Sunday, February 21, 2010

For the Love of Film

Thinking about my friend and mentor, James Card, I know how pleased he would be to see social networking used to save our cinema heritage. This is my first post to this blog, so named because it is the name of my ancestor. I've been blogging for a time on Open Salon, but it was time to start something new, outside the fray -- and also because I can't ask for your support for this worthy cause over on OS.

Fundraising blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films, etc., and The Self-Styled Siren to benefit the National Film Preservation Foundation.


Many thanks to Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films for hosting the Blogathon -- it's a big success, and all because of you. Please be generous -- time is not on our side, and now is the time.

James Card was a true original. Indelible, sometimes irascible, but always a magnificent storyteller. A pioneer in film preservation, Jim Card was known to the small circle of founding geniuses -- Henri Langlois, Iris Barry, William Everson, Kashiko Kawakita-- as a friend and comrade. Today the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY is a Mecca for film scholars all over the world, and the work he began goes on -- his memory is bright indeed for those who knew and loved him. The lobby has a marvelous photo of him, jaunty as always, posed before a snazzy red car and an entrance to the House and the Dryden Theater, where he held court for many years, doing film introductions which were always entertaining and offered unique insights, because, as he says in his 1994 book,
Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film: "Have faith. This writer was there."

I do introductions now, standing at the same podium, and every time I think of him, very fondly, and whenever possible, remind the audience of his invaluable contribution to film history. Recently, a charming elderly gentleman came up to chat at intermission, and told me of hearing Jim's introductions in the very beginning, as he was the Eastman House's first curator of film, in 1949. He said his wife often said, "Even if the film is no good, Jim will be." I can attest to his tale-spinning prowess, having first been captivated by a film class he taught at the Dryden for the University of Rochester. One involved a visting Josef von Sternberg and a print of
Die Blaue Engel-- perfectionist that he was, the director wished to etch elaborate "designs into the actual emulsion of the film, over the images I have already put onto it. When the film is projected, then superimposed over the camera images will be the designs, that I have, with my own hand, created on those frames of film" (Card 250). Another concerned Joan Crawford, whom he felt was maligned by daughter Christina's scandalous memoir, Mommie Dearest. Indignantly, he insisted that Crawford was a kind and generous woman. He'd been to her home as a guest, and she had been a perfect hostess. Wide-eyed, I listened -- and imagined that Crawford was most persuasive indeed to have won him over. But he wasn't star-struck by any means -- he respected talent wherever he found it, and some of the most astonishing moments of my film-going life came about because he provided them. I'm thinking of the fabulous Man, Woman and Sin (1927, dir. Monta Bell). Who could resist that title? And it features no less than John Gilbert, the unjustly-forgotten Jeanne Eagels, and in a cameo, "Silent Cal" Coolidge himself! It's a story of the Capitol, with the President is seen in long shot. ( I was surprised to learn this was not his first film "role" -- Lee De Forest's 1924 film, President Coolidge, Taken on the White House Lawn, has that distinction!)

Here I want to point you to a beautiful tribute written by his friend Bruce Jackson:

It gives me great pleasure to know I introduced Bruce and Diane Christian to Jim, as it was a fortunate moment for us all. They delighted in his company, and he in theirs. There were some difficult times for him in later years, but they and other friends made certain he was properly appreciated. He was a patient teacher, a purist about the things that mattered, and a bit of a pirate when it came to preserving films. He had a big heart and a robust spirit, and, most importantly, an eye for quality. History depends on foresight and those daring and insistent enough to save and protect what others do not value.

I will write more in the days to come, as I want to add the recollections of some of his friends and admirers, but I will conclude here for now. My most cherished memory is the debut of the restored Peter Pan at the Dryden. It was James Card's discovery, an elusive bluebird he'd chased for years, only to find a print squirreled away in a forgotten room in the Eastman Theater. He writes: "The greatness of
Peter Pan resides in its magic, the roots of which stretch back three decades and across the ocean. The beauty of Peter Pan derives directly from Georges Melies and, like his films, and like Caligari too, demonstartes anew that film is not part of photography -- that its goal need not be banal realism. Over and over again filmmakers are confused by the great paradox of cinema. Often one's creativity is blunted when working in a medium that potentially knows no limitation in the realm of fantasy, but that nevertheless insists on rendering its images with a stubborn photographic fidelity that shouts "reality" to its beholders. . . (81).

Here is a clip which ought to entice anyone to seek it out, as it is truly magical:


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  2. Many thanks, Mary, for this wonderful tribute to your mentor and to our blogathon. I had the pleasure of seeing the restored Peter Pan at Chicago's Silent Summer Film Festival a few years ago and now know whom to thank!

  3. This was terrific--so heartfelt and so interesting. As for Peter Pan, what a gorgeous piece of film (I'm definitely going to have to look for it.) I'd read about Betty Bronson (in the film criticism of Iris Barry, whom you mention), but I'd never seen her before.... Thank you, Mary.

  4. Mary: Thank you for sharing your memories of James Card, and thank you for the beautiful clip from "Peter Pan."

  5. Mary,

    That was such a lovely tribute to Mr. Card. Reading Seductive Cinema, I could only assume he was as passionate and entertaining in real life as he was in his writing, so it's wonderful to read your first-hand proof of it. Thank you so much for sharing it. And yes, that version of Peter Pan is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. It's so great Card was able to save it.

  6. Mary, thanks for a terrific post. I'll have to return to see the video, but a lovely tribute to James Card and thank you for all the work you do!

  7. Thank you for this wonderful tribute to our Dad (my sister sent me the link for your site). It really makes me happy to know that he's not forgotten and that his passion for film remains strong among those that met him and watched films in his classes. You're right, he was a good storyteller and a good teacher and he had a nose for talent and exceptional qualities - not just in film but in people. He would have been happy to read your blog - and would be sure to tell you that you're a talented writer!