San Francisco Silent Film Festival rides again!

  • by Sura Wood
  • Tuesday April 30, 2019
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Scene from "The Cameraman" (1928), with Buster Keaton. Photo: Courtesy SFSFF
Scene from "The Cameraman" (1928), with Buster Keaton. Photo: Courtesy SFSFF

Brace yourself. Here comes a five-day marathon of silent classics and newly uncovered and restored gems roaring out of the past at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. From "Hell Bent," a relatively brief, early Western directed by John Ford, and "Lights of Old Broadway," where William Randolph Hearst's former squeeze Marion Davies plays twins separated at birth, to "The Signal Tower," a railroad drama with Wallace Berry and a runaway train set in the redwoods of Mendocino, they'll all be screening at the palatial Castro Theatre, accompanied by live scores performed by musicians who are the best in the biz.

Scene from director Robert Reinerts Opium (1919). Photo: Courtesy SFSFF  

No such event should be without the comic genius of Buster Keaton. The list of those who've acknowledged their debt to him is long. It includes Lucille Ball, who knew Keaton from their days at MGM in the late 1940s; cartoonist Chuck Jones, Mel Brooks, Jackie Chan, George Lucas, Tom Cruise, director George Miller and animators from Pixar and Disney who've modeled some of their characters' visual antics on the master. Keaton's shenanigans and multiple talents are on parade in two films on the program, starting with the opening night feature, "The Cameraman" (1928). In this madcap romantic comedy, he plays a nerdy, hopelessly smitten photographer whose desperate attempts to win the heart of a secretary at MGM newsreels find him climbing onto moving vehicles, doing a pantomime of hitting a home run in a deserted Yankee Stadium, and landing in the crossfire of a Tong war in Chinatown. In "Our Hospitality" (1923), a period film set in the 1830s, which he also directed, Keaton portrays Willie McKay, a hapless fellow who gets caught in the middle of the Canfield-McKay family feud — a spoof of the real Hatfields and McCoys. Shot on location in California and Oregon — Keaton nearly died performing a stunt in the rapids of the Truckee River — it artfully integrates sight gags, exasperating gadgets and the occasional steam locomotive with an adventure yarn and dramatic content. Considered his first masterpiece, it was a bona fide hit, raking in over a half-million dollars at the box office.

Among its many virtues, the festival is an entertaining crash course in the techniques (with the exception of sound) that originated in the nascent years following the birth of motion pictures. The myth that's grown up around silent film, that it was solely a monochrome medium, will likely be punctured by the presence of several movies with color. The effects, achieved through various means, from tinting, toning and hand-coloring to stencils, are on display in Nino Oxilia's "Rapsodia Satanica" (1917), an Italian "diva" film that proves there's nothing quite like selling your soul to the devil to fuel a plot. A feminine twist on that Faustian bargain is made by the film's reluctantly aging, sumptuously dressed Countess d'Ottrevita, portrayed by Lydia Borelli, the reigning Italian diva of her day. Dripping in pearls and wrapped in yards of taffeta, the Countess, endeavoring to regain the beauty of her youth, makes a pact that comes at a hefty price: she's forbidden to ever fall in love. After all, this is Satan we're talking about, spotted here and there in voluminous robes and reclining in trees. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra should enhance the aura of rapture and dread.

Scene from LInferno (1911). Photo: Courtesy SFSFF  

An erotic tale of revenge, addiction, infidelity and self-delusion, German director Robert Reinert's Weimar-era melodrama "Opium" (1919) features Conrad Veidt, Werner Krauss, and the narcotic of the title, a seductive, sinister player in its own right. Shot on elaborate sets in Germany, the big-budget production, marinated in a hallucinatory delirium, follows one Professor Gesellius as he travels from England to exotic locales. Once abroad, our man visits dens of debauchery in China and India — cue the scantily clad dancing girls and procession of ceremonial elephants — to further his studies of subjects who've sought and found oblivion in the arms of the drug. Along the way, he samples its pleasures — in the interest of science, of course — and rescues a beautiful girl who has fallen prey to a ruthless opium dealer.

If you're a sucker for Dante, and even if you're not, beat a path to "L'Inferno (1911). Based on Alighieri's "The Divine Comedy," and originally three hours long (only about a third survives), it was the first feature-length film made in Italy, and an international blockbuster to boot. Carnal and sensational, it boasts remarkable special effects including color, lavish production design, baroque visuals, (allegedly) the first-ever scene of full-frontal male nudity, and graphic depictions of purgatory and the nine circles of Hell inspired by the engravings of Gustave Dore and the sleight-of-hand of filmmaking wizard Georges Melies. "With its horned demons, headless specters, and winged harpies [it] revels in the grotesque, the feudal, and the macabre," notes Alicia Fletcher in the festival catalog. "Like a fairy tale gone wrong, or a Hieronymus Bosch painting set in motion, the canonical work of Italy's early silent era infused Biblical subject matter with fantasy, the Gothic, and the delightfully obscene. Featuring adulterers, gluttons, misers, and cameos from the vixens of antiquity — Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, and Dido — 'L'Inferno' was about as lascivious as early silent film came." All that plus a pantheon of naked bodies turn asunder, ravenous giants, flaming heretics in boiling lakes, and an icy indigo hideout for the horned Pluto. Who could ask for more?

May 1-5. Info: