Fans of silent cinema will rejoice out loud at the 26th San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the largest showcase of silent movies in the Americas. For the five days from 12 to 16 July 2023, 23 programs with live musical performances will take place at the Castro Theatre, an old-school movie palace. There must be plenty of people who don’t get or can’t imagine the appeal of silent films. Aren’t those ancient movies grainy and jittery and fluttery? No, not when presented in excellent restorations and shown at their proper speed and screen ratio.
I’ve been privileged to access screening links of most of this year’s films, but that doesn’t compare to attending the theatrical event. Something about a dark theatre packed with people experiencing the same silvery wash of light and the same live music puts you under a spell that transports you to other times and places, not to mention revealing aspects of those eras that still speak to us.
Opening Night: Wednesday, 12 July
The Iron Mask (1929)
Director: Allan Dwan
Music by the Günter Buchwald Ensemble
Douglas Fairbanks was one of silent Hollywood’s most beloved stars. He created the dashing, adventurous, light-hearted prototype that would later be copied by swashbuckling heroes from Errol Flynn to Harrison Ford, with the difference being that the athletic Fairbanks did most of his own stunts. When he married Mary Pickford, “America’s sweetheart”, they cemented themselves as the first celebrity couple called Hollywood royalty.
One of Fairbanks’ earliest hits was the 1921 version of The Three Musketeers, directed by Fred Niblo. As was understood by the original French novelist, Alexandre Dumas, hits deserved sequels, so Fairbanks reprised his role of D’Artagnan in The Iron Mask. It tells the story filmed several more times as The Man in the Iron Mask, where the true king of France has been imprisoned by his evil twin in a castle – and in a big metal helmet. Dumas’ novel is more complex, but films like to streamline the tale into a salute to primogeniture.
This 1929 film was made during Hollywood’s transition to talkies, so it has a few talking scenes to keep it technologically relevant. Still, most of the adventure remains firmly at the end of the high silent era.
Day 2: Thursday, 13 July
Amazing Tales from the Archive
Music by Stephen Horne
This free event is an annual attraction in which scholars share their findings. This year, presenters will discuss sound effects, the first female animator (Bessie Mae Kelley), and a 1927 documentary about a goodwill exchange between the US and Japan.
Man and Wife (1923)
Director: John L. McCutcheon
Music by Wayne Barker
When you enter the world of silent melodrama, you find uncanny coincidences, gob-smacking twists, and extreme situations that can feel like you’re dreaming about them. These bizarre predicaments allow the audience to experience forbidden thrills, like accidentally having two spouses at once, as we sympathize with moral trespassers via their quandaries. And have a good cry or at least a few sighs.
Man and Wife is an independent New York production whose constantly twisting plot provides work for two generations of silent stars. The lead is Maurice Costello, one of cinema’s first regular leading men, who is Drew Barrymore’s great-grandfather. His character initially marries a farm girl played by Norma Shearer, who became a major star by the decade’s end.
Her role as a dissatisfied, rebellious daughter who spurns farm life for the big city follows a traditional arc in which restless country girls find the city a damaging lure. But the story isn’t concentrating on her so much as her passive sister, played by Gladys Leslie. So we get two incarnations of the choices for rural women, and both end up suffering wildly before it’s over. Perhaps Man and Wife‘s story and title acknowledge a double bind for women in the new society: damned if you stray, damned if you don’t. The writer is Leota Morgan, who specialized in stories about women’s status.
Man and Wife is accompanied by a short marionette film from 1924 Germany: The Great Love of a Little Dancer (Die grosse Liebe einer kleinen Tänzerin), directed by Alfred Zeisler and Viktor Abel, with music provided by Will Lewis. The circus-themed story is a spoof of Robert Wiene’s 1920 Expressionist landmark The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari), complete with hypnotism.
The Johnstown Flood (1926)
Directed by Irving Cummings
Music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
The events in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in 1899 mark one of the great catastrophes in American history, a traumatic part of American lore with social and legal impact. Therefore, this Fox production takes off from a famous event and functions as an early disaster film.
Like later examples of the genre, The Johnstown Flood introduces a diverse cast of characters before the climactic flurry of special effects. The spectacle is conveyed with models and superimpositions. While the script makes everything up except the flood, it pushes a theory of capitalist greed and deliberate neglect not a hundred miles from reality, embodied in fictional figures and motives with class conflict for good measure.
