San Francisco Silent Film Festival on Saturday, December 5

Justin de Freitas
Tuesday December 01, 2015 - 01:24:00 PM
The Black Pirate
The Black Pirate
Grim Game
Grim Game

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will showcase a few of the era’s most intriguing stars at its annual winter event Saturday, December 5, at the Castro Theatre.

The event kicks off at 11 a.m. with Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate, continues at 3 p.m. with escape artist Harry Houdini in The Grim Game, and concludes with a 9:15 p.m. screening of Piccadilly starring Asian-American actress Anna May Wong. In between these screenings will be a program of documentary footage from turn-of-the-20th-century China at 1 p.m. and a French fantasy, L’ Inhumaine, at 6:30 p.m..  

Douglas Fairbanks made a name for himself between 1916 and 1920 with a string of breezy, acrobatic comedies 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.  

Fairbanks’ ambition expanded in1920 with the creation of United Artists, an independent company he co-founded with Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith, and Charlie Chaplin, that would give the artists greater control over the creation and distribution of their work. 

Fairbanks’ notion was to merge his athletic 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 made fewer films — just one or two a year, down from four or five — 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.  

There were naysayers, however. Some critics bemoaned the loss of brisk, breezy Doug; they complained that the jaunty Fairbanks of the 1910s had become a stately, costumed, dramatic figure, his devil-may-care charm and athleticism only coming to the fore in the his films’ closing sequences.  

Fairbanks may have felt the same way, for in 1926 he began edging back toward comedy. The Black Pirate shows him costumed and swashbuckling as usual, but the old Doug is back in action; the film does not take itself too seriously and is full of stunts, smiles, and much broad, comic acting.  

The screening will feature Alloy Orchestra performing their original score.  

Saturday’s festival also spotlights one of Fairbanks’ former co-stars. As an Asian-American actress, Anna May Wong was forced to endure years of typecasting, playing every Asian stereotype in Hollywood’s stockpile of clichés, including a role in Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad. These performances brought her fame and fortune, but ultimately she left for Europe in search of better roles.  

She landed one, perhaps her best, in director E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929).Wong plays a cold, ambitious nightclub dancer, by turns manipulative and vulnerable, who becomes an irresistible object of desire for the club’s owner. Though the interracial romance was censored, the disaster wrought by Wong’s femme fatale remains intact as jealously and bloodshed bring the film to a noirish conclusion. 

Harry Houdini must have seemed an obvious candidate for movie stardom. Famous as a vaudeville performer and as a daredevil stuntman, he was a born showman. Though he was limited as an actor, his appeal is readily apparent in The Grim Game (1919), a film thought lost until a private collector’s print was recently restored. Short and rugged with piercing eyes, Houdini comes across as an earlier generation's version of Edward G. Robinson, handsome in an unlikely way, tough and scowling, but able to convey a certain benevolent humor and grace.  

During the making of The Grim Game(1919), two planes collided in mid-air, leading the producers to re-write the script around the material. For decades the only fragment of the film known to exist showed this accident, and though the filmmakers claimed that Houdini himself was hanging from the plane and narrowly survived the accident, the techniques that sustained the illusion are no more convincing today than they were then.  

Despite his fame, Houdini's acting career was not a success. It turned out that the art of the escape required a flesh-and-blood performance to hold an audience's attention; cinema, with all its sleight-of-hand editing and shifting camera angles, robbed Houdini's stunts of their veracity and sense of danger. If an audience wanted grace and daring and swashbuckling charm, they had Fairbanks; if they wanted dangerous stunt work, cinematically presented and with no editing gimmickry, they had Buster Keaton. Though Houdini was one of the most famous men of his time, his fans preferred to see him not larger than life on the big screen, but on the stage, life size and all the more compelling for that fact that he was real. 

Donald Sosin will accompany The Grim Game and Picadilly on piano.  

For tickets and information, see silentfilm.org.