Irvin Willat: Below the Surface (1920)
A still from Irvin Willat's Below the Surface (1920), courtesy of San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2022

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2022: Dangers! Thrills! Desires! – and Sweet Enchantment

Silent films have a way of burrowing their stories into your mind and taking root. With this preview of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2022, let us plant a few seeds.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2022
5-11 May 2022

The Primrose Path (1925)
Director: Harry O. Hoyt

Friday, 6 May – Music by Wayne Barker

Clara Bow would breakthrough as “the It Girl” in 1927, “It” being sex appeal, even though all of her spunky modern women tended to be remarkably virtuous. That’s the case in this early role as Marilyn Merrill, a highly decorated chorus girl who’s risen to the spotlight.

The focus is less on her than on the brash young alcoholic she loves, Bruce Armstrong (Wallace MacDonald), who lives in a huge house with his grey-haired mom and a little brother who wears a leg brace due to an accident caused by Bruce. When Bruce is manipulated by gamblers into a crime, it leads to diamonds, death, a murder trial, and the Boy Scout oath.

The script, by actress Leah Baird, has more far-fetched hoops to jump through than necessary even for this type of brisk B production, but it gets there. Director Harry O. Hoyt is most famous for the same year’s dinosaur epic, The Lost World. Five different prints of The Primrose Path owned by three different sources went into this tinted restoration conducted by the Festival itself.

Rebirth of a Nation

Saturday, 7 May

When budding filmmakers Oscar Micheaux and Noble Johnson saw the original release of D.W. Griffith’s monumental and racist hit The Birth of a Nation (1914), their response was to start making films independently so that African-Americans could tell their own stories contrary to such propaganda. A century later, Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky, works directly with Griffith’s original material to provide a historical “remix” with help from Classical Revolution and Guenter Buchwald in a live presentation.

Salomé (1922)
Directors: Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova

Saturday, 7 May – Music by Matti Bye Ensemble

The celebrated and notorious bisexual actress Alla Nazimova conceived this independent extravagance, which threw Hollywood’s conventions out the window in favor of a defiantly arty avant-garde aesthetic. Adapting Oscar Wilde’s controversial play, Salomé models itself on Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations and adds costumes by Natacha Rambova, soon to be Mrs. Rudolph Valentino.

On the other hand, having the 40-ish Nazimova play the teenage protagonist was more in line with convention, considering that Mary Pickford played adolescent waifs well into her 30s. If nothing else, this film is a necessary spectacle and has been drafted into the National Film Registry. The big screen is just the place to stare at it.

Salt for Svanetia (1930)
Director: Mikhail Kalatazov

Wednesday, 11 May – Music by Matti Bye Ensemble

When reviewing a box of Soviet films for PopMatters, I declared: “The cream of the lot is Mikhail Kalatozov’s staggeringly gorgeous Salt for Svanetia (1930), all glittering, mind-blowing, manipulative, and manipulated images of an alien culture that the film admires and despises at the same time. (And could this be the earliest movie to show urination and lactation?) It’s a documentary in the same sense that Eisenstein’s film is a drama: a beautifully strange and harsh hybrid.” I’ll stand by that.

A Sister of Six (Flickorna Gyurkovics, 1926)
Director: Ragnar Hyltén-Cavallius

Monday, 10 May – Music by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius

Everybody’s lying about something in this frantic comedy of errors, masquerades, and marriage. Half of A Sister of Six‘s characters pretend to be other people, and there are two cases of cross-dressing before all the charades are over. In other words, the plot is as dizzy as a champagne bubble, and one’s best bet is just to go along with the nonsense.

Restored by the Swedish Film Institute, this is the Swedish print of a Swedish-German-British co-production. The main couple is played by the British Betty Balfour and the German Willy Fritsch. Topping it off, they’re all playing Hungarians.

Skinner’s Dress Suit (1926)
Director: William A. Seiter

Monday, 9 May – Music by Philip Carli

Two of our favorite silent stars, the elegant Reginald Denny and the vivacious Laura La Plante, in the same film! The source is a once-famous comic novel by Henry Irving Dodge, Washington Irving’s great-nephew. Dodge made his reputation with this initial Skinner tale in 1916, followed by sequels. This opening tale was so well-known that it had already been filmed once before it became this handsomely mounted Universal “Jewel”.

Skinner is a muddling middle-class drone in Skinner’s Dress Suit, “just a commuter” trying to keep up with his car-owning neighbors and hoping for a raise. Only his wife believes in him. When he can’t admit that he didn’t get a raise, and indeed gets fired from his clerking job, he overspends into a nightmare of debt. Since American capitalism depends on bluff and surface, his new unpaid-for suit helps turn his life around.

The most delightful scenes find the couple teaching the society stiffs how to dance the Savannah Shuffle, really a foxtrot crossed with Charleston and a dash of tango. Dancing must be another metaphor for the rat race. If you look good dancing, you can make the deals. Universal’s restoration of this William A. Seiter film sparkles.

