Every year, San Francisco plays host to a film lover’s weekend-long paradise: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival. This year’s festival, hosted by the glorious Castro Theater, continues its 18-year tradition of showcasing high-quality silent films with live musical accompaniment to an appreciative audience – just the way a silent film should be seen.
Boasting a program of 17 silent features in total, the SFFF presents a treasure trove of silent classics, rarities, and curiosities. This year’s program offers a parade of artistic and entertaining selections, from highly regarded works from cinematic masters such as Carl Theodore Dreyer (The Parsons Widow) and Yasujiro Ozu (Dragnet Girl), to an early adventure documentary (The Epic of Everest), to the big-budget Soviet science fiction film Cosmic Journey, and plenty more. We would like to especially recommend the festival’s closing night feature, Buster Keaton’s The Navigator, a great film featuring one of the director’s most elaborate set pieces.
While we here at ESFS were not able to pre-screen all the movies on the festival’s slate (damn day jobs!), we were fortunate enough to get in viewings of the three films we were most interested in heading into the festival.
By Mike Dub
Max Linder was one of the key comedians of the silent era. Before Charlie Chaplin’s tramp became the figurehead of silent comedy, Max Linder’s dapper but dim playboy, winkingly named “Max,” helped to define movie slapstick during cinema’s most formative years. While his career has become somewhat overlooked in the shadows of The Big Three who followed in his footsteps (Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd), his 1921 release, Seven Years Bad Luck reveals Linder as a charismatic, clever, and unique performer.
Like many silent comedies, the plot of Seven Years Bad Luck is just a loose thread on which to hang a series of inspired gags. The morning after his bachelor party, Max, a spoiled rogue in the midst of a hangover, breaks a mirror and becomes convinced that the proverbial bad luck he is about to inherit will destroy his relationship with his fiancé, Betty. In reality, it is not bad luck that threatens his romance, but his own stupidity, sparked by his superstitious fear. A complicit victim of the tricksters who surround him, Max eagerly embraces every rotten decision he makes. Unlike Chaplin’s woeful tramp or Keaton’s stonefaced sad sack, Linder does not strain to make Max likable by any means. Ironically, it is exactly Max’s oafishness that makes the film so charming.
Throughout the film, Linder effortlessly glides through a series of visual and physical gags that are playfully crowd-pleasing, but often undercut with an idiosyncrasy capable of turning the conventional into the absurd. The high point of the film is a magnificent, pre-Marx Brothers mirror gag. A deft, precise ballet that is as funny as it is technically impressive, in Linder’s hands the scene is also somehow, incredibly, almost believable.
While he doesn’t have Chaplin’s frantic ingenuity or Keaton’s daring stunt work, Linder was a gifted comic with his own sensibilities. He may not be Chaplin, but then again, he doesn’t need to be.
By Daniel Barnes
Although best known for his sensitive and methodical films about post-war Japanese family dynamics, Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu also produced some three dozen silent movies in the pre-war phase of his career. One of the pleasures of his stylish crime film/romantic tragedy Dragnet Girl is the way that you can see a young filmmaker playing at genre tropes, uncharacteristic visual flourishes, and even slapstick, while still nourishing a very Ozu-ian style and perspective.
The luscious Kinuyo Tanaka plays Tokiko, a typist by day and nightclub moll by night, arm candy for a washed-up boxer turned small-time hood named Jijo. They are living the high life, but are still quite poor, and Tokiko supports them both with her meager office job. Although the wannabe criminals in Dragnet 13 wear stereotypical fedoras with black trenchcoats and boast about their “influence,” they are also completely dependent on working women to support them.
After a fledgling boxer named Hiroshi is initiated into the gang, he is deemed a “full-fledged punk,” and immediately goes to his sister to beg for coffee money. The sister works in an RCA record store but unlike Tokiko, she wears a traditional kimono rather than modern clothes, and Joji begins to take an interest. Symbols of western influence dominate the backgrounds of Dragnet Girl, including posters for The Champ and All Quiet on the Western Front. Ozu was obviously also influenced by western films, and the good girl/bad girl romantic dynamic here could have been lifted from the 1932 Clark Gable movie Red Dust.
Still, indications of the wise and watchful Ozu who would go on to make Floating Weeds and Tokyo Story are all over Dragnet Girl, including the omnipresence of his trademark crouching middle-distance camera set-ups amongst the film’s more overtly stylish compositions and camera movements. As in the best of Ozu, the small moments are the richest, as when Joji struggles to light a wood stove after returning from a nightclub bash, or the way that their apartment’s electricity turns on automatically. It’s a bit of social realism in a film that often feels like a dream.
By Mike Dub
The opening credits alone suggest the film’s distinguished place in history: story by Douglas Fairbanks, directed by Allan Dwan, supervised by D.W. Griffith. What follows may not be a masterpiece, but it is a brazen, entertaining western that fuses the talents of three major filmmakers of the silent era.
Douglas Fairbanks stars as “Passin’ Through,” a Robin Hood type outlaw who steals from the rich and gives to orphans and single mothers. Drifting into town during a recent run of robberies, he runs across a villain called “The Wolf,” who aptly sneers and makes unwanted advances on the beautiful Amy (the fetching Bessie Love). In a sleek 50 minutes, Passin’ Through learns to fall in love, conquers the demons of his past, and saves a town from the bad bad man.
The film is a tongue-in-cheek mix of western tropes, melodrama, and psychology. Fairbanks imbues his hero with his customary bravado when he is firing a gun. However, during a love scene, in full self-mockery, he turns Passin’ Through into a bumbling, girl-shy virgin, infantilized by the mystery of his father. When Amy approaches him for a kiss in an early scene, Passin’ Through literally sprints away from her, hops on a horse and leaves town. It feels more like a scene out of a Mel Brooks movie than an early western.
Love scenes notwithstanding, Fairbanks carries the film with his trademark cocksureness. Flaunting his infectious grin (sans moustache) and chiseled physique, Fairbanks charms his way through the silliness of the plotline. It is not a great film, but it is fun. What more could you want from Douglas Fairbanks?
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs from May 29 through June 2. For more information, including a complete festival schedule, visit: http://www.silentfilm.org/