A red letter date on the local calendar, and one of the most important silent film fests in the world, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival turns 20 this year, expanding to five days and 20 programs at the famous Castro Theatre, itself a veteran of the age of silent movies.
Here are well-known classics of the medium, such as the June 1st closing-night offering, MGM’s hit 1925 version of Ben Hur — the ultimate spectacle of its time, recently restored. For those who’d rather see a couple go back and forth, instead of chariot racers going around and around, the Garbo/Gilbert Flesh and the Devil (1926) provides light and heat (the two stars were in love in real life). For the centennial of the Great War, the recently discovered silent version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) demonstrates how much better a war film is when it was made in living memory of the combatants.
Here also are revivals of real death row/desert island silent movies, shown in best available prints and with an audience that understands and loves them. Take F. W. Murnau’s innovative The Last Laugh (1924). The director known far too much for Nosferatu and far too little for Sunrise demonstrates his ability to tell a complicated and tragic story in images (almost) alone; watching the rise and fall of a doorman (Emil Jannings) at a surreally swank hotel, we get under the skin of a proud man. Screening in the “Avant-Garde Paris” program, the short Dimitri Kirsanoff film Ménilmontant (1926), about that then-slummy neighborhood in Paris, is the link between the shadowy pioneers of French film and the incomparable Jean Vigo. Late in her life, Pauline Kael called it a masterpiece that no one knew about.As always, there are rarities and revivals, and fragments retrieved from the wreckage of time. Arguably the most exciting of them all is Monday’s display of a produced and abandoned film of 1913 billed in a program titled “100 Years in Post-Production.” It’s priceless footage—rushes and outtakes starring the enormously popular Bert Williams. This Caribbean-born vaudevillian, whose name and fame are essential to any history of black people in show business, was once described by W. C. Fields as “the funniest man I ever saw.”
Some other highlights:
Speedy : The ever-imperiled Harold Lloyd is “Speedy” Swift, a youth too crazed by baseball to hold down a job. The grandfather of his girlfriend (Ann Christy) is the owner/operator of the last horse-drawn trolley in New York City. The streetcar company has hired thugs to pull the plug on this last bit of competition. Lloyd saves the day, while touring New York in extensive footage that’s so detailed that it’s like a time machine voyage—the 1928 film includes a captivating extended sequence at the long-gone amusement park Luna Park. Babe Ruth turns up in the flesh, to be greeted with more enthusiasm than politeness by Speedy: “Gee, Babe, you’ve done more for baseball than cheese did for Switzerland!” The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanies the screening.
The Amazing Charley Bowers: Any worthwhile silent comedian could use a banana peel where it counted. The obscure Charlie Bowers took it to the next level. He devised machines on camera to test the slipperiness of the peel. He put the peel under the microscope to study a stop-motion cootiebug living on the banana. Finally, he tested the peel under the feet of unwilling guinea pigs on a steep staircase.
Bowers was a cartoonist and animator who died unheralded in New Jersey during the 1940s. A product of the early-20th century passion to invent, Bowers’ persona was a solitary genius type in oversized work corduroys, with a laboratory and a large trash barrel labeled “NG” (“No Good”) for failures. A very unhelpful Internet fails to find the link between Bower’s French nickname “M. Brico” and the surrealist concept of bricolage. But Andre Breton praised Bower’s short films, and the French kept some superb prints of them. (The French also rescued the keystone film of this year’s fest, the previously missing 1916 William Gillette version of Sherlock Holmes .)
You can see what Breton saw in the best of these five shorts, Now You Tell One (1926). At a pompous meeting of the Liar’s Club, a suicidal passerby enters to tell of his labors. Among the lies told at this august body is of a stampede of 47 brilliantly animated elephants storming the US Capitol—almost one pachyderm per senator. Later, Bowers is in Luther Burbank mode, grafting up an eggplant that, when cut open, reveals a hardboiled egg and a salt shaker. French viewers might well have wondered what eggs had to do with an aubergine and decided that it was the unconscious mind at work.
