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A Rich and Varied World: Highlights of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The great misconception of silent cinema is that it's all about movies that lack the dimension of sound. It's the idea of "lack" they get wrong. Apart from the oft-stated fact that silent cinema was never silent—from the biggest movie palaces to the smallest storefront theaters, the movies were always accompanied with music and often with sound effects—movies developed as a uniquely visual form of storytelling just as radio drama and comedy evolved into a sophisticated form of audio storytelling. Whether you believe it a purer from of cinema or an archaic one, silent movies offer a different kind of experience than sound cinema, one built on faces and physical performance to communicate character and emotion. Forget the cliché of outsized acting styles and simplistic situations plucked from slapstick farces and spoofs. There is a rich world and varied world in the silents, from surreal comedy to magnificent spectacle to adult drama, with performances both bold and nuanced.

That is the experience celebrated at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the biggest and greatest celebration of cinema before the talkies in the U.S. The 24th year of this annual event presented 23 features between May 1 through May 5 at the Castro Theater ("the Cathedral to Cinema," as it was so described by the director of the National Film Archive of Japan, Hisashi Okajima), along with shorts and special presentations. 

This year Buster Keaton, a familiar presence at the festival (his films have opened or closed events past and his Great Stone Face has adorned posters and programs), bookended the festival in both opening and closing slots. "The Cameraman" (1928), Keaton's first film for the MGM movie factory and his last masterpiece, ushered in SFSFF 2019 (accompanied by Timothy Brock conducting an orchestra of students of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music performing his 2010), and "Our Hospitality" (1923), the filmmaker's first great feature-length film, brought it to a close five days later.

In between, audiences were transported around the world, from the frozen coast of Sweden in "Sir Arne's Treasure" (1919) to the Redwoods of California in "The Signal Tower" (1924) to "Japanese Girls at the Harbor" (1933) of Yokohama, from the exotic exploitation of Bali natives in "Goona Goona" (1932) to the sweeping spectacle of "Shiraz: A Romance of India" (1928). Many of the films have been recently restored and all were presented with live musical accompaniment. Here are some highlights from my favorite annual cinema event.

"Tonka of the Gallows" (Czechoslovakia, 1930), a Czech take on the fallen woman melodrama starring the luminescent Ita Rina ("Erotikon") as Tonka, was my discovery of the fest. Tonka is a beautifully nuanced character, unable to reconcile her inner life with her profession as the elegant star attraction of a seedy brothel, until an act of generosity and penance brands her as "the hanged man's widow", an outcast in this cynical, mercenary culture. "Tonka" reveals director Karel Anton as a sophisticated filmmaker who mixes street drama and social commentary with a melodrama of hypocrisy and cruelty. His mix of expressionism and realism is both beautiful and dramatically potent, with hanged man imagery echoing throughout the film. "Tonka" was the first Czech film to feature a synchronized soundtrack and the voice of Rina is heard singing in one brief sequence. The rest of the soundtrack was doused at this showing in favor of Stephen Horne's devastating original score.

While American movies embraced outdoor shooting from the beginning, they rarely strayed far from their studios in the early days of feature filmmaking. The Europeans led the way in striking out for dramatic locations that offered more than simply a passable backdrop for the action, as two films showcase so brilliantly. Based on a novel by Selma Lagerlof, "Sir Arne's Treasure" (Sweden, 1919) is a 16th century ballad of cruelty and tragedy carved from ice and stone. Nature itself mirrors the cold-blooded crimes of a trio of Scottish mercenaries with a brutal winter that blankets the wilderness and freezes the sea as they plot their escape. Director Mauritz Stiller (who made a star of Greta Garbo in "The Saga of Gosta Berling," another Lagerlof adaption) offers both epic scope and heartbreaking intimacy; the haunted expression of Mary Johnson as the fragile Elsalill, the sole survivor of the criminal massacre, never lets us forget her pain and loss. The moody, haunting live score performed by The Matti Bye Ensemble seems to channels her ordeal.

