Book Club of California, 10 November 2003

© 2003 Roger G. Swearingen

Frank Stauffacher, Vincent Price, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Here are three names that I would bet you never expected to find mentioned in the same place at the same time.

And yet so it is - thanks to the astonishing, brilliant, moving short film by Frank Stauffacher that we are about to see tonight.

We are further honored to have his brother Jack with us - an artist himself, in the medium not of film but of ink and type and paper.

Notes on the Port of St. Francis is a black-and-white non-fiction film, a little more than twenty minutes long, that was created, directed, filmed, and edited by Frank Stauffacher in San Francisco in 1951.

It is narrated by Vincent Price.

And the words are by Robert Louis Stevenson.

There you are: Stauffacher, Price, and Stevenson.

The embarrassing thing, to me, as a so-called Stevenson expert, is that until Ann Whipple put Jack Stauffacher in touch with me, a couple of months ago, I had never so much as heard of the film. Nor is it any consolation that Notes on the Port of St. Francis is not even mentioned on any internet site about Vincent Price that I have been able to find.

This neglect is not deserved.

Notes on the Port of St. Francis is an impressive, vital, enduring piece of work. And it is our fortunate duty, now, to thank our lucky stars that we are seeing it at all; and, even more so, to dedicate ourselves to making sure that another fifty years don't go by with this wonderful three-way collaboration languishing, again, unknown and unseen.

• • •

Let's begin with the film-maker, Frank Stauffacher.

Frank Stauffacher was in his early thirties when he made Notes on the Port of St. Francis. And throughout his very short life - he died in 1955, aged 38 - he was an innovator and an inspiration and a catalyst.

This is of course true in his own two films of the late 1940s and early 1950s - Sausalito (1948) and Notes on the Port of St. Francis (1951) - and in the films that he worked on during those same years with others. He was, for instance, James Broughton's cinematographer both for Mother's Day (1948) and Adventures of Jimmy (1950).

Frank Stauffacher was also an innovator and an inspiration and a catalyst in creating the multi-year series of film showings known as Art in Cinema that began in 1946 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

We today take non-commercial, avant-garde, abstract, non-narrative "art" films for granted. But in 1946, the film archive at the New York Museum of Modern Art, founded in 1935 and then still directed by its founding curator Iris Barry, was less than a dozen years old. For the first time, the possibility that film might be an art form was being taken seriously in the United States, and it is this insight that Frank Stauffacher brought to the West Coast and gave concreteness and life to, by means of Art in Cinema.

The illustrated program book for the first Art in Cinema film series, in 1946, was published by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the films were shown. The typography is by Frank's brother Jack. And the more than two dozen films in the ten programs show a breathtaking reach and catholicity.

They range from precursors, even including so-called trick films from the first decade of the 1900s, in which the camera "persistently defeat[s] or pervert[s] the laws of space, time, gravity, and ordered reason" (Iris Barry, Film Notes, in Art in Cinema, 49); to animations, including Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie (1928) and The Skeleton Dance (1929); to works of the European avant-garde during the 1920s and 1930s including films by Fernand Leger, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray. Among these are other films that we now take for granted as classics in the form - for example, the Expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), in the program of precursors; Cocteau's lyric The Blood of a Poet (1930), in a program of four films titled "Poetry in Cinema"; and Un Chien Andalou (The Andalusian Dog) (1929) by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, in a program of surrealists.

The series was also rich in contemporary work. Many of the prints were loaned by the film-makers themselves, and the program notes were written by them. Included were important abstract, non-narrative films by Maya Deren, John and James Whitney, and Oskar Fischinger; Sidney Peterson's The Potted Psalm (1946); and Hans Richter's Dreams That Money Can Buy (1944-46).

In all of this, as in his films directly, Frank Stauffacher was an important figure in twentieth-century avant-garde film on the West Coast in the years immediately after the Second World War.

This was a golden decade, the decade from 1945 to 1955, a decade during which Frank Stauffacher and a few dozen other talented artists, in all media, brought San Francisco to an artistic eminence equalled, in the United States, only by New York.

Frank Stauffacher and his contemporaries are key figures in the San Francisco Renaissance of the early 1950s, the years before the Beats and City Lights. They include, in poetry, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan, and William Everson; in music, Harry Partch, in Sausalito, making music using earthenware jugs and much else; Harry Smith making short abstract films and creating a definitive, magisterial collection and then an anthology of 78-rpm blues records; even Pauline Kael, who wrote her first movie review in 1953 and opened the first duplex theatre anywhere a few years later in Berkeley, to show the films that she wanted to write about. KPFA was founded in 1949.