George O’Brien plays the upstanding, square-jawed, heroic engineer Tom O’Day, who valiantly stands up to the boss, not that it does any good while wooing the man’s daughter. She’s played by Florence Gilbert, probably most famous for marrying Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. The show is stolen by Janet Gaynor’s winsome performance as Anna, who’s quietly in love with Tom. This becomes central to the climax as she races frantically with the bad news. Gaynor became the first woman to win an Academy Award within a couple of years.
Also prominent is popular Jewish comedian Max Davidson. He plays one of The Johnstown Flood‘s several beloved “ethnic” characters, who all love Tom O’Day and would marry him if they could. As one of the town’s leading merchants with a big store and beloved son, Davidson’s David Mandel provides one of the most humane moments of tragedy as he sobs in the aftermath. Of all the characters, he makes us feel the enormity of such loss. His son also gets a beautiful moment.
Up in Mabel’s Room (1926)
Directed by E. Mason Hopper
Music by the Günter Buchwald Ensemble
A frantic bedroom farce full of peek-a-boo and hot-cha-cha, Up in Mabel’s Room tells the tale of Mabel, who divorced in haste and repents in splendor. A bit of lingerie as sheer and flimsy as the plot created a misunderstanding with her whirlwind-marriage hubby (Harrison Ford, but not that one), and now she sails from Paris to New York to snag him again. He impulsively engages with someone else loved by someone else, and now someone else throws a house party for them all and – oh, brother. They all end up in Mabel’s room in various states of undress.
A Broadway hit for writers Wilson Collison and Otto Harbach, Up in Mabel’s Room is a fine vehicle for Marie Prevost of the sexy wink and great wardrobe. Mabel’s the only character who’s ever in control, and she’s the vamp. It’s refreshing and I laughed out loud more than once. Prevost, a Mack Sennett comedian who emerged into features with such directors as Ernst Lubitsch and Lewis Milestone, went on a downward slide and died young.
The producer is comedy pioneer Al Christie. The poster emphasizes his two cross-dressing hits from 1925, Charley’s Aunt with Sydney Chaplin and Madame Behave with Julian Eltinge. There’s a dash of that at the end of Up in Mabel’s Room, too. It was all the rage.
Stella Maris (1925)
Director: Charles Brabin
Music by Stephen Horne
Remember what we said about the uncanny and surreal qualities of silent melodrama? Stella Maris doubles down on that.
Primarily a vehicle for Mary Philbin in a dual role, the film tells its bizarre tale in grand sets and elevated atmosphere, sometimes with expressionist effects. Philbin plays an impossibly ethereal princess-invalid, a strikingly homely and pathetic orphan who looks like a werewolf. The roles couldn’t be more physically different, so having them played by the same person isn’t part of Stella Maris‘ plot; it’s a stunt to show off the actor’s skill. Perhaps it implies something about the soul under the surface.
Gladys Brockwell steals her scenes in a doozy of a part as an insanely vicious villain who makes everyone’s lives miserable while glaring with venom into the camera. The male roles are nothing but feel just as unreal amid the furnishings of Universal’s lavish budget.
Where did this story come from? We’re glad you asked. It’s part of the vast output of English novelist William J. Locke, whose sentimental tales sold by the boatload during the first couple of decades of the 20th Century. Stella Maris had already been a popular film for Mary Pickford in 1918, and clearly the vogue was still on.
Day 3: Friday, 14 July
Stark Love (1927)
Director: Karl Brown
Stark Love is the directorial debut of Karl Brown, an accomplished silent cinematographer. Shot on location in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, the film uses a local cast of non-professionals who give an unusual documentary air to the proceedings. The story flies in the face of the common “rural good/urban bad” dichotomy (see Man and Wife) by saying that quitting the backwoods for a city education is a good idea, especially for women.
Our young hero, Rob, is played by Forrest James, the future father of an Alabama governor. He’s introduced reading about chivalry and explaining to spunky Barbara Allen (Helen Mundy) that women should be treated nice instead of like work-horses, a tradition that’s grinding his mama into the grave. When Rob says men should protect women, Barbara says, “I can protect myself,” and the story shows her doing so, by gum. She’s the one who rescues Rob when he thought it would be the other way around.
The hillbilly ethnography is a bit like Dogpatch documentaries, with Rob resembling Li’l Abner, but nobody can accuse it of being romanticized or nostalgic. Although released by Paramount and drafted into the National Film Registry, Stark Love has been hard to see and survives by a fluke. The only surviving print was discovered in Czechoslovakia in 1968. A copy was made for the Museum of Modern Art, whose 2011 digital restoration is what the Festival’s showing.
