Silent Film Fest's brew: Benjamin Christiansen’s 1922 'Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages' is a visually delirious, visionary classic that’s too often been seen in cut form.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival Speaks Volumes

Dennis Harvey July 15, 2010

It is a frequent complaint that movies are getting dumber and more interchangeable as Hollywood increasingly focuses on expensive but often hugely profitable "tentpole" films (those comic-book adaptations and sequels that top the box-office every week) to the exclusion of everything else—like movies for grownups. 'Twas not always so. One can be amazed by the seriousness and thematic diversity of yesteryear's blockbusters, with nary a vampire or superhero among them.

Two such 1920s "superproductions" provide the biggest events in this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the event's 15th edition running July 15-18 at the Castro Theatre. One you probably haven't seen, the other you surely have—but definitely not in the form it's being presented here.

The first is John Ford's 1924 The Iron Horse, a sprawling epic about the construction of the first U.S. transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. This was the film that made Ford's name after a prolific decade of much smaller-scaled features and shorts that included many Westerns. That experience made him a sound choice for handling this vastly ambitious "oater."

Though as its costs and schedule spiraled out of control, due in large part to adverse weather conditions on the nearly all-outdoor shoot, he and the film almost didn't make it—Fox executives began clamoring to cut their losses and shut down the production. Only the eventual intervention of William Fox himself ultimately kept the cameras rolling. (A similar scenario would bedevil Fox 40 years later, when Cleopatra became the most famously budget-busting, never-ending film shoot ever.)

Approximately 5,000 extras, 2,000 horses, and the construction of two entire towns later, The Iron Horse proved a gamble that paid off: Grossing a then-astronomical $2 million, it was one of the decade's biggest successes. The Silent Fest is showing virtually the only 35mm print in existence of the full, two-and-a-half-hour American version. With its huge canvas overwhelming human interest, it's not a revelation like 3 Bad Men, the contrastingly intimate Western drama (also starring handsome Horse hero George O'Brien) Ford made two years later, and which the Silent Fest showed several years back. But as returning Festival guest Leonard Maltin writes, "This movie invented what later became cliches," so anyone with any fondness for the Western genre needs to see it.

Not really like anything before or since is Fritz Lang's 1927 Metropolis, another massive, risky enterprise that took nearly two years to shoot and nearly bankrupted its studio, German giant UFA. This incredible science-fiction epic premiered at a length of two-and-a-half hours, then, when it failed to live up to box-office expectations, was systematically chopped down in different territories—for decades the mostly widely available prints were little more than one-third that length. A 2002 75th anniversary restoration got the runtime back up to 123 minutes. Two years ago, in one of those miracles that film fans pray for, a near-whole 16mm copy was found in Buenos Aires. Billed as The Complete Metropolis, this 148-minute version—OK, five minutes still missing, we can live with that—should further astonish those who thought they knew Metropolis but were knocked sideways by the 2002 version.

Other films in this year's four-day Festival run a typical global gamut from famous classics to rare rediscoveries. Among the former are G.W. Pabst's 1929 Diary of a Lost Girl, which isn't as well known as his Pandora's Box but is arguably an even better vehicle for the luminous Louise Brooks. Like Metropolis, Benjamin Christiansen's 1922 Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages is a visually delirious, visionary classic that's too often been seen in cut form. And one can never get too much of Dziga Vertov's dizzying 1929 Soviet The Man With the Movie Camera, one of the most editorially innovative films in history.

On the discovery side, there's The Flying Ace (1926), the only surviving production by pioneering African American filmmaker Richard E. Norman. Mario Camerini's 1929 Rotalie is a stylish romance considered one of the flowers of Italian silent cinema. From China—whose silent era ran a little later than most—comes Bu Wancang's A Spray of Plum Blossoms, which puts a contemporary local spin on Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona. Serge Nadejdine's 1924 L'hereuse morte is a French comedy set in the fickle theater world.

Back on home ground, early work by two Hollywood masters gets the spotlight, in Frank Capra's 1926 vehicle for baby-faced comedian Harry Langdon, The Strong Man, while 30 years before Ben-Hur William Wyler directed boxing drama The Shakedown. A major silent star little-remembered today, Norma Talmadge, had one of her last roles in Henry King's 1928 A Woman Disputed.

As usual, the SF Silent Fest offers programs of comedy shorts, two "Amazing Tales from the Archives" (featuring the latest restoration finds worldwide), guest speakers and panels. Plus, of course, live music accompanying each film, played by various talents local (the Castro's own Dennis James) and imported (like returning faves Alloy Orchestra). Advance ticket purchase is encouraged—this festival is popular.