GELFAND’S WORLD - Most people don't think of Sierra Madre when they think of the movies and film history. That's unfortunate, because there is a significant connection. This weekend of February 3 - 4, we will have a chance to experience some of the best comedies ever, in a place that has historical significance.
First, a link to the film festival, which you can find here.
Remember that shot of Harold Lloyd hanging from a clock way up the side of an office building? That's from Safety Last! (Note: The exclamation point is part of the movie's name.)
An aside: A few years ago, I got off a train in Munich, Germany and wandered past a bookstore in the train terminal. The picture of Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock hand was on their wall. It seems to be a universally recognized symbol of comedy peril.
And that's just one of the Lloyd wonders being shown over the weekend. The next day will feature one of my favorites, Girl Shy. It's not as famous as Safety Last!, but it is recognized by comedy fans all over.
There is a sort of triumvirate of comedy genius in the persons of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Films of all three will be shown at this festival, including Keaton's Sherlock Jr. There is also a film starring child star Baby Peggy (Diana Serra Cary), one of the few child actors I like to watch.
Here's a brief introduction to the significance of Sierra Madre in film. Perhaps the most current connection that would be recognized worldwide (try not to doze off while you are reading this) is that The Invasion of the Body Snatchers was filmed there. This film is the origin of the slang term "pod people," and you can read about it here.
But there is a deeper connection to Sierra Madre and film history, which goes back to the first decade of the 20th century, roughly 1910 and thereabouts. Director D.W. Griffith had been making movies in New York and New Jersey, but he did an experiment, putting his cast and crew on a train and sending them to the west coast for the winter season. Out here, he found everything from beaches to mountainsides to high desert, and he shot films in all of these locations. One aspect of 1910 era Los Angeles was the existence of the Red Car system, the interurban railroads that could take you from downtown to San Pedro or Sierra Madre quickly and cheaply. Film historian Russell Merritt explained that Griffith figured this out, and was able to get the cast and crew to the location, shoot a scene, and get them home, all for the price of a ticket out and a ticket back. We know that Griffith even had a deal with an inn at the Sierra Madre end of the line, providing for food and a place for the actors to clean up and change costumes, and so on.
So there is a direct connection between Sierra Madre and D.W. Griffith.
One other connection is that Bob Mitchell was born in Sierra Madre and began his musical career as a musical wonder there. He was most famous as the founder and director of the Mitchell Boys' Choir, featured in dozens of movies including the holiday classic The Bishop's Wife. Bob Mitchell was instrumental in bringing back live accompaniment to silent film showings in the 1990s and early 2000s.
This weekend is the 100th anniversary of the Sierra Madre Playhouse, so it's fitting that films made in 1924 will be featured. In a way, this is a lucky juxtaposition, in that the early 1920s were a golden age for both comedy and a maturing genre of action drama (Valentino, Fairbanks, and numerous others). There's nothing quite like experiencing one of these films accompanied by live music.
I'm looking forward to attending the Sunday events, but Saturday looks to be equally good.
Also coming across my desk
As mentioned previously here, the Pacific Chorale is a superb group. They will be performing love songs on Feb 24 at Cal State University Fullerton. I will just quote from the press release:
"Pacific Chorale’s stellar chamber choir showcases its captivating artistry on “Language of Love,” an intimate program of sublime love songs, on Saturday, February 24, 2024 at 7:30 pm, at CSU Fullerton’s Meng Concert Hall. Artistic Director Robert Istad conducts a selection of treasured Broadway tunes, pop hits, dazzling vocal jazz, inspiring choral music, and cabaret-style solos. An instrumental combo joins the choir.
"Among the featured works is a rare complete performance of Morten Lauridsen’s Les Chansons des Roses, his masterful setting of Rilke’s exquisite love poetry hailed as “celestial and spine-tingling” (International Review of Music)."
Here is the link.
Oscar Nominated Short Films
One other mention, which requires me to give disclosure: I have been involved with the San Pedro International Film Festival as a volunteer and board member for about a dozen years. One of its yearly traditions is to screen the Oscar Nominated Shorts. These include documentaries, animated films, and live action. This year, there will be showings from February 17 through March 9. You can find information on screenings here.
It's worth mentioning that short films are an art form unto themselves, just as foreign films, musical comedies, and silent film comedies are worth watching in their own right and on their own terms.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].)