• "Cosmic Voyage," directed by Vasili Zhuraylyov

Silent Movie Festival, San Francisco

Castro Theater from May 29th to June 1st, 2014


It’s disorienting: San Francisco’s Silent Film Festival has moved from its iconic mid-July position to the last weekend in May!  What’s going to enliven the doldrums of summer?

On the other hand, what better way to start the season than with hearty doses of Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino (be still, my heart!), Buster Keaton (twice!), Douglas Fairbanks, Dolores del Rio, and an eye-popping collection of lesser-known actors, directors, and countries of origin?

Among these last are two surprises from the old Soviet Union (remember that?).  The first is “The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks,”  directed by Lev Kuleshov.  Mr. West, a YMCA executive (of all things!), despite being warned of ferocious Russian thugs, travels to the USSR with his cowboy servant Jeddy.  Sure enough, Mr. West is kidnapped by ferocious Russian thugs (who also make off with his truckload of luggage), but is eventually rescued by real Bolsheviks and treated to a tour of Moscow.  Despite a few too many fight scenes, the ending, through snowy streets showcasing a big military parade and lots of smoke-belching factories, is worth it all.

“Cosmic Voyage,” directed by Vasili Zhuraylyov in 1936–late for a silent–is set in 1946, when the USSR has perfected intergalactic flight.  Setting off for the moon, despite the protests of more timid souls, are a scientist, a young woman, and a young boy.  And–oh yes–a pussy cat.  It’s a comic adventure with great art deco sets, long pans of spaceships, and mysterious long shots of the ships’ hangars.

Other films from exotic–or at least distant–places: “The Song of the Fishermen,” China’s first social-realist film, which was a huge hit in its native country in 1934; “The Parson’s Widow,” by Swedish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, best remembered for “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”  Unlike the latter, “The Parson’s Widow” is a comedy.

“The Girl in Tails,” also from Sweden, is a comedy about a girl who dresses up in a–tuxedo!  Good grief!  Would such a thing ever happen today?

From Germany we have “Under the Lantern” and “Harbor Drift,” both films about the lower 99%–or maybe the lower .99%.  The former film, directed by Gerhard Lamprecht in 1928, is set in Berlin and tells the story of a young woman whose life descends into prostitution; the latter, directed by Leo Mittler and set in Hamburg, is a noir about three poor people and a pearl necklace.

“Underground,” directed by Anthony Asquith (“The Winslow Boy,” “The Browning Version,” “The Yellow Rolls-Royce,” etc.) stars Brian Aherne and is set in London’s underground (what else?).  And “Dragnet Girl” is a gangster film by the great Japanese director Yosujiro Ozu (“Tokyo Story,” “An Early Afternoon,” etc.).   “The Sign of Four” is a British Sherlock Holmes film made in 1923–way before today’s hip (and anachronistic) adaptations.  “The Epic of Everest” is the official film record of  of the third British expedition’s attempt to reach the summit of Everest.

Closer to the home front we have “Seven Years Bad Luck,” a comedy directed by and starring Max Linder, a French actor who made some films, such as this one, in the US.  Linder, barely known here today, remains an idol in Europe.  “Seven Years Bad Luck” shows the dapper (verging on effete) Linder trying to ward off the bad luck brought on by a broken mirror as various slapstick accidents bring him into jail, into a lion’s cage at the zoo, dodging ticket-takers on the train, etc. (Don’t look for political correctness in this film, or most other comedies of the period.)

“Ramona,” directed by Edwin Carewe, introduced the Mexican actress Dolores del Rio to the United States.  The film is based on Helen Hunt Jackson’s wildly popular 1884 novel, which explored the plight of Native Americans.  Here, del Rio plays the half-Indian adopted daughter of a wealthy hacienda owner; Warner Baxter, in dark makeup and a headband, and just a bit long in the tooth, plays the Indian she elopes with.  The schmalz is laid on heavy, 1920s-style, but it’s a landmark film worth seeing.

Other Hollywood films are Allan Dwan’s “The Good Bad Man,” a western starring Douglas Fairbanks; “Midnight Madness,” starring Clive Brook in a “Taming of the Shrew”-type story; the opening night film, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” directed by Rex Ingram and starring Rudolph Valentino in a huge World War I epic; and the closing night film, “The Navigator,” directed by and starring Buster Keaton as an heir whose shipboard adventures include a battle with a swordfish and  an encounter with cannibals.

I’ve listed only the features; the festival also includes “Extras”–newreels, outtakes, home movies, and other goodies; as well as “Amazing Tales from the Archives,” a “behind-the-curtain look at the international preservation scene.”

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