Dear readers, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has come to a close. Today’s films were all perfect picks for the closing day of a festival, and though I will miss all the live-tweeting and blogging that I have been doing for the past few days, I have had a great time and I look forward to seeing what the festival has in store for next year!
Here is a rundown of today’s events:
First film: THE MARK OF ZORRO
You may think you know Zorro, but you don’t know Zorro until you have seen this original 1920 version with Douglas Fairbanks as the eponymous hero. Produced by his own company, Fairbanks Pictures, the actor gave himself free rein to do whatever he wanted for the film–and that, for him, meant making any desired changes to the original story and, most significantly, doing all his own stunts. Under the studio system, there were often strict rules about stars doing their own stunts, and studios often wouldn’t let their stars get away with it for insurance purposes. Few stars can boast that they did all of the daredevil work themselves, and Douglas Fairbanks is one of them (Gene Kelly is another who did many of his own stunts).
Here is a clip of Douglas Fairbanks doing a particularly impressive stunt sequence in the film:
The movie itself is immensely entertaining and amusing, and in my opinion it loses NOTHING to time. It’s just as fresh and relevant as it was in 1920, and it really feels like you are watching a movie that could have been made yesterday. I had a lot of fun with this one! To top off the thrilling experience of seeing it on the big screen, a number of members of the Fairbanks family were there for the screening, and one of them looked exactly like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in his later years, which was interesting to see.
Second film: THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK
My friend Marya over at Cinema Fanatic, whom I sat with throughout the festival, was particularly excited about this film. Directed by Josef von Sternberg, known primarily for his dark German films and his collaborations with Marlene Dietrich, The Docks of New York was a step away from what he was used to, and from how audiences perceived his work. It is a beautifully simple plotline about a young woman (based on dialogue later, it may be inferred that she is a prostitute) rescued from a suicide attempt by a ship worker named Bill–they fall in some semblance of love and marry quickly in a bar. The next day she is indicted for “stealing some clothes” (clothes used to warm her after her suicide attempt in the icy East River) and sentenced to 30 days. Bill takes the blame for her, is sentenced to 60 days, and the film ends with the woman telling him she’ll wait for him. Elegant and to the point. The speaker before the film compared it to a poem–a simple structure that simply provides a base for emotional output. As he said: “Who knew von Sternberg had a heart?”
Third film: EROTIKON
A funny farce about a woman courted by two suitors is Erotikon, a 1920 Swedish movie concerning an entymologist who seems to know more about bugs than women. The real merits of this film, for me, were aesthetic. The intertitles were really beautiful, written in lovely script with little drawings above the words relating to the current scene. The highlight of the screening for me was to hear the Swedish subtitles read aloud in English rather than seeing them projected on the screen–the man doing it was very funny, and his delivery of the lines often left me giggling well into the next scene.
Fourth film: STELLA DALLAS
If a person knows Stella Dallas at all, it is normally the famous 1937 version with Barbara Stanwyck that immediately comes to mind. However, this 1925 version of the story is the original, and no less heartbreaking than the famous one. The story goes that Stella Dallas, a rather uneducated woman with a young daughter, separated from her husband due to the distance of his work, is trying to give her daughter the best life she can. As the daughter grows, her friends begin to pick on Stella for being a “different” kind of person, and Stella begins to feel that she is not adequately providing for her daughter. Sending her daughter off to live with her wealthier father in New York and finally procuring a divorce so the father can marry a more “suitable” wife, Stella is a selfless woman with great insecurities. I don’t want to give away the ending, but suffice it to say that at the end, Stella is changed, and not necessarily for the better. This story reminded me a little bit of Mildred Pierce, but without the ingratitude that Veda carries, and it is a much softer, gentler story about a mother’s sacrifices.
Fifth film: THE CAMERAMAN
The final film of the festival was what has been called the last great Buster Keaton movie–1928’s The Cameraman. In it, Keaton plays the typical Buster Keaton character–an awkward, clumsy who also possesses a heart of gold and a sweet nature. In this movie, Buster tries to break into the photography business, mostly because a girl he likes works in the office, and he ends up causing mayhem everywhere. Buster Keaton has a very paradoxical aspect about him–in being clumsy, he is agile. I suppose in order to act clumsy, you have to be agile in order to make it work, but his stunts are those of an unusually coordinated person. I adore Buster Keaton, I think he is one of the most endearing characters onscreen, and his legend is well-deserved.
The showing was sold out, and to close the festival, the sponsor, Fandor, handed out Buster Keaton masks and told everyone to hold their Buster Keaton mask over their face for a picture. The audience picture should be up on Fandor soon, so if you’d like, go check them out at fandor.com.
Another special treat from tonight was a special showing of A Trip to the Moon, right before The Cameraman. That movie, no matter how many times I see it, never fails to give me chills and inspire awe.
Here is the complete film of A Trip to the Moon:
That’s it for my festival updates! Regularly scheduled blogging on this site should resume tomorrow.
Thanks for reading, and I can’t wait for next year!
Thank you for an amazing review of the festival. I so enjoyed your daily posts and looked forward to reading them every morning.
Thanks for sharing your experiences. Sounds like a fantastic festival.
P.S. The Fairbanks stunt sequence truly was amazing!