This year’s San Francsico Silent Film Festival starts and ends with film icon Buster Keaton’s films: “The Cameraman” on May 1st, opening night; and “Our Hospitality” on May 5th, closing night.
The festival, you might have noticed, comes earlier than usual—it formerly took place in July, then June, now beginning of May. But otherwise, it’s the same wide-ranging selection of silents from multiple countries: the United States, of course, but also Japan, Germany, the USSR, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Italy, France, India, and—wait for it—Bali. As always, each film will be accompanied by live musicians.
Here are some highlights (and lowlights), chronogically in order of their screenings.
“The Cameraman” (opening night, May 1st at 7 p.m.), directed by Edward Sedgwick (and Buster Keaton, uncredited) is classic Keaton—seemingly ill-fated romance, pratfalls, bumbling attempts at a career. There are scenes of mishaps in Chinatown and at a swimming pool, but, of course all ends happily and Buster gets the girl.
“Wolf Song,” (May 2, 1:15) directed by Victor Fleming, director of “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind,” stars Lupe Velez and a very young and very handsome, curly-haired Gary Cooper in a classic Western. Cooper’s character claims that he “ain’t gonna marry NO gal,” but it doesn’t take a crystal ball to foresee what happens.
The next two films on that day are also directed by masters: “The Oyster Princess” by Ernst Lubitsch, master of sophisticated comedy (3 p.m.); and Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s “Earth,”(5 p.m.) in a very different vein portraying the 1920s socialist movement in what became the Soviet Union.
That evening at 7, we get “The Signal Tower,” set in Mendocino and directed by Clarence Brown. Brown had a decades-long career, directing films such as “The Yearling,” “National Velvet,” “Intruder in the Dust,” and many others, some of which earned him Academy Awards.
The evening closes (9 p.m.) with “Opium,” directed by Robert Reinert, a German director who specialized in sensational topics. This melodrama is filled with dancing girls in filmy drapery, settings in India and China (or sets that pass for them), and lots of Sturm und Drang. A professor, accompanied by his “trusted Indian servant Ali,” goes in search of a colleague, who has disappeared into an “Indian opium den.” Oh oh!
May 3rd opens at 10 with “You Never Know Women,” directed by William Wellman (“A Star Is Born,” version 1; “Wings”), starring Florence Vidor, Clive Brook, and Lowell Sherman. A viewer writes on IMDB: “It’s a move about illusion and the revelation of the realities behind them. Brook throws knives at Miss Vidor, without endangering her; he turns her into a butterfly foating through the theater; he makes her vanish from one spot and appear in another…..” Sounds like fun.
“Tonka of the Gallows” (noon) is a Czech film about country people and what happens when they go to the big city. Tonka (Ita Rina) becomes a prostitute in Prague. It’s a classic “prostitute with a heart of gold” story, but well acted without melodrama and with beautiful scenes both in the countryside and the city.
At 2:15 is “Husbands and Lovers,” directed by John M. Stahl and starring Lewis Stone and Florence Vidor in a domestic comedy. “Rapsodia Satanica” follws at 5. Directed by Nino Oxilia, this Italian melodrama is tinted and will be preceded by a selection of color shorts from Italy.
Another famous German director, G. W. Pabst (“Pandora’s Box,” “Diary of a Lost Girl”–both starring the immortal Louise Brooks–”Three-Penny Opera,” and many other treasures) directed “The Love of Jeanne Ney,” set in both Moscow and Paris. Edith Jehann, Uno Henning, and Fritz Rasp star. It’s at 7:10.
“West of Zanzibar,” directed by Tod Browning (“Freaks,” “Dracula,” and a gazillion other films) is all about white men behaving badly. The great Lon Chaney plays Phroso the magician, who seeks revenge on the man who made him a paraplegic. The scene is Africa; the Africans are have oiled skin and plenty of superstitions. The acting is first-rate, but good luck following the plot. It starts at 9:20.
“Lights of Old Broadway” (May 4, 10 a.m.) is about identical twin girls—both played by Marion Davies–who are adopted into very different families: one by upper-crust New York society, the other by a poor Irish family. The latter goes on stage and is, of course snubbed by the rich girl and her family, both for being on stage and for being Irish. There are some pretty preposterous scenes, such as the twins not recognizing their resemblance when they finally meet, but period details are interesting: the belief that “…electric lights will never be practical” and the fact that the actress earns $7.25 per week.
“Hell Bent” (May 4, noon) is directed by the great John Ford, but it’s not one of his masterpieces. Set in the town of Rawhide, it’s filled with Western clichės: horsemen galloping down a hill, a rowdy dance hall scene, etc. It’s disjointed but rather fun anyway.
“Goona Goona” (May 4, 2:30) is from Bali and directed by André Roosevelt, a cousin of TR who had a minor career as a director. It’s a meller set in Bali.
At 4:30, there’s “L’Homme du Large,” directed by Marcel l’Herbier, whose best-known of many films, both silent and sound, is “Le Bonheur.” It’s based on a story by Balzac and set on the coast of Brittany.
6:30 brings “The Wedding March,” directed by and starring Erich von Stroheim, Fay Wray, and ZaSu Pitts. Stroheim, who directed many films (“Greed,” “La Grande Illusion,” etc.) and also starred (“Sunset Boulevard”), plays an impoverished prince in love with Fay Wray (“King Kong,” etc.). Von Stroheim sets this film in his native Vienna.
At 9:30, there’s “L’Inferno,” directed by Francsco Bertolini and Adolfo Padovan. Based on Dante’s epic, it was the first full-length Italian feature, according to the program notes.
The first of the closing day films (May 5, 10 a.m.) Is “Japanese Girls at the Harbor,” directed by Hiroshi Shimizu. It’s a sweet love story featuring young girls in school uniforms and their boyfriends or would-be boyfriends. Threre’s betrayal, there’s forgiveness.
At noon, “The Home Maker,” directed by King Baggot. According to Wikipedia, Baggott directed 45 films, including “Tumbleweeds,” starring William S. Hart; and starred 300. Shame on us for never having heard of him! “The Home Maker” is a comedy about an ill-matched couple.
“Shiraz: A Romance of India,” directed by Franz Osten, follows at 2:15 and tells the story of the Taj Mahal. It was filmed in and around Jaipur, India.
At 5, there’s the Swedish film “Sir Arne’s Treasure,” directed by Mauritz Stiller, who reportedly “discovered” Greta Garbo and cast her in “Gősta Berling’s Saga.” The rest, as they say, is history. “Sir Arne’s Treasure” is an adaptation of Selma Lagerlőf’s novel of “murder and revenge…set against a harsh, icy landscape…”
The festival concludes at 8 with “Our Hospitality,” directed by and starring Buster Keaton. Riffing on the legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys, the comedy has Buster as the “last of the McKays,” in search of his family’s mansion, stumbling into the home of his family’s lethal enemies, the Canfields. This is one of Keaton’s funniest and sweetest films, featuring a primitive railroad–”the iron monster”–and heart-stopping scenes on the Truckee River. It also features Buster Junior as the hero’s baby, and Buster’s father as the train engineer.
For further information and tickets go to silentfilm.org, where you can buy tickets online to pick up at the theater; or you can buy them directly at the theater (but be careful—some shows sell out).