The great misconception of silent cinema is that it’s all about movies that lack the dimension of sound. It’s the idea of “lack” they get wrong. Apart from the oft-stated fact that silent cinema was never silent—from the biggest movie palaces to the smallest storefront theaters, the movies were always accompanied with music and often with sound effects—movies developed as a uniquely visual form of storytelling just as radio drama and comedy evolved into a sophisticated form of audio storytelling. Whether you believe it a purer from of cinema or an archaic one, silent movies offer a different kind of experience than sound cinema, one built on faces and physical performance to communicate character and emotion. Forget the cliché of outsized acting styles and simplistic situations plucked from slapstick farces and spoofs. There is a rich world and varied world in the silents, from surreal comedy to magnificent spectacle to adult drama, with performances both bold and nuanced.
That is the experience celebrated at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the biggest and greatest celebration of cinema before the talkies in the U.S. The 24th year of this annual event presented 23 features between May 1 through May 5 at the Castro Theater (“the Cathedral to Cinema,” as it was so described by the director of the National Film Archive of Japan, Hisashi Okajima), along with shorts and special presentations.
This essay was originally written for the Silent Fall 2014 program presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on September 20, 2014
No silent moviemaker ever engaged with the machinery of modern life as resourcefully as Buster Keaton did. From One Week (1920), his debut as a solo director after his apprenticeship with Fatty Arbuckle, to The Cameraman (1928), his final masterpiece, Keaton routinely sparred with the mechanized world. He could be confounded in his early shorts—sometimes modern conveniences got the best of him—but as Keaton moved into feature films and matured as a filmmaker, his characters persevered in the struggle, thanks to a combination of curiosity, commitment, and ingenuity. Whereas Chaplin waged war against the machines with underdog defiance, Keaton mastered the magnificent marvels of modern engineering to triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds. In The Navigator (1924), Keaton tamed an abandoned luxury liner and emerged with one of the biggest hits of his career. After making three features of a more modest scope, The General (1926) marked his return to filmmaking on an ambitious scale. Built around a majestic prop that becomes a character in its own right—a locomotive steam engine—it is still filled with intimate moments. It is a grand achievement.
The story of The General comes from a chapter of Civil War history, a true tale of Union spies who infiltrated the South, stole a passenger train in Georgia, and drove it north pursued by Southern conductors who eventually captured the raiders. According to Keaton, Clyde Bruckman, his reliable collaborator and gag man, handed him William A. Pittenger’s account of the incident as a potential project. Keaton streamlined the story to a deceptively simple structure of two mirrored chases—one north to recapture the stolen engine and another back south—as well as added a love interest and a kidnapping to make the rescue personal. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he took on the perspective of the South.
G.W. Pabst’s The Joyless Street (1925), the Centerpiece screening on Saturday night, is a landmark drama of social commentary, a savage portrait of Germany after World War II, when rampant inflation and record unemployment plunged an entire class into poverty and widened the gulf between rich and poor into a veritable ocean. Decadence and desperation and degradation: this has it all, and with a drumbeat of social drama drawn in stark images and situations.
Greta Garbo takes her first role since being “discovered” in Gosta Berling’s Saga (1924) and is marvelous as the devoted daughter of a widower civil servant, basically taking care of her father and her little sister while he gambles their entire future on a stock market bet (a rigged game that we know is doomed to ruin them). Endlessly nurturing and sacrificing herself for others, we know where she’s headed when she ends up in hock to Frau Greifer (Valeska Gert), the neighborhood clothier with the secret club in the back and the procurer who turns desperate women into hookers for her male clients. Garbo is elegant and dignified without tipping into the Hollywood glamour that would soon define her (and fix her teeth), the honest working class innocent about to be savaged by the economic piranhas circling the stream.
The ostensible lead, however, is Asta Nielsen, the thirtysomething German superstar playing the teenage daughter of an impoverished and pious war veteran who accuses her of prostitution and essentially pushes her to it out of necessity. Dressed to the hilt by a smitten banker in fashions that make the Ziegfeld Follies look restrained, she goes through the movie like the walking dead, numb with shock at her station, which apparently her foreign fat cat client finds alluring, if confusing. Werner Krauss plays the butcher, who hordes his products to trade for sexual favors and wields the power of his position like a petty tyrant, and there’s an American aid worker, an aspiring young banker trying to follow in his market-manipulating boss’s footsteps, and a decadent young woman ready to trade her affections for the richest beau, plus there’s a couple of murders, a fiery suicide, a healthy dose of madness, and lots of lurid spectacle.
