In today’s fully wired world of digital video and handheld viewing devices, it may be difficult to fathom a time when the moving picture was itself a revolutionary technology. In the first few decades of the 20th century, as the new medium was developed and perfected, it brought with it a radical cultural shift, bringing images from all over the world to neighborhood theaters.
The cinema essentially held a monopoly on mass entertainment, for this was before television brought the moving image into the home, and even before radio, which first brought the immediacy of live news and entertainment into the living room in the 1930s.
It was likewise before commercial aviation, a time when travel was more daunting, more arduous, and less accessible to the working class. Thus cinema provided a unique and engaging portal to the world for many who might not otherwise venture beyond regional borders.
The 12th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, running this weekend at the Castro Theater, is a portal of its own, taking audiences back to a time when film was establishing itself as the dominant art form of the new century. The festival’s mission is to showcase the art of silent film as it was meant to be seen, with quality prints presented at proper projection speeds and accompanied by period-appropriate live music.
In those early years, cinema, despite the tiredness of the cliché, was a new and universal language. Photography in newspapers and magazines could provide a glimpse of other cultures and other lives, but moving pictures, captured in faraway lands and projected on a screen, brought vivid images of a life beyond: clouds of dust kicked up by wagon trains moving west; waves unfolding on distant shores; the gleam of moonlight on cobblestones in a European village; the very ways in which people moved and lived throughout the world. It was a time when cinema was simpler in means yet just as rich in content, relying almost exclusively on image and motion to convey plot and import.
It was the lack of dialogue in fact which lent the movies much of their universal appeal, establishing film as a visual language that would be undermined once the images began to talk. For along with the advent of synchronized sound came the cultural barrier of language, a gap bridged only by such awkward translation devices such as dubbing, the falsity of which created a visual-verbal dissonance, and subtitling, which detracted from cinema’s impact by drawing the eye away from the image. Silent film instead relied on intertitles, an imperfect device to be sure, but one which at least had the virtue of separating the printed words from the image, leaving the visuals untouched and undiluted. And translation was simply a matter of replacing the title cards as a film crossed international borders.
This year’s festival presents something of the international appeal and range of silent-era cinema by bringing together an eclectic selection of films. The festival kicks off Friday with a mainstream American studio production, The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg. This is Germany by way of MGM, with big Hollywood stars Norma Shearer and Ramon Novarro directed with continental flare by the great Ernst Lubitsch.
Continuing with the international theme, Saturday will feature an afternoon screening of Maciste, an Italian classic that the festival’s programmers—Executive Director Stacey Wisnia and Artistic Director Steve Salmons—came across at the Pordenone Silent Festival in Italy. This was the first in a series of Maciste films starring Barolomeo Pagan as a heroic strong man rescuing damsels in distress. Sunday’s screenings include “Retour De Flamme” (“Saved From the Flames”), a program of early rarities by French cinema pioneers, presented, with his own piano accompaniment, by Parisian film collector Serge Bromberg, and The Cottage on Dartmoor, a British “psycho-noir” by director Anthony Asquith.
Another aspect of the Silent Film Festival’s mission is to educate its audience about the preservation and restoration of our rapidly disappearing cinematic heritage. Thus for the second year the festival is hosting “Amazing Tales from the Archives,” a free Sunday morning presentation on the effort to preserve that history. The program is the brainchild of Wisnia, who, despite the skepticism of her colleagues, thought last year’s presentation might draw a decent crowd. All were surprised when the turnout nearly filled the Castro’s main floor. This year’s program will focus on “peripheral” films—trailers, newsreels and shorts—and on obsolete formats, such as 28-millimeter, a format originally sold for use in homes and schools. Many 28mm films shorts will be screened throughout the festival, including travelogues, educational films and short comedies, even one of Harold Lloyd’s rarely screened “Lonesome Luke” films.
Though Wisnia and Salmons’ tastes may skew toward the lesser-known films from the era, they make an effort to fill a range of genres, from comedy to drama, from blockbuster studio productions to quieter, more experimental work, from star-studded large-scale productions to forgotten gems by actors and directors nearly lost to film history. Other films on the menu include:
• Valley of the Giants, a drama set amid the towering redwoods of the Sierra Nevada, featuring nearly forgotten actor Milton Sills.
• Beggars of Life, a follow-up to last year’s screening of Pandora’s Box, featuring the legendary flapper-vixen Louise Brooks. This time Brooks takes a radically different role, spending most of the film attired in men’s clothes in a story of hobos riding the rails in Depression-era America.
• The Godless Girl, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, one of the greatest showmen to take up film. His films were spectacles, full of melodrama and hysteria, and, more often than not, a steady stream of vice, usually denounced toward the end of the film to accommodate censors.
• Miss Lulu Brett, by William DeMille, a successful Broadway playwright and accomplished film director whose work was often overshadowed by that of his younger, brasher, more ostentatious brother. Miss Lulu Brett is considered his best film, based a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Zona Gale. William takes a quieter, humbler approach than his more famous brother, telling a tale of a small-town girl stuck as a servant in her sister’s household while looking for a path toward a happier and more meaningful life.
• Camille, a distinctive and innovative Warner Bros. production starring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino.
• And every festival includes at least one program focusing on the silent era’s comic masters. This year spotlights producer Hal Roach, screening four short comedies from Roach Studio stalwarts like Charley Chase and the Our Gang ragamuffins.
SILENT FILM FESTIVAL
Friday, July 13 through Sunday, July 15 at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., San Francisco. (925) 275-9005. www.silentfilm.org.
Photograph: Doris Kenyon and Milton Sills in Valley of the Giants (1927).