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Silents Soar In San Francisco

Leonard Maltin By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin July 18, 2012 at 1:00AM

How many times can I learn the same lesson? I was going to skip a Sunday morning showing of Douglas Fairbanks’ 'The Mark of Zorro' at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival. After all, I know the movie by heart; I owned an 8mm print of it when I was a kid. But my wife and I arrived at the Castro Theatre in time to catch the last half-hour and decided to go inside the darkened auditorium.
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But my favorite films of the weekend were a pair of discoveries. Until now, The Spanish Dancer (1923) has survived only in truncated prints of dubious quality. The folks at Eye Film Institute Netherlands and Rob Byrne, president of the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Silent Film Society, have laboriously pieced the movie back together from a variety of 35mm and 16mm sources to reveal a delightful—and unexpectedly opulent—picture that shows off its attractive stars, Pola Negri and Antonio Moreno, at their very best. They were fortunate to find an original continuity script at the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to aid their efforts. Here is a costume picture that is rich in character and story, pictorial beauty, wit and joie de vivre. What a delight!

Thomas Meighan (at door) - 'The Canadian'
Thomas Meighan (at door) - 'The Canadian'

It was followed by The Canadian (1926), which was rediscovered decades ago but escaped my notice until now. William Beaudine directed this low-key story from a play by W. Somerset Maugham; whatever dialogue may have been spoken on stage was trimmed to the bone for this adaptation. It is a “pure” silent movie in which actions, body language, and the actors’ faces reveal much more than the sparse title cards. The little-known Mona Palma plays a privileged woman, raised in England, who finds herself in Alberta’s desolate farm country. Rather than be shunned by her hard-working sister-in-law (Dale Fuller, subtler than we usually see her in Erich von Stroheim pictures) she agrees to become the wife—in reality, the chattel—of a taciturn farmer (Thomas Meighan) who lives nearby. By living together the two slowly, gradually form a bond, but neither one is able to openly express his or her feelings. What a mature and subtle film this is, even by today’s standards.

The chief ambassador for 'Wings' and its director, William Wellman: William Wellman, Jr., in the lobby of the Castro Theatre
The chief ambassador for 'Wings' and its director, William Wellman: William Wellman, Jr., in the lobby of the Castro Theatre

Another hit was a Saturday morning showing of Felix the Cat cartoons, which presented rarely-screened prints from the Library of Congress and UCLA Film and Television Archive. I wasn’t familiar with these particular 1920s shorts and had never seen any of the long-running series projected in 35mm. Neither had my animation-buff friends in the audience, including John Canemaker, who wrote the definitive book on Felix. What a treat to watch these endlessly imaginative cartoons with a simpatico audience (including a number of kids, who seemed to be having a great time). These wonderful films deserve to be in wider circulation, properly curated and presented. I’m hoping next year the Festival will consider doing a similar show of Max Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell shorts.

It would be difficult to cite every highlight of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival; suffice it to say that between Thursday night and Sunday evening, there was magic in the air. Kudos go to artistic director Anita Monga, executive director Stacey Wisnia, operations manager Lucia Pier, and all the staff and volunteers who make the experience so enjoyable, year after year. Even an unfortunate series of technical glitches couldn’t derail the event or the feeling of good cheer that permeates the Castro.

This article is related to: Journal, San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Castro Theatre