By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival came to a close last night, in a veritable smorgesbord of a day in which audiences were treated to a wide variety of films representing everything from tragic drama to side-splitting comedy.
The day began with a series of shorts from some artists considered to be the silent kings of comedy, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and even Felix the Cat! Felix’s adventures yesterday consisted of an expectedly disastrous trip out west, and Leo McCarey gave us a short called “Mighty Like a Moose” in which a man and his wife, both possessing undesirable traits (the man has buck teeth and the wife has an unusually large nose), decide to have their traits fixed without telling the other. What ensues is a hilarious incidence of mistaken identity, where both spouses start having affairs, not knowing that they are actually having an affair with each other! The premise was later made into a Joe McDoakes comedy in the 1950’s, and as I had seen that comedy at Cinecon last year, I was excited to recognize this extremely clever plot. Also included were two marvelous pieces from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin–Keaton’s “The Love Nest” tells the story of Buster’s foray onto the Seven Seas, getting mixed up with a cruel whaling boat captain and nearly getting himself thrown overboard. The twist at the end just puts the cherry on top of a very funny short!
Our Charlie Chaplin treat was “The Immigrant,” where the Tramp gets into his usual trouble on an immigrant ship headed to New York. Once in New York, he tries to have a meal in a restaurant, and his antics get in the way once again when he finds himself unable to pay.
It goes without saying that Charlie Chaplin was a comedic genius. Everybody knows this, and it seems silly to even mention it here. Chaplin is such a cultural mainstay, that people seem to think that he is the ONLY silent star worth seeing. Chaplin’s short was not the last on the program today, but I saw nearly half the audience leave after “The Immigrant.” This, I believe, is an area in which we as classic film scholars and (dare I say it) educators need to put in some work. Chaplin holds his own, but other equally talented classic stars are not getting the attention they deserve just as much. I commend the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for doing their part to build up the other silent stars, and keep Chaplin to a minimum. Charlie Chaplin will never die–the others will if we don’t keep them alive ourselves.
Next was a complete change of tone with The Outlaw and His Wife, a melodramatic Swedish tragedy about an outlaw who falls in love with a village woman and together with her escapes to the mountains to live an outlaw’s life, constantly pursued by the law. A line that was often used in the movie is “Love was their only law,” and that seems to drive the story. The film is careful to paint the outlaw as an upstanding person, driven to crime out of duty and obligation to his starving family and not a natural criminal nature. The final hour of the movie is rife with tragedy that leaves the viewer pondering the meaning of existence. Though I am aware of the cliché nature of that statement, it is quite true in the case of The Outlaw and His Wife. The final few lines of the movie deal with a philosophical pondering on how long is too long to live, and the final consensus affects their fate. It is certainly not a movie for the faint of heart, but it is a powerful social commentary and a must-see for anyone versed in Swedish cinema.
A return to lighthearted fare was next on the schedule with a local crowd-pleaser, The Last Edition, making its debut after an old print in the Netherlands was found and restored.
The McDonalds are an average San Francisco family–their daughter works as a telephone operator and their son is an up-and-coming lawyer, while the father works at the Chronicle printing press. Their life is turned upside down when the lawyer son is framed for accepting bribes from a local bootlegger. The father sees the story on the presses before the paper is distributed, and when his superiors refuse to stop the presses, he attempts to do it himself. With the help of the daughter’s skilled call-connecting action at work, the family all pitches in to get the son’s name cleared before the paper goes to the street. It is a movie that keeps the viewer on the edge of his seat, and wraps up in a wonderful, tight bow. The action takes place in and around the San Francisco Chronicle building, making this movie especially pleasing to San Francisco audiences and filling the theater to the brim with excited local patrons. A backward reel around the middle half of the film did little to diminish the excitement that pervaded in the theater, and the audience cheerily clapped along with the piano music that entertained while the problem was being fixed in the projection booth.
Back to starvation and destitution with the next offering, The Weavers, a true masterpiece of a film based on a Silesian weavers’ uprising in 1844. It was released in 1917 in the wake of the deposition of Czar Nicholas II of Russia, and the filmmakers make no effort to veil the similarities. Above all, this is another powerful social commentary on the position of the poor at the command of the rich, and though the ending of the film officially leaves its position neutral, it is clear and obvious that the movie’s sympathies are with the poor revolutionaries. Gunter Buchwald, who provided the piano score, thrilled the audience with a vocal rendition of the workers’ song during the movie, which provided an extra dimension of intensity and proved to solidify the movie’s message. A fantastic screening of a powerful masterpiece.
The festival closed with a bang, with a screening of the Haroly Lloyd classic Safety Last! in which Harold Lloyd performs the famous stunt of hanging from a clock after scaling a tall building. Much to the shock of my blogger friends next to me, I had never seen this movie before. Suffice it to say that it was a wild ride! Though the general plot is of a young man trying to impress his girlfriend by making her think that he is the manager of a department store, nearly half the movie consists of Lloyd scaling the building. As a person with an intense fear of heights, this affected me greatly. It is a delightful movie, and Lloyd an agile stuntman. I am ashamed of never having seen this before, but I can now count myself among those whose cinematic experience has been enhanced by this historical piece.
And that was it, folks! I hope you’ve enjoyed this coverage, and I look forward to next year!
Thanks for reading!