SIFF 2019: Retrospective: As the Earth Turns

Richard Lyford was one of our area’s first independent filmmakers. For nearly eighty years, his silent picture, As the Earth Turns, has gone unseen. It’s a prescient and foreboding warning echoing out of the heightened pre-war nervousness of 1938. World War II was coming. The film foretells of America’s over-involvement overseas, predicting the coming conflict with great effect and specificity. It also applies to the modern day (not the fascism, but yes that too), warning of imminent catastrophic global warming.

The great appeal of something like As the Earth Turns is how long we have had to wait. Now we get the chance for an old message to find its intended audience when it needs to be heard. It spent so many years in its author’s basement, among a collection of interesting and unproduced independent work. It came right before the first boom of independence, with further accessibility provided to moviemakers after the war. As such, it wears the caustic time of its production on its sleeve.

Early methods of shooting models for As the Earth Turns, 1938.

Local composer Ed Hartman has given the silent film his voice. He figures, in an interview with King5, that the music he’s selected is “very close to the music of the era that he’d have been working with, so [he] feels good about the choices they’ve made,” and it rings especially true in context. The new music brings the old film home. Ed Hartman has designed a soundtrack the informs and often comments on the film’s central action, the tapping of a desk given percussive elements, or escalating sounds conveying the tone of the conceit.

Director Richard Lyford proves ahead of his time. He was readily experimenting with triple exposures – creating cross-fading images of war on multiple fronts, befit with news clippings that deliver context. He does fantastic work for miniatures. This is born out in his following career. After his independent experiments, Lyford was brought on board Disney to work on projects like Fantasia (1940), often situating miniatures and figures to aide the animators in their sketching. He would go on to win an Academy Award for his documentary The Titan Story of Michelangelo (1950), which connected the internal passions of the subject with his work on art.

As the Earth Turns. Dir. Richard Lynford.

In the film, Lyford plays Pax, an environmentalist intent on stopping the big planet threatening war at all costs. He’s received by a news organization and Julie (Barbara Berger) – a reporter ready for the story that’ll elevate her career. It plays out between the newsroom and several Seattle specific locations. Many shots take place around the Boeing field, providing a great opportunity for aviation shots. There are also segments filmed at an operational Gas Works Park – then still a gasification plant. The story is they were chased out of the plant, and that is what gets captured in the film. Some great silent acting is played out in the newsroom, while the Seattle specific locations provide a great hook for discovering this film at the festival.

The film has spent eighty years buried at the Seattle home of Richard Lyford. It is a great delight to uncover it and provide some context for our readers. The film makes its premiere at SIFF on June 1. Outside people close to the authors, likely nobody around for the festival, have seen this work. Getting new scores for lost silent films is always an enticing prospect. Covering a local and lost silent film? Well, this is exactly the kind of piece we needed to create a film site for.

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