The San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Mary B. Scott July 13, 2006

Back at the Castro this weekend for the 13th year, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents a variety of titillating titles, showing 12 feature films over 2 1/2 days. I’ve attended each SFSFF since its start in 1996, and can always feel the sincere passion for these classic films exhibited by everyone involved. The perfect marriage of form and content, the Festival makes sure to get the best 35mm prints of films both famous and bizarre, as well as world-class musicians to accompany all the films, which are shown in a bona fide film palace built in 1922.

This year’s lineup includes such silent icons as Lon Chaney, Harold Lloyd, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies and flapper Colleen Moore, but also lesser-known characters such as Chief Buffalo Long Lance, the supposed Blackfoot chief who…wasn’t. This year’s film directors famous as well as infamous include Tod Browning, René Clair, Carl Dreyer, King Vidor and William Desmond Taylor (yes, the victim of the never-solved murder with suspects including three film actresses, one stage mother and the GM of Paramount Pictures).

With Leonard Maltin introducing the 1927 Harold Lloyd hit comedy The Kid Brother (Lloyd was more popular than either Keaton or Chaplin in his day) on Friday night and Guy Maddin both introducing and reading the titles for the Lon Chaney-Joan Crawford-Tod Browning circus drama The Unknown (1927) late Saturday night it would be easy to miss the less famous but no less fascinating other films being screened. The Unknown features famed actor Chaney as an armless knife thrower who has surgery in a strange expressionistic operating theater and Joan Crawford as a gorgeous, sensitive woman who cannot bear to be touched by a man’s hands. Chaney was a huge hit a few years previous playing a legless crime boss named Blizzard in 1921’s The Penalty.

But about those more obscure films: Viewers with any interest in the roots of animation must not miss Lotte Reiniger’s dazzling The Adventures of Prince Achmed from 1926. Many a supposedly thorough film textbook has claimed Disney’s Snow White, 1937 as the first animated feature film, but this film is from 11 years earlier, was produced in Germany and made by a woman! It features intricately cut shadow puppets, spectacular hand tinting and a wonderful fairy tale story of sorcerers and ogresses on the magic isle of Wak Wak. All this accompanied by the fabulous pianist Donald Sosin on a Sunday morning.

The real hidden gems this year include a social drama about society’s unwanted children and a hybrid pseudo ethnographic documentary-drama about the Ojibway Indians starring the aforementioned impostor chief.

William Desmond Taylor is remembered more as a murder victim than as a director partly because most of his films had been considered lost (over 70 percent of films made in the silent era are lost) but The Soul of Youth, made in 1920, proves to be a gritty study of baby trafficking, unloved orphans, homeless young men, corrupt politicians, reformers and amazingly understanding judges. The opening scenes are positively stunning with two women (one of them brazenly smoking) shown in silhouette striking a deal, "A bargain so monstrous and unnatural that it needs be consummated where God’s light is wanting. It is traffic in a human soul…" according to the exceptionally creative intertitles. The eventually unwanted baby grows into a young man somehow resembling a young Mark Wahlberg who attempts to help around the orphanage but who constantly gets into trouble. "What chance has a boy, when everyone thinks he’s bad!" He eventually escapes, lives on the streets with a young newsie and an abandoned dog but then there is a found gun, a bungled burglary, much misunderstanding, the return of the corrupt politician, etc. No one ever said silent films were short on plot.

If you go to see the gorgeously photographed remarkable 1930 story of Native Americans and their battle against The Silent Enemy (hunger), you had better check your political correctness at the door. Not only is it an example of the much maligned salvage ethnography, but also: Animals are definitely harmed in the making of this film, Native Americans of dozens of tribes are combined into false families and it is all supposedly set before the time of Columbus. Now salvage ethnography has quite a checkered history in cinema as Nanook of the North, 1922, is considered the first feature-length documentary and a beautiful poetic masterpiece. but is also the film where Flaherty poses unrelated individuals as a family and has them build an igloo, actually a half igloo so we the viewers can get a good look at how they bed down in a sub-zero snow storm. Later masters of this form include Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, who made the fabulous Chang in 1927, a "natural drama" set in Thailand which includes wild tigers and an elephant stampede. They would later make a parody of the travel film called King Kong in 1933.

In The Silent Enemy, the adventurous filmmakers follow a tribe of Ojibway Indians of the Hudson Bay area of Canada as they try to survive a harsh winter. The producer gathered members of dozens of different tribes and cast as their chief a man he found in the New York Museum of Natural History, a man he called "glorious, aristocratic, well-spoken, tuxedoed, the hereditary chief of the Sioux." He is quite a good actor and although the events are staged, they somehow do have a surprising ring of truth. The photography is absolutely gorgeous, the rituals are fascinating, the caribou stampede thrilling and amazingly well-shot and edited. This film is simply stunning. Only later would it be found that the "chief," long a spokesperson for the Indian cause and a well-respected part of both New York and Hollywood society, would be shown to be an African American custodian from North Carolina with some Cherokee blood who had been in Wild West shows, wrote an important "autobiography" of a Blackfoot chief, endorsed a running shoe, and eventually would be found dead from a bullet in a socialite’s home. And oh yes, the young woman who plays the mother was a Penobscot from Maine who was found dancing at a speakeasy in Texas and the assistant director of the film was Ilia Tolstoy, grandson of the novelist. You just have to love silent films.