Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Silent nights


Greta Garbo in G.W. Pabst's The Joyless Street. Photo: Courtesy SF Silent Film Festival
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If you see no other film this year, pack a hip flask and settle back for two-and-a-half hours of the painstakingly restored but still-incomplete The Joyless Street (1925), the revelation of this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre, Sat., July 20 at 8:30 p.m.

You will not believe your eyes. G.W. Pabst's reputation as a director did not prepare me for the multi-layered genius of this German film, cut to ribbons by European censors because it told the truth about the economic ravages of war on civil society. Today's American Imperialists will appreciate this compassionate yet harrowing fable of suffering and despair in 1921 Vienna, where the 1% mixes with the 99% to trade sexual favors, meat, jewels, stock tips, champagne, and death. It's a lot like now.

The film's star, Asta Nielsen, was a decent Danish stage actress who became a celluloid phenomenon, the first international screen diva, who is regrettably underknown in the U.S. Her cult was based on an unparalleled ability to squeeze emotional energy out her eyeballs while maintaining her mask, or face, perfectly still. She resembled Lillian Gish, but danced a meaner hoochie-coochie.

This isn't "acting" as it's commonly understood and practiced. This is "being" raised to such incandescence you think the screen's going to ignite in a puff of smoke. Utter transparency of inner psychic turmoil combined with an animal's eroticism, unburdened by shame, under the complete aesthetic control of the artist. She's wearing one of the world's all-time outre costumes with the sang-froid of a showgirl. Uncanny.

You think Crawford's crazy? Wait til you see this bitch. The term is an honorific. As a lower-class woman driven insane by jealousy – a role Crawford would later incarnate, body and soul – "die Asta" plays every known note of passion while her lover simultaneously seduces a rich countess for money, and a well-to-do debutante for marriage. Even though he's only ever loved her.

And that's only one facet of The Joyless Street, a panorama of Vienna's angst-ridden human comedy. Another narrative thread follows the young Greta Garbo in Goth eye-shadow as she resists being recruited into prostitution. Garbo's wannabe pimp is none other than cabaret great Valeska Gert, playing a fashion designer-by-day whose sleazy after-hours club offers pleasure too frenzied to be fun. Order a large popcorn.

Artistic director Anita Monga says they're the #1 silent film festival in the U.S. and #2 in the world, but cedes to none the high level of "production values," including custom-composed live accompaniment that fully immerses the audience in the feeling world of each film.

Louise Brooks in opening-night film Prix de Beaute. Photo: Courtesy SF Silent Film Festival

Seventeen programs over four days (July 18-21) run the gamut of genres, from animation to slapstick to screwball to melodrama to travelogue to avant garde that's still, alas, avant garde. Opening night features Louise Brooks in her last starring vehicle, Prix de Beaute (1930), a disappointingly shallow portrait of a typist whose beauty contest win leads to a film contract. Details of Paris life are interesting, but the Grand Guignol finale is unearned. I guess they can't show Pandora's Box every year.

Marion Davies, whose comic talent was eclipsed by her unfortunate marriage to William Randolph Hearst, is showcased in King Vidor's early screwball comedy The Patsy (1928). Comic genius Marie Dressler heads a dysfunctional family whose daughters, brunette and blonde, vie for a marriageable male. Davies goes to many endearing lengths, including mimicking dramatic stars Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, and Norma Talmadge. Hard to believe Hollywood was ever this innocent.

A world away, director Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Chorus (1931) is a masterpiece of social realism. A young man struggles to maintain his integrity while providing for his young family in tough economic times. This intimate story of urban domestic life, told with whimsy and grace, is moving but never maudlin.

If you love the circus and Parisian couture, don't miss The Golden Clown (1925). This rags-to-riches-to-alcoholism-and-suicide-redeemed-by-miracle-child epic follows the fortunes of the titular hero and his true love, who inanely ditches him for a womanizing fashion designer. The plot's a great excuse to emote and change costumes.

The House on Trubnaya (1928) is a gorgeous exemplar of visual inventiveness translating Russian wit and soul. The Weavers (1927), based on the Hauptmann play based on the 1844 factory revolt that inspired Marx and Engels, will feed your revolutionary soul. Don't miss death-defying comic acrobat Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923).

The SF Silent Film Festival is responsible for restorations of two films in this year's program. The Last Edition (1925), filmed at the San Francisco Chronicle, offers antique views of the pressroom and Market Street. The Half-Breed (1915) stars that most irresistible of action stars, fabulous Douglas Fairbanks.

Pity the idiots who won't go to see a silent film.


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