Flowing Gold (1924)
Director: Joseph De Grasse
Live music by Utsav Lal (sometimes called “the Raga Pianist”)
We’ve touched on the matter of the silent era’s novelists whose books were often filmed and who are today forgotten. A prime example is Rex Beach, an Alaska prospector who struck gold with adventures like The Spoilers (1906), a thundering bestseller filmed five times. Two items in this year’s festival are from his novels: Flowing Gold and Padlocked.
The material of Flowing Gold foreshadows a bestseller of 1952, Edna Ferber’s Giant, which was given epic filming in 1956. Like that story, Flowing Gold is told against the backdrop of oil discovery near Dallas. Like The Johnstown Flood, it ends with a titanic spectacle of special effects conveying a disaster.
Beach’s tale concentrates on poor farmers who get wealthy overnight and have travails. The hero is Calvin Gray (Milt Sills), who seems a manipulative and questionable rascal of a specifically American type until we learn more about him, for here’s another film that trusts simple folk over slick, professional businessmen. Nouveau-riche Allegheny Briskow (Anna Q. Nilsson), still a farmer at heart, moons over Calvin while many shenanigans occur. And lest you think the phrase “suicide blonde” is modern, there’s a character identified by that term here.
Flowing Gold was scripted and lavishly produced by playwright Richard Watson Tully for his company, then released by First National (later Warner Brothers). Director Joseph De Grasse is an important and prolific pioneer who goes largely unrecalled. Another film that existed only in Czechoslovakia (hurray for them!), this tinted restoration by the Festival marks the first time it’s been screened since the silent era.
Director: Allan Dwan
Music by Stephen Horne
Under the one-two punch of master director Allan Dwan and photographer James Wong Howe, here’s a lavish Paramount filming of another Rex Beach novel. Padlocked unreels a domestic melodrama about the religious hypocrisy of a crusading millionaire (Noah Beery) who rejects all forms of fun and frivolity in the Jazz Age as immoral.
After a tragedy, his daughter Edith (Lois Moran) flees the house and instantly becomes a cabaret star “mentored” by another rich old guy (Charles Lane, not the long-lived character actor). Again, a modern young woman is in a double bind, for neither the traditional family nor the glittering new world is without traps that keep her under lock and key, literally so in the reformatory for under-aged “wayward girls” below age 21.
In a mere 80 minutes (and let this be a lesson to today’s films), many things happen in comedy and pathos, with a cast that includes Louise Dresser (frequent co-star of Will Rogers), Florence Turner (“the Vitagraph Girl”), Helen Jerome Eddy (a former Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. As usual for the era’s set design, everyone lives in rooms the size of a barn. The final fade-out is perfection. As with Flowing Gold, only a single print of Padlocked survived in Prague, now restored by the Festival.
The Three Ages (1923)
Directors: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Buster Keaton’s first feature as director-producer and star is generally considered a minor affair by Keaton scholars, which still means it’s funny. Although he’d proven himself a master of short films, he hedged his bets by making what’s basically three short stories and intercutting them. If necessary, the three parts could be released separately.
The three segments are set in the Stone Age among cavemen (probably the most amusing era), in Ancient Rome, and in Modern Times. In all periods, Buster and a hulking heavy (Wallace Beery) compete for the affection of a pretty damsel (Margaret Leahy), so the plots intend to prove that romance hasn’t changed much. Cutting among different time periods was a radical idea that had been exploited by D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), so Keaton is also spoofing Griffith with The Three Ages.
The Dragon Painter (1919)
Director: William Worthington
Music by the Masaru Koga Ensemble
The Dragon Painter silent film is something special. After Sessue Hayakawa became a certified star in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915), the Japanese actor founded his own production company and made features like The Dragon Painter, co-starring his wife Tsuru Aoki. The picturesque romance with an almost entirely Asian cast was shot in various locations, including Yosemite National Park.
The fanciful plot comes from a 1906 novel by Mary McNeil Fenellosa, whose husband, Ernest Fenellosa, was a noted scholar of Japanese art. Although she published The Dragon Painter under her name, she wrote most of her novels as Sidney McCall. So what we have here is a Japanese star-producer appropriating a popular novel about Japan by an American woman as a vehicle for himself and his wife and melding the property to their sensibilities.
Although The Dragon Painter has previously been on home video and was drafted into the National Film Registry, this 2023 restoration is important for new footage discovered by Amsterdam’s Eye Filmmuseum, which served as the occasion for a new round of cleaning and repair with the latest technology.
