San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Silent Films: San Francisco festival salutes the silent era of filmmaking, July 15-18

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (July 15-18 at the Castro Theatre), now celebrating its 15th year at the Castro Theater, has no rivals in North America as a showplace for the pre-sound era of film. Despite some technical limitations—by which I certainly don't mean the lack of sound—the silent era was a cinema of reliable sophistication and universality. Because of its flexibility and effectiveness, it is as Lillian Gish said: You'd think that silent film was the end result instead of the beginning.

(In the roundup, I'm recycling a few pieces I've done over the years; the point though is that you get something new out of these films in every fresh viewing.)

Free events include an hour-long program July 16 (11:30am) and July 18 (10am) called "Amazing Tales From the Archives"; Friday's séance includes guest Joe Lindner of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists and cultural heroes Paula Felix-Didier and Fernando Pena of the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires: the very archivists who discovered the lost 25 minutes of Metropolis in their collection. Daughter of the silent-age star Diana Serra Cary, a.k.a. Baby Peggy, will also be on hand to sign her memoirs.

On Sunday, Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress and Annette Melville of the National Film Preservation Society will discuss the problem of retrieving and preserving silent film. Here's a piece I did on Mashon and his work in 2007. /metro/09.05.07/film-restoration-0736.html

In the author's mezzanine, among others, will be David Kiehn, who wrote the best account of the city of Niles' brief days in the silent-film industry, Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company.

July 17 at 9:30pm features 1929's Diary of a Lost Girl, starring Louise Brooks and directed by Germany's G.W. Pabst, the master of the obvious. Like many stars, Brooks could be summed up in a few strokes of ink, as if by calligraphy.

In Brooks' case, one sketches the crescents of her gleaming black hair, the pillar of the neck, the locks, like twin scythes, accentuating the points of her bitter half-smirk; the pouting gleaming lower lip the only excess flesh on the lean frame; a few slashes indicating the bright and heartless eyes, half-closed under dark and level brows.

Brooks, bearing the nutritious-sounding name Thymian, is wronged by a lazy count and a bourgeois dad (who can't keep his hands off the cleaning ladies). Things worsen for Thymian due to her habit of swooning at just the right time. (I kept thinking of Michelle Pfeiffer's line in Batman Returns: "You make it so easy for them.")

In seven minutes of restored footage, we see glimpses of the sexual corruption of Weimar Germany in which the girl becomes an almost-complicit participant. But her fortunes reverse themselves and reverse themselves again.

Terrific faces abound even if you don't count Brooks' glowing visage. Take the enormous bald-headed swine of a security guard rising up like a phallus-in-a-box in front of a list of "Verbotens" posted at the Home for the Bad Girls. Later, the strange proprietress of the home bangs a gong and stimulates herself halfway to orgasm watching the ladies do their calisthenics. Considering the script, it's a good thing that very sight of Brooks empties the mind. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra plays live.

Old Lang Syne

Metropolis (1927) is the big event on July 16 (8:15pm), with a live score by the Alloy Orchestra; there are rush tickets available, but it's likely sold out at this point. This is the latest reconstruction of what is certainly the most popular silent film ever. Metropolis can finally be seen at last at its original length thanks to a long sequence of 16mm footage found hiding in a Buenos Aires archive.

Fritz Lang's fantasy of a cyclopean city of the future—where the denizens of its heavenly towers and hellish caverns war with each other—has been much plagiarized. The latest expanded version as of 2002 fleshed out two protagonists—one, the gesticulating villain Rotwang, the other a muffinlike rich kid—and turned them respectively into a plausible revenger and a poetic action hero.

This is every inch a movie, with riots, floods, fire and romance, and yet in its day the film was neither a financial success nor a heeded warning. Savage recutting made it a choppy, sometimes peculiar story, and it bombed in New York City during its initial weeklong run.

Note that our own comfort depends on a system of denial as rigid as that enjoyed by the rich kids in the Club of the Sons in Fritz Lang's vision of the roof-garden paradises. As George Orwell wrote in 1937, "You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants ... all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust." Make that refinery fumes instead of coal dust, and Lang's point is all the more sharp.

Three shorts illustrate the July 17, 10am program: "The Big Business of Short, Funny Films." Pete Docter, director of Up hosts, and the immortal Dennis James tickles the Wurlitzer. I can't explain my allergy to Laurel and Hardy, except that Hardy's famous slow burn seems a little too slow; Big Business (1929), the misadventures of a pair of Christmas tree salesmen finds the pair in yet another frustratingly contrived demolition job.

By contrast, the Keaton/Arbuckle short rediscovered recently, The Cook (1918), is an absolute knockout. The setting is a seaside short-order restaurant with much pretension, terrible food and live ethnic dancing. Buster Keaton, the scruffy waiter, catches the items thrown out of the kitchen like fastballs. The sight of the dancing girl electrifies the fat cook Arbuckle, making him first impersonate Salome, than Cleopatra, using a string of frankfurters as an improvised asp.

