The San Francisco Silent Film Festival‘s annual Silent Winter closed with the grand sounds of the Mighty Wurlitzer last night. I had to sit in my seat overwhelmed by the last film and the day for a moment. Before the festival’s end, we were treated to fairy tales, laughs, romance, heartbreak, and redemption. All this filled a thirteen-hour day, but it was worth sitting for so long. Any San Francisco Silent Film Festival event event offers the rare chance to see silents accompanied lived and with a grateful and appreciative audience, making it easy to feel like a time traveller for a day or weekend.
My impressions of the day’s films follow below!
Snow White (1916)
Marguerite Clark revises her hit stage role for this adaptation. While she was thirty-three when she made this movie, her movements, manner, dress, and styling come together to give an impression of youth. She’s the sweet soul whose fairytale existence turns into a nightmare.
Her beautiful mother dies young, and her father the King dies shortly after marriage to an evil, formerly ugly woman (Dorothy Cumming), who promised the heart of Snow White to Witch Hex in return for possessing a greater beauty than the girl’s. The witch strikes the deal due to her vanity–she’s bald and wants a full head of hair.
The newly widowed Queen Brangomar makes the rightful heir to the throne a household slave like that other fairytale heroine, Cinderella. There’s even a moment when her former handmaids act like Cinderella’s fairy godmother and dress Snow White in their clothes and accessories to attend a party, where she turns a princely head before having to flee. The Queen is enraged. She wanted the younger man for herself.
More trials upon the good are shown in the form of the hunstman Berthold (Lionel Braham). He’s an honorable man and father, but the Queen threatens to kill his brood unless he brings her Snow White’s heart. His attempt to save his children, yet spare Snow White, sets in motion the rest of the film.
There is more darkness to this retelling than later film versions. Jealousy, threats, dark magic, and death color scenes with dread and danger. This is countered by beauty, whimsy, and nature. The good are all beautiful or handsome or funny. They’re in harmony with the world and order (like Snow White led to safety by a bird) or work in the natural world (like Bethold and the dwarves). The dwarves provide humor, but their love and kindness makes them protect Snow White. Despite the happy ending, there’s the threat of potential chaos after-the-fact. A now hirsute Witch Hex and her strange humanoid cat not only survive, but also celebrate with the court.
Think Slow, Act Fast: Buster Keaton Shorts (1920-1921)
Before attending the festival, I told my friend new to seeing silents live that Buster Keaton was handsome when he was young and that his segment was one she’d enjoy. She told me I was right on both accounts! Buster won over another filmgoer to silents.
The shorts screened were One Week (1920), The Scarecrow (1920), and The Play House (1921). When Buster is at his best, it’s easy to feel like Sybil Seely in a favorite scene from One Week. Chaos surrounds her. She sits inside a spinning house on a spinning chair, and she enjoys every moment laughing the whole time. Buster’s clever gags and freneticism take us all on a wild, fun ride. The only down moment was the audience’s palpable uncomfortableness at the minstrel scenes in The Play House, but it relaxed and laughed again once those scenes had passed.
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
Douglas Fairbanks plays the titular thief, a lazy, self-absorbed, chaos bringer made less threatening and redeemable by the actor’s charms. When we first see the thief Ahmed, he’s like Aesop’s grasshopper. He lounges and plays. When he has a need to be met, he steals from one of the ants, the people whose work have provided them homes he loots for food and fun. What he wants, he takes with no thought to others. After stealing a magic rope, he breaks into the Caliph’s (Brandon Hurst) home, and the sight of the sleeping Princess (Julanne Johnston) makes him pause. She awakens him.
After getting chased off from the palace, he returns as an imposter and suitor. The Caliph is trying to marry off the Princess, so princes from around the world are presenting themselves for consideration. Marriage to her means inheriting and ruling the kingdom once her father dies. Ahmed as false prince actually fulfills a prophecy. One of the Princess’s slaves has the gift of sight-seeing. Whoever touches the rosebush first will marry the Princess. Ahmed gets thrown into the bush by his horse!
While he successfully woos the Princess, he falls in love and cannot lie to her anymore. A spy for one of the other suitors (Anna May Wong), the Mongol Prince (Sojin), overhears his confession, which she shares. This competitor uses the information to his advantage, and he informs the Caliph of the deception.
