Wonderwall: 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival
I love a good film festival and this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival was one of the best. Held at the legendary Castro Theater, the festival showcased several brand new or recently restored prints of classic and obscure films from Germany, China, the U.S., Sweden, and beyond. Probably due to the popularity of The Artist, winner of last year’s Best Picture Oscar, the festival was packed morning, noon, and night.
In this age of DVDs and online streaming the SFSFF understands the need to offer a value-added film viewing experience. All of the shows at the fest had live accompaniment, ranging from glorious piano and Wurlitzer stylings to full-on ensemble performances from crack film orchestras. Wings, the opening night film, was screened not only with live music but with a live foley setup providing sound effects in the theater as the film unspooled. The screening of Georges Melies’ classic short, A Trip To The Moon (recently featured in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo), included live narration by Paul McCann from the director’s notes on the film, adding a droll note to the whimsical film.
I started my long weekend o’ film viewing with Little Toys (1933), starring the legendary Chinese performer Ruan Lingyu, who died by her own hand at the tender age of 24. Between 1927 to her death in 1934 Ruan appeared in nearly 30 films during the golden age of Chinese filmmaking, famously playing lovelorn prostitutes, and other down-and-out characters. In Little Toys she’s a toymaker in rural China who is swept up by the events of the day, including the Sino-Japanese War, the advent of capitalism, and the urbanization of China. The film, by left-leaning director Sun Yu (who ironically was later denounced by Mao Zedong), is an interesting critique of the inhumanity of war and the ways in which ordinary people are harmed by violent political conflict.
The festival also included films featuring two very different silent era actresses. Mantrap (1926), starring the awesome Clara Bow, screened with impeccable live accompaniment by Stephen Horne on piano, flute and accordion. I’d never seen Clara Bow in action before and, as directed by her then-inamorato Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz; Gone With The Wind) she’s fun and charismatic, with darting eyes and a sly, impish grin. The pre-code storyline of a notorious flirt who dazzles her husband and his friend, as well as most of the other men in the movie, is refreshingly non-judgmental—as Michael Sragow observes in the program notes, “the film doesn’t punish the character for her sexual independence, it salutes her for it.”
Saturday night’s centerpiece film featured another silent-screen goddess, the ever-stunning Louise Brooks starring in Pandora’s Box. The festival screened a gorgeous new restoration that confirmed director G.W. Pabst’s mastery of light and shadow, emphasizing the moody chiaroscuro that makes this film a classic. We’d meant to attend the 10pm show of The Overcoat immediately following Pandora’s Box, with music by the surprise-a-minute Alloy Orchestra, but delays in loading in the Mattie Bye Orchestra for the Pabst film pushed The Overcoat’s start time past 11pm. With plans to see the 10am show the next day we regretfully took a pass on the Russian expressionist movie and headed for home.
Sunday morning bright and early, less than ten hours after the late-night screening of The Overcoat, a full house turned out to see Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro (1920), as the mild-mannered Don Diego who turns into the sexy crime-fighting Zorro. As noted by Fairbanks biographer Jeffrey Vance, Zorro’s underground hideout, his dual identity, and his form-fitting all-black outfit, cape and mask were a clear influence on Batman creator Bob Kane. In Zorro, Fairbanks of course flaunts his toned booty, fencing chops and parkour skills—more surprising are his well-honed comic chops as the foppish Don Diego. The film isn’t very cinematically innovative but once Fairbanks gets going the movie picks up steam. The climatic chase scene, with Fairbanks running, jumping and climbing his way across the scenery, is a lot of fun.
Capping the weekend’s screenings was Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), his last great feature film and his first as an MGM contract player. As a UCLA undergrad I was crazy for Buster Keaton, seeing all of his independent features and several shorts. I even watched The Navigator on a flatbed at the UCLA film archives since, back then at the dawn of time, Keaton’s movies weren’t available on home video. I’d never seen The Cameraman, though, so I was happy to that it was part of this year’s festival. Although MGM’s dictatorial studio brass was already on its way to fatally hampering his career, Keaton turned out a near-perfect movie in The Cameraman, which follows a callow young photographer in his attempts to break into the newsreel business. Along the way he woos a pretty girl, shatters many windows, leaps effortlessly onto moving vehicles, and gets caught in the middle of a full-scale tong war. Unlike many movies from the era, the film’s portrayal of Chinatown and its habitués is fairly unsensational, though I wonder if the tongs really would have had several full-on machine guns to go with their machetes and six-shooters.
All in all the festival was quite fun and invigorating. It’s always a treat when vintage movies get the royal treatment, and the SFSFF displays the utmost care and sensitivity in presenting its programs. In an age when media is often made to be watched on a cell phone, it’s great to see films produced for and projected on the all-mighty big screen.
Entry filed under: movies, san francisco silent film festival. Tags: buster keaton, clara bow, douglas fairbanks, louise brooks, mantrap, movies, pandora's box, ruan lingyu, san francisco silent film festival, silent films.