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San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2023: One Last Silent Movie Party at the Castro Theatre?

The 26th San Francisco Silent Film Festival was another joyous gathering of silent cinema.

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The Iron Mask
Photo: San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The 26th San Francisco Silent Film Festival was another joyous gathering of silent cinema fans, historians, scholars, and all stripes of movie buffs. Launched in 1995, the festival has grown from a single-day event to—excluding two years of Covid shutdowns—an annual, five-day celebration. It’s about the movies, of course, and this year SFSFF presented 20 features and seven shorts. But it’s also about the silent movie experience. All shows were accompanied by live music, from solo piano to small combos to a 10-piece mini-orchestra for the closing-night event, playing both archival music and original scores, many composed for the screenings.

Allan Dwan’s The Iron Mask, from 1929, opened the festival with a bittersweet farewell to the silents. The film, the swashbuckling final silent feature to star Douglas Fairbanks, has added resonance for SFSFF audiences because of the legacy of the Castro Theatre, the festival’s home for its entire 26 years. The new owners of the movie palace in the heart of the Castro district have controversially chosen to remove the seats and level the floor to turn it into a concert venue, which would effectively end its suitability as a screening space.

In many ways, The Iron Mask’s selection was a fitting farewell, as Fairbanks’s older kind of hero is shaped by loss and disappointment but still driven by duty and honor and, of course, friendship, to fight the good fight one last time. The final images are at once joyous and melancholic, a celebration of what has been accomplished as the end comes.

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Closing night brought another spectacle, Erich von Stroheim’s 1925 epic The Merry Widow, a mix of Ruritanian royal drama, saucy sex comedy, and decadent melodrama of lecherous princes battling for the company of an American showgirl. Von Stroheim reworks the plot of Franz Lehár’s operetta and, naturally, adds layers of bad behavior to the spoiled royals used to having their way with any woman. Sally O’Neal, Mae Murray’s Ziegfeld-like dancer, is having none of it, which in this sexy fairy tale eventually breaks through the hearty hedonism of Danilo (John Gilbert) and blossoms into true love, which of course collides with duty.

While Gilbert showcases the charming side of the characters that Stroheim usually played in his films, Roy D’Arcy pushes the conniving side to the limit as the swaggering Crown Prince Mirko, whose leering smile suggests a wolf baring its fangs. Composer and pianist Maud Nelissen conducted an expanded, 10-piece version of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra performing her original score, giving the film a grand setting befitting its lavish imagery.

One of the unsung highlights of every SFSFF is the free “Amazing Tales from the Archives” program. This year, audiences were introduced to forgotten animation pioneer Bessie Mae Kelley, a rediscovered documentary on the cultural exchange of dolls between Japan and the U.S. in 1927, and the vast array of “traps” used by silent film and vaudeville percussionists to create sound effects, with a demonstration by musician and collector Nicholas White. White returned as a pit musician two days later to accompany a program of three restored Laurel and Hardy silent comedies, including 1927’s “Battle of the Century,” famed for the biggest pie fight in silent movie history and only recently reconstructed to its (almost) complete glory.

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The audience favorite appears to have been E. Mason Hopper’s breathlessly paced bedroom farce Up in Mabel’s Room, a saucy jazz age comedy from 1926 that’s powered by Marie Prevost, largely forgotten today (Kenneth Anger’s discredited story of her tragic demise briefly brought her name back in the 1970s). She’s a cheerfully seductive flapper who, after a sudden Paris marriage and an impulsive divorce, decides she made a mistake and determines to woo back her resistant ex (Harrison Ford—not that one) at a weekend retreat. Prevost is a firecracker, as saucy and suggestive as Mae West but with a wink at the audience that gives her a sexy innocence as the couples get mired in romantic misunderstandings as they slip in and out of bedrooms in search of a sheer negligee. The jazz score by the Guenter Buchwald ensemble was the perfect accompaniment: lively, a little sassy, and full of fizzy jazz-age energy.

The two great American rediscoveries for me were 1926’s The Johnstown Flood, a big, special effects-laden disaster film starring George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor a year before they made Sunrise, and 1927’s Stark Love, a rural drama set and shot in the mountains of Appalachia. The Johnstown Flood is a big studio production with major stars and a budget you can see on screen. The stocky O’Brien brings a country boy charm and a stalwart resolve to his role, a gentle giant of a logging engineer who can roar when roused, but Gaynor is just as much a hero as she races like Paul Revere, riding just ahead of the waters to warn the townsfolk of the deluge of mud and timber laying waste to everything in its wake. The miniature effects and double-exposure work that send the flood through town streets and buries citizens are superb.

Stark Love, the directorial debut of silent movie cinematographer Karl Brown, was aptly described by Mike Mashon, former head of the Library of Congress’s Moving Image Section, in his intro as a “mostly respectful” portrayal of the rural Appalachian culture. While it traffics in some clichés, it also features a strong, determined heroine, played by newcomer Helen Mundy with a commanding presence and natural talent equal to that of veteran professionals. The imagery is beautiful, shot on location in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, but equally impressive are the performances that Brown draws from the non-professional actors.

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Though backed by a studio, Stark Love is really an independent production, shot far from the oversight of executives. The result is a film of wild beauty and primal power that underplays the inherent melodrama of the story. Yes, there are some hillbilly stereotypes but there are also moments of pain and loss and resignation and defiance in the face of tradition.