“The Marvelous Toy” of the Tom Paxton song could accompany A Wild Roomer (1926); Bowers wrecks his boarding house with a ten foot tall machine of much purpose. It brings dolls to life with thumping hearts (the sequence is a little uncanny, like Ex Machina ). But it can also punish—the scene where it attacks the bomb-throwing villain uncomfortably recalls the cruel mechanical device in Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.”
Admittedly, Keaton did what Bowers did (in The Electric House or The Boat ) and so much more besides. Bowers cared little for the essential language of screen comedy, the closeup and the reaction shot, and went straight for the Boob McNutt gimmicks. But the strange ingenuity here deserves to be celebrated: a genius that grows living kitties from pussy willow branches and cattails.
The Donovan Affair : Based on “the most thrilling baffling chilling hypnotizing electrifying play that has presented on stage within the last generation”—the ads said it, so it must be true–1929’s The Donovan Affair is one of those “one of you in this room is the murderer” murder cases. It’s done, as the best ones are, none too insanely seriously. Donovan (John Roche), a no-good guest at a swank party, turns the lights out for fun and ends up dead. Jack Holt’s Inspector Killian (and his dim sidekick Fred Kelsey of Mesa of Lost Women and many Joe McDoakes shorts) arrives to solve the puzzle. It was both Columbia Pictures’ and Frank Capra’s first all-talking film: “The beginning of a true understanding of the skills of my craft,” Capra said later. The dialogue, recorded on Vitaphone 16-inch platters, has long been lost. So has the source play, leaving the film mute and without titles. It exists in only one print kept by the Library of Congress. Heroic resuscitation efforts by Bruce Goldstein and a troop of actors brought the movie back to life; Goldstein discovered that the New York State Board of Film Censors kept a transcript of about half of the dialogue, and lipreading did the rest. (“We studied it like the Zapruder film,” said one of the original cast, Allen Lewis Rickman.) With its live performance by “The Gower Gulch Players,” this is one of those unique film experiences that people talk about for years afterwards—a replication of the shock of live sound when it first descended on the silent audience.
The Deadlier Sex : On hand is a glorious 35mm tinted print of this thought-lost film (Wikipedia still considers it MIA). This 1920 romance has an exasperating plot, sort of pilfered from The Admirable Crichton , a popular desert-island romance nonesuch of the day. On the bright side, Blanche Sweet is indeed sweet—she gives Renee Zellwegger levels of feist. She’s the daughter of an honorable railroad tycoon who inherits the family business. When a corporate raider tries to pump and dump her stocks, she goes vigilante by drugging him and taking him to the woods so that he can learn about the tougher, simpler life up there. Shot in the Sierras, The Deadlier Sex recreates the cabin camping in the era—it’s like the North Woods chapter in Babbitt . Congratulating a silent film on its pretty titles is like complimenting a homely person on their nice hair. But a fine landscape is described as “a masterpiece by the Infinite Artist”. And “The Pale Messenger comes gently…” says a card right before the father dies in his favorite armchair, pipe still held in limp hand.
Eleven years before his star-making performance in The Criminal Code , during a time when he alternated acting with jobs requiring heavy lifting, here is a 23 year old Mr. William Henry Pratt—Karloff the Uncanny. Karloff is a rapacious French Canadian thug complete with toque and vaudeville accent (“Msisiur” seems the way he pronounces a polite address). The tarantula on this slice of angel-food cake, Karloff glares at the camera in a way that should have scared director Robert Thornby into making a better movie.
Read Bruce Goldstein’s adventures or, “How I Reconstructed a Lost Capra Classic (with the help of some hungry New York Actors)” restoring The Donovan Affair.
Click here to read more about Charlie Bowers and see clips of his movies.
SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL
May 28-June 1, 2015. Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF. www.silentfilm.org. The free 128-page program book is one you will keep.It is filled with great original articles about each show plus rare stills and posters.
Richard von Busack is a staff writer at San Jose’s Metro Newspapers. He’s the author of The Art of Megamind and has written for Entertainment Weekly, n +1 and cinematical.com. He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.