There are many films to recommend at this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The now four day annual event, started 19 years ago by locals Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons, runs Thursday, May 29 through Sunday, June 1 at the historic Castro Theater. San Francisco's Silent Film Festival is considered the largest such event in North America, and one of the leading silent film festivals in the world.
The Festival opens Thursday with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). This year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, made just three years after the war's end, is its greatest epic. The film was among the biggest box office hits of the silent era, and it helped make relative newcomer and one-time local resident, Rudolph Valentino, an international superstar. When you see Valentino dance the tango (then considered an indecent dance), you'll understand why women swooned. Film historians, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, have returned the film to its original length with its original color tints, and restored the famous tango scene to its provocative splendor. Live musical accompaniment will be provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
None of the other Festival films were blockbuster like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but there are a number of unusual and appealing gems. Each are accompanied by live music.
For Sherlock Holmes fans, there's The Sign of Four (1923), starring Eille Norwood. This now little known British actor may not be Benedict Cumberbatch, but he had the backing of Holmes' author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who said of him "He has that rare quality that can only be described as glamour, which compels you to watch an actor eagerly even when he is doing nothing. He has the brooding eye which excites expectation and has also a quite unrivaled power of disguise." Another intriguing crime story is by Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, who made three gangster films during the silent era. Dragnet Girl (1933) is the last and best of them. It stars Kinuyo Tanaka as a typist by day and gun-toting gangster's moll by night!
Two German films well worth checking out are Under the Lantern (1928), the story of a good girl's descent to a life on the street, and Harbor Drift (1929), a story of misery surrounding a pearl necklace. Each feature that special Weimar mix of decadence and tragedy. There's also a thriller from British director Anthony Asquith, Underground (1928), which shows the influence of German expressionism.
The world premiere of the restoration of an early Douglas Fairbanks film, The Good Bad Man (1916), is also on the schedule. The Fairbanks film will be introduced by Tracey Goessel and Rob Byrne of the Silent Film Festival, who led a three-way partnership between the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Cinémathèque française, and the Film Preservation Society to bring this film back from oblivion. The Festival's closing program is Buster Keaton's classic The Navigator (1924), directed by Donald Crisp. It will be preceded by a late addition from Russia, Potcha (1929), an 18 minute "masterpiece of Soviet animation." Film historians Leonard Maltin and Frank Buxton will introduce this latter program.
The one film Californians should not miss is Ramona, a 1928 historical drama based on Helen Hunt Jackson's hugely popular 1884 novel of the same name. One year after the author's death in 1885, the North American Review called the book "unquestionably the best novel yet produced by an American woman," naming it, along with Uncle Tom's Cabin, one of the two most ethical novels of the 19th century. The book has never been out of print. The Ramona Pageant, an outdoor play performed annually since 1923 in Hemet, California, is the largest and longest running outdoor play in the United States. (Among those who got their start playing Ramona in the Hemet pageant was Raquel Welch, then Raquel Tejada of La Jolla.) Ramona is as well the official state play of California.
The publication of Jackson's book was a milestone event in California history. The novel's influence on the public perception of southern part of the state was considerable, as its admittedly sentimental portrayal of Mexican colonial life contributed to establishing a cultural identity for the state. Ramona's publication coincided with the opening of rail lines and helped feed a tourism boom by making southern California a tourist destination, as many people wanted to see locations featured in the book. The runaway popularity of the novel spurred national legislation (the Dawes Act of 1887), and also inspired California jurisdictions to name schools, streets, towns and a county after the novel's heroine. Locations all over southern California tried to emphasize their Ramona connections.
There have been several adaptions of Jackson' story. The first was in 1910, directed by D. W. Griffith and starring Mary Pickford. Another early adaption was released in 1916, directed by Donald Crisp. For decades, the 1928 silent version of Ramona was thought lost until archivists discovered it in the Národní Filmový Archiv in Prague, Czech Republic. Transferred to acetate safety stock, the restored version had its world premiere in Los Angeles in March of this year.
Directed by Edwin Carewe (a Native American of Chickasaw descent), Ramona stars Warner Baxter and Dolores del Rio (who proudly identified herself as Mexican, and was the first Latin American star to achieve international recognition). Set in Southern California after the Mexican-American War, the film portrays the life of a mixed-race Native American orphan who suffers discrimination and hardship. Studio publicity of the time proclaimed, "MILLIONS -- Have read the book. Will relive the romance! Will adore Dolores Del Rio." The film -- which doesn't shy away from a theme of cultural diversity and tolerance -- was a major hit.
The theme song for Ramona was also a big hit. Dolores del Rio recorded it in 1928, as did many other popular acts of the time. Embedded here is a version by Brunswick Hour Orchestra, with vocal chorus by Frank Munn.
Visit the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for a complete schedule of films.
Thomas Gladysz is an arts journalist and early film buff, and the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, an internet-based archive and international fan club devoted to the silent film star. Gladysz has contributed to books on the actress, organized exhibits, appeared on television and radio, and introduced Brooks' films around the world. In 2002, he launched RadioLulu, a silent film-themed website streaming music of the Teens, Twenties, Thirties and today. RadioLulu features more than 22 hours of music, including two vintage versions of "Ramona."