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
Director: Paul Leni
Music by Utsav Lal
I stand by what I’ve written previously on PopMatters: “The Cat and the Canary remains one of the most visually dynamic and witty of the “old dark house” films. … Its two main stars are Leni’s camera, which continually places the viewer in the middle of the action, and Laura La Plante, one of the studio’s most delightful and natural silent personalities.” And now, here it is in a 4K restoration produced in 2022 by the Museum of Modern Art.
Day 4: Saturday, 15 July
Stan & Ollie (1927)
Directors: Fred Guiol, Frank Butler, and Clyde Bruckman
This program consists of three 1927 shorts starring Stanley Laurel and Oliver Hardy: the prison comedy The Second Hundred Years, the caveman tale Flying Elephants, and one of the most famous slapstick shorts in history, Battle of the Century.
About Battle of the Century, which culminates in the pie fight to end all pie fights, I wrote on PopMatters: “Watching this film, we can’t help wondering if it’s a comment on the chaos of urban life or a prescription for catharsis. Maybe we should have a national pie-fight day to reduce us all to common effigies of blueberry or meringue, a day in which we get a free throw at everyone of dignity, power, and pretense. There’s the slapstick version of the Purge franchise, and certainly a healthier one.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Ein Sommernachtstraum, 1925)
Director: Hans Neumann
Music by the Sascha Jacobsen Quartet
Here’s another busy plot that’s over in 80 minutes, testifying to the ability of silent films to get their point across without a lot of jabber. William Shakespeare’s magical comedy gets an all-star treatment from UFA Studios, though we may count set and costume designer Ernő Metzner as the real star.
Modernist eccentric cabaret dancer Valeska Gert plays Puck, and if she doesn’t exactly say, “What fools these mortals be,” we get it. Gert had to flee Nazi Germany and had a stunning postwar career in the US and Europe. Alexander Granach, another refugee, plays a mischievous sprite; he’d played the Renfield figure in F.W. Murnau’s 1922 horror silent film, Nosferatu.
Werner Krauss, star of the above-mentioned The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, plays Bottom, the actor who turns into an ass, a foreshadowing of his reputation during the coming war. Fritz Rasp, master of suave villainy, belongs to his troupe. Long-careered superstar Hans Albers plays the handsome, if fickle, Demetrius. Imperious Ruth Weyher steals her scenes as Hyppolita, Queen of the Amazons, who glares at the camera. The most amazing casting is Russian ballerina Tamara Geva as King Oberon, who looks like a tree.
While it’s clear that this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream must have been influenced by Max Reinhardt’s several stagings of the play, it’s equally clear that this film may partially influence Reinhardt’s 1935 film. Except for a few fragments, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was lost until a US print was found under a cellar in Oregon in 2010. It lacked the battle prologue, here indicated by stills. Silent film rescue is full of such stories, and here’s one of the happy ones.
The Organist at St. Vitus Cathedral (Varhaník U Svateho Víta, 1929)
Director: Martin Frič
Music by Maud Nelissen
This Czechoslovakian jewel is probably the greatest visual dazzlement in this year’s Festival. Every shot is a masterpiece, thanks to the compositions and techniques of photographer Jaroslav Blazek. Handled as a psychological study with nods to Expressionism, The Organist at St. Vitus Cathedral focuses on the lonely old title figure (Karel Hašler) whose life crosses that of a novitiate nun (Suzanne Marwille) who doffs the veil to reveal a Louise Brooks cut.
As far as the melodrama is concerned, this is one of those narratives that wouldn’t exist if everybody just told the truth in the first place. Everyone’s behavior is just a little demented, and that doesn’t feel out of place in this symphony of the plastic image. This screening will be introduced by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation, which is co-presenting the film.
Pigs Will Be Pigs (Stantsiya Pupky, 1931)
Director: Khanan Shmain
There’s an old show-biz saying, credited to George S. Kaufman, that satire is what closes on Saturday night. In the Soviet Union, satire got banned on Saturday night or even before it opened. Pigs Will Be Pigs, a long-lost satire from Ukraine, was discovered in Germany less than a decade ago and repatriated in 2015. The German print announces not only that the film is banned but that even this showing is a secret.
What’s the fuss about? A train stops in a podunk station and two mix-ups occur. A seed car for local farmers fails to be unloaded, and two guinea pigs get left behind as freight. The two men who run the station are like a bureaucratic Laurel & Hardy, or two of the three Stooges. While a farm woman goes on a literal merry-go-round of bureaucracy to claim her seeds, the rodents replicate like the tribbles on the original Star Trek series.
