Saturday morning’s program starts with the family-friendly Speedy (1928), and some parents likely will bring their tots for an outing to this screening. I love seeing kids getting their introduction to silents or enjoying a return trip to the festival. Comedies are a great gateway into silent film for all ages. In this slapstick feature, Harold Lloyd plays baseball obsessed Harold “Speedy” Swift, who can’t keep a job as well as he can keep up with his team. His being able to find a job every Monday after he’s lost one the previous week keeps dashing the marriage hopes of his honey, Jane Dillon (Ann Christy). While the younger generation discovers life’s tribulations anew, Speedy’s dad Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff) moves more slowly. He’s the last horse-drawn streetcar driver in New York City, and a wheeler and dealer wants Pop’s track. Will big business push or buy him out? A son’s love for his father becomes an indefatigable force in a battle for a family’s future. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanies the film.
Visages d’enfants (1925), or Faces of Children, is another film that focuses on a family. It covers a theme that often appears at this festival–what makes a family. Son Jean Amsler (Jean Forest) is only a child, and he’s having a hard time coping with his mother’s passing. His father Pierre (Victor Vina) temporarily sends Jean away, and Pierre remarries during his son’s absence. Jean returns to a household changed once again. Not only does he get a Step-Mother (Jeanne Dutois played by Rachel Devirys), but also he gains a Step-Sister (Arlette portrayed by Arlette Peyran). He takes his resentment of Jeanne out on Arlette, and his actions escalate until they could cause a tragedy. Director Jacques Feyder‘s exploration of psychological family drama and childhood grief earned him critical acclaim, and it’s been called his best work. Stephen Horne accompanies the film.
Silent film purists might object to the The Donovan Affair (1929) being placed on the schedule. Technically it’s only a silent through circumstance. Director Frank Capra filmed the dark house mystery as a talkie. It was “his first ‘100% all-Dialogue Picture.’” “Its original soundtrack, recorded on transcription discs,” was lost. Ignore the pedants! The solutions to the challenges this screening presents are fun. Bruce Goldstein, director of programming at New York’s Film Forum, made it his mission to make screening the film possible. The original script was lost, but he found “half the dialogue in the archives of the now-defunct New York State Censorship Board.” He searched for actors with a feel for the era who could convincingly sound of it and become the voices of Capra’s onscreen cast. Goldstein’s actors became the Gower Gulch Players, and they helped him recreate the script further. They pieced together more of the movie’s dialogue through lipreading its actors. Pianist Steve Sterner created the film’s “new score.” This will be the troupe’s fourth public performance of The Donovan Affair. Frank Buxton is a guest performer.
Flesh and the Devil (1926) starring John Gilbert and Greta Garbo likely will be a sold-out screening, so you should get the the Castro Theatre early for this film! A crowd will turn-out to see Garbo and Gilbert sizzle on the screen. Their character’s onscreen romance was paralleled by the actors’ offscreen one, and because Gilbert fell hard for his leading lady, he made sure she would shine in what was only her third American picture. Gilbert was the bigger, more established star of the two, and Irving Thalberg, “banked on his highest paid player to help define an unknown entity.” Gilbert’s help went much further than agreeing to stare with the mysterious new discovery and share equal billing. He was an experienced actor, and he was a screenwriter and an assistant director. While she had “It,” he had the knowledge of what worked in front of the camera. He asked for retakes of any scenes where Garbo could have shone better, and he didn’t object to camera angles designed or requested to show off her beauty. Garbo was grateful for his help. “If he had not come into my life at this time, I should probably have come home to Sweden at once, my American career over.” While the behind-the-scenes history of the movie overshadows its conventional romantic melodramatic plot of a friendship torn apart by a woman’s love, its luminous stars and their multi-layered romances show the power silent film icons had to seem more than us watching them on the screen. They were bigger in size, the most beautiful, grander in lifestyle, fuller of feeling, and capable of great love.
From the silent film community’s murmurings after 2014’s Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pan (1922) will be the sleeper hit of the San Francisco festival. Descriptions of Knut Hamsun‘s book make it seem a straightforward tale. Two disparate strangers are pulled together by an “overwhelming attraction“. She is a wealthy, educated townswoman, and he is an ex-soldier turned hunter living in a forest with his dog. Despite their love, they don’t understand each other’s ways, and they seem fated not to be together. It’s the rendering of this story that makes it outstanding. Silent London wrote, “Lush, detailed photography, delicately tinted, with epigrammatic intertitles, and many a layer of mystery to uncover, this was a film of great beauty and unique oddity.” Pan was a success, but it was Harald Schwenzen‘s only directing credit. He’s like the debut novelist who retires after writing a masterpiece. See why the Film Noir Foundation said Pan “secured Schwenzen’s reputation in cinema history.” Guenter Buchwald accompanies the film.
More all ages comedy kicks off Sunday’s screenings! There’s an entire program devoted to the shorts of The Amazing Charley Bowers. He was almost forgotten in his home country the United States until “Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films revived his oeuvre in 2010.” The shorts he restored are thought to be a portion of Bowers’ existing work. More may exist in archives. What a shame it would be for Bowers’ works to be lost by lack of interest! His films are surrealistic slapstick outings mixing live action with animation and often featuring “complex Rube Goldberg gadgets.” The best comedians make us look at the world or life in a new way while we laugh, and Bowers had that talent and a singular vision. Who else would make a film starring a kilt mad laddie investigating a mystery with a cockroach detective also clad in a kilt? No wonder Bowers was beloved by André Breton and the Surrealists. Featured shorts include A Wild Roomer (1926, 24 minutes), Now You Tell One (1926, 22 minutes), Many a Slip (1927, 12 minutes), and There It Is (1928, 17 minutes). Serge Bromberg accompanies the films.
Avant-Garde Paris showcases two films from 1920s Paris that illustrate the creative experimentation of the city, making it a beacon for artists.
Emak-Bakia (1927, 16 minutes) is a cinépoème by visual artist Man Ray. The title is “Basque for Leave me alone.” How that relates to the film is up to individual interpretation. After the title and credits, the first image seen is a man with his camera with human eye on its side, so everything that follows could be a film dreamed up by a crazed cinematographer. Light, image, double exposure, speed, rhythm, angle, extreme close-ups, and a sometimes unsteady camera are played with. Images range from the abstract to the identifiable. Fans of vintage personalities should know Kiki of Montparnasse (Alice Prin) makes an appearance. Earplay accompanies the film with a score created by Nicolas Tzortzis.
Ménilmontant (1926, 44 minutes) may look more conventional in comparison to Emak-Bakia, since the former film is a narrative, but Ménilmontant’s director Dimitri Kirsanoff experimented with techniques and images in telling a comprehendible story, and he didn’t use intertitles. His leads (Nadia Sibirskaïa and Yolande Beaulieu) portray two sisters. When the film starts, they look like innocent D.W. Griffith heroines. The girls are wearing big bows, running about, and playing with each other and their cats. An axe murderer kills their parents, and their lives are disrupted. When we next see them, they’re chaperoneless young women of the flapper era, and their bond is threatened by a man with no intent of joining the family. Stephen Horne accompanies the film.
My San Francisco Silent Film Festival preview continues with Part 3 tomorrow. If you missed Part 1 of my preview, you can read it here.