I experienced a really lovely privilege yesterday: to attend the screening of a rare, restored Raoul Walsh picture from 1932 called Wild Girl. It's one of many treasures screening in this year's "To Save And Project", New York's Museum Of Modern Art's film preservation festival. The slate this year is co-programmed by the great critic J. Hoberman and the spectrum of material is gratifyingly wide, ranging from pre-code Hollywood pictures such as this one and the Clara Bow talkie Call Her Savage to Peter Brooks' seminal quasi-doc London time capsule Tell Me Lies to the latest expansion of Once Upon A Time In America to anarchist films of the Spanish Civil War.
As to Wild Girl, it's an odd delight. A near-immediate predecessor to the better-known Walsh picture For Me And My Gal (which coincidentally played on TCM last night), it stars a gorgeous and delicate (and blonde!) Joan Bennett, who would subsequently play opposite Spencer Tracy in Gal. She's paired against silent hunk and future My Little Margie dad Charles Farrell, who, his work in pictures for both Borzage and Murnau notwithstanding, is a rather limited performer. "He's kind of got this proto-Joel McCrea thing going," I idly observed in conversation after the screening; "Make sure you emphasize 'proto' there," a friend responded. Based on a play that was in turn based on a Bret Harte story and was put to film in the '20s, Wild Girl's story is a hoary pocket Western in which local child-of-nature-vixen/virgin Salomy Jen (Bennett) is competed over by a semi-noble gambler (Ralph Bellamy with a waxed moustache), a plain lout (too-weird-looking-for-movies [by Carlos Clarens' estimation] Irving Pichel) and an outright slimy fake-pious politico (Morgan Wallace), and eventually swept off her feet by a vengeful-but-sweet stranger played by Farrell. There are a few other plot threads in this very brisk 80-minute picture, including the sad tale of a poverty-stricken dad by the name of Red Pete, and the movie has an ever-bouncing momentum that keeps it entertaining. While not exactly what you'd call a Great semi-lost picture, its biggest points of interest are visual: the movie is framed as being told from a photo album, and the opening has each of the main characters introducing him or her self from the frame of a large turning page, e.g., "I'm Salomy Jen, and I like trees better than men. Because trees are straight..." And subsequent scene transitions are done with the page-turning effect where a wipe might have been. An interesting optical. The peculiar mountain town Salomy and her dad live in is set and shot in California's Sequoia National Park, and there's some staggering footage of Salomy Jen and her mammy running around the giant trees and scaring bear cubs. The forest setting gives a weird lyrical fairy-tale feel to some scenes, particularly those such as the one pictured above, with Jen and the bevy of kids poor Red Pete is so worried about feeding. Then there's Bennett's nude pond swim (nude swimming is pretty big in pre-code pictures, see also Borzage's The River and DeMille's Sign Of The Cross...I'm feeling a trend piece here, if I can find a time machine), and the great Eugene Pallette's imitation of various horse-mouth noises, a routine the movie pretty much stops dead for. For a non-Great film, that's a lot of value, and if any of it sounds attractive to you I doubt you'll be disappointed if you go and see the picture on the 11th or 18th of this month.
"I knew Raoul Walsh, knew him well," Pierre Rissient remarked in a conversation with a few other invitees after the screening. Rissient, the great French cinephile and programmer, is in town presenting a great sidebar at this year's New York Film Festival, "Men Of Cinema: Pierre Rissient And The Cinema MacMahon." This screening was scheduled at Rissient's behest, and I thank Gabe Klinger, whose working this event for MOMA, for including me in the invites for it. (It was also wonderful to meet Mr. K., with whom I've had several on-line exchanges, some slightly fur-flying, in person, finally.) "Walsh told me that when he was a boy, he witnessed an acual lynching, and it was something he remembered when making this film." Wild Girl's lynching scene is noteworthy indeed; it's the only sequence of the film executed in a series of quick cuts, and it's startlingly effective. Before Wild Girl we also saw, at Rissient's request, an Irving Lerner/Joseph Strick short in the Museum's collection, Muscle Beach, a 1948 tone-poem with proto-Beat rambling folk-song accompaniment, set at the title locale. Rissient, now in his seventies, still clearly lives for the excavation and experience of the cinematic tokens, the tendrils of which form a kind of secret history of the larger culture in all its implications (one particular point of interest in Muscle Beach, for Rissient, is that its music was by Earl Robinson, also the composer of "The House I Live In" and a Hollywood blacklist victim). And that, my friends, is MY kind of cinephilia.
(It should go without saying, of course, that everybody at this hoity-toity event was wearing a bow-tie, and as each of us entered, humming Mozart, we were handed a long pin and asked to stick it into a voodoo doll of Josh Joss Whedon. It was a peaceful event for the most part except for a brief incident in which Andrew O'Hehir stormed into the projection room with a DVD box set of Season Six of Psych, screaming, "You're doing it WRONG!" and had to be forcibly restrained. And since we're on the subject, alas, I ought to point out that the estimable Vadim Rizov is making sense here. )