Far from the ragged, blurry, jumpy images in the popular imagination, the silent era of filmmaking was an age of discovery, innovation and supreme achievement in the new medium of cinema. Motion pictures, at first treated as a mere novelty, came into their own between 1910 and 1920, growing from brief, flickering diversions into full-scale narratives. But it was in the 1920s that cinema truly blossomed into the great art form of the 20th century.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, now in its 13th year, showcases the breadth and depth of what was the first golden era of cinema, presenting the full range of film treasures—from slapstick comedy to gothic horror, from experimental animation to stately costume drama—as it was meant to be seen: on the big screen, in a beautiful 1920s movie palace, and with live musical accompaniment.
This year’s program begins Friday night, July 11, at the Castro Theater with Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother and continues all day Saturday and Sunday with 10 more presentations from the peak of the silent era.
Harold Lloyd was not an inherently funny presence as a screen persona. Unlike Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, who rank among the most innately charismatic and unique cinematic artists of all time, Lloyd couldn’t command an audience’s attention simply by appearing on the screen. There were many such comedians struggling to climb their way to the top of the field, to challenge Keaton and Chaplin at the summit, but Lloyd was the most diligent and talented of them, and he alone managed to scale those heights. Through grit and determination he overcame his limitations as a screen presence and established himself as one of the most popular and enduring comedians of the silent era. In the 1920s he was second only to Chaplin in popularity. In fact, in box office receipts, the prolific Lloyd surpassed Chaplin, who only released a handful of films in that decade.
Lloyd took a different and perhaps more pragmatic approach to his comedies than his contemporaries. Chaplin made relatively quiet, character-based narratives, punctuated here and there with explosive bits of slapstick. And Keaton let his films develop slowly, building steadily to dizzying climactic chases and daring stunt work. But Lloyd first and foremost aimed to please, and thus he filled movies with gags from start to finish, rarely allowing the audience much time to breathe.
With The Kid Brother (1927), however, Lloyd altered his style somewhat, adopting some of the techniques of his competitors in pursuit of a more artistic approach. He put more time and effort into technical details, especially the photography, using warm lighting to capture the pastoral beauty of a life in the woods. And he put greater emphasis on pathos; more screen time was spent developing his character, showing us his hopes, his dreams and his humiliations.
Lloyd didn’t make a bad film in the 1920s; all of them are good and many of them are great. Others made more money (The Freshman), crammed in more gags per minute (Why Worry?), or have enjoyed more lasting fame (Safety Last), but The Kid Brother may very well represent Lloyd’s crowning achievement, bringing greater artistry and subtlety to his workman-like career. Lloyd himself cited the film as his personal favorite. Friday’s screening of the film will feature live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
Saturday’s screenings include The Soul of Youth (1920), a portrait of the fate of unwanted orphans in early 20th-century America; Les Deux Timides (1928), a comedy by René Clair; and Mikael (1924), a landmark film in the history of gay cinema, directed by the great Carl Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr) and starring German actor Conrad Veidt.
Veidt also anchors the centerpiece film Saturday night, The Man Who Laughs (1928). Early in the 1920s, German émigré Carl Laemmle, head of Universal, brought Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame to the screen. Centering an epic film on a grossly disfigured lead character was considered a great risk at the time, but Lon Chaney, who would later become known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” used his formidable pantomime skills to create a sensitive and sympathetic portrayal. Laemmle and Chaney then followed Hunchback with The Phantom of the Opera and enjoyed similar success.
Eager to keep the streak alive, Laemmle turned to his fellow countrymen for The Man Who Laughs (1928), enlisting the talents of Conrad Veidt and director Paul Leni for another Hugo adaptation. Veidt had become the face of German Expressionism with his roles in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and in Leni’s Waxworks, and Leni had recently parlayed his success in Germany into a contract with Universal, bringing the shadowy photography and psychological horror of Expressionism to the States with The Cat and the Canary. These silent classics formed the foundation of what would become a string of classic Universal horror films in the 1930s. Saturday’s screening of The Man Who Laughs will be accompanied by Clark Wilson on the Wurlitzer.
Following The Man Who Laughs Saturday night is the first in the festival’s new “Director’s Pick” series. Director Guy Maddin will be on hand to introduce and narrate (translating the French intertitles) for Tod Browning’s strange and rarely screened film The Unknown (1927), starring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. Live piano accompaniment will be provided by Stephen Horne.
Sunday’s screenings include The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), the earliest surviving feature-length animated film; Her Wild Oat (1927), one of the few surviving films of Colleen Moore, among the most popular actresses of the 1920s; and Jujiro (1928), an avant-garde Japanese film.
The festival concludes Sunday night with The Patsy (1928), starring the great comedienne Marion Davies. Davies, the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, had spent much of her career weighed down with the dreary costumes of the myriad period dramas that Hearst wanted to see her in. It was director King Vidor who finally freed the effervescent Davies from such stifling solemnity, and in The Patsy he gave her free reign to satirize her contemporaries, offering sharp and hilarious impersonations of such silent-era stalwarts as Lillian Gish and Pola Negri. Clark Wilson will again provide accompaniment on the Wurlitzer.
The San Francisco
Silent Film Festival
July 11-13 at the Castro Theater,
429 Castro St., San Francisco.