"Sunrise" over San Francisco: SF Silent Film Festival gives us a Murnau movie and many other reasons to celebrate Valentine's Day with them. (Photo courtesy The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences)

San Francisco Silent Film Festival Winter Event

Jonathan Kiefer February 12, 2009

The genius of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s fourth annual Winter Event, a Castro Theater quadruple feature getting underway at noon on Saturday, February 14, is how great a way it is to spend Valentine’s Day. That is: alone in the dark for hours at a time, with your sweetheart at your side (or just alone if you don’t have a sweetheart), allowing the madcap movie entertainments of 80-plus years ago, each with live musical accompaniment, to put your relationship issues in perspective.

No, seriously. Just bear in mind and take whatever romantic affirmation you can from the fact that one of the day’s offerings (Sunrise) is co-presented by the Film Noir Foundation, and another by Midnites for Maniacs (The Cat and the Canary). As for the others, well, there’s the one in which Buster Keaton likes a girl whose entire family literally wants to kill him, before they’ve even met him (Our Hospitality); and the one with the movie-theater usher whose would-be girlfriend tells him she won’t be interested unless he’s famous, so he goes through hell to get that way, and very dubiously succeeds (A Kiss from Mary Pickford). Isn’t it romantic?

If it’s any kind of spoiler to say that all four of these films do in fact end happily, it’s also fair warning to say that each of those happy endings is most assuredly well earned.

Come to think of it, the central couple in Sunrise probably could use some therapy. In director F.W. Murnau’s 1927 benchmark, the real showpiece of this group, George O’Brien plays a man torn between his fair-featured, adoring but provincial wife (Janet Gaynor, who for this performance and others won the Academy’s first version of a Best Actress Oscar) and a darker, much saucier "woman of the city" (Margaret Livingston, appropriately seductive and anticipating Uma Thurman’s Pulp Fiction poster pose). To understate the situation: Things get stormy.

Though the film was conceived as a fable (archly subtitled "A Song of Two Humans," it strives for the archetypal), Murnau infused Sunrise with enough invention, and enough genuinely haunting moments, to forever rebuke received ideas of old silents as crude and cinematically simplistic. For all its surprising raw emotional power, it also has a well-honed sense of irony. And it is beautifully set and lit and shot—dreamlike, tender and sometimes terrifying.

"For years now, there has been such justified enthusiasm for the place of Sunrise in history, San Francisco critic David Thomson writes in his most recent movie-commentary compendium, Have You Seen…? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, "that we may have begun to overlook what a very strange film it is." Thomson views the film and its reputation with measured skepticism, and doesn’t by any means give Murnau a free pass. But, he writes, "don’t doubt the impact of Sunrise on Hollywood—these are the first modern camera movements, carrying us toward desire.

It’s heartening, even now, to look back across time and see the movies beginning to understand their own power. In A Kiss from Mary Pickford, also from 1927 and originally in Ukranian, Igor Illyinsky plays the aforementioned cinema usher, and Anel Sudakevich plays the object of his affection, herself an aspiring actress. Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks play themselves, traveling on a publicity tour whose brief stop in the hapless lovebirds’ town stirs up a whirlwind. Enrolling in a so-called school for stardom, subjecting himself to a battery of silly tests therein, and becoming a stuntman-comedian by mistake, the young man scores not just the eponymous starlet smooch, but also, at last, his lady’s admiration. We’ll have to hope he comes to understand just how iffy that is.

Of course, the heart wants what it wants—and will buy it if possible. The first of several film adaptations from John Willard’s stage play, The Cat and the Canary (1927 again) is a witty, expressionistic, Scooby Doo-ish romp in which a dead old man’s heirs convene in his creepy mansion to compete for the inheritance of his estate. "My relatives have watched my wealth as if they were cats, the old man (Wilfred Hyde-White) writes in his will, "and I, a canary." True enough. And, making matters worse, they also have a murderous madman in their midst. But that just creates an opportunity for the resident milquetoast (Creighton Hale) to become a hero by protecting the young lady of the family (Laura La Plante). True, she’s also the family fortune’s most likely inheritor, but his intentions are pure. Or are they? No, they are. Maybe.

The various burdens of family inheritance also figure strongly in Our Hospitality (1923), with which Buster Keaton manages to send up Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, self-enchanted Southern hospitality, and his own physically comedic stamina all at once. Having come into his family’s ancestral estate, Keaton’s character hops a whimsically rickety, homeward-bound train and promptly charms a female fellow passenger (Natalie Talmadge) hailing from the family with whom his own clan has a longstanding feud. Nobody puts it together until he’s in their home as a guest, naturally, at which point the rivals’ code of honor prevents them from shooting him—at least until he sets foot outside the house. There is also a nail-biting whitewater adventure and, as you might expect from Keaton, some beautifully balletic shtick. Anybody willing to work this hard to get the girl clearly deserves a Valentine.