San Francisco Silent Film Festival

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In a summer filled with CGI special effects, the annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival reminds audiences of the beauty of film’s early days. Live music accompanies every film as festival attendees take advantage of one of the few chances to see such films as von Sternberg’s “Docks of New York” or Victor Fleming’s “Mantrap” with a large audience in San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre.

— Jawad Qadir

The Mark of Zorro —  Castro Theatre: July 15 10:00 a.m.

“The Mark of Zorro,” a film that is briefly alluded to in Michel Hazanavicius’ “The Artist,” has much to offer to those whose interest was sparked by this unanticipated 2011 revival of silent film. While “The Artist” quotes “Zorro” in terms of its goofy, over-dramatic acting style and storyline, its characters, subject matter and direction work together to form a finished product that is far from one-dimensional. The film’s complexity may be originally traced to its principal subject — a homely, fatigued introvert named Don Diego Vega who, unbeknownst to all but the audience, transforms into a sword-swinging, smooth romancing, parkour-mastering avenger of the socially oppressed when trouble is afoot. Inspired by its central character’s multifaceted personality, the film assimilates the theme of  duality in both its central characters and overall tone.

The romantic interest, Lolita, is the strongest example of how the characters in “Zorro” are deeper than may at first seem. While she often acts fragile and delicate, her description of marriage as an “awful nuisance” and desire to “be a man (and) ride the highway like Zorro,” prove that there is more to her than meets the eye. Furthermore, the film itself takes on a complicated form, as its classification into a single genre is nearly impossible; its portrayals of harsh subject matter such as rape or whippings accompany remarkable physical feats in sword choreography, passionate romantic dialogue and laughably clever chase sequences. So, while “The Artist” may portray it as a typical silent film in terms of its acting style and storytelling convention, “The Mark of Zorro” is filled to the brim with elements that are both unpredictable and remarkably captivating.

— Anna Horrocks

ErotikonCastro Theatre: July 15 2:00 p.m.

Don’t be fooled by the somewhat salacious title of this 1920 film. Finnish-Swedish director Mauritz Stiller’s “Erotikon” does not start on a sexy note. Instead of silken sheets or a demure wink of the eye, we get bugs — bark beetles, to be specific. In the opening scenes, we are introduced to Professor Leo Charpentier — a diligent but preoccupied entomologist. With a calm and collected academic air, Charpentier relates the mating habits of Ips typographus (the European spruce bark beetle). The insects are surprisingly polyamorous — with this one, in particular, taking on as many as three females at a time. Charpentier’s niece listens with pointed ears and shocked eyes while his wife is found snuggling up to another man — Baron Felix.

It’s the classic love triangle we’ve all seen before. Whether it be in literature with D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” or in other silent films like Cecil B. DeMille’s film (released also in 1920), “Why Change Your Wife?,” this type of romantic entanglement has been around forever. But what makes “Erotikon” unique is its execution. Though the film lags at a little over 100 minutes, the pace is surprisingly breezy for a genre thought to be slow. The physical antics of the three main actors (Anders de Wahl, Tora Teje and Lars Hanson), coupled with the impressive set pieces, dance numbers and the actors’ emotional intensity, amount to a film far more complex than a simple, erotic adventure.

— Jessica Pena

The CameramanCastro Theatre: July 15 7:30 p.m.

With the development of motion pictures came the creation of a new profession: the newsreel cameraman. Often risking life and limb, these heroic filmmakers scaled the heights of the newly built skyscrapers, braved their way through runaway city fires and even fought their way to the front lines of battle — all for the noble pursuit of journalism. Buster Keaton was not one of those cameramen. Instead, in 1928’s “The Cameraman,” he was a curbside tintype photographer, a sort of Jazz Age photobooth, the type you can imagine Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stumbling upon on one of their New York romps.

In “The Cameraman,” Keaton tries to work his way from lowly tintype photography to the heights of professional newsreel cameramen to win the affection of his flapper sweetheart. Of course, Keaton being Keaton, things don’t go so smoothly and he constantly manages to find his way to the wrong place at the wrong time — or the right place at the right time, depending on how you look at it.

