Arts & Events
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (silentfilm.org) presents its winter event this Saturday, Feb. 16 at the Castro Theater. The program features a sure-to-please lineup of all-American classics—from the inventive comedies of Buster Keaton to the swashbuckling heroics of Douglas Fairbanks to the charm of "America's Sweetheart," Mary Pickford—as well as one of the towering achievements of German silent cinema by the great director F.W. Murnau.
The festival starts at 10 a.m. with J. Searle Dawley's 1917 version of Snow White. The screening coincides with the Walt Disney Family Museum's celebration of Disney's 1937 version of the German fairy tale, for it was the silent version that inspired the teenage Walt and helped chart his course for decades to come. Featuring live piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin, Snow White stars Marguerite Clark in the title role.
Snow White will be followed at noon by three of Buster Keaton's early short comedies. Keaton had spent several years as a sort of apprentice to Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, at the time the second most popular screen comedian after Charlie Chaplin. Keaton was Arbuckle's co-star and co-director in a dozen or so short films made between 1917 and 1920. But when Arbuckle graduated to making feature-length films for Paramount, the keys to Arbuckle's old studio were passed on to Keaton, who was determined to put his own stamp on the genre.
Keaton shelved his first attempt, The High Sign, after screening it for Arbuckle, who laughed uproariously throughout the picture. If Arbuckle liked it that much, Keaton reasoned, it must be too similar to Arbucke's brand of comedy. So he pushed himself harder to come up a fresh approach, and the result was One Week (1920), hailed upon its release as a new and unique contribution to screen comedy. The film contains many of the hallmarks that would characterize Keaton's work for years to come: inventive gags, graceful athleticism, daring stunt work, a fascination with machinery, and of course Buster's stoic, unsmiling demeanor. The Scarecrow (1920) follows in this vein, starting off with a celebrated sequence that shows Buster and his roommate having breakfast in their jury-rigged mechanical kitchen. And The Playhouse (1921) takes Keaton's mechanical interests to the extreme with special effects using multiple exposures of Keaton. Set in a vaudeville theater, Keaton not only takes the role of stage performer, but plays every member of the orchestra and much of the audience. The Keaton program will be accompanied by Donald Sosin on the piano.
Douglas Fairbanks takes to the screen at 2:30 in perhaps his grandest epic. The Thief of Bagdad (1924), directed by Raoul Walsh, is a two-and-a-half-hour romp, special effect-laden adventure adapted from One Thousand and One Nights. Fairbank's favorite among his films, it was the fourth in a series of swashbuckling adventures that made Fairbanks one of the biggest starts of the silent era.
Fairbanks had first made a name for himself between 1916 and 1920 with a string of breezy, acrobatic comedies. His ebullience, prodigious athletic abilities and considerable charm were on display in a series of brisk films produced at a brisk pace—four or five a year, sometimes more—in which genial, dapper Doug took on the world with gusto and a good-natured smile. He was the can-do, all-American boy, a variation on the same theme adopted by Harold Lloyd in his own screen comedies.
His first movie roles were under the direction of D.W. Griffith, the foremost filmmaker of his day. But there wasn’t much room for Fairbanks’ acrobatic and comedic talents in Griffith’s vision of cinema, so he soon set out on his own. In just a few short years he found himself at the top, one of the most universally admired screen actors. And when he fell in love with and eventually married Mary Pickford, the first true movie star, and still, at that time, the biggest, they became the world’s first superstar couple, the pair for whom the term “Hollywood royalty” was coined.
It was around this time, 1920, that Fairbanks took a new tack. His ambition swelled with the creation of United Artists, an independent company he co-founded with Pickford, Griffith and Chaplin, that would give the artists greater control over the creation and distribution of their work. Fairbanks’ notion was to merge his acrobatic brand of comedy with costume drama. He ditched the modern clothes for period attire, donning the garb of musketeers and pirates. Abandoning the casual spontaneity of his rapid-fire comedies, he followed instead in Griffith’s footsteps, producing fewer films—just one or two a year—with greater production values, more complex plots, more costumes, more sets, more drama. Fairbanks had found a new formula, and he would stick with it for the greater part of a decade, enjoying great commercial success. The Thief of Bagdad, which will feature live musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, shows presents Fairbanks at the peak of his career.
His wife enjoyed a somewhat similar career arc. Her fame came early and suddenly as "The Biograph Girl" in an era when actors were not given screen credit. She, and her director, D.W. Griffith, were nameless employees of American Biograph, churning out a string of short films for the studio. But their talents did not go unrecognized for long as the public clamored to learn their names. Griffith would soon become cinema's most revered director, and Pickford soon became the medium's first star actor. Once the public knew her name Pickford's career was transformed as she took hold of the power that fame afforded her. Before long she was calling the shots, selecting her material and handpicking her directors. The artistry of her films steadily increased and her popularity never waned until new technologies and new popular tastes finally brought the curtain down on her career in the early 1930s.
The warmth and charm that endeared Pickford to millions is on full display in My Best Girl (1927), directed Sam Taylor, best known for his work with Harold Lloyd, and accompanied here by Donald Sosin on the piano at 7 p.m. The film was Pickford's last silent picture before briefly moving into talkies and then soon retiring as an actress (she continued to produce films for many years). The film might also be seen as a transition in her personal life, for her co-star, Charles "Buddy" Rogers, fresh off the success of Wings, the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, would become her husband in ten years' time, once her fabled union with Douglas Fairbanks finally came to an end.
The festival closes with the artistry of F.W. Murnau, the great German filmmaker responsible for some the most indelible movies of the silent era. Murnau became one of the premier directors in the world on the strength of such films as Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Faust, presented at 9 p.m. with live accompaniment by Christian Elliot on the Mighty Wurlitzer. These films had a great impact on American producers and director, and Murnau soon joined the ranks of European directors lured to Hollywood by studios eager to harness the vitality of these artists. Murnau's first American film was Sunrise, which won the first (and only) Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Producton. Faust reunited Murnau with actor Emil Jannings, with whom he had made The Last Laugh. Jannings, as Mephisto, turns in another great performance, drenched in the dark imagery of Murnau's expressionist photography.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival's 2013 Winter Event
at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., San Francisco.