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Lion Down on the Job: Gloria Swanson swoons in Cecil B. DeMille's 'Male and Female.'

Unspoken Word

The universal art of the silent film unreels at the Castro Theatre

By Richard von Busack

SILENT FILM sometimes seems not just the root of modern cinema, but the aim of it. It's a simple, universal art in which actors are never handicapped by language or accents or cultures. The Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco expands to two days this year, Saturday-Sunday (July 13-14). This year's highlight is 1924's Girl Shy (Saturday at 8:30pm; Sunday at 11am) with Harold Lloyd, a silent comedian who anticipates Tobey Maguire's Spider-Man in his combination of meekness and daring feats. (Lloyd's Safety Last would make a superb double bill with Spider-Man.)

In Girl Shy, Lloyd plays "The Boy," a tailor's assistant from the pokey town of Little Bend. Like Peter Parker, he also has a secret identity. At night, he works on his book, The Secret of Making Love, a memoir based on his fantasies. The finale is often excerpted in anthologies of silent humor: racing to the altar to prevent a marriage, Lloyd steals every kind of vehicle to get to the church on time, including a hurtling, out-of-control streetcar.

If Lloyd's work anticipates Spider-Man, the 1930 film Hell's Heroes (Sunday at 7:30pm) by William Wyler is the earliest version of the plot later used in the animated feature Ice Age. Made at the cusp of the sound era, Hell's Heroes shows that the whiskery adult Western of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone was as much a return to form as a stepping up of realism. The outlaws here are brutes at first, dusty and threatening, starting up a catfight between two prostitutes just for the fun of it. All of this serves to highlight their redemption. Hell's Heroes is far from the imagery of the early movie cowboy as we picture him, duded up with brass buttons and piping, like a bellhop. Terence Stamp, who was directed by Wyler years later in The Collector, will be on hand to share his memories of Wyler.

Also scheduled is Shiraz (1928; Saturday at 4:15pm), a rarely seen epic from India on the creation of the Taj Mahal. Male and Female (1919; Saturday at 1:30pm) is Cecil B. DeMille's hallucinatory version of J.M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton, a class-struggle romance that includes a desert island ordeal and a reincarnation sequence in ancient Babylon. Basically, it's the kind of movie that inspired Harold Lloyd's book in Girl Shy. Being a man, author S.J. Perelman naturally favored "a piquant scene wherein Miss Gloria Swanson dons a peeka-boo negligee, sinuously peels to enter a sunken marble tub and sluices down in a shower containing a spigot marked 'Toilet Water.'"

Those allergic to triple-cream cheesecake should prefer the wholesomeness of the original version of Captain January (1924; Saturday at 11am), with its homely plot of an orphan adopted by a crusty old lighthouse keeper. Its star, the celebrated child actor Baby Peggy (the author Diana Serra Cary) will be in attendance, a reminder that silent film not only retains its vitality but still survives in living memory.

The Silent Film Festival takes place July 13-14 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10/$12. For a complete schedule check www.silentfilm.org or call 415.552.2075.

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From the July 11-17, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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