My experiences at the Day of Silents

Yes, that’s Silents, not Silence.

It rained off and on in the Castro neighborhood, but it was dry and joyful (mostly) in the Castro theater.

Two days before the Day, cinema made history. A selection of critics released their once-a-decade Sight & Sound of the Best Films of All Time. I’ll get to that soon.

The Silent Film Festival is not just about watching movies and listening to live music. Some people dress up for the event:

Dressing up for silence

The Day included six presentations of silent films with live music. I saw five and a half of them. Three of the six shows were comedies.

Here’s what I went through:

Keaton’s Mechanized Mayhem

I know all three of these shorts, but it is so much better on a huge screen with hundreds of people laughing with me. The last one, The Goat, is my favorite Keaton short. Wayne Barker’s piano work made it even better.

Forbidden Paradise

Ernst Lubitsch’s’ fourth American movie isn’t as funny as some of his others, but it’s still entertaining. Pola Negri plays a queen dealing with a sexist revolution. But she’s not all that interested in saving her monarchy. What she really desires is the handsome but betrothed officer she would like in her bed (Rod La Rocque). It leaves you with the feeling that monarchy is absolutely ridiculous.

The DCP looked beautiful. The Monto Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provided a ravishing musical score.

Pour Don Carlos

As historical epics go, this one isn’t much…but it has its points. Early on, people talk calmly about politics, which isn’t the best kind of action for a silent movie. But somewhere in the middle of the picture, star and director Musidora (real name Jeanne Roques) takes off and everything turns magical.

They screened a French 35mm print of a new restoration, with subtitles under the original French intertitles. The Sascha Jacobsen Ensemble performed a powerful score.

The Cheat

I didn’t watch this very important Cecil B. DeMille film all the way though – I’d seen it before. In fact, I introduced The Cheat years ago at the Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival. I had dinner plans, so I exited the theater. But the plans fell through, and I returned for the second half of the movie. As you’d expect for a 1915 film about a white woman and a rich Asian man, it’s racist, but not too bad by the standards of 1915.

I was disappointed by the digital restoration. In the original 1915 release, the villain was Japanese. In the 1918 re-release, the evil Asian was not Japanese but Burmese (studios could do that sort of thing back then). I was disappointed when I discovered that, when they recently restored the film, they didn’t turn the bad guy back to being Japanese.

Wayne Barker provided a melodramatic piano score that seemed very appropriate.

Show People

My wife was laughing throughout most of the movie! We remember Marion Davies mostly as William Randolph Hearst’s mistress and the inspiration for Citizen Kane‘s talentless second wife. But King Vidor’s 1928 backstage-in-Hollywood comedy proves her considerable comic talent. It’s the old story of knockabout slapstick versus self-consciously arty cinema. Comedy, of course, wins.

When Festival Artistic Director Anita Monga introduced the film, she told us that they were projecting Davies’ own, personal 35mm print. It looked great. The Monto Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provided a near-perfect score.

The Toll of the Sea

This is not a great film, but it has considerable historical interest. For one thing, you get a very good view of how Americans felt about mixed-race children a hundred years ago. It also gave Anna May Wong a chance to show her acting chops. And it’s the first feature film made in Technicolor (the system could not yet produce blue).

The Sascha Jacobsen Ensemble did a fine job keeping the story going.

We all left the Castro Theater a bit after 10:00pm. Let’s hope that the Castro will still be a movie theater next year.