All of these things and people made San Francisco the place to be if you were innovative, young, and an artist - in any medium - and Frank Stauffacher was a key part of them. It a choice bit of irony that it was in 1951, the very year in which Notes on the Port of St. Francis was made, that Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac made their great expedition west from New York that eventually resulted in On the Road, published in 1957.

Like so many of the films that Frank Stauffacher himself included in Art in Cinema, Notes on the Port of St. Francis is a non-narrative, impressionistic work of art. It is work of art, for its own sake, combining words, moving and still pictures, found and musical sounds, to leave behind - what?

A coherent, self-contained, always rewarding, always new, endlessly repeatable impression - an impression of San Francisco created only for the sheer aesthetic pleasure that this impression, created by the film, gives, and will never cease to give.

• • •

Vincent Price died just over ten years ago, in October 1993, at the very ripe age of 82.

In 1951, when he gave his talent to Notes on the Port of St. Francis, Vincent Price was forty, and he had already made more than thirty pictures - most of them pictures quite unlike the horror films that first come to our minds when today we hear the name Vincent Price.

After a brief stage career, Price got his start in movies in 1938, when he was in his late twenties. And by 1951 Price had done a little of everything. His work, by then, had ranged from romantic comedies to The Invisible Man Returns (1940); Tower of London (1939), a historical costume drama with Basil Rathbone as Richard III and Boris Karloff as the king's executioner; The Web (1947); The Three Musketeers (1948); and lately even a couple of westerns, among them Curtain Call at Cactus Creek (1950), with Donald O'Connor, Gale Storm, Walter Brennan, and Eve Arden. (Now there's a cast for you!)

In 1951, when he contributed the narration to Notes on the Port of St. Francis, Vincent Price's most recent movie was called His Kind of Woman (1951), with Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, directed by John Farrow - a movie that has been described by one online writer as "film noir with one of Price's funniest performances."

Vincent Price's crystal-clear, suave, aristocratic diction and demeanor had during the 1940s brought him a couple of roles in films of a Gothic cast. But in 1951 Price was still a year or two away from making his first really famous horror film, The House of Wax (1953) - a film which, incidentally, was also the first commercially-released film in 3-D (three dimensions).

The House of Wax turned out to be, for Price, a lasting change of path. But it was a change that Price himself, a man deeply in love with the spoken language, even with the very sounds of the spoken language, later saw as not without a silver lining.

"Suddenly in the fifties," Price remarked to an interviewer years later,

a whole new group of actors came out, Marlon Brando, James Dean, and Paul Newman, who were very moody and realistic. So actors like myself and Basil Rathbone and so-on didn't really fit into those realistic dramas and we began to do costume pictures. This was really the only place we could go on working if we wanted to survive as actors. Most of the things of my later career have been costume pictures.

Now here's the fascinating comment, at least for our purposes:

[Costume pictures] require a certain knowledge of the language, they require enunciation and a poetic approach to the language. Really the one thing we have over the apes is our language, isn't it? That's about all. It's so precious, and we've been given such wonderful words to say. The greatest artist in our language was Shakespeare, who wrote PLAYS! Good ones. I don't say that the modern theater hasn't got that too, it does, but it's a thrill to be able to read THE RAVEN, and things like that. I have a marvelous time reading THE RAVEN with symphony orchestras. It's a piece of music that was written for me by Leonard Slatkin (conductor of the St. Louis Symphony orchestra).

[Vincent Price interview with Lawrence French]

• • •

As to Robert Louis Stevenson, the first thing to say is that except for the printed quotation from Walter de la Mare at the very beginning of the film, and a word or two here and there, the words in Notes on the Port of St. Francis are his. In fact, the script of the film is an extraordinary piece of compression and condensation but not of re-writing or of re-arrangement. The script is Stevenson's essay, in Stevenson's order, in Stevenson's words. It's just shorter.

The essay is "A Modern Cosmopolis", which Stevenson wrote in Davos, Switzerland, early in 1882, for The Magazine of Art, in England. This was the second of the two winters that Stevenson spent at Davos, both of them on the theory that an Alpine climate would be better for his then-very-fragile respiratory system than the damp of his native Edinburgh - or, for that matter, of San Francisco.

In February 1882, when Stevenson took up the writing of his essay on San Francisco, a serialization in the boys' weekly paper Young Folks had just concluded its run. Under the following title and pseudonymous author's name this was "Treasure Island; or, the Mutiny of the Hispaniola. By Captain George North."

No one knew it then, but when he turned to his essay on San Francisco early in 1882 Stevenson had just published, in a boys' paper, the first of the many books that would make him among authors writing in English as well-known and as widely translated as Scott, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain. He had been writing professionally - mostly essays, travel books, and short stories - for a little under ten years.

