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 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.
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.