After a discovered Ahmed is once again chased out of the palace, the Caliph wants to force the Princess to make a choice. Her loyal soothsayer once again helps. She devises a delay. The Princess will marry after seven moons the man who brings her the rarest gift. The princes and Ahmed then travel the world seeking the rarest gift to win the Princess.
This fantastical world is created through grand sets and inhabited by mysterious beings and dangerous creatures. Fairbanks shows off his athleticism jumping, swinging, and battling man and creature through these sets. Their scale often dwarf him until close-up.
Everything proceeds very straightforwardly. If you want a simple tale of the hero’s journey, then this film succeeds. If you want more of the wit that glints in Fairbanks’ eyes, then you’ll wish that Anita Loos had punched up the intertitles or scenarios like I did. Despite this quibble, the film entertains and teaches. Who can argue with the moral of this tale? Happiness must be earned, and it is.
My Best Girl (1927)
This sweet film goes down like a bon bon, but it also contains another false suitor and adds class angst. Mary Pickford plays Maggie Johnson, a working class girl. She takes a shine to the new stock boy at the five and dime, Joe (Buddy Rogers). At first he’s terrible at his job, but under Maggie’s tutelage he earns a promotion. The two fall in love during their time together. Maggie doesn’t know two important things. Joe already has a girlfriend, and his family owns the store. Their love gets tested by these revelations, his family’s disapproval, and her home life complicated by a troubled and trashy sister.
Some say you can see Mary and Buddy fall in love while making this picture. I’m not sure about that, but they have onscreen chemistry. Despite the out-of-date clothes Maggie wears, Mary looks pretty as Maggie. Her looks and sweetness make it believable that Joe would fall in love with her. Buddy is full of boyish charm and good looks. His clothes, energy, and any make-up used give him a modern, youthful look. If you look a little too closely at the pair and their scenes, Mary screens a little older than he. That’s due to her make-up, the sometimes hazy close-up lenses, and the unfashionable clothing, yet there is youthfulness in her looks and energy and that chemistry, so the pairing works.
This movie shares the theme with The Thief of Bagdad that happiness is earned. Maggie and her father (Lucien Littlefield) work to provide for the family. In fact Maggie often acts as their mother figure. Her mother (Sunshine Hart) is more interested in attending funerals than running her own home, and Maggie helps her sister Liz (Carmelita Geraghty) get out of constant scrapes. Liz is content to take anything given to her by her family. She doesn’t work, so she has time to get involved with ne’er-do-wells.
Maggie’s enmeshment with her family is presented as more of an obstacle than the class difference. Her first date with Joe runs long. No one in her family cooked dinner because they expected her to. Worse her sister gets in trouble with the law, and her parents don’t know what to do. Whether or not she can break away from them and their dependence on her provides drama to the comedy.
The most dramatic scene occurs in the family’s kitchen. I do not want to spoil the impact or surprise of the scene, but Maggie shows how much she loves Joe when Mary shows off her range of acting ability within minutes. It’s saddening and upsetting. Before long the sugary goodness of this romance returns. The film’s end uplifts and affirms romance.
At first I was not going to stay for Faust. I’ve seen it before on the small screen, but I couldn’t remember a lot of this version, so I stayed. The high brought about by My Best Girl was destroyed. When the scholar Faust (Gösta Ekmann) makes deals with the Mephisto (Emil Jannings), Faust brings suffering to himself and anyone he loves, like the innocent Gretchen (Camilla Horn). She loses everything, her family, good name, baby, and eventually her life. The misery of what occurs onscreen is supposed to be tempered by the redemption of Faust’s soul and their love living on into the afterlife.
The film is a prime example of German Expressionism. The scenes are striking. Any still from the film likely looks like a piece of art. Strange angles and bold shadows dominate. They are anxiety-provoking. Within these sets and shots, Jannings runs through his arsenal of mannerisms and expressions. Some could be nightmare provoking, particularly when he’s in Mephisto’s true form.
Although all accompanists were excellent this day, Christian Elliott‘s performance on the Mighty Wurlitzer for this film was outstanding. At times the sound was booming and domineering, other times it was more subtle and sad. During the devil’s scenes, the organ’s sinister sounds amped up his awfulness. The organ’s final tones were exhilarant for Faust’s and Gretchen’s souls ascension to heaven.