Floods are the rage this festival, it appears, for there’s a doozy in 1924’s Flowing Gold, one of three restorations funded and overseen by SFSFF. The wildcatting adventure set in the Texas oil boom is based on a novel by Rex Beach, who specialized in brawny adventures of men on the frontier. This one features a nouveau riche family, and a mysterious entrepreneur who arrives with three cents in his pocket and a gift for convincing the world that’s he’s a big wheel.

Flowing Gold
A scene from Flowing Gold. San Francisco Silent Film Festival

There’s a crooked banker, a golddigging woman, hired guns, a boom town Dallas striving for modernity while its streets turn to mud under the crush of speculators, and, by the end, a sudden storm, an oil fire, and the above mentioned flood, where our farm-hardened heroine (Anna Q. Nilsson) leaps into action to be the action hero of the film. In a screening culture that is turning to digital presentations, this was screened on a brand new 35mm restoration print and the festival went the extra mile to recreate the original tinting and toning chemically on the print (not digitally), giving audiences the same experience as those of 100 years ago.

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Also newly restored by SFSFF is 1919’s The Dragon Painter, an American production developed by screen star Sessue Hayakawa, the first Japanese movie star in Hollywood. Hayakawa created his own production company to make films that presented a more respectful and culturally accurate portrait of Japan to American audiences, and also to break out of the exotic roles as villains and romantic lotharios that the studios gave him.

But this is no ethnographic study. Rather, it’s a melodrama about a wild mountain man whose primal drive to paint brings him to the attention of a retiring master looking for an apprentice to carry on his name. The Dragon Painter is based on an American novel and directed by an American filmmaker, William Worthington, and straddles Hayakawa’s desire for more accurate (or at least less clichéd) portraits of Japanese culture and the American appetite for Orientalism. But as it was shot entirely in California, the magnificent mountainscapes are actually from Yosemite National Park. (Again, this was screened from a 35mm restoration print that recreates the original tinting and toning through an authentic chemical process.)

After three days of American productions, the festival went international on Saturday. The 1925 German adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is spirited take on the play, setting the action in ancient Athens and replacing some of Shakespeare’s verse with titles devised with a cheeky, at times self-aware sense of humor (one character dismisses a conflict as “much ago about nothing”). Director Hans Neumann adeptly juggles the crisscrossing couples and plunges them into a fantastical realm where the sprites, fairies, elves, and other magical being have a gauzy, diaphanous presence; they appear and vanish at will and we can see through to the thick, tangled woods behind them even as they linger to play games with the hapless humans.

Werner Kraus stars as Bottom, and Puck is played as a force of unbridled chaos and devilish energy by dancer Valeska Gert. Long considered lost, an export print was discovered under the floorboards of an Oregon home and reconstructed as close to the original German cut as possible. The accompanying score by the Sascha Jacobsen Quartet was aptly enchanting.

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The 1931 Ukranian comedy Pigs Will Be Pigs, written and directed by Khanan Shmain, is a timely discovery, an absurdist satire of Soviet bureaucracy set in a rural train station. While the locals fulfill all the clichés of hayseed dimwits ill equipped to function as cogs in the new Soviet system, the party machine is a carousel of functionaries passing decisions off to other departments or up the ladder to be studied by a committee.

The film plays out as a farce as a pair of guinea pigs turns the station storage room into a veritable zoo (think Star Trek’s “The Trouble with Tribbles”) and an errant shipment of grain seed bounces from train to train. It was one of the final expressions of regional filmmaking in the Soviet Union, and one of the last to poke fun at Soviet communism. Joseph Stalin shut down the regional studio and consolidated all decision-making in Moscow, where the state could control the messaging of all new productions. Pigs Will be Pigs was immediately banned and the film considered lost until a German export print was uncovered and repatriated to Ukraine.

Brigitte Helm is the title character of the 1928 German sci-fi horror film A Daughter of Destiny, which takes a page from the Frankenstein saga, and Paul Wegener is the professor whose experiment combines eugenics, artificial insemination, and folk magic. In the nature-versus-nurture debate, she’s failed by both. The arrogant professor’s interest is in observing a human created “without love” and he pretty much succeeds, both scientifically and socially; he abandons his “daughter” to a convent and only makes contact after the rebellious young woman escapes and joins the circus, where she begins testing the power of her sexuality.

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Given such origins, director Henrik Galeen (adapting the novel by the controversial German author Hanns Heinz Ewers) refreshingly presents Helm’s Alraune not as evil or soulless but as curious, frustrated, yearning for thrills and danger and attention, and the men around her are only too willing to provide. Alraune may begin as a siren, a vamp who seduces men to her own ends, but she ultimately becomes the engine of her emancipation from the real monster, a soulless intellectual who plays God without mercy and becomes a victim of his own arrogance.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival ran from July 12—16.

Sean Axmaker

Sean Axmaker has written for Turner Classic Movies Online, The Seattle Weekly, Keyframe, and Cinephiled. He is the editor of Parallax View and was the film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for nine years.

1 Comment

  1. Here in San Francisco, we’ve seen cinemas closing up left and right lately, but nothing has devastated the local film community more than the takeover of the Castro by Another Planet Entertainment. I found a photo of the final repertory calendar, from the month the pandemic hit (link below). My copy has been on the fridge ever since:
    https://i.redd.it/probably-the-last-ever-castro-theatre-movie-calendar-march-v0-hbmp1d68w27b1.jpg?s=693d2d10d41d67057d78999cf48f7c7a8c78907d

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