Friday, July 17, 2009


For the first time, I made a major cross-country pilgrimage to see a film festival. This is what comes of having a job with a firm with a liberal vacation policy. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been on my radar for a long time for a couple of reasons: I love silent films and I love San Francisco and I love the Castro Theatre where the festival takes place. I didn't see all of the programs, there just being limits to how much I can take in. Here are some notes on what I did see:

The opening night attraction was THE GAUCHO, a Douglas Fairbanks vehicle of great charm and energy. The story isn't much: Fairbanks plays The Gaucho, a notorious bandit leader who finds himself in a power struggle with a fascist-type dictator over control of a small town in Mexico which just happens to have a famous Lourdes-type shrine, complete with a St. Bernadette stand-in. There's a good deal of fun to be had before the inevitable Hollywood Silent Piety takes over, as Fairbanks cheerfully does a host of impossible things effortlessly. Not just the big wall-scaling stunts, either. The Gaucho has a running habit of putting a cigarette into his mouth, striking a match with his thumbnail, propping the match in his thumbnail, lighting the cigarette with the match in his thumbnail and flicking the match away (leaving an impressive trail of smoke), all with one hand in one continuous fluid movement that just defies description and must have taken weeks to master. Fairbanks seems to be having a grand old time doing all this, and his delight is infectious. The movie is almost pure pleasure. I liked it a hell of a lot, and the crystal clear print and live accompaniment by the Mount Alto Orchestra only added to the experience.

A program of odds and ends from assorted archives that wouldn't really fit into any particular program, some shorts, trailers and brief clips (some lasting only a few seconds) from films that don't exist anymore, introduced by the archivists who oversaw their restoration. A couple of amusing shorts, one with the memorable intertitle "Spurned By The Heiress, The Music Teacher Listens To The Arguments Of The Anarchist." A tantalizing couple of seconds from an otherwise lost film with proto-hunk Ramon Novarro were fun to look at, too.

A costume adventure in the Fairbanks style, starring the great John Gilbert, directed by the great King Vidor from a novel by Rafael Sabatini. Gilbert plays Bardelys, a 17th Century Casanova type in the court of Louis XIII who finds himself obliged to woo and marry a country virgin as part of a wager. Bardelys travels to the girl's family estate and for some reason takes the identity of a man he finds dying in a barn, and finds himself assumed by everyone to be the leader of an anti-royalist plot to overthrow the king, which plot involves the family of the girl he's supposed to be wooing. Don't be looking for plausibility here. Vastly entertaining, with some genuinely funny intertitles, a rarity in silent films. The movie dares you to take it seriously, and it was interesting to see it within 12 hours of THE GAUCHO. Fairbanks and Gilbert are both fascinating performers. Gilbert is by far the finer actor, actually creating characters onscreen, as opposed to Fairbanks' near-mugging. But the big climactic action sequence is clearly meant to be in the Fairbanks mode, and, despite some wonderful gimmicks it doesn't quite come off as handsomely as it might, largely because Gilbert simply lacks Fairbanks' astonishing ability to the impossible with ease. An entertaining bit of fluff, with a lovely performance by Eleanor Boardman as the object of Gilbert's affections. She plays a virtuous virgin without making her unapproachably pure, her occasional little grins add an amusing dimension to what could have been a real piece of cardboard.

Directed by Josef von Sternberg from a script by the great Ben Hecht, an early gangster film that seems to have set the template for a lot of what came after. Hecht even uses great chunks of the plot of this film (for which he won the first Academy Award for best original story) in his screenplay for Hawks' SCARFACE. The plot centers on a rivalry between two gang leaders (exactly what their gangs do is never really spelled out), one of whom takes a down and outer under his wing and sets him up in some style. The refurbished down and outer, of course, falls for the gangster's moll, and it kind of goes along from there. This must have been pretty alarming stuff in 1927, but it felt rather tame now, and the similarities to SCARFACE are just too apparent for the movie to seem like much more than a footnote to the later film.

An early science fiction film from Russia. This has been on my radar for years, every now and then I'd catch a glimpse of a photo of some of the remarkable Futurist cubist type sets and costumes for the scenes on Mars, and had been expecting a kind of cross between METROPOLIS and BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, but got instead a rather tired Soviet propaganda piece, with some admittedly cool bits that weren't cool enough to alleviate the boredom. I fell asleep, and don't feel that I missed much.

A fascinating program of shorts featuring Oswald, Disney's cartoon star before Mickey. Well, the shorts were fascinating. The biggest drawback to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival were the people chosen to introduce the screenings, who occasionally went on too long without saying very much of substance or even interest. The Oswald program had the worst offender in Leonard Maltin, who took a lot of time to tell the audience what pretty much every one of us present almost assuredly already knew about the early history of Walt Disney, without ever once managing to be at all interesting in any way.

I did like the shorts, though. Fast and funny and above all lively. Cartoons at this period were usually pretty simple affairs, you were expected to just sit and appreciate the moving pictures of dogs and cats and mice. These shorts are not much different, but there are little moments that surprise, like an extended bit with a dog who is startled when his hot dog sceams in pain at each impending bite. The dog finally tearfully sets the bun down, and the hot dog runs happily away.

A wonderful festival, all around. I didn't make all of the screenings, but there were plenty who did. The same people seemed to be in the same seats at each screening I attended, clearly having stayed put between shows. I don't know if I have it in me to go quite that far, but the opportunity to see such great prints of these films, in such a great setting, with such an appreciative audience, is not one that I'm likely to pass up often. I think I'll be making this an annual trek.


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