Silents, Please!

Anticipating the SFSFF’s Day of Silents Makes My Endorphins Rise

by Meredith Brody

(December 1, 2022)

William Haines and Marion Davies in SHOW PEOPLE

I keep my TV tuned (do we say tuned, nowadays?) to TCM. It’s what greets me when I snap on the TV (do we say snap on, nowadays), and has resulted in me being surprised that The Apartment or The Women or Wild River or Touch of Evil is playing. I pause to watch “for JUST a few minutes,” and end up trapped, mesmerized by The Whole Thing.This morning when I turned it on, I was greeted by the dulcet tones of Kevin Brownlow saying “The silent picture people had a very hard job: emotion, without words. They came through with flying colors.” And then Bill Morrison: “For me silent film reaches a kind of dream state. It has a quality somewhere between what we know as our everyday experience as contemporary sentient beings and… these archetypes of characters and conflicts that we understand through mythology.” 

Meanwhile my eyes were being treated to a fast collage of clips  – I do love a clip show! – of instantly recognizable moments from movies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Clara Bow, Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks — glimpses of The Kid, The Patsy, Modern Times, The Crowd, The Wind, Metropolis, Ben-Hur, Safety Last, The Big Parade, Sunrise.

I felt my endorphins rise. Even more so when I realized that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s Day of Silents  was coming up on Saturday, December 3 in the beautiful Castro movie palace.

I’ve already said more than once that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is my favorite among the many local festivals. And the Day of Silents reminds me just why: it’s generous (six films in one day), inclusive (everybody can see all the movies in one location), and brilliantly programmed (with delicious and varied live music accompanying every film).

I love silent films, not just for its special wordless language, but for, among other things, its glimpses into another time. As Brownlow says: “They are…a time machine in showing you exactly what people looked like, what streets looked like, how they behaved to each other, and attitudes.” Sometimes, I have thought, all a 1920’s camera has to do is photograph a street to make my heart leap.

Another advantage of this year’s Day of Silents: its brisk pace. After a year in which so many movies topped the two-hour mark, the movies range in length from 54 minutes to 80 minutes. Pandemic-hardened binge-watchers can do the day standing on their heads. (but, we hope, wearing their masks.)

It begins at 11 a.m. with a tribute to my imaginary boyfriend, Buster Keaton, called “Buster’s Mechanized Mayhem“:  three of his best shorts, The High Sign (1921), The Electric House (1922), and The Goat (1921), accompanied on the piano by award-winning composer Wayne Barker(Peter and The Starcatchers), who was discovered by SFSFF regular Donald Sosin at one of his extracurricular Master Classes.

At 1 p.m., Forbidden Paradise (1924), starring Pola Negri, directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch, an erotic comedy inspired by the ever-popular Catherine the Great of Russia (who’s been played by a murderer’s row including Dietrich, Jeanne Moreau, Helen Mirren, and currently Elle Fanning). The film co-stars Adolphe Menjou, Rod la Roque, and we might glimpse an uncredited Clark Gable as one of the Czarina’s guards. Live music will be performed by the justly-famed Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, a five-member crew traveling to SF from snowy Colorado.

We segue from European comedy to European drama, the great discovery for silent movie buffs in this lineup: Pour Don Carlos (1921), starring and directed by the great Musidora, newly restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival itself, in partnership with the Cinemathèque de Toulouse and the Cinemathèque Francaise. Musidora is famed for her performance as the black-cat-suited Irma Vep in Louis Feuillade’s ten-episode serial Les Vampires (1915-1916). Very few of the movies she directed have survived, hence the excitement about seeing this one, set during Spain’s 19th-century civil war and filmed in the Basque country.  Musical accompaniment by the Sascha Jacobsen Ensemble, who was nominated for the Latin Grammy this year for Best Tango Album.

At 5 p.m., Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915), starring the unexpected matinee idol Sessue Hayakawa as a villainous wealthy who will loan money to the desperate socialite played by Fanny Ward – for a price. The ultimate price, if you know what I mean, including an upsetting scene of s/m torture. Jack Dean, Fanny Ward’s real husband, plays her husband in the film. Wayne Barker again does the honors as accompanist.

Changing the atmosphere from intense melodrama, at 7 p.m. King Vidor’s delightful Hollywood comedy, Show People (1928), starring no-longer-underrated Marion Davies and no-longer-closeted William Haines, in a sendup of the world they all knew so well.  Look for cameos from LOTS of silent stars, ranging from the most famous – Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin – to the less-well-known: Rod la Roque, who we saw earlier in Forbidden Paradise, Eleanor Boardman (then married to King Vidor, who also can be glimpsed in the film).  The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will play.

And the day ends at 9 p.m. with a burst of two-color Technicolor, employed for the beautiful Anna May Wong in two-strip’s earliest surviving movie, The Toll of the Sea (1922). The story – beautiful Asian woman, Lotus Flower, betrayed by an American man who fathers her child but does not stay with her – will be familiar. It does provide Anna May Wong with one of the roles that allowed her to shine.  And its brisk 54-minute running time ought to send us into the streets hungry for more. On November 22, 2022 the U.S. Mint issued Anna May Wong quarters.

I know I will be. For, as Kevin Brownlow said in the TCM short: “The best of the silent films are great works of art.” The San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s 2022 Day of Silents will remind us all of that.

See the complete schedule and to purchase tickets.

(Editor’s Note: Will this be the last film festival at the Castro Theatre. New management wants to remove the seats on the main floor and replace them with dance floors, using folding seats for film programming. This destroys both the historic integrity of the theater and the proper moviegoing experience. Visit Save the Castro to learn how you can join over the thousands of filmgoers, filmmakers, writers and actors to preserve one of the most important movie venues in the world.)

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Meredith Brody, a graduate of both the Paris Cordon Bleu cooking school and USC film school, has been the restaurant critic for, among others, the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and SF Weekly, and has written for countless film magazines and websites including Cahiers du Cinema, Film Comment, and Indiewire. Her writings on books, theater, television, and travel have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Interview. She also contributes to EatDrinkFilms including her“Meals with Meredith,” where she talks about food and film with filmmakers at restaurants in northern California, writes about vintage cocktails and where she eats during film festivals at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. A selection of her EDF pieces are found here.

One could describe Meredith as “hooked on cinema” as she attends four-five films a day at many bay area and international festivals each year.  Somebody has to do it. Read about her journey back to festivals after two years in pandemic mode.

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