Thence to Long Beach's amusement park The Pike, where revelers zip around in goat-drawn carriages. Derbied hoodlum Al St. John (Arbuckle's relative by marriage) arrives to be chased all over the map by an amazing trick pit-bull known as Luke. Luke, you shall never die:

Leo McCarey's short film Pass the Gravy (1928) is a slapstick masterpiece.

While the Chinese film in the festival, A Spray of Plum Blossoms (July 16, 2pm), is based on Two Gentlemen of Verona, the feature Pass the Gravy has something like the punch line to Titus Andronicus. It's a paroxysmal study of a feud between neighbors, worsened by the accidental death of "Brigham," a blue-ribbon rooster, who was accidentally broasted for what was supposed to be a reconciliation dinner.

The children of the family have to pantomime the sad story to their father (Max Davidson) with vain hopes of not tipping off the guest of honor, the rooster's former owner. The last shot is a beautiful experiment in a deep-focused gag, later stolen time and time again over the years by the Warner Bros. animators. Note, please, Martha Sleeper, a wonderfully robust and wide-eyed comedienne, as the daughter of the house. (Sleeper turned up for tons of pre-Code films in supporting roles; McCarey must have remembered her, because he gave the actress her last role before retirement in The Bells of St. Mary's.)

The delightful A Happy Death (July 18, 7:30pm) turns on something akin to the incident in Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus telling of a poet who committed suicide to draw attention to his work. (The critics unfortunately found more drama in his demise than in his verse.)

Playwright Theodore Larue (Nicolas Rimsky, a balding slightly supercilious party who resembles '50s comedian Hans Conried ) is first seen on a night of epic failure: one rolling eye peering through a hole in the curtain as his farce "The Friend of My Wife of My Friend" dies horribly on its opening night. Even the actors are seemingly in revolt against the play.

Larue's wife suggests a trip to the seashore to recover; during a yacht cruise, the playwright is swept overboard and pronounced dead. The untimely death begins a new interest in Larue's work, and soon this failure is an acclaimed as a misunderstood genius whose works are a now a hot property. He is of course not dead, and instead survives to hear himself is heralded by the powers that be as "le plus illustre dramaturge des temps moderne."

The wife has to pump up the circumstances of Theodore's glorious passing in front of a gathering of Parisian literary immortals, declaiming this event like Racine describing the wrath of Poseidon. What really happened was that a seasick Theodore got knocked off balance by the choppy seas after he'd staggered up to the deck to spew. The plot line is as rich as Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero; the fine rapport between the Larues shows how far back we can trace the tradition in French comedies of affable yet businesslike marriages.

Witching Hour

Häxan: Witchcraft Throughout the Ages (July 17, 9:30) was made, in 1922, in thrall to Intolerance, and it too was an epic. Benjamin Christensen's film was the most expensive ever made in Sweden up to that time, and yet it's surprisingly flexible. A seriocomic semidocumentary meant to debunk superstition, it has patches of primal horror-movie stuff in it: it's the showman's method of poopooing superstition while raising the audience's hackles.

There's evil charm in the asides, as when one of the film's actresses, revealed as an actress, insists on trying out a thumbscrew for the camera to see what happens: "We won't tell you the confession we got out of her," says the title card, in tones that could only be read aloud by Vincent Price.

The part of Satan is gold for any actor, but Christensen does the old boy proud: he's a virile bare-chested devil, with flickering tongue, and he leans in to drive monks, nuns and grandmas to hysteria. A fictional narrative story breaks out amid the history: serious neo-realist passages about a witch-hunt in medieval times, a gynophobic hunt aimed at both beautiful girls and helpless old women by the church, full of pity and terror. Christensen re-creates rituals from Matthew Hopkins' Hammer of the Witches (which the director found in a used book shop), including the "osculum infame, 'the kiss of shame'' and a real live witches' Sabbath complete with babies-blood cocktails and backward Lord's Prayer.

"'Tis awful to hear/Those words of fear!/The pray'r muttered backward and said with a sneer! /(Matthew Hopkins himself has assured us that when/A Witch says her pray'rs, she begins with Amen."—The Ingoldsby Legends.

Handsomely tinted amethyst and blood-red, the film is quaint in patches, as quaint as a '50s educational film, complete with stop-motion animation, puppetry; a pointer on screen teases out details of old engravings or images taken from Bosch or Goya, and there's stentorian commentary for the drama: "Is it for fear of being burned that you intoxicated yourself with drink, poor medieval woman?"

