Rediscovering Max Linder and Marcel Perez, finding Lois Weber’s lost “Shoes”

macel perez DVD2

Do we need superheroes today? Of course. Not the drek Hollywood is spewing out by the bushel but guys like silent film accompanist Ben Model—and the 153 people who funded his latest project on Kickstarter. “The Marcel Perez Collection, Volume 2” (available on Amazon later this month) presents eight more rarities starring the largely forgotten silent film comic whose rediscovery Model spearheaded with the first award-winning DVD in the series for his Undercrank Productions.

The rubber-faced buffoon, who began his career in Europe and was known under a variety of aliases, is seen here in one of his earliest surviving comedies from 1907; the remainder of these short films (all newly scored by Model) were made 1916-1921 during Perez’s American career. Some of these 2K scans look terrific, others not so much; many have scenes missing. But what Model has rescued from the scrapheap of history offers substantial evidence this was one very funny man. Perez’s leading ladies, Nilde Baracchi and Dorothy Earle, are also seen to good effect in these shorts, as is character actress Louise Carver.

“Max Linder: Father of Film Comedy” by Snorre Smári Mathiesen (available in paperback and hardcover from BearManor Media) is apparently the first English language biography of the pioneering French comedian. It attempts an overview of his life and career, rather than a definitive bio of the funster who was arguably the first superstar—most of whose hundreds of films, like Perez’s, are lost. Mathiesen succeeds admirably in his intent, an effort hindered by mounds of misinformation available heretofore, much of it perpetuated by Linder himself.

The author, a Norweigan cartoonist, gives us a sense of Linder on screen and places him in the context of his times to give us the broader picture. Mathiesen was assisted by the comedian’s daughter, Maud Linder, as well as a competing biographer whose book has yet to materialize. The book includes dozens of photographs, a scrupulous filmography, bibliography and footnotes but lacks an index.

mary maclaren-SHOES DVD copy

There aren’t many films I’ve waited 40 years to see. Silent film actress Mary MacLaren whet my desire to see Lois Weber’s “Shoes” (1916), the film that made her a star, when I interviewed her in the ‘70s; I never expected to see it at all, until word surfaced of a new restoration by the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam (now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films).

The tale of a teenage shop girl whose meager paycheck supports her parents and siblings, and the pickup artist who takes advantage of her, the film is a ground-breaking social drama radically different from D.W. Griffith’s epic “Intolerance,” made the same year. MacLaren’s performance is remarkably understated compared to the broad style of the era; Donald Sosin provides an appropriate score. Bonus features include a commentary track by Weber biographer Shelley Stamp, and an interview with MacLaren by Richard Koszarski.

The Silent Treatment is now programming films at The Autry Museum in Griffith Park and the Arena Cinelounge in Hollywood, since the closure of the venerable Silent Movie Theatre in L.A. last year. They’ll present the latest Universal restoration of Lois Weber’s “Sensation Seekers” (1927) on DCP, March 10 (2 p.m.), at Arena Cinelounge; and a 35mm presentation of Victor Sjöström’s “The Wind” (1928) with Lillian Gish at her best, at The Autry on April 21.

Also on March 10 (7 p.m.) at Christ Lutheran Church in Burbank, Famous Players Orchestra presents Clarence Brown’s “The Goose Woman” (1925), plus “City of Stars” (1924), a behind the scenes promo film for Universal Pictures. Both films will have orchestra scores performed live.

My favorite silent film, widely considered the greatest silent ever made, premiered 90 years ago today–February 18, 1928–at the majestic Capitol Theatre in Manhattan. My book, “King Vidor’s The Crowd: The Making of a Silent Classic,” which tracks the film from rough idea to finished product features and includes a foreword by Kevin Brownlow, is available in ebook and paperback formats.




Q&A with Simon Levy, director of “The Chosen” at The Fountain in L.A.

Sam Mandel, Dor Gvirtsman and Alan Blumenfeld in "the Chosen." Photo by Ed Krieger.
Sam Mandel, Dor Gvirtsman and Alan Blumenfeld in “the Chosen.”
Photo by Ed Krieger.

“The Chosen,” based on Chaim Potok’s classic novel about two brilliant young men growing up five blocks and worlds apart in World War II Brooklyn, has been transformed into a play that’s somehow even more compelling than the book. Adapted by Potok and Aaron Posner and newly revised by Posner, it continues through Mar. 25 at The Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, on the edge of Los Feliz.

Director Simon Levy makes striking choices in staging the play, beginning with a baseball game between Reuven Malter, an Orthodox Jew (Sam Mendel), and Danny Saunders, an ultra-religious Hasid (Dor Gvirtsman), that turns into a Holy War; Levy’s use of sound effects is particularly noteworthy. The cast of four, fleshed out by fathers David Malter (Jonathan Arkin) and Reb Saunders (Alan Blumenfeld), is uniformly excellent; Blumenfeld’s outsized performance almost knocks you out of your seat.

Levy, who previously produced Posner’s adaptation of Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev” at the Fountain, agreed to a Q&A.

Q: I feel “The Chosen” is The Great Jewish American Novel, but it’s universal in its themes. What resonates most with you?

A: The play begins, “Ayloo v’ayloo.” “Both these and these.” Among the myriad themes that run through the book, Potok gives life to the concept that we can bridge chasms, that we can hold opposing ideas and views that can both be true—Zionism and Hasidism, the secular and the sacred, the modern and the traditional, adolescence and adulthood, fathers and son, the head and the heart. In this polarized world we live in we need to be reminded that not everything is about being right, about winning, that it’s possible, just possible, that two rights can exist at the same time.

Q: What compelled you to choose “The Chosen” to direct?

A: I was searching for a project that would be an antidote to all the negativity and toxicity we’ve endured for the past two years. I wanted to say to our audiences, “Even if we’re different, even if we disagree, we can still respect each other and communicate our differences with tolerance and understanding.” Not everything has to be right or wrong, left or right, good or bad, fake or real. Human relationships are far more complex than that. We are a complicated species. Let’s honor those differences without resorting to rancor and bullying and polarization.

Q: I was struck by the utter simplicity of the adaptation when I read the script (at least the original version).

A: Potok and Posner found a way to streamline the play so it focuses on the fathers and sons, two households with opposing points of view, and how a friendship can blossom in spite of those differences. It streamlines the coming of age story for both Reuven and Danny while giving life to the deeper themes in the novel.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of the directing the play?

A: I wanted to make sure I got it right. The specificity of both the Hasidic and Orthodox aspects of the play require authenticity. Verisimilitude is very important to me. Although I’m Jewish, I’m a typical modern American secular Jew. So it was important to me to do in-depth research that included consulting with two rabbis, Rabbi Jim Kaufman and Rabbi Daniel Bouskila. Both were immeasurably helpful! I couldn’t have done it without their wisdom and generosity. Not only did they help with the Hebrew and Yiddish and prayers and clothing and books and behavior and the cultural underpinnings of Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, they also shared their time with the cast and our designers.

Q: You did a tremendous amount of research for the play.

A: I must have watched, listened to, dozens and dozens of YouTube videos, music recordings, and viewed hundreds of photographs. I also read through all the commentaries in the 50th Anniversary Edition of “The Chosen,” as well as Chaim Potok’s exhaustive “Wanderings: History of The Jews”… And, “Judaism For Dummies,” which is actually a pretty fabulous book. Like most directors, I love the research part of my job.