The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, now in its 14th year, screens a wide range of films each July at the Castro Theater, touching on various genres and styles from cinema’s nearly 30-year silent era. The festival starts Friday with a showing of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Gaucho (1927) and continues through the weekend with a program of a dozen screenings.
There were many stars in the silent era, but few could rival Douglas Fairbanks. Along with Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, Fairbanks was at the pinnacle, one of the most beloved performers in the nascent medium.
Fairbanks made a name for himself between 1916 and 1920 with a string of breezy, acrobatic comedies. His ebullience, prodigious athletic abilities and considerable charm were on display in a series of brisk films produced at a brisk pace—four or five a year, sometimes more—in which genial, dapper Doug took on the world with gusto and a good-natured smile. He was the can-do, all-American boy, a variation on the same theme adopted by Harold Lloyd in his own screen comedies.
His first movie roles were under the direction of D.W. Griffith, the foremost filmmaker of his day. But there wasn’t much room for Fairbanks’ acrobatic and comedic talents in Griffith’s vision of cinema, so he soon set out on his own. In just a few short years he found himself at the top, one of the most universally admired screen actors.
And when he fell in love with and eventually married Mary Pickford, the first true movie star, and still, at that time, the biggest, they became the world’s first superstar couple, the pair for whom the term “Hollywood royalty” was coined.
It was around this time, 1920, that Fairbanks took a new tack. His ambition swelled with the creation of United Artists, an independent company he co-founded with Pickford, Griffith and Chaplin, that would give the artists greater control over the creation and distribution of their work.
Fairbanks’ notion was to merge his acrobatic brand of comedy with costume drama. He ditched the modern clothes for period attire, donning the garb of musketeers and pirates. Abandoning the casual spontaneity of his rapid-fire comedies, he followed instead in Griffith’s footsteps, producing fewer films—just one or two a year—with greater production values, more complex plots, more costumes, more sets, more drama.
Fairbanks had found a new formula, and he would stick with it for the greater part of a decade, enjoying great commercial success.
There were naysayers, however. Some critics bemoaned the loss of brisk, breezy Doug; they complained that his films were becoming longer, slower and more ponderous, with the trademark Fairbanks action reduced to just one or two reels of a total of 10 or 12, even 14. The jaunty Fairbanks of the teens had become a stately, costumed, dramatic figure, his devil-may-care charm and athleticism only coming to the fore in the closing sequences.
Fairbanks may have felt the same way, for in 1926, he began edging back toward comedy. The Black Pirate saw him costumed and swashbuckling as usual, but the old Doug was back in action; the film did not take itself too seriously and it was full of stunts, smiles, and much broad, comic acting.
He followed with The Gaucho, a darker, more serious film, but still with much comedy and derring-do. Fairbanks shared the spotlight with Lupe Velez, making her first appearance in a feature film. And Pickford even showed up for a ghostly cameo, appearing as a vision of the Virgin Mary.
After nearly a decade as a heroic, swashbuckling figure, Fairbanks decided it was time to say goodbye. He would make just one more film along these lines, The Iron Mask, his last silent film. He and Pickford teamed up for his first talkie, The Taming of the Shrew, but his careered tapered off and he retired from the screen in 1934. He passed away a few years later, in 1939, at the age of 56.
Friday’s screening of The Gaucho will feature the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra performing their original score.
Other festival highlights
Bardeleys the Magnificent (1926) screens at noon Saturday. The film reunites director King Vidor with John Gilbert, who had starred in Vidor’s The Big Parade, the blockbuster that earned the director the clout to make a smaller, more personal film, The Crowd, which featured a strong and affecting performance by his wife, Eleanor Boardman. Bardeleys was made before the couple married, and features Boardman as Gilbert's love interest. Live music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
Josef Von Sternberg’s Underworld (1927), one of the early gangster films, screens at 5 p.m. Saturday. The film helped cement the conventions of the genre, greatly influencing the explosion of gangster films of the 1930s. Live piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
Following their success with The Scarlet Letter, actress Lillian Gish again teamed with Swedish director Victor Sjostrom (“Seastrom” in America) for The Wind (1928), a stirring melodrama showing at 7:30 p.m. Saturday that plays to the strengths of each.
Gish, perhaps the silent era’s best actress, puts her pantomime skills to work in depicting a woman victimized by a tempestuous man and an even more tempestuous physical environment. Having left Virginia for the unruly Southwest, her tormented life is made manifest by the ceaseless and unyielding winds which batter her home and shift the sands of the desert landscape.
Sjostrom, in his distinguished body of work in his native land, where he established himself as a master of the medium to rank with D.W. Griffith among cinema pioneers, had emphasized the landscape, shooting on location among the stunning vistas of Scandinavia. The mountains, the sea and the skies gave context to his plots and added comment to his characters; with The Wind, he employs that sensitivity to the natural world in the creation of a punishing and relentless force that nearly pounds his heroine into submission. Live Wurlitzer accompaniment by Dennis James.
Sunday will start at 10:30 with a series of Disney shorts featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, predecessor to Mickey Mouse. Live piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
Quickly shifting gears, Erotikon (1929), a sensual Czechoslovakian film, will screen at 1:30 p.m. Live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
It may be hard to believe, but Vaudeville veteran W.C. Fields did pretty well for himself as a silent film star, before the talkies immortalized the comedian’s snide, slurring wordsmithing. So’s Your Old Man (1926) will show at 4 p.m. Sunday. Live piano accompaniment by Philip Carli.
There were two great adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. One was a 12-minute short, an avant garde American film that owed a great deal to German Expressionism; the other, a feature-length version that deviates from the original in many ways but stays true to Poe’s vision of existential and supernatural terror, will screen at 6:15 p.m. with live piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne.
The festival will close with an 8:15 p.m. showing of Lady of the Pavements (1929), D.W. Griffith’s last silent. The film stars Lupe Velez, Fairbanks’ co-star from The Gaucho, in a romantic drama that proved the great director hadn’t lost his touch. Live piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin.
2009 SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL
Friday, July 10 through Sunday, July 12 at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., San Francisco. www.silentfilm.org.