"L'Homme du Large" (France, 1920), the first major production from director Marcel L'Herbier, matches the elemental power of Stiller's frozen North with equally primeval locations on the Brittany coast. The story of the indolent son (Jacque Catelain) of a leathery fisherman (Roger Karl) is elevated to mythic proportions by the elemental imagery of the sea crashing against the rocky shore, hills of hardy, wind-blown grass, and mountains of craggy stone that seems to weigh on the wind-blown man of the open seas willfully blind to his son's wastrel ways. Just forget the improbable happy ending, which is tacked on with little attempt at narrative. British actor Paul McGann (a returning guest) recited the English translation of the French intertitles live, bringing an added poetry to the experience.

The exotic fever dream "Opium" (Germany, 1919) is the era's answer to "just say no" by way of a lurid melodrama with the twists of a serial adventure. Werner Krauss gives Fantomas a run for his money as a vengeful Asian opium peddler who stalks our tormented hero all over the world and Conrad Veidt costars as a young doctor having an affair with his mentor's lonely wife. Filled with secrets and improbable complications (not to mention opium dens and a strangely indolent pride of lions somehow living free in the wilds of India), it's a wildly entertaining mess that charges ahead at breakneck speed with breaks only for opium-fueled visions of topless nymphs and horny satyrs.

SFSFF also restores silent cinema and this year they presented the world premiere restoration of "The Signal Tower" (1924), produced in collaboration with Kevin Brownlow's Photoplay. The railroad melodrama from director Clarence Brown, shot in the Redwoods of Northern California, is a rousing picture with a runaway train, a raging storm, a booze-fueled, sex-maddened Wallace Beery smashing through doors, and a spunky little tyke running through the wind and rain to rouse his father to save his mother from certain assault. Brown's dramatic lighting of outdoor scenes is a wonder and the photography showcases his eye for composition.

Two examples of domestic melodrama offered very different looks of love and marriage. John Stahl's "Husbands and Lovers" (1924), a light sex comedy in the tradition of Lubitsch and pre-epic Cecil B. DeMille, is an entertaining portrait of domestic defiance with Lewis Stone (underplaying the oblivious husband all the way to the end) and Florence Vidor (as the under-appreciated wife). Though it holds no surprises, it's a comic delight that manages to straddle modern ideas (1920s edition) and old-fashioned romantic ideals. 

It's "The Home Maker" (1925), a very modern take on domestic roles directed by King Baggot, which offers surprises. Alice Joyce stars the miserable housewife who channels her frustration into obsessive housework and Clive Brook is the ineffectual white collar breadwinner disrespected by all—even the cruel intertitles. It's a portrait in marital misery and takes a thrilling turn into happiness when a desperate act and a near tragedy reverses the roles and parents and children alike thrive. The lengths they must go to maintain this unorthodox (in the '20s) equilibrium, however, is a startling rebuke to societal expectations. Restored from a 16mm copy by UCLA, the new 35mm print is often soft and washed out but it's a revelation.

Erich von Stroheim's "The Wedding March" showcases the spectacle of royal splendor and decadent orgies but underneath the director's signature cynicism is a delicate romance between the scion (von Stroheim) of a royal family on the verge of bankruptcy and a commoner (Fay Wray in her first starring role). Zasu Pitts is heartbreaking as the fragile daughter with a limp sold off for aristocratic status and even von Stroheim's womanizing Prince Nicki, a man who dallies with royal harems while chastely courting Mitzi, has a soul under his royal sense of privilege and moral exception. It was screened from a newly restored 35mm print from Paramount Pictures and accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra's lively score.

Along with "The Wedding March," early two-strip color sequences were restored to "Lights of Old Broadway" (1925), a comedy starring Marion Davies as twins separated at birth and reunited by marriage, while "Rapsodia Satanica" (Italy, 1917), a diva twist on the Faust tale, features hand-painted flourishes to the florid costumes of Lyda Borelli, the grandest of Italian divas.

Finally, let me single out "Amazing Tales From the Archives," a presentation featuring archivists, historians, and film restorers sharing a little history behind recent restorations and rediscoveries. Free to the public, this event is one of the unheralded pleasures of the festival. This year audiences learned of how a handful of lost George Melies films were saved (at least in part) by novelty flipbooks, how the correct pitch of a Japanese tenor's voice on film was restored through archival research on a lost sound technology, and how "Opium" was reconstructed from prints struck from different negatives.


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