In theory, Pigs Will Be Pigs offers a constructive critique of flaws and inefficiency. In practice, those running the system don’t want to hear it, and that’s probably why you’ve never heard of Pigs Will Be Pigs. Neither film nor filmmaker are mentioned in Jay Leyda’s landmark Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (1960), so even he didn’t know about them.
Director: Jacques Feyder
Music by the Stephen Horne Ensemble
Crainquebille is named after its main character, a poor old vegetable peddler (Maurice de Féraudy) who gets arrested and briefly jailed in an unfair yet credible incident. Ironically, his life is a little easier in jail, but he goes into a tailspin after his former customers shun him. Then he makes friends with an orphan (Jean Forest) who gives him a new lease on life.
This film, along with the brilliant Faces of Children (Visages d’enfants, 1925), demonstrated Jacques Feyder’s talent for working with children and applying sympathetic details and gestures to simple, heart-tugging, intimate stories that others might dismiss as sentimental trash. Great artists like Feyder, however, knew that sentimental trash is the basis of cinema, and anyway, he’s working here with a story by Nobel-winner Anatole France. Feyder’s silents are humane masterpieces that foreshadow the French Poetic Realism he’d help create in the 1930s.
Walk Cheerfully (Hogaraka Ni Ayume, 1930)
Director: Yasujiro Ozu
Music by Utsav Lal
Kenji (Minoru Takada) is a handsome young hoodlum in snazzy Western duds who decides to go straight when he falls for Yasue (Hiroko Kawasaki), a traditional kimono-wearing maiden struggling with modern society. He receives unexpectedly tender help from his friend Senko (Hisao Yoshitani) and resistance from his old girlfriend Chieko (Satoko Date).
Walk Cheerfully transforms incrementally from mild-mannered gangster yarn and damsel’s melodrama to earnest romance, social observation, and feel-good sentiment. Unlike his later observations of family life, Yasujiro Ozu’s early films are full of expressive camera gestures, flashy compositions, and genre elements. Already present: his closeup grace notes and his poignant sense of humanity.
Walk Cheerfully is also marked by careful details of American influence: signs with English letters and numbers, song lyrics, flashy motorcars, poolrooms, and sports like golf and baseball. The characters are heavily influenced by US culture, including movies. There’s a poster of Clara Bow in boxing gloves and a poster for Joan Crawford’s 1928 film Our Dancing Daughters, itself a comment on changing values. That poster hangs gratuitously in the workplace where Yasue is harassed by her lecherous boss, and the implication is that even the straight and narrow life is fraught with peril.
Day 5: Sunday, 16 July
The Edward E. Horton Show
Music by Ben Model
Producer-composer Ben Model did fans of silent comedy a favor by resurrecting the forgotten shorts of Edward Everett Horton, as reviewed here on PopMatters. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival gives fans a precious chance to see three of them on the big screen with live music.
Kentucky Pride (1925)
Director: John Ford
Music by Wayne Barker
Produced by John Ford for Fox, Kentucky Pride is a stoutly tear-jerking horse-race saga with a different point of view: it’s told by the horse, Virginia’s Future. She narrates her life from birth, including her training, brush with death, and redemption via her daughter, Confederacy. There’s much semi-documentary material amid all the sentiment with “those creatures called humans” – who include much working-class Irish, this being a Ford movie. The humans seem of minor importance, but the horse expresses her species’ frustration at depending on them.
Notably, the documentary elements provide many African-American extras. I don’t mean servants like the butler (George Reed, who is also in The Johnstown Flood) but the many hands and jockeys who must be playing themselves, just as the various horses like Man o’ War play themselves. There’s a constant visual correlation between the black workers and the horses, who do the work upon which the masters’ fortunes depend. The owning class is shown as unworthy and irresponsible, while workers are the salt of the earth.
These elements are underlined by our horse, sadly recalling how her mother was sold to pay their master’s debts. Our narrator, too, gets sold to pull a wagon, which she calls “slavery”. Her master (Henry B. Walthall) at one point addresses her and calls himself “your Massa”; the joke refers to a real subtext that comes out in the name Confederacy.
If these historical resonances weren’t intended by Ford and his writer Dorothy Yost, they should have been. Her Wikipedia entry states that her writings include some focus on minorities. Her filmography also shows many dog and horse movies and two others with Kentucky in the title. Yost worked her territory and spent more than three decades in harness.