What energizes this film, which must not be missed by serious horror fans, is Christensen's confidence that modern psychology married with cinema would defeat religious mania. I guess we've seen how well that works, but it was certainly a nice try. I wonder what became of that marvelous mechanical toy hell mouth Christensen found for us?

screenworld The Iron Horse

The Iron Horse, from 1924 (July 15, 7pm, with Dennis James at the organ) is bookended by Abraham Lincoln: first as living next-door neighbor, last as sainted plaster bust. Lincoln's martyrdom overshadows the grand enterprise of crossing North America by railroad. Great men show up in the back of the frame—Buffalo Bill Cody, Leland Stanford, Wild Bill Hickok.

The in-again, out-again hero, Davy (George O'Brien), is the grown-up version of the boy who carries his murdered father's dedication to blaze a trail for the railroad. It's a shock to see how much of the modern Western was in place as of 1924. Some of it this is silent kitsch: the stage Irish clowning, the heroes kneading their hats in times of stress or romantic confusion. But here is the buffalo stampede, seen hoof-view from a low-angle pit. Here are the masses of cattle fording (or Fording) a river.

Other details are keener: a saloon's back-bar mirror taken out of harm's way when a gun-fight is brewing, or the pussycat smile on a Native American warrior as he watches a white renegade carrying out a scalping. And there's something to be said (there always is) for a film being closer in time to the real thing. Ford's West existed fewer than 60 years from the event. In fact, the real-life locomotives that met in Promontory Point, Utah, the Jupiter and the #116, were hauled out for the making of the film. The kiss of cowcatchers is the most romantic moment in this epic.

The Strong Man, 1926 (July 17, 4pm; Stephen Horne accompanies): The film begins and ends with cannon fire, starting in the trenches in World War I, and closing with a cannonade against gangsters. Harry Langdon plays Paul, a Belgian greenhorn coming to America. To work his way across the Atlantic, he gets a job as the assistant of a traveling vaudeville strongman. He longs to meet his pen pal Mary (Priscilla Bonner), the blind daughter of a temperance-supporting preacher. Both father and daughter fear the threats of the rumrunners who took over her small hometown. Langdon makes an unlikely hero to fight them off.

Langdon was always an archtwerp, the forerunner of Pee-wee Herman—good ol' Charlie Brown and Borat, too. He had a white-powdered face, bulging chipmunk cheeks and wary, tired eyes. With his too-tight six-button coat and oversize pants, he looked like a suspicious toddler. Every possible threat that could befall a rube hits Langdon's character. In the city, a towering harlot corners him and pitches a faint. She makes him carry her up the stairs as if she were Scarlett O'Hara; she's too heavy a load, and Langdon has to walk her up from a sitting position, butt first.

Later, on the crowded bus out West, Langdon demonstrates a sterling silent-comedy bit: the one about the goof who mistakes a jar of stenchy Limburger cheese for Vicks' VapoRub. With exquisite deadpan, Langdon keeps the incident from being too bathetic; he deftly, repeatedly, sucker punches a bully who protests against the stink.

Director Frank Capra's energy and sturdy plot sense counterpoint Langdon's wonderful strangeness. The last third of the film is almost a study for It's a Wonderful Life, with its idyllic town turned into a jungle of taverns and aggressive drunks. Rather than weeping for angelic help like George Bailey, Langdon's hero assaults his rowdy audience right from the stage; he leads the charge for generations of aggro comedians to come.

The Woman Disputed, 1928 (July 18, 4:30pm) with accompaniment by Stephen Horne, will be introduced by the world's leading silent-film historian Kevin Brownlow. An interesting rediscovery: Norma Talmadge's last silent film, based on a play by San Francisco's Denison Clift, with a heap of uncredited helping from Guy de Maupassant's short story Boule de Suif. (It's a more faithful version of that story than Stagecoach, for example.)

Talmadge's startlingly handsome real-life fling Gilbert Roland plays Paul, an Austrian officer of the pre-World War I era. He sportingly decides to help out Mary Ann, a good-hearted woman of the streets, when she's accused of murder. His best friend, a Russian officer (Arnold Kent), is seemingly a playful rival for Mary Ann. But then the rivalry becomes serious, right at the time war breaks out.

Talmadge shows that silent acting was a problem of gestures and facial expressions (and not everyone was gifted at both). When demonstrating shy happiness, or the resignation of a woman drafted into self-sacrifice, she's luminous; when clutching her head in anguish like a headache victim, not so much so. There's an edge of bitterness in this material that someone a little more complex than dual directors Henry King and Sam Taylor could have brought out more fully.

Still, what's here is noteworthy: harsh, well-directed war scenes, and a critique of the spinelessness of prejudiced people who are more than willing to send their social inferiors into harm's way. Forced into this route of harm, Talmadge's dignity is pretty near heartbreaking; it's the kind of tender acting that makes an implausible story all too possible.

Find Movie Theaters & Showtimes

Zip Code or City:   Radius: Theaters: