My Saturday: A whole lot of silent films at the Castro

I spent this Saturday at the Castro, where the San Francisco Silent Film Festival ran a one-day festival called–appropriately enough–A Day of Silents. They showed five programs, each with live musical accompaniment.

The Black Pirate

The festival got off to a slow start due to technical problems. The first movie, The Black Pirate, started more than 20 minutes late due to audio issues with the Alloy Orchestra. The sound problems were still apparent for the first few minutes of the screening/performance.

Someone must have fixed something, since the problem disappeared, allowing us to enjoy the three-man “Orchestra” play their exciting and utterly appropriate score. They really caught the spirit of this silly entertainment. Producer, writer, and star Douglas Fairbanks plays a nobleman out to destroy the pirates responsible for his father’s death. He does so by joining their band, becoming their leader, leaping all over the place like a jackrabbit. It’s all good fun.

The Black Pirate is, I believe, only the second feature film shot entirely in Technicolor, and by far the most ambitious. In those days, Technicolor could only capture two of the three primary colors, but Fairbanks’ team did excellent work with this limited palette.

Around China With a Movie Camera

The only program at the festival that wasn’t a narrative feature, this collection of travelogue excerpts, home movies, and other actualities provided a glimpse of China from the beginning of motion pictures until the late 1940s. For the most part fascinating, it showed us the different races and ethnicities of the people we westerners tend to lump together as “Chinese.” It shows us a China seemingly untouched by western forces, and a China overwhelmed by them. The clips were arranged geographically, not chronologically.

This particular collection was put together by the British Film Institute. New intertitles introduced each section, saying where, when and by who they were shot–except for when the authors of these titles had to admit that they didn’t know.

Donald Sosan gave his usual excellent but not distracting accompaniment on piano and Macintosh. (Yes, you read that properly. He uses the Mac for synthesizing other instruments. )

The Grim Game

This Harry Houdini vehicle just may have the silliest plot of any melodrama I have ever seen (not counting science fiction or fantasy). The hero, an ace reporter, frames himself for murder as part of a scheme to save his paper–and then confides his plan with three evil men.

But the story is just a vehicle for showing off Houdini’s acrobatics and escape artist skills in one scene after another. And on that level, it was fun.

I could see why Houdini, one of the most popular entertainers of the early 20th century, never really made it big in movies. His acting range is limited, and he lacks onscreen charisma. From what I’ve read, he had considerable charisma in live performances, and women swooned over him.

Donald Sosan did his usual excellent accompaniment.

The Inhuman Woman

And I thought the Germans were the cinematic impressionists of the 1920s. This French film is so over-the-top impressionistic that it makes Caligari feel like a documentary.

The plot revolves around a famous and heartless singer/femme fatale. Men seem willing to kill or die for her, although she struck me as someone I wouldn’t want sitting next to me at a dinner party. The movie is really about the wild imagery, from servants wearing baby-face masks to the sharp angles of the décor. But while the images were amazing, I found it hard to get emotionally involved with the story. Since the movie ran over two hours, that became a serious problem.

But two things saved The Inhuman Woman for me:

1) The Alloy Orchestra’s score was just amazing. Alloy excels when working with expressionism, and they took to The Inhuman Woman like like a cat to salmon. For much of the film, I enjoyed the images primarily as an accompaniment to the music.

2) The climax, which clearly inspired James Whale’s Frankenstein movies, was exciting and thrilling.


The day ended with the best film in the bunch.

Anna May Wong gives a great performance in this British drama about dancing and sex in a London nightclub. She plays a scullery maid who becomes a successful exotic (i.e., Chinese) dancer after sleeping with her boss (she deserves the job for her dancing talent, too). Since the club’s leading dancer is also the boss’ lover, and Wong’s character has a boyfriend, the story becomes not so much a love triangle as a love rectangle.

It’s sad that the American Wong had to go to England to play a character who wasn’t an Oriental stereotype. But it’s wonderful that she got this chance to play a fully fleshed-out human being in this complex tragedy.

A silent film set in a nightclub, with a lot of dancing, poses special challenges for musical accompanists. And musicians Donald Sosin (on piano and Macintosh) and John Mader (on percussion) were more than ready for the challenge. Their score was often jazzy, appropriately Chinese, and always served the story.