A Day of Silents
The Black Pirate

A Day of Silents

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2015

Castro Theater

December 5, 2015


San Francisco Bay Area silent film fans won’t have to wait until summer to get their fix: “A Day of Silents,” a one-day, five-film orgy of non-talkies, will be held at San Francisco’s Castro Theater on December 5th. Pack a cushion, pack a lunch (and a dinner), and prepare for a treat (or five).

The day starts at 11 with “The Black Pirate,” a 1926 adventure film starring Douglas Fairbanks, Billie Dove, Donald Crisp, and–Technicolor! This was Technicolor’s Process Two, and “The Black Pirate” was only the third film using the (somewhat faded-looking) technique.

Fairbanks plays a survivor of a ship that a nasty lot of pirates have blown up. In order to prevent their killing him, Fairbanks pretends to want to join the pirate troupe. Calling himself the Black Pirate, he proves his mettle by out-fighting the pirates’ head tough guy and single-handedly capturing another ship. As you can imagine, there’s a great deal of action: buckles are swashed and a maiden in distress–a princess, no less–is rescued from a Fate Worse than Death. Though predictable, it’s all a lot of fun. Albert Parker directed, and Fairbanks himself wrote the story and produced. Donald Crisp, playing a Scottish pirate, had directed other Fairbanks films and went on to a significant career in films both silent and sound.

“Around China with a Movie Camera,” playing at 1, is a collection of film fragments taken by tourists, promoters, missionaries and others, of scenes of China from 1910 to 1948. Some are tinted, some are on color film, many in black and white. The Great Wall appears, as do many men (not so many women), mostly in what Westerners think of as typical garb. There are camels, donkeys, a few horses, child acrobats, the outside walls of the Forbidden City, a market. Unfortunately, the films aren’t arranged in chronological (or any other sort of) order.

The next two films, “The Grim Game” (at 3) and “The Inhuman Voice (“‘l’Inhumaine”) at 6:30, are the only ones I haven’t seen–though I can hardly wait.

“The Grim Game” (1919), one of the five silent films that Harry Houdini starred in, is a showcase for Houdini’s amazine ability to escape from chains, tanks of water, and other life-threatening devices. The hero (Houdini) and his fiancée (Ann Forrest) are kidnapped and imprisoned, but of course the hero rescues them both, and the film concludes with a collision of two airplanes, an event that actually happened and was appropriated for the film. Irvin Willat directed.

“The Inhuman Voice” (1924) is a combination of melodrama and fantasy directed by Marcel L’Herbier and starring Georgette Leblanc as an imperious opera singer. The film’s sci-fi elements sound intriguing, but even more so its visuals. L’Herbier envisioned the film as an introduction to the Paris Exposition des Arts Décoratifs (as in Art Deco), and got the collaboration of noted artists, such as painter Fernand Léger and dress designer Paul Poiret. Darius Milhaud composed the music, the score of which has been lost.

In one scene, L’Herbier invited famous figures of the art world to act the roles of unruly audience members. Present, supposedly, were Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Léon Blum, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound, among others. I don’t know if any of them are recognizable in the film.

But wait–the real prize of the day’s offerings is the late (1929) silent, “Picadilly,” directed by E. A. Dupont, whose career spanned from 1919 to 1955 in his native Germany as well as in England and the United States.

A melodrama set in London, the film centers around the night club, “Picadilly,” owned by suave enterpreneur Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas). The club’s main attraction is the dance team Mabel (Gilda Gray) and Vic (Cyril Ritchard). But Vic departs and the patronage sinks; desperate,Valentine hires the Chinese scullery maid Shosho (the fabulous Anna May Wong, in her last silent film), whom he’s observed dancing in the kitchen. Shosho, dressed in Chinese garb, becomes a sensation and also draws the romantic attentions of Valentine, arousing the jealousy of Mabel, who’s been involved with the boss previously.

While “Picadilly” has its share of the period’s racism, both subtle and overt (Mabel is reproached for dancing with a black customer, who is thrown out of the club; a scene of Wong kissing Thomas was cut from the script), its beauty is in its expressionistic cinematography (by Werner Brandes, who worked in both Germany and England from 1914 to 1947) and moody lighting. It’s a film noir before the term was ever invented.

All of the films, of course, are accompanied by live music, just as they were back in their day.

San Francisco ,
Renata Polt, a freelance writer and critic, is the translator and editor of A Thousand Kisses: A Grandmother's Holocaust Letters.