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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Silents, Please!: See Five Silent Films at the Castro This Saturday

Posted By on Tue, Dec 1, 2015 at 8:00 AM

click to enlarge The Black Pirate - TRACEY GOESSEL
  • Tracey Goessel
  • The Black Pirate

The Silent Era has long since ceded ground to deafening blockbusters full of jump cuts and lens flare, but the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's A Day of Silents will put the Star Wars fever on hold this Saturday, Dec. 5, at the Castro Theatre — with live musical accompaniment!

The $70 quintuple feature kicks off at 11 a.m. with Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate, continues at 3 p.m. with escape artist Harry Houdini in The Grim Game, and concludes with a 9:15 p.m. screening of Piccadilly starring Asian-American actress Anna May Wong. In between these screenings will be a program of documentary footage from turn-of-the-20th-century China at 1 p.m. and a French fantasy, L’ Inhumaine, at 6:30 p.m..

click to enlarge From Piccadilly - MILESTONE FILMS
  • Milestone Films
  • From Piccadilly
click to enlarge Anna May Wong in Piccadilly - MILESTONE FILMS
  • Milestone Films
  • Anna May Wong in Piccadilly
While Douglas Fairbanks is a draw, the festival also spotlights one of Fairbanks’ former co-stars. As an Asian-American actress, Anna May Wong was forced to endure years of typecasting, playing every Asian stereotype in Hollywood’s stockpile of clichés, including a role in Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad. These performances brought her fame and fortune, but ultimately she left for Europe in search of better roles.

She landed one, perhaps her best, in director E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929). Wong plays a cold, ambitious nightclub dancer, by turns manipulative and vulnerable, who becomes an irresistible object of desire for the club’s owner. Though the interracial romance was censored, the disaster wrought by Wong’s femme fatale remains intact as jealously and bloodshed bring the film to a noirish conclusion.

Harry Houdini must have seemed an obvious candidate for movie stardom. Famous as a vaudeville performer and as a daredevil stuntman, he was a born showman. Though he was limited as an actor, his appeal is readily apparent in The Grim Game (1919), a film thought lost until a private collector’s print was recently restored. Short and rugged with piercing eyes, Houdini comes across as an earlier generation's version of Edward G. Robinson, handsome in an unlikely way, tough and scowling, but able to convey a certain benevolent humor and grace.

click to enlarge Harry Houdini in The Grim Game - RICK SCHMIDLIN
  • Rick Schmidlin
  • Harry Houdini in The Grim Game
During the making of The Grim Game (1919), two planes collided in mid-air, leading the producers to re-write the script around the material. For decades the only fragment of the film known to exist showed this accident, and though the filmmakers claimed that Houdini himself was hanging from the plane and narrowly survived the accident, the techniques that sustained the illusion are no more convincing today than they were then.

Despite his fame, Houdini's acting career was not a success. It turned out that the art of the escape required a flesh-and-blood performance to hold an audience's attention; cinema, with all its sleight-of-hand editing and shifting camera angles, robbed Houdini's stunts of their veracity and sense of danger. If an audience wanted grace and daring and swashbuckling charm, they had Fairbanks; if they wanted dangerous stunt work, cinematically presented and with no editing gimmickry, they had Buster Keaton. Though Houdini was one of the most famous men of his time, his fans preferred to see him not larger than life on the big screen, but on the stage, life size and all the more compelling for that fact that he was real.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival's "A Day of Silents," Saturday, Dec. 5, 11 a.m. on, at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, 415-21-6350

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Justin DeFreitas


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