pouring rain.
Killian decides that the only way to solve the crime is to have it reenacted. Everyone takes the same seats they were in the last time the lights went out. Carney hesitates before taking Donovan’s place. The lights go out. There is the sound of furniture flying again. The lights go back on, and there’s been another murder!  
Old films can be a bit quaint. Both victims stabbed right at the dinner table, but there’s not much blood around. At one point one of the suspects has a small blood stain on the arm of his shirt. This makes him the prime suspect for a while. If it were made today there would be computer generated blood all over the place. Theater and movies were much more discreet back then. It almost seems a bit Victorian. 
Suspicion shifts from one suspect to another. I’m not sure how many theatrical murder mysteries there were before this, but this may be a prototype.
The crime is solved and the Gower Gulch Players get a well deserved round of applause. They are introduced and brought onstage. Most of them are well known character actors. The cast again:  Alan Lewis Rickman. Steve Sterner. Yelena Shmulenson. Glenn Taranto. (The New Adams Family) Hannah Davis. Rick Pasqualone. Ashley Adder. Frank Buxton.
So much of early cinema has been lost, but it’s encouraging to see this unique  preservation of The Donovan Affair. It’s been given new life. There’s no better time capsule into the entertainment of almost a hundred years ago than silent films.