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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Buster, Bluster, and Blondes: What to See at the Silent Film Festival

Posted By on Tue, Jul 10, 2012 at 3:30 AM

Publicity still from Buster Keaton's The Cameraman
  • Publicity still from Buster Keaton's The Cameraman

This weekend, you can see Clara Bow, Buster Keaton, Louise Brooks, Gary Cooper, and Douglas Fairbanks all in one place -- not to mention the work of filmmakers Ernst Lubitsch, G.W. Pabst, William Wellman, and Josef von Sternberg. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, now in its 17th year, got off to a spectacular start in March with their "once in a lifetime" screenings of Abel Gance's massive, five-and-a-half hour Napoleon, and this Thursday through Sunday, the festival proper will attempt to top itself when it commandeers the Castro Theatre for a run of fifteen features, a shorts program, and two special events.


Simply put, the SFSFF is the country's largest festival of silent cinema, and contributes mightily to promoting the legacy of the pure motion picture -- a legacy that was revived in the public imagination last fall, when two major releases (Hugo and The Artist) memorialized the silent era anew. That legacy will be highlighted at this year's festival with a special program on film preservation, Amazing Tales from the Archives: Into the Digital Frontier, presented by restoration experts from Paramount and Sony. (Unlike individual screenings, this event, which takes place Friday morning at 10:30, will be free.)

Screenings begin on Thursday with the newly-restored Wings (1927), winner of the first Oscar for Best Picture. Director William Wellman's World War I story remains quite a spectacle, filled with compelling aerial footage, aided now by an intensive restoration (completed just last year) that adds a crisp immediacy back to the movie's image and sound.

Betty Compson and George Bancroft in The Docks of New York
  • Betty Compson and George Bancroft in The Docks of New York

The Docks of New York (1928, dir. Josef von Sternberg) is an atmospheric sample of cinematic slumming. Taking place within a single 24-hour period, this seamy portrait of dockside life has mood to spare thanks to terrific sets and von Sternberg's mobile camera. The movie remains great fun to watch, but it's damaged by a silly ending -- and by the leading man, George Bancroft. Not well-remembered today, Bancroft is both too old and too creepy for the role of a tough ship's stoker: he struts around with a ridiculous swagger and a dirty little mustache, looking like a child-molesting cousin of John Wayne. Bancroft couldn't have been matched more poorly with the lithe and gorgeous Betty Compson, who plays opposite Bancroft as a prostitute and would-be suicide, saved in the first reel by Bancroft's leering hero. Still, there's something campily satisfying about Bancroft's absurdity amid the already melodramatic milieu of von Sternberg's exaggerated vision of the harborside underbelly of New York.

Ernst Lubitsch is best known for intelligent, sophisticated comedies (Heaven Can Wait, Design for Living, and The Shop Around the Corner -- the latter ineptly remade as You've Got Mail). For some, discovering Lubitsch's historical epic, The Loves of Pharaoh (1922), will be like learning that John Hughes directed an entry in the Lethal Weapon series. But Lubitsch was a filmmaker of great range, and his Egyptian story is vividly colorful, displaying a very recognizable "ancient" aesthetic in its elaborate sets and costumes.

Buster Keaton and Marceline Day in The Cameraman
  • Buster Keaton and Marceline Day in The Cameraman
Closing the SFSFF on Sunday will be Buster Keaton's The Cameraman (1928), his second-to-last silent feature and the first one he made under contract to MGM. Keaton called the move to MGM the worst decision of his life; his creative freedom was seriously hampered by sound, and by the way the studio incorporated it into its movies. Keaton told an interviewer in the '60s that if it had been up to him, his sound films would have been largely similar to his silent ones, with the only change being that dialogue would be heard. But the trend at studios was to focus on the talking in talking pictures, cramming in as much of it as possible. The price that was paid was a marked loss of the visual grammar that had been developed during the silent era. That grammar is very much in evidence in The Cameraman, a fleet and funny story that contains a handful of great gags, including a classic sequence -- shot on location at Yankee Stadium -- in which Keaton plays a one-man baseball game.

The 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs July 12 - 15 at the Castro Theatre. For the complete lineup and more information, visit

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Casey Burchby

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