San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Edition Report

I couldn’t attend the entire San Francisco Silent Film Festival–Winter Edition yesterday, but I caught the 8:00 screening of Flesh and the Devil. Good show.

The show started with a very short, and very odd 1906 Danish one-reeler call “Rivalinder.” I’m not sure to what extent this story of adultery and its cost was meant to be tongue-and-cheek. I think a fair amount of it.

Then Christel Schmidt of The Library of Congress introduced the feature. She plugged the Library’s new book, Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture (on sale in the lobby), discussed the never-before-screened print (which didn’t impress me all that much), and told juicy stories about the John Gilbert/Greta Garbo relationship that so thoroughly ignites Flesh and the Devil’s love scenes. She ended with a quote from the film’s director, Clarence Brown, about directing two actors who were falling so deeply into love and lust (“It was kind of embarrassing”).

Flesh and the Devil is a silly story, well-told. I’ll skip the plot, and just tell you that it’s about friendship, young love, uncontrollable lust, and the inherent evil of women acting upon their libido. It’s the sort of vamp picture that went out of style in the early 20’s, but came back to life magnificently here thanks to Garbo’s talent and charisma. This was only her third American film, and the one that turned her into a star.

You should definitely see it if you get the chance, both for the extraordinary hotness of the two stars, and for Brown’s clever and subtle visual storytelling techniques.

As usual, Dennis James provided note-perfect accompaniment on the Wurlitzer pipe organ. There’s a scene in the film where a character plays an organ, and stops abruptly when he senses someone watching him. James stopped playing, as well. It took a moment for us in the audience to realize that how perfectly the on screen and live organ matched. Then we burst into applause.

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