San Francisco’s Day of Silents

Louise Dresser and Rudolph Valentino in Clarence Brown’s The Eagle (1925)

For just over a century, the Castro Theatre in the heart of San Francisco has been one of the most beloved movie palaces in the country. The prolific Bay Area architect and designer Timothy L. Pflueger drew from an assortment of historical styles, incorporating a “large mullioned window and shallow relief decoration [which] suggested grandeur, continued an architectural tradition familiar to Californians, and reinforced the notion of the movie house as secular cathedral,” notes the nonprofit Castro Theatre Conservancy. “The marquee and vertical ‘Castro’ neon sign are additions from the late 1930s, but the glazed tile street foyer, ornate free-standing box office, and newly refinished wooden doorways are all original.” And the interior is “splendidly eclectic.”

The Castro has hosted a good number of prestigious festivals over the years, including the one that couldn’t be a more perfect fit, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. As Brian Darr points out in his first piece for Screen Slate, an excellent primer on the SFSFF’s history, the twenty-seventh edition (April 10 through 14) will be the first to take place elsewhere, namely, the Palace of Fine Arts in the city’s Marina District. Like every theater around the world, the Castro fell on hard times during the pandemic lockdown, and in January 2022, Berkeley-based concert promoter Another Planet Entertainment announced that it had leased the property from its owner. Renovations will likely be geared more toward live entertainment than to repertory screenings.

The SFSFF’s annual year-end Day of Silents, happening this Saturday, could well be the last hurrah for silent cinema at the Castro. The day begins with an hourlong morning program of animated shorts, presented chronologically from Émile Cohl’s Fantasmagorie (1908) through Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat in Sure Locked Homes (1928). At noon, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany a screening of The Wildcat (1921), which Dennis Harvey describes at 48hills as a departure “from the spicy costume dramas of prior collaborations” between director Ernst Lubitsch and “Polish vamp” Pola Negri.

“A very funny burlesque of those heavy-breathing exotic romances,” writes Harvey, The Wildcat “has Negri as the whip-wielding wild-child daughter of the chief to a bandit gang living in mountain caves. She finds herself unexpectedly besotted by the incorrigible playboy lieutenant (Paul Heidemann) newly assigned to the area’s remote military fort . . . At first amusing, then often downright hilarious, the movie is full of fun even on the design level, with gimmicky image framings, fabulously whimsical sets for the fort interior, and an utterly gratuitous dream fantasy in which a brass band of snowmen lead a ballroom dance.”

The Eagle (1925) was something of a comeback for Rudolph Valentino, who would make one more film, a hit, The Son of the Sheik (1926), before his death at the age of thirty-one shocked fans around the world. Directed by Clarence Brown, The Eagle is a loose adaptation of Pushkin’s 1841 novel Dubrovsky. Valentino plays a Russian lieutenant who brushes off advances from no less than Catherine the Great (Louise Dresser) before becoming a masked avenger who falls for Masha (Vilma Banky), the daughter of a nasty nobleman. “Miss Banky is so lovely to look upon that her beauty makes the hero’s gallantry all the more convincing,” wrote Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times after the premiere, and in 2012, Time Out noted that the sets designed by William Cameron Menzies “are astounding.”

Yunte Huang, whose latest book is Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong’s Rendezvous with American History, will introduce the afternoon screening of Richard Eichberg’s Pavement Butterfly (1929), a British-German production starring Wong as a dancer and artist’s model who winds her way into high society on the French Riviera. Safety Last! (1923), directed by Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor but a Harold Lloyd project through and through, gave us one of the most immediately recognizable images of the silent era: Lloyd dangles from the minute hand of a giant clock perched high over busy city streets. In 2013, Ed Park called the thrilling comedy classic “a meditation on time and money, on fame and misfortune, that holds up a mirror to the life of its creator.”

This year’s Day of Silents will wrap with a film that, as Brian Darr notes, “probably hasn’t screened in San Francisco since its original release ninety-five years ago: Victor Schertzinger’s Forgotten Faces (1928), starring three veterans of Josef von Sternberg’s silent masterpieces. Clive Brook (Underworld, 1927), William Powell (The Last Command, 1928) and Olga Baclanova (The Docks of New York, 1928) are better remembered for early talkies—Shanghai Express (1932), The Thin Man (1934), Freaks (1932)—but their silent work is consistently stellar. I have yet to see Forgotten Faces because I’m saving that experience for Saturday night, when it will likely become the final film introduced at the Castro by TCM’s Noir Alley host and Film Noir Foundation president Eddie Muller.”

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