Wednesday, June 3, 2009

2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival announced their 2009 schedule. The festival runs July 10 to 12 at the Castro.

The first thing I noticed was that Lupe Velez films opens and closes the festival. She is notoriously Known to future generations as the actress who attempted suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills but ignominiously drowned in her toilet as she was trying to retch the drugs from her system. That story is quite possibly apocryphal and has more to do with an Andy Warhol film. However during her time she was popular actress that had success in silent films and talkies. Strikingly beautiful with strong Latina features and a heavy accent (which may have been affected for the films), Velez was a celebrity in the modern connotation. She had a tumultuous marriage to Johnny Weismuller and is rumored to have bedded the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1920's and 30's.

Also Underworld (which was one of my favorite films from last year's von Sterberg retrospective at PFA) is screening at the festival this year.


The opening night films is The Gaucho (1927) starring Douglas Fairbanks and the "Mexican Spitfire", Lupe Velez.

Douglas Fairbanks at his rakish best is the Gaucho, notorious bandit leader whose turf is the Argentine pampas. But honor among thieves dictates that when a corrupt general plunders a miraculous Andean shrine, the Gaucho and his banditos come to the rescue. Fairbanks, a huge star at the time, wrote this glorious adventure and generously shares the spotlight with dazzling newcomer, Lupe Velez in her first starring role. Watch for Mary Pickford as the Madonna!

Other films that catch my attention are:

Bardelys The Magnificent (1926) starring John Gilbert and directed by King Vidor.

King Vidor's swashbuckling romance was lost to the ages until the discovery of nitrate materials in a French vault. Superbly restored digitally, the film confirms the scope of John Gilbert's bountiful talents. As a wryly comic and athletic ladies man, Gilbert captivates the lovely Eleanor Boardman (and the audience). The story, set in the court of Louis XIII, hinges on mistaken identity, political intrigue, and personal perfidy, building to a rousing (and oh-so-satisfying) denouement!

As I recall, John Wayne screen debut was a small (possibly uncredited) role in this film.

Wild Rose (1932)

Wang Renmei is the Wild Rose in writer-director Sun Yu's tale of a mischievous country girl, a wealthy Shanghai boy with an artist's eye, and the historical events that ultimately determine their love story. Set in the same era as Bertolucci's The Last Emperor, the film portrays a fascinating contrast of rustic countryside and Art Deco cityscape. Renmei (who was given the nickname "Wildcat" for her unbridled performance) and co-star Jin Yan (considered the Valentino of China) married her once filming was over. Their on-screen chemistry is the real thing!

The Wind (1928) starring Lilian Gish

Along with Griffith and Murnau, Swedish director Victor Sjostrom was one of the giants of the silent era who convinced critics that the motion picture was not a bastard child of the stage, but a vital art form in its own right. The Mojave Desert stands-in for the harsh Texas landscape where young Letty (the luminous Lillian Gish) finds herself fighting loneliness, a violent suitor, and the relentless, punishing wind. Truly magnificent! This performance will feature a special wind effect used in the 1920s! And special guest Leonard Maltin will introduce.

So's Your Old Man (1926) starring W.C. Fields.

W.C. Fields rose to fame as a vaudeville juggler, but his movies forever established him as a duplicitous, bibulous, hilariously foul-spirited idler who'd steal candy from a baby. In So's Your Old Man, Fields is a put-upon paterfamilias who triumphantly invents unbreakable windshield glass. But instead of acclaim, he shames his family until a princess comes to his rescue. This is a very rare screening from a comic master known mainly for his work in the talking cinema, specially picked by director Terry Zwigoff who will introduce the film. (The film was recently inducted into The Library of Congress National Registry!)

Lady of the Pavement starring Lupe Velez and directed by D.W. Griffith

D.W. Griffith's last silent film surprised contemporary critics who felt that he had lost his touch. This marvelous romantic drama is a return to form, with splendid cinematic flourishes that confirm the masters place in the firmament. Set in 19th-century Paris where Prussian aristocrat Karl von Arnim (William Boyd, future Hop-a-Long Cassidy star) falls in love with Spanish cabaret chanteuse Nanon (the magnificent Lupe Velez). The film was completed as a silent, then partially re-shot to qualify as a part-talkie including two musical numbers using Griffith's innovative experimentation with sound modulation.

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