Voglio a Tte! (1922/1925)
Director: Roberto Roberti
Music by Stephen Horne
One of the great silent divas, Francesca Bertini preferred to stress some degree of realism in setting and performance, as seen in this drama named after a popular Neapolitan song. Many scenes are shot on location in a fishing village, thus anticipating some of the tenets of Neorealism.
Scholars think this may be why censors rejected Voglio a Tte! in 1922, as the environment is poor and sordid, though beautiful. It passed when the film was renamed Consuelita and submitted with changes in 1925. One of the changes is that now the story pretends to be set in Spain, although they still sing an Italian song. Italian censors must not have cared about poverty over there.
Here packaged as Voglio a Tte!, this pretty tinted print represents one of many collaborations between Bertini and director Roberto Roberti, better known as Sergio Leone’s father. The story finds a village maiden meeting a rich English boy (Guido Graziosi) with a strange disease (“torpor”) and psychopathic headaches, which is never a good sign. A fortune-teller has predicted that Consuelita will find happiness only after nearly losing her life. Once again, melodrama merely exaggerates very real dangers, such as the perils of marriage.
A Daughter of Destiny (Alraune, 1928)
Director: Henrik Galeen
Music by Günter Buchwald
After Stella Maris and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, here’s a third film where a powerful woman confronts the camera with a blazing stare. This censor-baiting bit of science horror derives from novelist Hanns Heinz Ewers’ Alraune (1911), a revision of Frankenstein with a sexy, soul-less woman as the monster. She’s played by Brigitte Helm in a manner linking her own evil robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) with the dispassionate and ruinous Lola-Lola (Marlene Dietrich) in Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930).
Alraune or A Daughter of Destiny follows its anti-heroine’s moral evolution from a fearless hedonist to a woman who shudders with horror at the revelation of her origin as the artificially inseminated offspring of a prostitute and a hanged killer. Playing her creator and “father” is horror star-director Paul Wegener, who’d tried his own variants of Frankenstein with multiple films about Golems. He’d worked on one with director Henrik Galeen, who also had a long career in German horror; in fact, Galeen scripted Nosferatu.
From Alraune‘s opening shot of a hanged man on a hill, the fabulous design of Walter Reimann and Max Heilbronner grabs our attention as much as the photography by Franz Planer, who later came to Hollywood. This decadent, unsavory, chic thriller belongs to many Weimar Era films about the downfall of übermensch megalomaniacs. Something was in the air.
This film’s existence shows the often heroic efforts needed to preserve the legacy of silent cinema. The original German version doesn’t exist. The current version has been put together from prints of Denmark and Russia, as subjected to their own censorship, with parts still missing. For example, a scene where Valeska Girt (of A Midsummer Night’s Dream) plays a prostitute who dances suggestively with a black man has been censored out of existence, but we get a photo. This restoration was supervised by Filmmuseum München’s Stefan Drössler, who will be presented at the screening with the 2023 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award for his work.
The Merry Widow (1925)
Director: Erich Von Stroheim
The Festival’s closing program was the biggest box-office hit for the notoriously difficult and expensive Erich Von Stroheim. In theory, The Merry Widow is based on Franz Lehar’s hugely popular and frivolous operetta of the same name. In practice, Von Stroheim’s supremely cynical analysis of aristocratic decadence and greed is only accidentally a comedy with a slight passing resemblance to its inspiration.
In the fictional mountain duchy of Monteblanco, the snidely grinning Prince Mirko (Roy D’Arcy) and his second-in-line cousin, Prince Danilo (John Gilbert), are thoughtless rakes with the ladies. When strangely pure American chorus girl Sally O’Hara (Mae Murray) spends the night in town with her troupe, Danilo assumes she’ll be an easy conquest. Instead, he’s touched by her tears and, amid orgies of soldiers and prostitutes, proposes marriage. Only then do they do the thing.
Of course, the King and Queen won’t permit such a match. Now the plot is almost ready to explain how Sally becomes a widow to a wealthy foot fetishist (Tully Marshall) who looks like a walking skeleton. The story plays like a perverse subversion of Ruritanian romances and Hollywood formulas.
Two notes: 1. The Queen is played by Josephine Crowell, who played mothers in Flowing Gold and Padlocked. They’re very different roles and she’s perfect in all. 2. The Merry Widow‘s final coronation scene was originally in two-color Technicolor, but if you’re waiting for that restoration, you’ll have to keep waiting.