Arts & Events

Silent Film Festival Celebrates Cinema’s First Golden Era

By Justin DeFreitas
Tuesday July 13, 2010 - 10:39:00 AM
Harry Langdon.
Harry Langdon.

The silent era of filmmaking was an age of discovery, innovation and supreme achievement in the new medium. In the early years of the 20th century, motion pictures steadily grew from novelties and brief, flickering diversions to full-scale narratives. But it was in the 1920s that cinema truly blossomed into the great art form of the 20th century: techniques were refined; innovation was at full force; actors became international stars; and without the hindrance of nationalities and dialects, the medium established itself as a sort of universal language. 

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, now in its 15th year, showcases the breadth and depth of the first golden era of cinema, presenting the full range of film treasures—from slapstick to science fiction, from Russian avant garde to the American western—as they were meant to be seen: on the big screen, in a beautiful 1920s movie palace, and with live musical accompaniment. This year the festival expands to four days, beginning Thursday night, July 15, at the Castro Theater with John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) and continuing all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday with films from America, France, Germany, China, Italy and Scandinavia. 



Perhaps the festival's highlight this year is the Friday night presentation of the recently discovered original version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927). One of the most influential of all science fiction films, Metropolis is a dystopian nightmare in which the age of machines enables a repressive societal structure in which workers are forced underground to work as slaves, running the machinery that enables the ruling class to thrive above ground. 

The film is full of typical Langian imagery—stark, symmetric compositions, grand in size and scope—including the iconic moment when the protagonist is bound to a machine that resembles a large clock, trying to keep up with the never-ending task of matching the movement of the machine’s arms to a series of flashing lights. The purpose of the machine is never explained but used merely as an expressionistic and symbolic device: mankind enslaved to both time and its own machines. Later in the film the mad scientist Rotwang sends his robot into the workers’ netherworld, disguised as their saintly leader Maria, with the intent of using the machine-woman to spark a revolt. Again, man’s demise is threatened by the specter of his own machines run amok. 

The complete film has been lost for eight decades, the original version never having been seen since its 1927 premiere in Berlin. Cut by producers and censors, in Germany and abroad, it has since existed only in fragmented form. A semi-reconstructed version circulated in 2002, the most complete version to date at that time, but still missing about 40 minutes of material, including one or two subplots. Then, last year, a nearly complete print of the original Metropolis was discovered in Argentina. This, the most complete version of the film we are likely to ever see, premiered once again in Berlin this year and now comes to San Francisco. The film will be accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra, performing their own score. 



Saturday's screenings include one of the least known of the silent era's greatest clowns. Comedians were a dime a dozen in the days of silent film, but great comedians were precious and few. The judgment of history has left us maybe a half-dozen top-notch talents, and just a few of those names are much remembered today. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are the heavy hitters of course, the names that immediately come to mind, with perhaps Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Charley Chase, and a few others lagging not so far behind in name recognition. Still others, like Laurel and Hardy, did well in silent films but are today best known for their sound work. 

But the name of Harry Langdon still languishes in relative obscurity. The consistency and quantity of his best work may not quite place him among the ranks of the big three, but he is awfully close. Or at least he would be, if his work was more widely seen and appreciated. One his best films, The Strong Man (1927), directed by Frank Capra, will show at 4 p.m. Saturday. 

Langdon's tenure at the top was brief, a meteoric streak across the comedy horizon. Walter Kerr, with his landmark book The Silent Clowns, has become the de facto authority on the comedian, with virtually every discussion of Langdon centering on Kerr's insightful distillation of the essence of the comedian's work. It was Kerr's view that Langdon "existed only in reference to the work of other comedians." The form had to exist already, and "with that form at hand—a sentence completely spelled out—Langdon could come along and, glancing demurely over his shoulder to make sure no one was looking, furtively brush in a comma." 

By 1926, Kerr wrote, audiences were well versed in the mechanics and traditions of screen comedy. The major comedians delighted viewers by their unique approaches to the form, by the idiosyncratic ways in which they both met and flouted those conventions. But Langdon more often than not simply defied those conventions altogether, usually by doing...nothing. In situations where another comedian would have leapt into action, or at least turned tail and run, Langdon just stood there. As the world moved around him, he stood watching and blinking, allowing us to observe the slow thought process that left him hilariously ineffectual. 

Kerr: "[L]angdon's special position as a piece of not quite necessary punctuation inserted into a long-since memorized sentence means that he remains, today, dependent on our memory of the sentence. It is not even enough to know the sentence. We must inhabit it, live in its syntax in the way we daily take in air, share its expectations because they are what we expect, if we are to grasp—and take delight in—the nuance that was Langdon. You would have to soak yourself in silent film comedy to the point where Lloyd seemed a neighbor again, Chaplin a constant visitor, Keaton so omnipresent that he could be treated as commonplace, and the form's structure as necessary as the roof over your head in order to join hands with Langdon once more and go swinging, fingers childishly interlocked, down the street. That sort of immersion can never really take place again, except perhaps among archivists, and we shall no doubt continue to have our troubles with Langdon. It seems likely, however, that our reacquaintance with silent film comedy is going to develop a good deal beyond what it is now; the closer we come to feeling reasonably at home in it, the larger will Langdon's decorative work—all miniature—loom."

Silent comedy has indeed seen a resurgence since Kerr's day, and this year's festival provides just the sort of context viewers necessary to fully appreciate Langdon: Saturday's screenings begin at 10 a.m. with a series of comedy shorts, including the work of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy, that should at least provide viewers with a passing familiarity with the syntax of the form. 


Other screenings: 

• Louise Brooks, one of the most beautiful and iconic of silent film actresses, in G.W. Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl. 

• The 1922 Danish/Swedish production Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, in which director Benjamin Christensen applies the tenets of psychoanalysis to the witches of the Middle Ages 

• William Wyler's 1929 action-drama Shakedown. 

• Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), a dizzying work which attempts to grant the camera the agility of the human eye. 

• The Woman Disputed (1928), one of the few surviving films of Norma Talmadge, one of the era's biggest stars. 

L'eureuse mort, a French comedy from 1924. 

The Flying Ace (1926), one of the earliest films to feature African Americans in positive roles;  

• A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931), a Chinese adaptation of Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona, featuring two of China's most popular actors, Jin Yan and Ruan Ling-yu, sometimes referred to as China's Greta Garbo. 

• Rotaie (1929), one of the silent era's most important Italian films, which had a strong influence on the work of the great German director F.W. Murnau. 

• Three educational presentations: "Variations on a Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Film," and two installments of the popular "Tales From the Archives" series, in which archivists present rare short films and clips and discuss the art and craft of preserving our cinematic history. 


San Francisco Silent Film Festival. July 15–18 at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., San Francisco. For tickets and a complete schedule, see