It goes without saying that “The Cameraman” is hilarious. Keaton delivers his audience endless physical gags. As a matter of interest, “The Cameraman” also contains perhaps one of the best trained animals in cinema, a spider monkey, who fights his way through a gang battle in chinatown, pilots a boat and operates a movie camera! “The Cameraman” also features some fascinating scenes shot on location. In the 1920s, when most American film shoots were shot on Hollywood back lots, these scenes offer an interesting glimpse of life on the streets of the burgeoning cities at the dawn of the skyscraper age. Just mind the spider monkeys.

— Thomas Coughlan

Docks of New YorkCastro Theatre: July 15 12 p.m.

Josef von Sternberg is known, in film history, for his innovative use of soft lens lighting. No more apparent is this technique than in his noir-esque film, “The Docks of New York.” The shadowy towers of this industrial city permeate the opening shots as images of wearied workers populate the landscape. The title card sets the scene: “These were the days before oil fuel made stoking a lady’s job — when stokers earned their pay in sweat and coal-dust.” Stoking is the largely unseen profession whereby lower-class laborers tended coal on ships and in locomotives. And it is this unseen underbelly that “Docks of New York” illuminates so eloquently.

A formidable stoker, Bill (George Bancroft), meets the damaged ingenue, Mae (Betty Compson) after she nearly commits suicide by drowning. Like Bill, she too had a life of hard work and little pay. After spending barely any time together, Bill proposes marriage. The rest of film follows the falling out of this precarious relationship. Through scenes of darkened hues and huddled masses, Sternberg highlights the complex layers of society’s fringes. The financial, social and religious issues of the day are woven into a story that is equal parts drama and comedy. It’s a thrilling mix of entertainment. Like Hitchcock’s “Rope,” Sternberg uses minimal sets and few actors to amplify a slight nod of disapproval or a subtle look of desperation. Though the film received mixed reviews when it was released in 1928, the elegant direction and compelling characters of “The Docks of New York” make it an absolutely indispensable feature of American history.

— Jessica Pena

MantrapCastro Theatre: July 13 7:00 p.m.

“Ralph Prescott feels that even when a woman gives a man the best years of her life, he gets the worst of it” — or so says the opening title card of the provocatively titled “Mantrap.” A 1926 vehicle for the fast rising star Clara Bow, Mantrap is a not-so-vaguely misogynistic town versus country story about Alverna, a city girl who, having lived in isolated Mantrap for many years, yearns to return to the bright lights. It also stars Percy Marmont as Ralph Prescott, the wealthy but disaffected city man who against his better judgement, is determined to marry Alverna.

Adapted from a popular contemporary novel, this film demonstrates cinema’s tentative first steps with adapted material (though of course, there had been notable adaptations before it including 1915’s “Birth of a Nation” the first feature film). The film makes liberal use of title cards that sometimes get in the way of the powerful performances. We hardly need to be told, Bow is a flirt. Once she has us in the orbit of those big eyes, we know she means business.

The film makes interesting work of its subject matter, Alverna’s heroic abandoning of both her suitors may ultimately be undone by the film’s conciliatory ending, but there’s something lurking under the surface of Bow’s perky grin that suggests “happily ever after” wasn’t quite what she had in mind. As her hubby, Joe says “she’ll flirt as long as she breathes.” Sadly, however this did not come to pass and Bow worked for only another seven years, retiring in 1933.

— Thomas Coughlan

WingsCastro Theatre: July 12 7:00 p.m. 

As the very first winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, it is an understatement to call “Wings” a must-see American classic. This two and a half hour-long feature (complete with an intermission) follows two young men, Jack Powell and David Armstrong, as they pursue their dreams of flying airplanes by enlisting as aviation pilots in World War l.  It is tempting to say that this film incorporates the War as a backdrop upon which Jack and David grow from boys into men. Their experiences in training and combat inspire both a newfound devotion to their country and an evolving understanding of the meaning of love, of course with young women, but most profoundly with one another. However, the maturation of the protagonists does not take precedence over the physical and emotional effects of war expressed in the film.

A considerable portion of screen time is devoted to the horrors of warfare, with step-by-step narrations of battles, images of men falling to the ground, bombs exploding out of nowhere, and pilots failing to return from their dawn patrol. While these quickly-paced action scenes are both captivating and terrifying, the most heart-wrenching moments of the film may be found in its portrayal of the emotional consequences of the war, whether in terms of parting from one’s family for what may be forever, or learning that a loved one will not return home. In many ways, this film has earned its place as a treasured piece of American history, and its lasting relevance in the portrayal of personal and national strife allow it to remain appreciated and understood today.

— Anna Horrocks