Posted in: Film Festivals, Silent Cinema

Silents Please! The San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2009 (Part 1)

SFSFF poster boy Douglas Fairbanks
SFSFF poster boy Douglas Fairbanks

I’ve traveled to Pordenone, Italy, three times to attend Le Giornate de Cinema Muto, the biggest, grandest, most dedicated silent film festival in the world: eight days of morning to midnight screenings of the masterpieces, rarities, rediscoveries and revelations. Yet in my own backyard (more or less) I’d never been to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the weekend-long celebration that unspools every July at the Castro. Until this year. To the world it was the 14th Annual SFSFF, but it was my first visit to this well mounted, well curated and exceptionally well attended festival. It won’t be my last. To the rest of the world it may seem like a curious pursuit, but I can think of few pleasures greater than spending a couple of days in the Castro (even without air conditioning) soaking in silent films and live music by some of the best silent accompanists in the world.

Curating a silent film festival takes a special kind of art. Apart from rediscovered and newly restored films, there is none of the urgency of discovery and representation that drives the selection in the rest of the film festival world. And while 80-90% of all silent films have been lost to time and neglect, that still leaves thousands upon thousands of features and shorts available to programmers at any given time. So how do you choose a dozen programs that balance the known and the unknown, masterpieces and curiosities, while suggesting the scope of thirty-some years of silent cinema from all over the world? I don’t know the secret alchemy, but the programmers of SFSFF have found it. The features of this fest are firmly in twenties, the golden age of silent cinema (the exception is the 1932 Wild Rose, from China’s own golden age of silent cinema), with shorts spanning nearly thirties years. The result is not just an appreciation of the greatness of the art across genres and cultures, it is testament to the state of the art of cinema from the mid-twenties to the dawn of sound, and of the Hollywood filmmaking machine where every cog was a professional at the peak of his profession.

The Gaucho

Case in point: the festival opened with the Douglas Fairbanks feature The Gaucho (1927). Though less well known and far less lauded than his more spectacular adventures, like The Mark of Zorro (1920), Robin Hood (1922) and The Black Pirate (1926), this is one of the best, most mature and most interesting films in his career. Fairbanks plays the outlaw hero with his trademark devil-may-care flair, a fun-loving bandit in the mountains of Argentina who descends upon a garrison town and almost single-handedly takes it over, bringing in his small bandit army to clean up the loose ends. The Fairbanks heroes have always reveled in their acrobatic abilities but the Gaucho is a show-off, indulging in his cigarette tricks and his gymnastic tricks to the delight of all audiences. He’s willfully immature and childishly (one might say innocently) naïve in matters of politics and love, as is his mountain girl hellcat of a lover (Lupe Velez, perfectly fiery and petulant in her leading lady debut). Their lovers spats are amazing, she all tempestuous, hot-blooded, impulsive, a star-struck fan turned jealous sex-kitten, he the smiling bandit king with a playful spirit and a patronizing attitude that tolerates and even appreciates her tantrums; when she bites his arm, he bites right back, grinning and laughing like a child. He has a wandering eye, to be sure, but he charms her with a genuine affection that may not be love but is as close as he is able to feel.

Lupe Velez tangoes and tangles with Douglas Fairbanks in The Gaucho
Lupe Velez tangos and tangles with Douglas Fairbanks in "The Gaucho"

Director F. Richard Jones was comedy specialist – he started out churning out two-reelers for Mack Sennet and directed Mabel Norman, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin and others in comedy features – but he proves to be a grand director of action and drama here, from a dynamic prologue (featuring an unbilled Mary Pickford as the shimmering vision of the Virgin Mary), marred only by condescending portrait of superstitious peasants, through the thrilling spectacle of Fairbanks in action. The piety of the film, however, is excruciating, with its holy shrine and evangelizing priest and “Girl of the Shrine,” a modern Virgin Mary who stands vigil over the shrine and ladles out sips of the holy water of this consecrated spring. It’s hardly an attitude exclusive to this film – how many Hollywood epics shower themselves in biblical reference and Christian proclamations and holy miracles that come across less like expressions of faith than public shows of piety? – but it feels especially hollow here, where this holy water literally cures everything it douses and inspires our primitive atheist to embrace the word of God with the passion of a zealot. More compelling is the shadow cast by the military dictator, a bandit himself who runs his government like a racket, and the growing responsibility felt by our happy-go-lucky bandit king. And is it just me or is the holier than thou Girl of the Shrine (Eve Southern) casting bedroom eyes at the Gaucho? It’s not that she’s all that sexy – she is something of a humorless wet-blanket, saintly in pose at least – but her heavy-lidded Myrna Loy eyes seem to be inviting Fairbanks to give her a little holy touch of his own.

The SFSFF presentation was accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, a terrific small combo who offered the world premiere of their lively new original score. The muscular theme and dynamic arrangement helped make this the most memorable showing of this film I’ve had the pleasure of attending. Just as memorable was the pre-film presentation of gorgeous color tests and outtakes of two scenes shot in two-strip Technicolor, both of them the visions of Mary. The actual scenes themselves, which were seen in the original run of the film, have been lost but these color tests offer a hint at the majesty that these scenes once offered. The footage was introduced by Jeffrey Vance and narrated live by Tony Maietta, co-authors of the recent Douglas Fairbanks biography.

Lady of the Pavements

Douglas Fairbanks kicked off the festival and his partner in United Artists, D.W. Griffith, brought it to a close with Lady of the Pavements (1929), the final silent film by the most important and influential filmmaker of the era. But you could also say that Lupe Velez opened and closed the festival with the energy that earned her the name The Mexican Spitfire. William Boyd and Jetta Goudal get top billing over Velez (this was only her third starring role) but she’s got the title role: a fiery, uninhibited cabaret singer who is groomed by a vindictive countess (Goudal), a la Pygmalian, to play an exotic aristocrat and romance a Prussian ambassador (Boyd) who jilted the Parisian princess with the proclamation: “I would sooner marry a woman of the street.”

Lupe Velez in Lady of the Pavements
Lupe Velez in "Lady of the Pavements"

The project was a work-for-hire assignment for Griffith, whose style was increasingly viewed by the fast-evolving Hollywood industry as old-fashioned. While there’s nothing visionary about Lady of the Pavements, there’s a restrained elegance to his direction. Working with both modern innovator Karl Struss and his old collaborator Billy Bitzer, he moves the camera with an almost self-conscious design, but he proves himself a solid storyteller, a smooth hand with actors and a director with an eye for composition and imagery. Pre-Hopalong Cassidy Boyd is a strapping all-American version of a Prussian officer and Goudal, with her piercing eyes and haughty elegance, is the epitome of privileged arrogance, which gives Velez room to steal the show. She’s just as much a peasant dynamo as she is in The Gaucho, but less tempestuous than playful and innocently impulsive. She and Griffith imbue the spirited directness of her character with an honesty of intention and action.

The film was one of many silent production retooled in the wake of The Jazz Singer to apply synchronized sound to a few scenes and was originally released with a synchronized score on disc, with songs recorded by Lupe Velez. Those discs, which proved to be problematic during the film’s original release, have been long lost but some of the songs, including the Irving Berlin original “Where Is the Song of Songs for Me?,” were resurrected by pianist Donald Sosin and vocalist Joanna Seton. They originally accompanied the film at Pordenone, with Seton’s soprano filling in for Velez. For San Francisco, they had unearthed two more of the songs and added them to the live score, giving even more of a hint at the original film. While it’s hardly the lost Griffith masterpiece, this resurrection helps reassess the conventional assessment of Griffith’s decline in the late twenties.

Click here for Part Two…