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Golden Silents

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival honors a long-lost lamented art form

By Richard von Busack

HAPPILY, not every movie this summer involves Dr. Doom or Daisy Duke. The annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs July 8-10, and this ever-growing nonprofit event is well worth the short trip north.

It is easy to sentimentalize silent films, probably because so many of them are extinct, melted for the silver nitrate, dumped as garbage or left to rot. While the advent of speech and sound effects in movies made for a much more naturalistic cinema, it also robbed the movies of a truly international quality. What's lost is a cinema in which you could hear yourself think.

The festival's motto is "True art transcends time." And the best of silent cinema has an appeal that is instantly recognizable. Stephen Salmons, the festival's artistic director, says, "What you're seeing in a silent film is artists who are discovering the way to use the medium. There's not a lot of discovery or freshness in the current movies."

Nine programs will be offered during the weekend, including everything from a silent animation program sponsored by Pixar to a Brazilian romance from 1929, Sangue Mineiro.

As an appetizer for the large-scale Harold Lloyd retrospective taking place this fall at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the Silent Film Festival opens with a less-well-known Lloyd film. The premise of 1926's For Heaven's Sake sounds a little come-to-Jaysus. Lloyd plays a pampered chump who volunteers in a skid-row rescue mission. But right from the snazzy animated titles of the man in the moon getting it in the kisser, For Heaven's Sake is dangerous fun.

Lloyd's method of salvation is unorthodox: he picks a fight, in tandem, with every tough guy in a slum. The final chase epitomizes Lloyd's action cinema. The hero tightropes around the rail of a speeding, driverless, double-decker bus, full of roaring drunks who have to be prevented from killing themselves through misadventure.

King Vidor's 1925 World War I epic The Big Parade and the Victor Sjöström/Lillian Gish The Scarlet Letter (1926) were big-budget MGM dramas. Still, both display aspects of humor.

"The Scarlet Letter is actually funny in parts," says Salmons. "It has a sense of derision toward Puritanism. In particular, there's a big laugh when Hester Prynne coyly asks Rev. Dimmesdale to tell her again how bad she is." Salmon continues, "I've really enjoyed opening people's eyes to silent films from China, India and Brazil. It's a shame that people don't realize that out of Hollywood filmmaking was equally sophisticated in the silent era."

Prem Sanyas (a.k.a. The Light of Asia), from 1925, tells the story of Buddha. It is the work of the people who went on to found the pioneer Bombay Talkies studio. Repetitive elephant processionals litter the epic, and the plot stops for a lance-pegging exposition that's a model of how not to shoot a horseback scene. Yet Himansu Rai's naturalistic performance as Gautama emphasizes the essential kingliness and bravery of his mission to save the world from suffering.


Read the full interview with festival director Stephen Salmons.


Salmons says that his real surprise this year is 1928's The Sideshow, a circus drama starring "Little Billy" Curtis. Curtis is best known as the mayor of Munchkintown in The Wizard of Oz. In The Sideshow, Curtis is like a shrunken version of Edward G. Robinson or Edward Arnold. A tough but fair sideshow midget who worked his way up to take over the circus, he still keeps a picture of Napoleon on his wall—someone else who started small.

This textbook definition of the great "little movie" was diverting. What got me more interested was a first encounter with Clara Bow.

Bow is often called the predecessor to Marilyn Monroe, because of her fame as a sex symbol and the unhappiness of her later life. Rather than moaning over Bow's end, let's look at what's onscreen. Her star-maker, It (1927), is the earliest, quickest and most uproarious version of the story of the shop girl who hooks her boss.

The horror-movie title is due to the film's credited source, a nonfiction bestseller by chick-lit avatar Elinor Glyn. The Margaret Dumontish "Madame Glyn" turns up to emphasize her thesis: Some people have "It"—sex appeal, basically—and some don't.

Bow didn't need that definition. She demonstrated that being a movie star is all about presence, not acting. Rather than being brassy, dumb and fleshy like Monroe, Bow is resourceful, mocking and lean. What she really looks like is Helena Bonham Carter. In the challenge and levelness of her gaze, in the masculine privileges she seizes, Bow is part of a vein that has as much to do with Marlon Brando, James Dean, Sean Connery and Brad Pitt as it does with Monroe or Bette Davis. You have to see this girl.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs July 8-10 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. (Call 415.777.8623 or see www.silentfilm.org for schedule details and ticket info.)

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From the July 6-12, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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