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MUSEUM TO SHOW SILENT MASTERPIECES

Times Staff Writer

Playing at the County Museum of Art this weekend with two of the most famous silents, “Orphans of the Storm” (1 and 8 p.m. Friday) and “The Thief of Bagdad” (8 p.m. Saturday), are, respectively, “Regeneration” and “The Toll Gate,” both works that challenge the usual assumptions about silent pictures.

The earliest (1915) feature extant directed by Raoul Walsh, “Regeneration” was based on a semi-autobiographical book by Owen Kildare. It tells of an orphaned boy in Manhattan’s Lower East Side who grows up to be a gangster (Rockliffe Fellowes) but whose life is transformed by a young society woman (Anna Q. Nilsson), who has dedicated herself to working in a settlement house.

Walsh’s filming on the streets of New York was nothing new--e.g. Griffith’s “Musketeers of Pig Alley.” What was surprising was the film’s ending, shockingly downbeat for the time. There is a great Jacob Riis look to the film with its tenements and its saloons with their swinging doors and sawdust-covered floors. (There’s also quite an impressive fire on a Hudson River excursion boat.) “Regeneration” has a robust quality and a clarity that was to characterize Walsh’s work throughout his long and important career.

Directed by Lambert Hillyer, “The Toll Gate” (1920), which was William S. Hart’s first production for his own company, deliberately flies in the face of the simplistic good-guys-versus-bad-guys tradition, already established by less authentic Western stars.

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Written by Hillyer and Hart, it presents the stoic, long-faced Hart as a good-bad guy of far greater complexity than any character in “Silverado” or “Pale Rider.” Hart is an outlaw, a killer, yet has a samurai-like code of honor that causes him to risk imprisonment to warn a fort settlement of an impending Indian attack and, later, to save a child from drowning. Hart’s outlaw is a man of great inner conflict and loneliness, relieved fleetingly (and chastely) by an encounter with a woman (again the lovely Nilsson) whose husband has seemingly abandoned her and their boy. The finish is also remarkably unsentimental.

There’s an authenticity in settings and costumes, even language and gesture, that could scarcely be duplicated today simply because “The Toll Gate” was made in almost the era which it depicted--and which Hart (1870-1946) remembered well from his youth. An excellent print shows to full advantage the film’s rich pictorial qualities, a characteristic of silents that was evident in Hillyer’s style even in the thoroughly enjoyable “Batman” serial he directed in 1943. These screenings are part of the museum’s “50 Years of Film From the Museum of Modern Art” series. Information: (213) 857-6201.

Samuel Goldwyn’s “Come and Get It” (UCLA Melnitz at 5:30 p.m. today), generally considered the ill-fated Frances Farmer’s best film, is an appealing if fairly conventional period piece based on an Edna Ferber novel and directed by Howard Hawks (but completed by William Wyler after Hawks had a dispute with Goldwyn). It’s a typical Ferber larger-than-life saga in which ambitious logger Edward Arnold rejects beautiful saloon girl (Farmer) in favor of his boss’s daughter. Now a 50-year-old lumber baron full of regrets, he finds himself captivated by the saloon girl’s daughter (also played by Farmer)--as does his son (Joel McCrea). Early on, the luminous Farmer sang “Aura Lea” in a deep, deep voice. In 1957 a still-beautiful but haunted-looking and stiffly nervous Farmer once again sang it on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” It’s hard to imagine that anyone who saw and heard her then could ever forget her. Information: (213) 825-2345.

“Tora, the Go-Between” (opening Friday at the Kokusai for three weeks), the 35th Tora-san, is just like the 34 that proceeded it: warm, sentimental and wryly humorous. As he has countless times before, Tora (Kiyoshi Atsumi), that lovable, feckless itinerant peddler, plays matchmaker to a pretty girl (Kanako Higuchi) and her shy law student neighbor (Mitsuro Hirata). What’s amazing is how director Yoji Yamada and his repertory company retain their freshness after 16 years. Show times: (213) 734-1148.

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