And yet watching the film is tough. Manny Farber’s designation of “elephant art” came to mind while working through the screening. This is long (over 2 ½ hours), important, heavy, full of social commentary and dreary lessons, and it goes on and on, teasing us with the threat of degradation of its struggling characters while showing damaging actions of the rich. It’s also overloaded with storylines, top-heavy with major characters (some of whom suddenly disappear for long periods, perhaps due to missing footage), confusing and complicated and at times clumsy in its storytelling.
I surveyed the 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival for Fandor a few weeks ago, covering the highlights and landmarks in brief. But it was always my intention to explore the films, and my experience with them, in a little more detail, time permitting. As it turns out, time has not permitted much opportunity, so I’ve carved a few hours out of a weekend to collect my notes and my thoughts over a few of the films.
The San Francisco International Film Festival has been expanding its size and its mission from the very beginning, when it was a single film showing with live music. Since then, it has expanded to four days, playing new restorations and rediscoveries, bringing in the finest silent film accompanists from around the world, commissioning original scores, and offering presentations from archivists walking us through their latest projects.
This year marks the latest and most exciting expansion of their mission: the world premiere of two new restorations undertaken by the SFSFF in collaboration with international film archives.
Allan Dwan’s 1916 The Half-Breed, a California frontier western starring Douglas Fairbanks in the title role, has been available before in a largely complete but partially re-edited 1924 re-release held by the Cinématèque Française (that version was released on disc a few years ago in Flicker Alley’s marvelous Douglas Fairbanks box set). Rob Byrne set about attempting to reconstruct the original, longer 1916 cut with the help of an incomplete (and very damaged) print of the original release held by the Library of Congress and a radically re-edited reduction print found by Lobster Films in France. Research into the scant documentation verified a few incomplete sequences and a couple of completely missing scenes, which Byrne, collaborating with Cinématèque Française, was able to reconstruct with the additional prints. (At the “Amazing Tales from the Archives” presentation on Friday morning, Byrne presented a step-by-step look at the process of not just finding footage, but doing detective work into finding the original titles, the original narrative, and the editing as seen on the original release; it was the most detailed presentation I have seen on the work and research that goes in to restoring a silent film.)
The result is not necessarily one of Fairbanks’ best films, but the restored film shows a more nuanced and interesting drama than heretofore seen, a conflicted portrait of racism and prejudice through the filter of history that decries intolerance without defying it (the film can’t let even as noble a half-breed as Fairbanks walk off into the sunset with a white woman), yet vividly lays out the hypocrisy of prejudice and white superiority in scene after scene. The film was adapted from a Bret Harte short story by Anita Loos, whose distinctive wit is evident in the surviving original intertitles (most of them are lost and the difference between the deft language and satirical edge of Loos and the bland writing of the rewritten titles of the reissue is unavoidable).
I knew that San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the premiere silent fest in America, but I was elated to learn from Céline Ruivo, curator of the film collection at the Cinématèque Française and a special guest at this year’s festival, that in Europe, SFSFF has a reputation as one of the premiere silent film festivals in the world. It has earned that reputation. In its now four-day length (three full days plus a gala opening night), it is both selective and expansive in its programming, with rediscoveries and new restorations along with well-known audience favorites and world masterpieces.
The opening night program qualifies as both rediscovery and revival. Prix de Beaute (1930, France), directed by Augusto Genina from a screenplay by G.W. Pabst and Rene Clair (who originally developed the project for himself), is famous largely for its star: it was Louise Brooks‘ third and final starring role in her brief European vogue. It was also released in both silent and talkie versions, and the sound version (with La Brooks dubbed by a French actress) is what most people have seen. The recently restored silent version is both longer and more interesting, even while it remains a minor coda to her Pabst masterpieces. The story of a newspaper secretary who wins the Miss Europe beauty contest takes abrupt tonal turns from bubbly romantic comedy to high-society spectacle to working class drama to operatic melodrama. But at its best it offers a look at working class life at work and at play in 1930 Paris and it sweeps us up in the rush of Brooks’ fairy-tale journey to stardom. Her fresh, natural presence in the world of late silent-era acting makes her all the more guileless and innocent in a culture where every man wants to possess and control her.
The programmers are as careful with the musical component as they are on the film materials. Every film is accompanied by live music from world-class silent film musicians. The opening night films was accompanied by Stephen Horne, a solo musician as one man band: he plays piano, flute and accordion (often two at once), and plucks strings of piano to suggest a Spanish guitar in a nightclub scene. The affectionate joke around the theater is that Horne returns to SFSFF every year because they get a combo for the price of a solo act! Also returning this year are the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra from Colorado and the Mattie Bye Ensemble from Sweden, while German pianist and organ player Günter Buchwald made his SFSFF debut on four programs.