By Michael T. O’Toole.
So, 20 years on and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) is still proving their commercial knack for showcasing movies that cover the timeline, genre gaps and stylistic stamps—not to mention innovative presentations and musical accompaniment that breathed new momentum into previous released material and cleverly compensated for then era shortcomings. In short, if you weren’t entertained for the five days at the Castro Theater with fellow cineastes, academics, performers and the rest with classic standbys and intriguing rediscovered curios, then we wish you well to the gigs you dig. For the rest of us, we are already chatting about getting together for next year, wondering what is in store.
Now for that highlight list. As I have stated in previous years, the reasons behind the festival are a mixture of slightly sentimental, dazzling aesthetics, and love of certain idiosyncrasies. And maybe all of those reasons at once. This list is just a suggestion and no way the oracle of what to see. If I can articulate with some polish the strengths of what is on this list and tweak your interest, that is good enough.
The Last Laugh (1924)
Director: F.W. Murnau
Cast: Emil Jannings, Max Hiller and Emilie Kurz
The Story: The lead hotel porter (Emil Jannings) at a lavish hotel is demoted to a the lowly position of washroom attendant, crushing his dignity and the pride he held in his uniform not to mention the scorn he must now face of his friends and neighbors.
In Essence: Okay, before all you film buffs roll your eyes that we open our highlight list with this one, reel in that jaded attitude. Yes, many of us have seen this in film school on numerous occasions—it’s gorgeous, fluid visuals are so precise to that we don’t need intertitles—and yes, Murnau has long been celebrated for it, so is it redundant to include in this list? I can assure you that it’s not, for this presentation had a phenomenal, invigorating new score composed and performed by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra. Finding shades and nuances that dovetailed the gripping narrative was astounding in itself. And if ever a reason could be given to serve the glory of watching these silents live with musical accompaniment, it’s this one. The music even enlivened Emil Jannings’ performance (to modern eyes, his somewhat mannered style of acting and Murnau’s habit of holding onto his lugubrious facial expressions in his downfall for a beat too long can leave a viewer a touch detached) as the musicians emphasized a haunting quiet in these dark moments to validate the allegorical thrust of the story, thus making the operatic style of Jannings’ shine all the more wonderfully. Most importantly, it made us realize the fluid, timeless nature of silent cinema, and such a state of flux deserves repeated studies.
Flesh and the Devil (1927)
Director: Clarence Brown
Cast: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert and Lars Hanson
The Story: Leo (John Gilbert) and Ulrich (Lars Hanson) are lifelong companions whose friendship is threatened over their mutual love for the irresistible Felicitas (Greta Garbo). Eventually, they are forced to duel over her and tragic consequences soon follow.
In Essence: Of all the stars that have endured with their aura and beauty nearly intact from the silent era, it is arguably Greta Garbo. It helps that she’s held in high regard not just with those longing for her as the alluring siren of the silent screen, but with critics as well, who have long admired her minimalist style and the commitment she held behind her eyes, conveying so much while gesturing so little. “You could see thought,” said one of her favorite directors, Clarence Brown. Indeed, only Louise Brooks could rival Garbo for the still contemporary nature of her performances. So if you must see one silent film that captures all of her magnetisms, conviction and power, make it Flesh and the Devil. Superbly mounted in the lavish manner that MGM would be celebrated for, it takes a melodramatic story and elevates that narrative with Garbo’s performance and her chemistry with a superb leading man, (John Gilbert), Brown’s methodical, surefooted direction, William H. Daniels’ pristine photography (the climax with Garbo running across the lake is majestic as possible) and exquisite set pieces. In short, it’s a stunner from numerous aspects and will reward your curiosity well.
Charlie Bowers – Shorts Selections (1926-28)
Director: Charlie Bower
Cast: Charley Bower and some whacked inventions
The Story: Four short films from the madcap filmmaker include: A Wild Roomer (1926, 24 minutes), Now You Tell One (1926, 22 minutes), Many A Slip (1927, 12 minutes), and There It Is (1928, 17 minutes).
In Essence: Few things in life can be the product of a spirited, fertile and uncluttered imagination as was the mind of Charley Bowers. These series of shorts played at 10 am on a Sunday, so it was a shame there was not more of a crowd, but those who were there were touched by the comic/animator’s dazzling inventiveness. There is a lyrical surrealism to his puppetry and innovative stop motions set-ups and they move with a purpose that is integral to his narratives. Best of all, he grounds it all with well mounted stories and a sweet (but not too treacly) a protagonist that has the baby faced features of a Harry Langdon, but with more savvy and tenacity with his problem solving techniques. How might I describe his work beyond these observations? How about this, type in his name and do an image search on any engine available—I guarantee the visual, even in a still, could do more justice then me describing his inventions.
The Faces of Children (1925)
Director: Jacques Feyder
Cast: Jean Forest, Victor Vina and Rachel Devirys
The Story: In a quiet village in the Swiss Alps, 11-year-old Jean (Jean Forest) is devastated by the loss of his mother. When his father (Victor Vina), decides to remarry, a great strain is created leading Jean to act out in various ways, and at times, bordering on self-destruction.
In Essence: I cannot thank the SFSFF enough for reintroducing me to the work of Jaques Feyder (two years ago they presented the captivating “Gribiche,” my review of it is here). Feyder was a tight, professional talent who not only had a clean command of pace and story, but could also turn potentially maudlin material into something revelatory and sincere through his special talent with child actors. There are some haunting scenes of childhood disillusionment lessons: Jean’s careful visual tracking as his mother’s coffin is being led away, the frustration of turning to his late mother’s photograph only to realize he can longer be reciprocated by her, and the stirring climax when he contemplates suicide and struggles with the empathy of others. Feyder knows how to hold onto a close-up just long enough without indulging in excessive sentiment and manipulation. All the power owes to the marvelous lead performance by Jean Forest, whose naturalness and expressive face conveys a luminous honesty few child actors could ever match. By never condescending his treatment of the child’s point of view, Feyder creates lasting resonance of loss and discovery for the modern audience; also, kudos to Stephen Horne’s tasteful score that does not beg for audience sympathy in any way.
The Donavan Affair (1929)
Director: Frank Capra
Cast: The Gower Gulch Players
The Story: That dastardly Jack Donovan sure has angered a lot of people, and when it all culminates at a dinner party, well…it was just a matter of time when he got his comeuppance! No worries, though, inspector Jack Holt is on hand to sort it out!
In Essence: Okay, this one is in a category all its own. As Columbia Pictures’ first “talkie” hit, and an early Frank Capra effort, it is historically interesting, but given that the discs (this is before synchronized sound was on film), have been lost, there came the clever idea of…wait for it…having the dialogue dubbed live by actors (the soon to be renowned Gower Guich Players) during the film’s presentation. The film’s plot is almost too hack to go into detail, as all the party members are suspects to the killing of that dastardly Jack Donovan. He and another party member are killed when the lights go out. Why were the lights out? Well, the contrivance of a glow in the dark watch must be demonstrated and find some way to instigate the killings of course! Now the fun was hearing the actors being put through their Runyonesque paces as the films works through its labored story, complete with that special vibe a live reading can give you where things just might, (but eventually won’t) fall apart. Given the preparedness and polish of the skilled actors, that was never going to happen. Best of all, the performers struck the right balance of gentle homage without being too snarky with the creaky dialogue, resulting in a loving, off-kilter embrace that gave body to what could have been a wryless one-off.
Michael T. O’Toole is a film journalist, screenwriter and filmmaker. He spent ten years writing for the Turner Classic Movies before taking his talents to Film International. His short films can be viewed here.