I’ve been covering the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF from here on out) for several years now and I’m generally asked if I still have the same sense of wonderment as when I first attended the festival eleven years ago. It’s with validated pleasure that I can say yes without any hiccups. For the SFSFF keeps mining material, captivating its audience with numerous types of silent film: from artful treasures newly discovered, to timeless classics. It doesn’t hurt that the festival is anchored by exceptional musical accompaniment – a special bow to Stephen Horne, whose multi-instrumentalist talents were as inventive and tasteful as they were unerring in keeping pace with the material. Game silent film fans in fancy dress and the pageantry of the near century old Castro Theatre only added attraction.
The formula isn’t formulaic per se, but it works – when you have exuberant presentations, a stellar and diverse line up of films, the sly unpredictability of a witty crowd and consistently informative introductions, how could it go wrong? It didn’t. As for this highlights list, some I leaned toward for sentimental reasons, some for aesthetics and one, maybe a combination of both. Either way, see you next year!
Director: Augusto Genina
Cast: Louise Brooks, Georges Charlia, Jean Bradin, and Augusto Bandini
The Story: Lucienne (Louise Brooks), a young secretary, has a comfortable, working class existence in Paris with her boyfriend, André (Georges Charlia). Her life takes a compelling turn when she enters a newspaper beauty contest on an impulse and wins. Off to the “Miss Europe” contest, her life becomes a whirlwind as she wins the title and is offered a treasure of riches from a variety of suitors. But André isn’t willing to let it go that easily…leading to tragic events.
In Essence: As enigmatic critics darlings go, few could touch Louise Brooks. Inimitably stylish, brazen, and full of keen wit, she also happened to be one of the most gifted actresses the screen has known. Her best-known work was with G.W. Pabst, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, but rarely mentioned is Beauty Prize, probably because for years only a poorly dubbed version was available. This silent version breaks free of any hampered pacing and displays director Augusto Genina’s flair for swift camera ideas and smart framing. With a script by René Clair (initially intended to direct as well) and Pabst, the film takes some surprising shifts in tone and development, as what seems a simple rags-to-riches melodrama becomes something a touch darker and more complex when Lucienne chooses her career over the oppressive love of André. In the end, the show not only belongs Brooks, whose discreet hand gestures and full control of her eyes in close-ups convey moments of epiphany that no other actress can match, but a nod also to Georges Charlia, whose André was essayed with a troubled charm and compassion that may not defend his actions, but compels you to stay with him to the end.
Director: King Vidor
Cast: Marion Davies, Orville Caldwell, Marie Dressler and Dell Henderson
The Story: Patricia Harrington (Marion Davies) is the sadly overlooked daughter from a middle-class family dominated by a social-climbing matriarch (Marie Dressler) who ignores her in favor of Pat’s attractive, spoiled older sister (Jane Winton). Complication ensues when Pat has a crush on her sister’s boyfriend (Orville Caldwell). How Patty earns the respect from her family and true love in the end makes the heart of this comedy.
In Essence: This one is a bit of a cheat, as I caught a presentation of this at the same festival four years ago, but you know what? I loved and appreciated this swiftly driven comedy even more the second time around. Brimming with a fine supporting cast (Marie Dressler and Dell Henderson are pitch perfect as the parents), well-staged gags (love the bit when she entertains a drunken suitor with her Pola Negri impersonation) and fine timing, King Vidor (long celebrated for his heavy dramas such as The Big Parade and The Crowd) shows how well he can handle a light-hearted comedy by never dimming the story with excessive sentiment or grotesque overplaying. In the end, give the prize to Marion Davies; she never indulges Patricia as a comic “patsy” but instead uses her comic talents to disarm any given opposition and thus radiates the film with shimmering humanity.
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Cast: Tokihiko Okada, Emiko Yagumo, Hideo Sugawara and Hideko Takamine
The Story: Shinji’s (Tokihiko Okada) life is steady, if unremarkable. He works for an insurance company and provides enough for his wife and young children, but his life takes a dour turn when he admirably stands up for a long serving co-worker and is in turn terminated. Roadblocks notwithstanding, Shinji’s pride and determination will help him find a way out of his situation.
In Essence: Silent Ozu is always a worthy and rewarding endeavor for the viewer and Tokyo Chorus is a great one to start with as it works on two levels: as an engaging Charlie Chase domestic comedy and as a broader examination of busy urban life through the lens of a working-class family struggling to keep up and survive. Ozu cast the marvellously skilled Tokihiko Okada as the young head of household. Possessing terrific physical grace and fresh reactions, he can handle a sight gag and a feverish reaction to the unexpected as well as any of his contemporaries. Giving it resonance is Ozu’s superb knack for studding the proceedings with realistic details: the crowded tenement housing; the homeless scourging for change and smokes; food peddlers struggling to eke out a living. There’s supple dexterity by Ozu to straddle these two themes, and the result is a richly warm and embracing comedy-drama.
Director: Jacques Feyder
Cast: Jean Forest, Françoise Rosay, Cécile Guyon, and Rolla Norman
The Story: Gribiche (Jean Forest), is a young boy whose life with his mother (Françoise Rosay), in squalor, is turned upside down when a good deed at a department store leads to his adoption by a rich, widowed, American socialite (Cécile Guyon). Gribiche accepts, but the cultural and social expectations put on the youngster are not without its complications.
In Essence: Jaques Feyder was a wonderful talent who could pull off polished, highly professional work with a clean sheen in all departments. Gribiche is proof of this. On paper, the plot seems perfunctory, but it’s never too broad in sentiment, with an excellent young actor in Jean Forest, who mercifully does not rob the adult actors of their due screen presence by mugging or preening for attention. Its gorgeous, cushioning images of Parisian night life are positively sweeping, and there are some nice, wry touches of humour as the (admittedly) broadly depicted class structures are examined by Feyder. Also, Rosay and Guyon are fine in their roles as the mother and socialite, and they bond with young Forest in some warm moments of discovery and connection. It’s far from ground breaking, but it’s a lovely artefact from a bygone era.
Michael T. Toole is a film journalist and filmmaker. He spent ten years writing for the Turner Classic Movies website and is currently working on a book on Harry Rapf. His short films can be seen here.