Just as today’s immigrants search for shelter and sanctuary, the films at the 24th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival featured protagonists pursuing their own refuge and safety through the dreams of opportunity, love, and home.
Spanning the globe with movies from Russia, Japan, Germany, India, France, Italy, Czechoslovakia, and the United States, the festival’s schedule demonstrated the messiness and joy of humanity, uniting us in our imperfections, sadnesses and joys.
Unintentionally interweaving such subjects and themes as aimlessly stumbling through life, experiencing hallucinatory travels through purgatory, and finding sanctuary in family and the land, the festival’s emotionally satisfying and edifying slate also highlighted the evolution of the art of silent filmmaking.
Missing opening night, I arrived on the first full day of films, which kicked off with the always intriguing free program, Amazing Tales From the Archives, full of fascinating investigations into little-known film elements and moviemakers. Festival President Rob Byrne and Thierry Lecointe described petite fin de siecle flipbooks created by little-known Leon Beaulieu, featuring excerpts of Gaumont Company, Thomas Edison, and Georges Melies films. An early form of moving picture before movies even existed, these flip books showed mostly romantic and humorous scenes from films like May Irwin’s “The Kiss” and several lost Melies’ titles. While the men have discovered little on creator Beaulieu or where he obtained the images to create the books, they have revealed a hidden artifact revealing new information about primitive cinema.
Stefan Drossler of the Filmmuseum Munchen revealed some of the behind-the-scenes story of little known German director Robert Reinert, creator of the phantasmagoria “Opium” (1919). Born with a different last name, the artist suffered mental illness as a young man and was institutionalized. Upon his release, he changed his last name to Reinert and began writing novels and stories before achieving fame for his script “Homunculus” in 1916. He formed his own company to direct and produce such films as “Nerven” and “Opium” before dying in 1928.
Hisashi Okajima, director of the National Archive of Japan, described the almost forgotten Japanese sound film Mina Talking Process, employed in the Kenzi Mizoguchi film “Hometown.” Bruce Goldstein, director of film programming for New York’s Film Forum” illustrated how “Silents Got No Respect,” showing clips from series such as Fractured Flickers, Robert Youngson’s World of Comedy, and even sound films denigrating and parodying silents, as well as misidentifying stars as Buster Keaton as the top thrower of pies.
Matinee idol Gary Cooper demonstrated his masculinity in more ways than one in the 1929 Paramount film “Wolf Song,” featuring the luscious Lupe Velez as his love interest. While the story is trite, gorgeous images of Cooper, Velez, and the landscape make up for it. Trapper Cooper ends up in the more Spanish than native American village of Taos where he joins up with mountain men Louis Wolheim and Constantine Romanoff before sweeping virginal Lupe off her feet. Hitting the trail, the tall drink of water yearns for his lovely wife and returns. The film includes location shooting at the Paramount Ranch at Agoura as well as the Stoney Point Outcroppings at Chatsworth, California, featured in scores of westerns and Buster Keaton’s “The Three Ages.” Pianist Philip Carli provided rousing accompaniment combining western and Spanish themes.
Ernst Lubitsch’s 1919 movie “The Oyster Princess” began his move away from boisterous slapstick and cameos to more sophisticated satire and droll comedies focusing on the pursuit of romance. Adapted from a farcical American operetta “The Dollar Princess” and featuring elaborately choreographed sequences with a retinue of servants attending to the mogul’s every need, a team of maids bathing and clothing the nouveau princess, and female boxing, the movie stars curly-haired, mischievous Ossi Oswalda as the self-indulged, self-involved daughter of an oyster tycoon furious that a shoe polish heiress has married a count, demanding that her father find her a prince. Impoverished Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke) survives in a one-room apartment with his valet Josef and washing his own underthings, before being discovered by a matchmaker and becoming intrigued by the possibility of joining the high life again. Shenanigans ensue when his valet is mistaken for the prince, but all rights itself and the couple find their romantic ending. Wayne Barker’s frothy, energetic score provided light-hearted and frenetic romance.
Skipping the 1930 Russian film “Earth,” I eagerly anticipated the festival’s recent restoration of Clarence Brown’s 1924 Universal thriller “The Signal Tower” in conjunction with Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury’s Photoplay Productions. A moving story of reading signals and preventing danger, the film combined moving melodrama and suspenseful action, revealing the young Brown’s talent for blending emotional resonance and thrilling set pieces. Iron monsters belching smoke race through the towering pines, winding rivers, and steep mountainsides as signalman Rockcliffe Fellowes must derail a runaway train before it collides with a iron giant rushing upward.
