S.F. Silent Film Festival“s Third Annual Winter Event

Robert Avila November 30, 2007

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival‘s third annual Winter Event, a one-day mini-fest taking place Saturday at the Castro Theatre, is meant as a lower-key complement to the festival’s longer outing each July. But this year’s compressed exhibition, consisting of three separate programs and an evening mixer with live music, is an especially impressive affair. If the nonprofit festival’s mission means showcasing silent era films with the power to enthrall and delight as well as enrich popular understanding of cinematic art and culture, this wide-ranging lineup, introduced by notable authorities throughout, does it thrifty justice. What follows is a commentary-filled list of the lineup in reverse chronological order.

1. Evening
At the top of the program comes “Flesh and the Devil” (1927), a great Greta Garbo-John Gilbert match-up, in fact their first, and the one that notoriously started their fiery real-life romance pretty much on screen for all to see. In this steamy, censor-tempting adaptation of Herman Sudermann’s novel, “The Undying Past,” about two German army buddies divided by a willful enchantress named Felicitas, MGM and Louis B. Mayer struck gold with the fateful pairing of stars (even if it cost Mayer more than he bargained for in agro down the line). Bunkmate to Gilbert’s Leo as the story opens is beloved friend Ulrich (played by Garbo’s fellow Swede and former costar Lars Hansen, looking a bit goofy if well coiffed beside the rakish Gilbert). Meeting Felicitas at a train station, Leo is hopelessly smitten. But a duel and a stint in Africa later, Leo returns to find his best friend married to the woman he loves. This being, supposedly, Calvinist Germany, there’s naturally a pastor nearby. “My boy,” as this moral authority explains to Leo in a theme-spelling inter-title, “when the devil cannot reach us through the spirit, he creates a woman beautiful enough to reach us through the flesh.” Having said this like it’s a bad thing, the pastor feels compelled to add (strangely enough, while puffing away on a cigar stuffed into a pipe molded to resemble a leggy nymph), “Once before that woman led you into temptation and you sinned. … Aren’t you afraid of what she may do to you a second time?” Sure, it’s a dumb question. But dialogue and plot points are naturally secondary in Flesh and the Devil, gratefully making way for the groundbreaking lovemaking on (and off) the screen, including a sequence in Church where Garbo memorably turns communion into something less than holy and a lot more interesting.

Garbo’s Felicitas, a heartless temptress, followed fast on the heels of her previous MGM film called, not coincidentally, “The Temptress.” That came after playing yet another vixen for MGM. If it sounds like type casting, it’s important to remember that Garbo, as biographer Barry Paris points out, was also inventing a whole new type, something post-vamp, post-flapper, and something immediately captivating to audiences: a mercurial spirit that could shift so startlingly from aloof beauty to avid desire, all behind a face that was riveting. Of course, few faces have been so seriously, exhaustively contemplated. The Face even became a nickname. (“It is indeed an admirable face-object,” as Roland Barthes has inimitably put it). And though it’s been said ever since her early silent pictures for MGM were first released, seeing “Flesh and the Devil” confirms the impression that Garbo and the screen were made for one another, both enlarging the other. Moreover, given how she managed so successfully the transition to sound dialogue films (a graduation her costar and lover, the hitherto immensely popular Gilbert, famously flunked), it’s striking that one doesn’t miss her distinctive voice here. She’s perfectly complete on the silent screen, as the able director Clarence Brown (who worked with her many times) knew full well. “Flesh and the Devil” — which screens at the Castro in a pristine 35mm print from the Library if Congress (an institution whose name takes on an unusually erotic resonance in this context) — will be introduced by the Library of Congress’s Christel Schmidt.

2. Afternoon
The afternoon program, meanwhile, proves at least as alluring: DW Griffith’s masterpiece “Intolerance” (1916), a film as outlandishly unique as it was radically innovative and path-breaking, and one that fairly demands the big screen. “Intolerance” was DW Griffith’s lavish answer to his critics in the wake of his cinematically radical but politically reactionary and vehemently racist, if vastly influential Civil War and Reconstruction saga, “Birth of a Nation.” It was also another cinematic revelation, pioneering among other things the multi-story narrative. Injustice and inhumanity are the themes linking four disparate stories spanning multiple centuries and civilizations. Each story unreels in its own special tint, with the colorized result looking not so much modern as unto itself, peculiar and weirdly beautiful. What Babel wanted to be “Intolerance” was.

3. Morning
Finally, starting things off in the late morning is an intriguing and uncharacteristically chatty program called Vitaphone Vaudeville, a set of shorts from the “Vitaphone Varieties” series, which consisted of almost 2000 sound films put out between 1926 and 1930 using the same technology as the first talking feature, “The Jazz Singer” (1927). Introduced by Robert Gitt, of UCLA’s Film & Television Archive, the selection offers a mix of enduring and forgotten names, including a hokey little Depression era scene featuring a young Spencer Tracy on the cusp of future fame. But first come more classic vaudeville acts like a little frolic entitled “Chips of the Old Block”(1928) featuring the Foy Family. It opens on a young man with a guitar and a vaguely dyspeptic expression standing passively between two singing and dancing young women, presumably fellow chips of some unseen block. (Let’s just say the choreography here could have benefited from a movement coach, or maybe just a moving coach.) Enter the rest of the Foy clan, fancy steps, pratfalls, false teeth and other yucks at the ready. Amusing if only in its nostalgic glance back at the more piffling performances that defined the vaudeville era, “Chips” leaves little mystery why the Foy Family is not a household name.

The same might be said for “Dick Rich and his Melodious Monarchs,” an act preserved in a musical filmlet from 1929. The portly Rich, looking for all the world like a maitre d’, here lungs the lyric to “Ramona” before his comparatively lean (and one suspects underpaid) band kicks the tune into double time. An unidentified sequined woman joins Rich for the following number, “There Must Be a Silver Lining (That’s Shining for Me),” in a rather giddy pairing that quickly devolves into a ventriloquist act of questionable merit. At last, Rich, getting richer by the minute, introduces “Sunshine,” featuring the sequined woman again, index fingers in dimples, which brings matters to a merciful close.

But then there’s George Burns and Gracie Allen, strutting their stuff in “Lamb Chops,” also from 1929, in which the vaudeville and TV legends effortlessly carry the usual barrage of corny hit-and-miss humor with their trademark chemistry: shy, silly, and strangely enduring. A rare treat to see them thus on the big screen. Also of particular interest is “The Hard Guy” (1930) for its young and strapping star, Spencer Tracy. An amusingly clunky early Depression Era scene pitched somewhere between melodrama, social protest, and comedy, it unfolds in a rundown city apartment where an embittered ex-soldier and out-of-work breadwinner (a dutiful Tracy, still in no position to turn down work either) complains to his hungry wife and little girl about hard times and hard luck and all manner of hard things. “Guy, you’re getting hard boiled again,” she warns him. “Well, I been in hot water long enough to get hard boiled.” Etc. Etc. This Guy is one sour quipster. But perhaps suspecting a happy ending, his wife tries reassuring him with yet another straight line: “We’ll be back on easy street again,” she says. “I don’t know,” he fires back. “Easy street isn’t a one-way street by a long shot. There’s plenty of guys going the other way.” This Guy, for one. Spencer, on the other hand, was about to make a fat U-turn via a 1930 play called “The Last Mile” and a John Ford film called “Up the River.”