San Francisco has more annual film festivals per capita than anywhere in the world, and part of the fun in attending is seeing various subsets of the diverse populace come out for each particular event. Arguably the most fervent audience of them all, however, is one you probably wouldn’t be able to identify in the cold light of day. That would be the folks who every July (and at occasional shorter events elsewhere during the year) pack vintage art-deco movie palace the Castro Theatre for the S.F. Silent Film Festival.
The oldest and largest showcase for cinema’s earliest decades in the Americas, SFSFF has since 1996 screened most of the familiar silent classics—the Chaplins, Buster Keatons, German Expressionist greats and much more. But what gets ticketbuyers and special guests flying in from all over for the long weekend isn’t so much those popular programs, or even the stellar live performances of frequently newly-commissioned musical scores. Instead, it’s the festival’s determinedly international mix, and its inclusion of newly restored, often hitherto “lost” films. Each year there are movies you couldn’t have possibly have seen elsewhere—one feature in the current lineup, The Last Edition, just saw its restoration completed last month from a rediscovered sole surviving print. Its screening on July 21 might mark the first time anyone has seen it in nearly 90 years.
This kind of cinematic excavation draws an audience strongly attracted to rarity, the potential for revelation, and the charm of antiquity—though more often than not, what’s surprising is how fresh and “modern” films made nearly a century ago can be. (Will the same be said of Hollywood’s current comic-book vogue decades from now? More likely they’ll seem as creaky and charming as outdated toys.) I’ve met devoted patrons who casually mentioned they never, ever bother watching movies made after, say, 1935. In context, that didn’t seem a huge surprise.
This year’s festival kicks off with one of SFSFF’s most beloved figures, Louise Brooks—a flapper starlet who almost became a very big deal before she blithely sabotaged her own career and was more or less blacklisted by Hollywood. The movies for which she’s now best remembered, German G.W. Pabst‘s Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, are now considered world classics. But at the time they were neither critically or commercially successful. It took decades before they—and her naturalistic acting, combined with a striking beauty that similarly seems very much in line with today’s tastes—were re-evaluated, resulting in a still-growing cult of personal adoration. (A clip from Diary below provides a brief hint at Brooks’ appeal.)
The festival’s opener Prix de Beaute would turn out to be her final starring role, as a secretary turned beauty contest winner whose sudden fame brings out the green jealousy monster in her boyfriend. This French feature co-written by Pabst and Rene Clair, directed by the Italian Augusto Genina, was another inventive film that flopped—in large part because when it was released in 1930, silent cinema seemed hopelessly archaic to a “talkie”-crazed public. SFSFF is showing a restored silent version, minus the cheesy sound effects and awkwardly inserted, dubbed-in-post dialogue scenes that were inserted at the last minute in an attempt to salvage the film’s commercial fortunes.
Other recent restorations being highlighted this year include films from the U.K. (actor-writer-producer-director Miles Mander’s 1928 romantic drama The First Born), Denmark (A.W. Sandberg’s 1926 circus melodrama The Golden Clown) and France (Jacques Feyder’s family drama Gribiche from the same year). The fact that silent cinema continued well into the next decade in some nations is illustrated by Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu’s early (1931) work Tokyo Chorus, and by Henri de la Falaise’s 1935 Legong: Dance of the Virgins—the former a realistic seriocomedy, the latter a heady brew of local mythology and melodrama shot in two-strip Technicolor that was the first Balinese movie ever made. From Denmark, there’s then-leading Swedish actor/director (later a brief Hollywood emigre, and later still the star of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries) Victor Sjöström‘s 1918 The Outlaw and His Wife. This poetical, visually striking tragedy pits love against unforgiving nature as a fugitive couple flee into the wilds of mid-19th century Iceland.
