SF Silent Film Festival Diary
A few days before the San Francisco Silent Film Festival began last Thursday night at the Castro Theatre, I spoke with festival artistic director Anita Monga. She shared a touching story that couldn’t illustrate the beauty of silent film any better.
“Two years ago, there was this janitor at the Castro [Theater.] She didn’t really speak English. She had her little son with her, and I knew he looked really interested in one of the movies we showed. [One night,] were showing a beautiful tinted restoration of A Trip to the Moon. The theater was virtually full. I like to sit in the back where the sound mixing board is. The janitor [peeked in the theater,] uncertain like she didn’t want to bother us. We said, ‘Come in! Come in with your son. This’ll be a good film.’ She said, ‘Oh, maybe a minute.'”
“They stayed the entire time.” Anita continued. “Again, she didn’t really speak English, but they were laughing belly laughs. You know, slapping your knee laughs. It was so wonderful to see this movie that transcended language and age. It was just so beautiful. People always think children are going to be bored by silent film because there’s no talking. And yet, [this woman] who didn’t speak English, couldn’t read the intertitles, and [her son,] who most people think shouldn’t care about this art form, were sitting beside us and just loving it!”
Listening to Anita speak so lovingly about silent film kicked my excitement for the festival through the roof. My experience with The Hitchcock 9 was life-changing, from the live music, to the knowledgeable, respectful crowd, to the gorgeous Castro Theatre that housed it all. It was an amazing experience, and when I arrived at the Castro for opening night, I was excited to do it all over again. Prix de Beauté, the painfully tragic opening night film (which reminded me a lot of one of my favorites, The Red Shoes) depicts jealousy in such an authentic, modern way that it had me upset all night (in a good way, somehow.) Louise Brooks has superstar written all over her face, and she’d be an even bigger star today than she was then. It was a great film to kick off the festival.
Prix de Beauté
The rest of the fest was wonderfully varied, with films from all across the world. Marion Davies is as adorable and lovable as a thousand Zooey Deschanels in Kind Vidor’s quirky family comedy, The Patsy. Though Davies got a bad rap from her characterization in Citizen Kane, she shows a wealth of charisma in her turn as a swooning ugly duckling. Though most famous for his dramatic later works like Tokyo Story and Late Spring, master filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu created a lighter, more comedic film earlier in his career in Tokyo Chorus, though it’s no less poetic than its successors. One of the last films he made in the silent era, it’s a must watch for any Ozu fan. Gribiche, a French film about a boy from a lower-middle class family who is “rescued” from his humble lifestyle by an affluent widow, was a favorite of mine. The comedy and drama work hand-in-hand here, and director Jacques Feyder hits every beat with authority.
The film capping off the festival was goofball daredevil Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (you know, the one where he hangs off the clock.) The theater was packed to the brim (just like in Anita’s story) to see Lloyd’s masterpiece. The walls seemed to be shaking from the excitement of the crowd. After a quick Q&A with visual effects expert Craig Barron and Harold’s granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd (very cool), we were off to the races. The front half of the film delivers a bounty of clever sight gags, but the show-stealer is the thrilling main event, the famous sequence in which Lloyd clumsily scales a 12-story building. As Lloyd bumbled and flailed his way up to the sky, the audience and I hung on his every step, every slip, every hilarious close call. Women screamed when he’d trip and dangle by his fingertips. The collective gasps, oohs and ahs were nearly deafening.
Some of the people around me couldn’t speak English, some were younger than 10, and some were deaf, but we were all gasping in awe, in unison, at the brilliant performance of Mr. Lloyd. It’s an electric connection that you can’t create anywhere but at the movies. My fellow silent film geeks were a bunch of strangers in the dark jumping, screaming, and having a damn good time together. And at times, it felt something like family.