The Magazine of Art was a large-format monthly magazine chiefly of the visual arts, and it was then being edited by Stevenson's friend William Ernest Henley. The essay was illustrated, in my opinion very poorly, by a person or persons unknown, probably from stock photographs or sketches available in London. It is unlikely that Stevenson even saw the illustrations before they were published. To the same magazine Stevenson also contributed poems and two excellent essays on book illustration: on the mid-nineteenth-century Bagster edition of Pilgrim's Progress and on the illustrations in a new edition of Chiushingura; or the Loyal League, introduced to the west in 1871 in A. B. Mitford's Tales of Old Japan.

All of this was two years after Stevenson himself had lived here in San Francisco, at 608 Bush Street, on the hill beneath which the Stockton Tunnel now runs, only a block or two from where we are tonight. Determined to live on nothing but his own earnings, throughout his year-long stay in California Stevenson had, and drew upon, money in Edinburgh. But in fulfilment of his determination, he lived as cheaply as he could, in what amounted to self-imposed penury.

He was here in the winter, for three and one-half months: from the middle of December 1879, when Fanny Osbourne's uncontested divorce from her philandering husband (and the father of her children) Sam Osbourne was heard and granted and Stevenson came up from Monterey; until the end of March 1880, when the desperate state of his health made it sensible for him to move to Oakland, eventually into Fanny's own cottage there, where she could look after him.

At length they were married, in the house of the Presbyterian minister Robert Anderson Scott at 521 Post Street, between Mason and Taylor, just west of Union Square, on 19 May 1880. This they followed by three nights at the Palace Hotel - according to one guidebook, "the largest building of its kind in the world", with rates from $3 to $1.50 a day - and then as now a place of splendor. They then honeymooned in Calistoga and on Mt. St. Helena for eight weeks through early July, before returning to Britain.

Stevenson's San Francisco was a city in which more than a third of California's population then lived. According to the 1880 census, almost 300,000 of the state's total of about 850,000 lived here. Very many were foreign-born, and a not insignificant number of these were Chinese. Shipping, and above all silver from the Comstock Lode, was now the great source of wealth - silver and the mining stocks associated with it. During the 1870s, in fact, San Francisco was sometimes called the Silver City, for this very reason.

As RLS comments in his essay, the Stock Exchange is, or was then, "the heart of San Francisco: a great pump, we might call it, continually pumping up the savings of the lower quarters into the pockets of the millionaires on the hill." San Francisco, when Stevenson was here, was at times a place of truly frenzied activity, of runaway stock speculations - an atmosphere that he and his stepson Lloyd Osbourne captured well in their novel, partly set in San Francisco, called The Wrecker, first published in 1891 and 1892.

Stevenson had been here a month when, in January 1880, Emperor Norton died - and was celebrated with a public response of almost unbelievable proportions. Dennis Kearney was still stirring up vicious hatred against the Chinese in the sandlots near City Hall. "One editor [Charles DeYoung] was shot dead while I was there;" Stevenson himself remarked; "another walked the streets accompanied by a bravo, his guardian angel." This was San Francisco 120 years ago: a busy, wealthy, crowded, active place full of good and bad activity of all sorts.

The look of the place is captured well in the famous 360-degree photographic panoramas made only a year or two earlier, during the late 1870s, by Edweard Muybridge and Carleton Watkins: densely populated north and south of Market Street and well out into the Mission District and the Western Addition, but still sandy and windswept further west, to the Ocean.

There is, of course, much more to say.

But instead of saying it I would like to leave you with a fleeting self-portrait that Stevenson himself wrote, passing on a copy of William Penn's Fruits of Solitude to a friend in Davos a year before he wrote his essay.

The book itself, by happy good fortune and some real generosity, is now in the Rare Book Room at the University of San Francisco, and it depicts a Stevenson that I think we see throughout "A Modern Cosmopolis" - and in the words in Notes on the Port of St. Francis.

"Here it is," Stevenson wrote, "with the mark of a San Francisco boquiniste" - this was the stamp of I. N. [Isidore] Choyinsky, Antiquarian Book Store, 34 Geary Street. "Even the copy was dear to me, printed in the colony that Penn established, and carried in my pocket all about the San Francisco streets, read in street cars and ferry boats, when I was sick unto death, and found at all times and places a peaceful and sweet companion."

"Carried in my pocket all about the San Francisco streets, read in street cars and ferry boats" - this is the process that gives Stevenson's essay life: a fascination with the city streets, with the sights and sounds and the activity and the people, the steepness of the hills, the sharp bite of the wind, and the chill damp of the fog.

If ever three kindred spirits came together in a shared love of language and of the sights and sounds, look and feel of people and places, it was in the making of a Notes on the Port of St. Francis - by Robert Louis Stevenson, Vincent Price, and - above all - Frank Stauffacher.

It is an honor to have been invited to introduce this film. Thank you.

• • •