A Day of Silents–SILENT WINTER 2013

Buster Keaton and Buster Keaton in drag in “The Playhouse,” shown this afternoon at Silent Winter 2013.

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has lived up to its stellar reputation once again. Featuring a mouth-watering lineup of silent cinema gems, Silent Winter 2013 was a lively and vibrant event, augmented by an enthusiastic and passionate audience that proves to the world, as it does every year, that silent cinema is still alive and well. Expert speakers introducing each showing allow for the individual appreciation of every film chosen, the unique backgrounds and subtle intricacies that make each film special. This is the prerogative of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and that passion and respect for this beautiful art form is what keeps devoted patrons coming back year after year.

The films chosen for Silent Winter this year were:

  • Snow White (1916)
  • A series of 3 Buster Keaton shorts–One Week, The Scarecrow, and The Playhouse
  • The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
  • My Best Girl (1927)
  • Faust (1926)

The 1916 version of Snow White is similar in many ways to the 1937 Disney version of the fairy tale. A number of gimmicks are re-used in the later Disney film (in fact, Walt Disney was inspired by the 1916 film more than the original fairy tale), including a variation on a scene in which Grumpy the dwarf is dumped into the washing tub. Though the dwarfs have different names and certain sinister elements are softened or removed in the 1937 movie (there is a rather dark subplot about the hunter being imprisoned with his children), the influence is clear, and the sequence of events is very familiar to modern audiences most familiar with the Disney story. It is a charming film, beautifully shot and nicely acted with an especially noteworthy performance by Marguerite Clark as Snow White.

The Buster Keaton shorts were an absolute joy. I have yet to come across anyone, classic film fan or otherwise, who dislikes Buster Keaton. His charm, the sweetness and complete honesty that is the basis for all his comedy is immensely likable and audiences immediately fall in love with this sweet bumbling character whose life always seems to land him in a pickle. In the first short, One Week, Buster and his new wife try to put together a build-your-own house, but mix up the boxes and end up with a very strange house indeed–parts are upside-down, backwards, and crooked, and the roof doesn’t cover the house. After a massive storm that essentially destroys the house to an even worse state, they find out that their house is on the wrong lot anyway and they will have to move. This is what happens when they try to move the house. 1:26-1:09 is my favorite gag out of the hundreds that make up this 22-minute short.

The Scarecrow deals with two roommates after the same girl. A simple plot that is an excuse for lots of Keaton gags, including a genius sequence demonstrating the small size of the men’s apartment.

The Playhouse is nothing short of a Keaton masterpiece. Utilizing camera techniques that would not come into mainstream use for decades (and even then used sparingly), the opening sequence shows Keaton at a playhouse playing all the roles in a revue, and continues with old vaudeville tricks and hilarious plot twists involving mistaken identity.

The Thief of Bagdad hardly needs an introduction. This is one of the finest films of the silent era starring the legendary swashbuckler and explosive silent star Douglas Fairbanks. Chock full of magic camera tricks and gorgeous Middle-Eastern inspired clothing, it took more than a year to complete and credit for the production goes almost solely to Fairbanks. Also making an appearance is Anna May Wong, in an early role.

One of the more flabbergasting stunts in the movie is the magic carpet that actually flies. Its execution required a crane and three platforms for the cameras.

My Best Girl is a very sweet and timelessly funny movie starring Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers, who fell in love during filming. The plot involves a young woman who unwittingly falls in love with a rich man, and then deals with the consequences. One of the most beautiful things about this movie is that you can actually see the two falling in love. After Mary Pickford’s divorce from Douglas Fairbanks in 1936, she and Rogers married, and the marriage lasted 42 years until her death.

Faust is an incredibly intense German expressionist re-telling of the Faust legend directed by F.W. Murnau, who also directed such masterpieces as Nosferatu and Sunrise. Its dramatic intensity is almost unbearable, and there are moments that are legitimately frightening and shocking, even to an audience accustomed to paralyzing horror films like The Exorcist. However, had the Oscar been awarded in 1926, it would have gone unquestionably to Emil Jannings, who gave a masterful and stunningly powerful performance as Mephisto.

This was a wonderful evening that certainly left me wanting more. I am really looking forward to the big San Francisco Silent Film Festival this summer, and I learned tonight that they will be showing all of Hitchcock’s silents in a special presentation this coming June. Thank you, San Francisco Silent Film Festival!

See you next time!


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