May 29, 2019

45th Annual Seattle International Film Festival: The Remarkable Recovery of the Homegrown Spec-fi Flick As The Earth Turns (1938/2019)

One of the most exciting discoveries in the archival offerings of Seattle International Film Festival 2019 is a silent spec-fi film that has been out of circulation for eighty years. Made in Seattle by director, producer and star Richard Lyford, As the Earth Turns (1938) is an innovative, exhilarating independent production. This Friday, a restoration of the film with a new score will screen at SIFF Uptown with restoration producer Kim Lyford Bishop and restoration producer/score composer Ed Hartman scheduled to attend.

As the Earth Turns opens in a conflicted world, where Europe is at war. Young, ambitious American reporter Julie Weston (Barbara Berger) begs her editor for better opportunities, and gets it when he sends her to a Naval radio station to look for stories in the flood of messages constantly streaming into the base. She gets a big one: the mysteriously named Pax sends a wire demanding peace, or else he while increase the length of the day five minutes.

Pax isn’t taken seriously at first, but when he does successfully change time, and then follows up on his promises of earthquakes and weather changes (shades of climate change); government officials begin to take him seriously. However, it is the clever Julie and her associates who ultimately uncover the mystery of Pax and his ironically destructive approach to seeking peace.

Lyford was only twenty-years-old when he made As the Earth Turns, and by that time he’d already written 50 plays and made nine unreleased films. He clearly had a remarkable knack for filmmaking; while the film is clearly low-budget, the production is far from cheap. Lyford combines sleek, innovative effects work with a lively story, able cast, and intertitles that have a pleasing touch of wit. His fascinating model work (including a gorgeous “high-tech” airplane) anticipates the great sci-fi flicks of the 1950s, while his camera work is off kilter and inventive in an Avant garde way.

In a uniformly appealing cast, Berger is the stand-out. Unlike the glamour girl reporters in Hollywood productions of the time, she is refreshingly natural and straightforward. It’s a shame this was her only film role.

Lyford is also magnificent in a slightly campy, but ultimately touching performance as Pax. With a raised eyebrow and shaking fist, he is enormously entertaining, but never excessively cartoonish. He clearly had the ability to master any aspect of filmmaking and embraced the indie spirit of doing whatever it took to get the job done.

Hartman’s new score is a fine complement to this new release. It is period appropriate, but with a modern feel, which is appropriate for the forward-thinking tone of the film.

Seattleites will enjoy the extensive location shooting amidst Pacific Northwest greenery. There are also scenes set on the streets of Seattle, on Boeing Field, and at Gasworks Park when it was still a functioning gas plant.

Lyford would eventually move to Hollywood, where he would direct documentary shorts for Disney. He is perhaps most famous for his television documentary Island of Allah (1956) and the short The Titan: Story of Michelangelo (1950), a film which won the Academy Award for documentary feature.

This is a festival must-see for fans of classic film. It’s a marvelous discovery. Tickets for the 6/1 screening can be purchased here.

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