Silent Film Festival in San Francisco


The Silent Film Festival this weekend at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco is covered in this week’s, but here’s even more to whet the appetite of golden-era fans:

The Silent Enemy (July 13, 1:10 pm) Only six members of the Ojibway Indian band seen in this film had ever seen a movie themselves—or so we’re assured in this 1930 docu-drama account of a famine winter. Hunger is the enemy of the title, represented by a snarling wolf. Under the guidance of their chief, a group of Indians head north to the caribou grounds, despite the doom-saying of the evil medicine man (Chief Akawanush).

Chief Yellow Robe, very good as the tribe’s elder, introduces the film in a sound prologue. It’s true that producer W. Douglas Burden was there to capture the vanishing of a way of life, and the caribou herd stampede at the end is still a stunner many decades later.

Still, the backstory of the cast is interesting in itself: the muscular star Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance turned out to be a Southern African American who spun himself a new identity. Spotted Elk, the romantic lead, was indeed a Native American, a Penobscot from Maine. She was also a dancer at Texas Guinan’s nightclub when she was discovered. Warning to the sensitive: animals are treated rather harshly in this film.


Her Wild Oat

(July 13, 3:50pm) Late one night, while out on the tiles, a top-hatted playboy gets mugged and stripped. He has to borrow greasy overalls from a work crew, and thus attired, he turns up for coffee at a roach coach, owned and operated by the slangy, salty Colleen Moore. The egregious puns on the title card will shake you to the marrow (“She was one of those Iowa girls: ‘Daddy, Iowa month on the rent’”). The print was found in Prague two years ago and restored by the Academy Film Archive.


The Patsy

(Jul 13, 8:45). Certain to be the biggest surprise of the festival, this gusty 1928 King Vidor comedy stars Marion Davies as Patty, the put-upon kid sister in a middle-class family. (Her mother, played by Marie Dressler, is as fine a specimen of gorgonus sububicanus as ever seen in a movie.)  Davies’ Patty moons over her big sister’s boyfriend Tony (Orville Caldwell), but the guy doesn’t seem to register it. “I’d like to be entrancing, alluring, ravishing…like a stocking advertisement,” Patty complains. Meanwhile the elder sister (Jane Winton) is two-timing with a fatuous rich kid called Billy Caldwell with a thing for (shudder) practical jokes. All get their due, just as Patty gets the attention she deserves.

The legend of Davies’ skills as a comedienne haven’t been exaggerated, despite her more famous name as the longtime companion of William Randolph Hearst. The Patsy’s uproarious centerpiece has Patty trying to amuse Billy with her impressions of the famous movie stars of the day: Davies’ sunken-cheeked Lillian Gish in The Scarlet Letter is especially lethal.

Vidor’s vision of family life is just as acute in comedy as it is in his more famous drama The Crowd. Movies today have a drought of good comediennes and a flood of gross big-baby comics. Davies deserves to be honored as a funny woman, embodying common sense during a horribly affected era. Davies might also be remembered for perhaps being the first to endorse the deep thought recorded on a title card in The Patsy: “Work is the curse of the drinking class.”





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