Smouldering Fires (1925)
Director: Clarence Brown

Wednesday, 11 May – Music by Stephen Horne

This is the kind of thing I love to see wheeled from the vaults: a lesser-known film from one of the truly great Hollywood stylists. Clarence Brown was an impeccably intelligent sentimentalist, and with Smouldering Fires he sets one of his delicately emotional dramas in the world of big business.

The androgynously attired Jane Vale runs her late father’s clothing factory with a sure hand. Jane is played excellently by prominent stage star Pauline Frederick. When young go-getter Robert Elliott (Malcolm McGregor) offers business advice, his ideas aren’t what catches Jane’s eye. Everyone around them starts smirking and winking at his rapid promotion, and the possible romance is complicated by the late-plot arrival of Jane’s little sister Dorothy (Laura LaPlante again!).

The script by Sada Cowan and Howard Higgin goes beyond the era’s cliches about the successful businesswoman who needs a man, and it avoids melodrama by having three sympathetic figures who care about each other. Other absorbing elements are the rows of women at sewing machines and the scheming, comic, or useless male managers, who try to control or undermine Jane.

Smouldering Fires is, like Skinner’s Dress Suit, another Universal “Jewel”. This tinted print has been restored by the Packard Humanities Institute. Curiously, both films have minor roles for Arthur Lake, who would later play Dagwood in the Blondie films. Brown’s next film would be the amazing Greta Garbo hit Flesh and the Devil (1927).

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
Directors: Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton

Saturday, 7 May – Music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

All you need to know about Steamboat Bill Jr. is this is among Buster Keaton‘s most confident masterpieces. For more information, enjoy Stephen Mayne’s article, “Buster Keaton’s ‘Steamboat Bill, Jr.‘ Is Still Painfully Funny”.

The Street of Forgotten Men (1925)
Director: Herbert Brenon

Tuesday, 10 May – Music by Donald Sosin

This richly arranged story begins in the Bowery, where the backroom of a bar is devoted to people who apply makeup and prosthetics, just like backstage in a theatre, before going into the streets to masquerade as phony cripples. The premise of Herbert Brenon‘s The Street of Forgotten Men bears a passing resemblance to a Sherlock Holmes story, “The Man with the Twisted Lip” (1891).

The most successful faker is Easy Money Charley (Percy Marmont), whose soft heart leads him to adopt an orphan in the off-handed manner of guardianship common to silent films. When the kid grows up to be played by Mary Brian and gets courted by a handsome young lawyer (Neil Hamilton), events lead to a certifiably amazing ending, not least because a highly recognizable Louise Brooks suddenly shows up in her debut role.

Restored this year by the Festival, this Paramount production is missing its second reel, which deteriorated decades ago. The best they could do was “reconstruct” this reel via dialogue and still images. It’s too bad this reel is missing, but the rest of this splendid print makes an impact as only far-fetched silent melodramas can.

Sylvester (1924)
Director: Lupu Pick

Sunday, 8 May – Orchestra conducted by Timothy Brock

This pioneering German kammerspielfilm (chamber film), made without intertitles, foregrounds an innovative use of a mobile camera. Since watchable prints have long been hard to come by, this restoration is especially welcome. A screener of Lupu Pick’s Sylvester is unavailable to me.

A Trip to Mars (Himmelskibet, 1918)
Director: Holger-Madsen

Sunday, 8 May – Music by Wayne Barker

Here’s another fabulous find to amaze film buffs: a Danish space opera from the era of the Great War and the Spanish Flu pandemic. No wonder people wanted to escape Earth.

In what’s probably the first feature-length interplanetary voyage, Captain Avanti Planetaros (Gunnar Tonnaes) and his unruly expedition find a wonderland of peaceful vegetarians in robes, with plenty of Martian nymphs waving branches of flowers. If another country had gone to Mars, they might have discovered a tyrannical despotism waiting to be overthrown by the plucky Earthlings, but the Danes assume that Martians have something to teach us.

Holger-Madsen, a mostly forgotten pioneer, is described thus in Georges Sadoul’s Dictionary of Film Makers (University of California Press, 1972):  “Imaginative Danish film maker, responsible for several unusually stylish (and somewhat decadent) dramas from 1913-20, who seems to have been the first to make systematic use of high- and low-angle photography and whose innovative and daring use of lighting, extreme close-ups, etc. … influenced the development of the German cinema”, into which he soon moved.

With A Trip to Mars he directs in proscenium style. In other words, the camera rarely moves and the elements are staged in depth amid the kind of florid gestures that people mistakenly think defined all silent acting. This style, combined with frankly unsound science, amuses modern viewers. The effects are basic and sometimes intriguing, as when the Martians dramatize their history on a big screen. One striking image of people in silhouette on a hill forecasts a similar image in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet, 1957). The Danish Film Institute’s 2006 restoration looks very fine.

Waxworks (Das Wachsfigurenkabinett, 1924)
Director: Paul Leni

Friday, 6 May – Music by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius

A lavish example of German fantasy, Expressionism, and fabulously costumed bric-a-brac, this popular macabre anthology encouraged Hollywood to import director Paul Leni for such atmospheric and visually dynamic production as The Cat and the Canary (1927). See more in “Paul Leni’s Haunting ‘Waxworks Comes to Life in This Restoration“.