The film is a work of art: railroad signals illustrate inter-titles and connote mood while gorgeous cinematography showcases both the beauty and danger of the storm. Fellowes and Virginia Valli subtle underplaying highlights the villainy of Wallace Beery. Director Brown gives himself a cameo as well. Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius’ evocative score combined wistful moments with forceful darkness and foreboding danger.
Reinert’s 1919 “Opium” is a hashish hallucination, full of should know better professors falling under the spell of gorgeous women, maniacal villain, and potent poison as they combat addiction and licentiousness. When under the spell of the drug, the professor sees visions of satyrs and bare-breasted nymphs cavorting, while his guilty assistant Conrad Veidt commits suicide after conducting an affair with the professor’s wife. Guenther Buchwald added colorful and dreamy voice to the over-the-top proceedings.
William Wellman’s magical 1926 film “You Never Know Women” kicked off Friday’s screenings, an atmospheric tale of romance and skullduggery set in the world of the circus. Lecherous Lowell Sherman “rescues” Russian performer Florence Vidor from a falling beam and makes the moves on her during gatherings with her circus troupe, becoming a handsy libertine demanding favors for his promotion of the group. Vidor gives an expressive performance as the too trusting and delicate butterfly, and Clive Brook brings subtle melancholy to her devoted and true circus partner. Eugene Pallette, Sidney Bracey, and El Brendel add nice comic bits. Wellman shows a sure eye for drama and composition. Artistic lighting and costumes highlight the story. Carli displayed a masterly touch for underscoring emotional undertones, shifting from period music to festive performance to romantic themes.
The little-known but emotionally devastating 1930 Czech film “Tonka of the Gallows” followed, a bleak but powerful story that is almost “Sunrise” in reverse, the budding and slow dying of both a year and a dream. Tonka returns to her gorgeous, sun-drenched hometown where she falls in love with an old suitor before lured back to the dark shadows of the city where she works as a prostitute. Volunteering to spend the last night with a condemned man as comforter and witness, she finds herself ridiculed and tormented after his death. Expressionistic lighting grows increasingly chiarscuro and heavy as she descends into poverty and degradation. Ita Rina provides poetic and powerful expression through her pained eyes. Stephen Horne’s moving playing emphasized the vulnerable innocence of the tragic young woman.
Better known for his sophisticated 1930s and 1940s melodramas, director John M. Stahl demonstrated subtle nuance with romance and relationships in his silent films as illustrated in the 1924 movie “Husbands and Lovers.” Oblivious Lewis Stone focuses on hobbies and complaining while failing to communicate with his long-suffering, devoted wife Florence Vidor. Caddish friend Lew Cody pays attention and compliments her stylish makeover, threatening to steal her away. Acidic, often snappy titles highlight Stone’s insensitivity and gorgeous mise-en-scene displays the subtle underpinnings of the story. Masterful lighting in a darkened library by cinematographer Tony Gaudio emphasizes the waxing and waning of both the moon and Vidor’s feelings and the conflicted attitude of Stone. Carli brought delicate feeling and expressive underscoring to the dramedy.
Lush and romantic, the 1917 Italian picture “Rapsodia Satanica” displayed exquisite forms of coloring from tinting to toning to stenciling, adding a poetic air to the operatic film. Divine diva Lyda Borelli plays aging Countess d’Oltrevita, who makes a Faustian bargain to regain her youthful beauty in exchange for never falling in love. Steeped in romance and over the top costumes and design, the striking film was brought to luscious life by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s gorgeous score. I skipped the final two films of the evening, “the Love of Jeanne Ney” and “West of Zanzibar.”
Marion Davies’ delightful 1925 “Lights of Old Broadway” opened Saturday, full of feisty fun and gorgeous design. A Broadway story a la Shakespeare’s “A Comedy of Errors,” Davies plays twins separated at birth, Fely, raised by tough Irish survivors, and Anne, the daughter of New York’s upper crust, displaying both charm and tenderness as she fights for her people and her man. The story highlights such Gay Nineties figures as Weber and Fields, Mae West, Tony Pastor, and Thomas Edison, while focusing on the Hatfield and McCoy like tendencies of the two opposing families. A behind-the-scenes storyline and the lighting of Broadway’s first electric light sign highlight gorgeous color sequences, while Davies steals the show as the headstrong Fely. Carli’s moving score flowed between vaudeville show tunes, Irish jigs, delicate romance, and potential mayhem.
