I spent Friday night and all day yesterday at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I hate missing it today, but life sometimes gets in the way of movie-going.
Have I told you about the costumes? A great many people, mostly women, take the trouble to dress up for the festival. It’s great to see flappers walk by in the aisles or waiting in the concession line.
Many of the films were introduced by well-known film scholars, including Leonard Maltin, Robert Osborne, and Mick LaSalle, but it was Board President Judy Sheldon, in her opening remarks Friday night, who made the most intriguing statement. She said we’re living in a second golden age of silent films. She didn’t elaborate, but I think I know what she meant. Thanks to DVDs and Turner Classic Movies, silent films are readily available, with good transfers and soundtracks, resulting in a growing audience. Studios and museums are finding it easier (although still not easy) to finance the restoration and perseveration of silent films. Musicians tour the country to accompany them. New filmmakers like Guy Madden are reaching into silent films’ bag of tricks. The art form is more popular today than it has been since it suddenly died nearly 80 years ago.
So what about the movies I saw?
Let’s start with the bad news. The 1921 Camille, produced by and starring Alla Nazimova, could reinforce every bad stereotype people have of silent films. Between her ridiculous hairstyle, bizarre make-up, and way over-the-top acting style, she appeared to be not so much a beautiful courtesan as a space alien sent to Earth because her own people couldn’t stand her. Natasha Rambova’s sets were as outlandish as Nazimova’s performance, but at least showed greater range. The film’s one bright spot is Rudolph Valentino, on the cusp of fame, as the man who adores her above all else. But I couldn’t help wondering what Valentino saw in this woman.
On the other hand, William Wellman’s Beggars of Life almost vibrates with romantic realism. Louise Brooks is luminescent as a young orphan on the run from the law (she killed her would-be rapist in self-defense). She falls in first with one hobo (Richard Arlen), and then a crowd of them, ruled by the great Wallace Beery as a charismatic tramp who may have his own reasons for helping her. One could accuse Wellman of romanticizing the homeless life (not one tramp even considers turning her in for the substantial reward), but he doesn’t shy away from at least some of its ugliness. I’ve been wanting to see Beggars of Life for years; I wasn’t disappointed.
The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanied Beggars of Life; my first time hearing this quintet. Far more traditional than other small “orchestras” on the silent film circuit (The Alloy Orchestra, the Silent Orchestra, the Devil Music Ensemble, the Clubfoot Orchestra), Mont Alto sticks to classical acoustic instruments and often to scores written when the films were new. I’m not a purist when it comes to silent film accompaniment, but you don’t have to be to appreciate what purists can do. Judging from this one performance, Mont Alto can do wonders. The Orchestra will accompany Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. at the Rafael Monday night.
Other great festival experiences included The Valley of the Giants (but I knew that going in), The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg, and three of the four Hal Roach comedy shorts screened Saturday morning.