Goings On

Silent Revivals

The Daily — Jun 1, 2018
Mary Pickford in Rosita (1923)

Silent-film aficionados in the Bay Area, Berlin, and the UK are being treated to a wide range of classics and obscurities this weekend. The preeminent event of the moment, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, is already well underway, having opened on Wednesday with a new restoration of Paul Leni’s The Man Who Laughs (1928), an Expressionist melodrama starring Conrad Veidt. The festival, which runs on through Sunday at the glorious Castro Theatre, began over twenty years ago as a single-day affair, a labor of love whose aim was to screen the finest prints available, with every presentation featuring live musical accompaniment. It has since grown, as the nonprofit organization now puts it with understandable pride, “into the largest and most prestigious silent film festival outside of Pordenone, Italy.”

This afternoon sees a presentation of another new restoration, Ernst Lubitsch’s Rosita (1923), accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Mary Pickford stars as a street singer in Seville who catches the eye of the Spanish king and, as Dave Kehr, a curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, points out in the video below, audiences and critics alike embraced her comic turn. But there’s something about Rosita that didn’t sit well with Pickford, and it wasn’t long before she was referring to it as failure. Kehr has a theory as to why:

As J. Hoberman notes in the New York Times, over the years, Pickford would well and truly sour on Rosita—and on Lubitsch, whose direction she deemed “terrible” in a 1960 interview with the renowned film historian Kevin Brownlow. Tomorrow, Brownlow will be celebrating his eightieth birthday at the Castro as he presents Rex Ingram’s Mare Nostrum (1926), loosely based on the life of exotic dancer, courtesan, and notorious spy Mata Hari. Brownlow tells Jessica Zack in the San Francisco Chronicle that the film is simply “unmissable,” and further: “Every visual advance short of CGI was invented in the silent days—the moving camera, the advance from auto-chromatic to pan-chromatic and even the zoom lens, which was invented for a 1926 Clara Bow film. To this day, people see these films and say, ‘Oh, how modern!’”

At Beyond Chron, Peter Wong recommends another Saturday highlight, Eugenio Perego’s Trappola (1922), a comedy starring Leda Gys as an orphan who becomes a film star. Wong finds that it “delivers a bubbly mix of farce, misunderstandings, and cheerful anti-authoritarianism.”

Back in the Chronicle, Jesse Hamlin talks with festival programmer Anita Monga about the film that will close out this year’s edition Sunday night, Buster Keaton’s favorite of all of his own films. Battling Butler (1926) is “lovely and understated,” says Monga. “It’s romantic and sweet, and has all the Keaton tropes, the athleticism, as well great character actors like Snitz Edwards, who plays his sidekick, the personal valet to this well-heeled milquetoast.”

Meantime, over the UK, the BFI is putting a new 2K DCP of the 2009 restoration of G. W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) back in theaters starting today. It’s probably the best known of all films starring that icon of the silent era, Louise Brooks, and in his rave in the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw can’t help but point out that “her serene yet calculating beauty is framed in a severe black bob.” Pamela Hutchinson, who’s written a book about Pandora’s Box, has a new piece for the BFI in which she focuses on that “sleek, close-sheared bob, glossily reflective, black as tar and hugging Brooks’ impish features indecently close.” It “caused a sensation in the 1920s and still inspires tributes both off and on screen.”

And finally for now, the Arsenal in Berlin is presenting a series of eleven films starring Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star. Alongside such silent classics as E. A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929) and Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924), the Arsenal will also present lesser known works, including Richard Eichberg’s Pavement Butterfly (1929) and Chester M. Franklin’s The Toll of the Sea (1922). The series, opening today and running throughout the month, also features Yunah Hong’s documentary portrait, Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words (2011).

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