John Ford’s 1919 movie “Hell Bent” starring Harry Carey displayed some early examples of tropes found in Ford’s tough westerns, with a story that jumped all over the place. Carey’s novelist looks for a story showing a protagonist, warts and all, and we flashback into a story he creates, of a roguish cowboy who saves the bank payroll, wins the girl, and settles down. Rough rocks as craggy as Carey’s face highlight the harsh landscape, with the smallness of man compared to the grandeur of nature. Horses run over a camera for a dramatic, powerful shot, and a few scenes show the dramatic counterpoint of Beale’s Cut, a narrow passageway between two steep mountainsides. Humorous moments are highlighted as well, when Carey and his burly mate sing “Sweet Genevieve.” Carli sashayed between the light moments of “Sweet Genevieve,” western foreboding, and dramatic action in bringing voice to the film.
I skipped “Goona Goona” for a short rest before returning to the spiritual fable “L’Homme du Large,” based on a short story by Balzac. Burly Man of the Sea Nolf battles the rugged lands of Brittany while dealing with his overindulged and problematic son, bedeviling his devout family. The film captures the fight between good and evil through dramatic shots of the landscape of Breton and subtle framing and often spiritual images for scenes that open into full shots of landscape, aided by masterful tinting and toning. Actor Paul McGann added impassioned feeling reading the inter-titles, while Buchwald and Bockius’s underscoring featured both a lilting quality as well as a somber, almost spiritual hush.
Erich von Stroheim’s over-the-top but romantic 1928 film “The Wedding March” followed, full of gorgeous mise-en-scene, potent symbolism, wild orgies, sweet romance, and fine acting. Filled with subtle in-jokes like von Stroheim’s handwriting on a letter early on and showing the score for “The Wedding March” as arranged by film music composer J.S. Zamecnik, the film also features strong religious iconography of crosses and crucifixions from the fevered mind of von Stroheim, remembering the waning days of the Hapsburg dynasty in Vienna. Cash-starved Prince Nicki (von Stroheim) falls in love with innkeeper’s lovely daughter Mitzi, (Fay Wray) only to have his parents marry him off to the limping daughter of the wealthy Corn Plaster King. von Stroheim’s artful intercutting between the lascivious orgies made the sweet innocence of his meetings with Mitzi under the gorgeous blooming apple tree that much more powerful and poignant, highlighting the tragic and doomed love of the two. Mont Alto played a moving cutdown of the original lush and emotional score.
I missed “L’Inferno” later that night to rest up for Sunday, starting off my day with the lyrical and wistful 1933 Japanese film “Japanese Girls at the Harbor.” Each of the main characters drifts their way through life, unsure of what they want and where to go, an almost neo-realist tale of ennui and lack of direction. Schoolgirls Sunako and Dora vow to remain faithful friends until a bad boy on a motorcycle trying to fit in comes between them, leading Sunako to drastic action before fleeing town. Each of the characters searches for an elusive spark to fill the emptiness in their lives. Buchwald and Sascha Jacobson provided an almost Eastern mourning and delicate underscore to the film.
The powerful 1925 Universal film “The Home Maker” followed, a story of breaking gender stereotypes and finding your place, directed by the mostly forgotten King Baggot. Based on a successful Dorothy Canfield novel about providing for your family, making a home, and finding your voice, the film highlights Lester Knapp (Clive Brook), a poet and dreamer unsuited for office life who loses his steady job, while his wife Eva (Alice Joyce) strafes at keeping an immaculate, organized home and family. She takes over his job to earn money for the family after Lester is injured, and both find comfort and ease in their new roles. Baggot faithfully followed the book in capturing the subtle give and take between a confused but loving couple. Both Joyce and Brook smartly underplay their anxious characters. Horne’s accompaniment emphasized the wistful, bittersweet feelings of the family gently giving way to more sunny, happy times.
My festival attendance concluded with “Shiraz: A Romance of India,” a romantic epic about the origin of the Taj Mahal featuring a cast of thousands and the exotic landscape of India. Producer/star Himansu Rai reveals the story of Shiraz, a young sculptor who becomes devoted to the young girl his father finds as the lone survivor of a regal caravan. When she is kidnapped by a slave trading ring, he follows her to Jaipur and the Prince’s palace, hoping to rescue her but instead finds her in love with the royal. Shiraz eventually designs the Taj Mahal in her honor. Dramatic and gorgeous, the film features fine performances along with striking design. Utsav Lei contributed an intense, rolling score for the film, plucking keys, hammers, and strings to create evocative and powerful reminders of India’s harsh but striking landscape.
Featuring a diverse and thoughtful selection of moving films examining the joys and sorrows of humanity, the 24th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered an emotional dive into romance, relationships, and dreams.