Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Rest is Silents

A Certain Tramp in Niles Canyon
You’ll be pleased, maybe relieved, to learn that I not only got out of the house last Saturday, but I even escaped Emeryville. The occasion was a weekend celebration of number 53 in my march through life. The destination was a place that only a few of you have probably ever heard of: Niles, California.
Not named after Frasier Crane’s brother, Niles is a pleasing, sun-baked neighborhood nestled at the foot of the golden East Bay hills, northeast of San Jose, near the south end of San Francisco Bay. It was established as part of the Washington Township in the late 1840s. Its first brush with history came when the final tracks in the Transcontinental Railroad were laid there in about 1869 (for railroad buffs, Niles also has a reputable train museum and that particular line of track through lovely Niles Canyon is still in use.). Niles joined the city of Fremont in 1956.

From its railroad days, Niles napped peacefully in the back pages of history until 1912. That was when a Chicago-based film studio, The Essanay Motion Picture Manufacturing Company, was drawn by our monotonously pleasant weather to build a West Coast studio production facility in downtown Niles.

Essanay (the name comes from the last-name initials of the company’s founders, George K. Spoor and G.M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson) produced, according to David Kiehn of the Essanay’s Silent Film Museum Essanay Chronicle, up to 2,000 movies during their ten-year history. Among these films (unless someone’s pranked the Wikipedia entry) are the first Sherlock Holmes movie, the first
A Christmas Carol adaptation and the first movie about Jesse James (in fact, Westerns seem to have been their bread-and-butter; their "Broncho Billy" western movies alone total around 376 movies.) Among their stars: Keanu Reeves, Brittany Spears, Vin Diesel—oops, sorry . . . darn that Wikipedia! Start over!

Among the Essanay stars who sparkled in the company’s firmament were cross-eyed Ben Turpin, burly Wallace Beery, Francis X. Bushman, Tom Mix, the “A” in the Essanay “Broncho Billy” Anderson (also the movies' first cowboy star), and one Really Really Famous Guy I’ll discuss down page.

Of Essanay’s 2,000 films, only about 200 seem to have survived time’s relentless wheel (or, to make it hurt even more, about 1800 Essanay films have been lost; in fact, it has been said, about 90% of all silent era films have gone to Buddha).

Elizabeth and I first visited Niles and the Essanay Film Museum, located right on Niles’ Main Street, early this year. The museum is located in the old Edison Theater, the neighborhood movie house where Anderson and company would come by to watch the films released by their competition. (The production company itself, located a block away in what’s now a vacant lot, had its own screening room.) It still has the original fire-proofed (with tin) projection booth. Their display cases contain various costume artifacts—like all glimpses of the past, they were tantalizing, frustrating, and poignant.

The staff is warm and friendly and, like all of us geeks everywhere, they rained down upon us all manner of fascinating and endearing trivia. Their enthusiastic docent marched us through their nooks and crannies. Before I could stop her, Elizabeth drew her checkbook and fired off a year’s worth of membership for the both of us. (Like many similar nonprofits, the museum is in a perpetual and cash-strapped state of restoration.) My favorite part was the large library of hardcover photoplay editions of famous novels made into films, including The Maltese Falcon. I had to sew my hands inside my pockets as we explored the gift shop.

Buster Keaton in full dress

The first program we attended was a showing of Buster Keaton’s astounding (an adjective that glues well to so much of his work)
Steamboat Bill, Jr., plus a very funny short by the Keaton’s close friend, the amazingly light-footed and tragic Fatty Arbuckle. Both movies were accompanied by an excellent live pianist and the Edison Theater, which seats around 130, was packed.

It felt not so much like a night at the movies, as a night at a community center. Not everyone knew everyone, but it felt like it did. The screenings were conducted with a pleasing informality, right down to emcees Tommy Andrew and former MPAA archivist Sam Gill. A drawing was held giving away various gift shop items. My normally icy heart was further warmed by the presence of quite a few youngsters, none of whom seemed to think their parents were trying to turn them into old people by making them watch old movies. We took home a warm glow and left a promise to come again.

Promise kept: last weekend we attended the Edison Theater’s showing of a movie by that Really Really Famous Guy, name of Charlie Chaplin.
The Adventurer (1917) was produced a couple of years after Chaplin concluded his rather unhappy five-film contract with Essanay, a period that produced his signature classic The Tramp with its iconic image of the title character walking alone through Niles Canyon. Chaplin never took to Niles’ isolation and small town ways. Worse, George K. Spoor had never heard of the world-famous Chaplin. Learning of the huge fees they were paying the Master, Spoor demanded that Broncho Billy, who hired Chaplin, get rid of him. It’s said that this disagreement alone led to Essanay’s end a short time later.

Again we were emceed by Tommy Andrew and Sam Gill (plus a woman whose name unfortunately escapes me), with vigorous piano accompaniment this time by the estimable Frederick Hodges. And, as before, a drawing was held to give away various prizes, with a special section for the kids in attendance, who again, didn’t look like they wished they were home swinging their Wiis around the living room. Attendance was announced to be 129.

Harold Lloyd in trouble
The screenings continued with Harold Lloyd’s Number Please (1922) and Buster Keaton’s Hard Luck (1921), the print of which is, unfortunately, in bad shape, though the movie is still funny and ingenious in the way only Keaton can be.

To my mind, the best was saved for last as we were paid a visit by the always welcome Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy in one of their classic extravaganzas of tit-for-tat destruction,
Two Tars (1928). I can think of no other performers who better leave their audiences in an affectionate glow.

Laurel and Hardy in full destructive mode
The Niles Essanay Film Museum is located at 37417 Niles Boulevard in Fremont and their website is here, though it is still under construction in spots. Program are usually held each Saturday, though this coming weekend is their international film weekend which runs Friday, November 2, through Sunday, November 4, and features such classics as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger and Fritz Lang’s Spies.

Go! And if you cannot, then weep!

Thanks to Dorothy Bradley of the Essanay Silent Film Museum for her help.)

(re-edited 3/19/13)

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