Two major 2013 SFSFF titles represent the best of late German silent cinema. Pabst’s own 1925 The Joyless Street, a brutally grim portrait of economic hardship and moral degradation in immediately post-WW1 Germany—when the country, crippled by war debt, saw its currency value go into freefall—is best known now as an early role for Greta Garbo. Widely censored (when not banned outright) for its relatively frank depictions of prostitution and impoverished desperation, the film was drastically cut in many foreign territories. Two years later, Garbo had become a huge star in Hollywood, resulting in Street‘s belated U.S. release at just an hour’s length—eliminating almost everything but scenes relevant to her originally subsidary role. SF Silent Fest will be showing a print that restores this ambitious film to its original, epic 2 1/2 hour breadth.
The other, lesser-remembered German title is Friedrich Zelnick’s 1927 The Weavers, an equally striking recreation of an 1844 historical incident in which pre-industrialized peasant textile workers rioted against their penny-pinching bourgeoise overlords. With intertitles drawn by the famed artist George Grosz, it’s a superbly crafted bridge between German Expressionist cinema and future neo-realism. Perversely, the other most vivid illustration of class division at this year’s SFSFF is purely farcical—and from Russia. Boris Barnet’s 1928 The House on Trubnaya Square scored a hit with USSR by cheekily wrapping its pro-worker’s-union message in a portrait of post-revolution Moscow that cheekily mocks both stubborn bourgeoise capitalists and blindly idealistic Communist idealogues.
Fear not, there’s plenty of non-Communistic, non-depressing silent cinema from our own entertainment capital on tap as well. There’s a tribute program to “moving comics” by animator Windsor McKay, of Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur fame. (Admittedly, he was more New York than California-based.) Without his 1910s line-drawing cartoons establishing a precedent, where would Disney—let alone Pixar—be now? These whimsies by “America’s Greatest Cartoonist” are more than matched by another program devoted to “Kings of Silent Comedy,” featuring Chaplin, Keaton, Charley Chase and Felix the Cat, that pre-Mickey Mouse proponent of animated anarchy. (Mickey eventually turned into a dull corporate spokesperson, but Felix retained a bit of edge even in his later made-for-TV-shorts incarnations.)
Actual live, limb-risking human comedy is served up by the closing nighter, 1923’s Safety Last!—slapstick-nerd maestro Harold Lloyd‘s breakthrough feature, and still his most famous. The reason for that is its long, harrowing stunt climax in which Harold’s rube-in-the-big-city hero is forced to climb a skyscraper sans rope or netting in order to publicize his department store employer—a job his fearlessly nimble pal had planned to do before a stubborn offended cop thwarted that plan. Lloyd arguably made better films later on (i.e. The Freshman, The Kid Brother), but this one’s high-rise-anxiety provided the images that lingered foremost in audience’s minds.
Lastly but not at all least, there’s that Last Edition, directed by Emory Johnson—no doubt a routine commercial release in 1925, but a minor revelation now. SF Silent Fest and the Dutch EYE Film Institute funded restoration of a forgotten feature whose only existing print was found a few years ago in the Netherlands. Starring the middle-aged but virile Ralph Lewis—a now-forgotten star who’d had significant roles in D.W. Griffith‘s epics The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance—it’s a fast-paced melodrama that underlines how readily filmmakers could cram a whole lotta busy plot into a slim runtime back then. Lewis’ “Tom” is a gruff but beloved “Assistant Chief of Printing” at the still-extant (if barely today) San Francisco Chronicle. He’s passed over for promotion when his boss is pressured to resign and an oaf hired to replace him, all in the name of getting “new blood” into a circulation-flagging newspaper.
Of course, Lewis’ salt-of-the-earth wisdoms and general upstandingness eventually save the day (and the paper). But in the meantime there are subplots and complications aplenty, all expertly handled. It makes you wonder just how/why the Hollywood of yesteryear could handle such busy scenarios with brisk economy, while today they require 2 1/2 hours to get us through a comic-book fantasy that once would have been relegated to 20-minute serial episodes aimed at kiddie matinees.