Himansu Rai’s 1929 Indian Epic

At the 23rd San Francisco Silent Film Festival (May 30-June 3, 2018), the Castro Theater played host to a diverse program of silent era masterpieces accompanied by live music, performed by either solo musicians, small ensembles or orchestras. Some of the new restorations screened included Ernst Lubitsch’s Rosita (1923) starring Mary Pickford, Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler (1926), the 1928 version of The Man Who Laughs with Conrad Veidt and a 1929 German version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, directed by Richard Oswald. As always, the festival also unveils several lesser known titles and rarities such as a magnificent new restoration of Prapancha Pash (aka A Throw of Dice), a 1929 Indian epic produced by Himansu Rai and directed by German filmmaker Franz Osten. A key pioneer effort from the early silent years of Indian cinema, A Throw of Dice holds up beautifully after almost ninety years with its exotic mix of adventure, romance, pageantry and sensuality. And it is an excellent entry point for any silent film beginner. Continue reading

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Czech Mates

Sylva Koscina and Dirk Bogarde star in Agent 8 3/4 (aka Hot Enough for June, 1964), directed by Ralph Thomas.

Not all of the spy thrillers that followed in the wake of the James Bond craze, which began in 1962 with Dr. No, were pale imitations or grade B action-adventure fare. There were exceptions in this burgeoning genre and one of the best was Agent 8 ¾ (1964, aka Hot Enough for June). Instead of relying on high tech gadgetry, special effects and slam bang action sequences, this British import took a droll, tongue-in-cheek approach to the spy genre and had fun parodying the politics of the Cold War era in its tale of an aspiring novelist being used by British Intelligence as a pawn in their spy games with Communist foes in Prague.  Continue reading

Aline MacMahon in Heat Lightning

Publicity portrait of Aline MacMahon in the 1930s.

Most classic movie fans know Aline MacMahon as the wise-cracking Trixie in Gold Diggers of 1933, the devoted wife of Guy Kibbee in William Keighley’s film version of Babbitt (1934) or the victimized heiress in George B. Seitz’s Kind Lady (1935). These were stand-out roles but she was usually relegated to supporting parts, especially during her contract years at Warners Bros. With her Irish/Russian ancestry, MacMahon was not a conventional leading lady but she had an offbeat beauty that was both soulful and melancholy. These qualities, plus a steely toughness and dry sense of humor, make her performance in Heat Lightning (1934) particularly memorable. It also marked her first film in a leading role after playing character parts in 12 movies.   Continue reading