Silence Is Golden

"Feature bloat" -- the unfortunate addition of space-hogging features to computer programs -- has a counterpart in local film festivals, which generally operate on the principle that more is better. The Silent Film Festival, now in its fourth year, bucks this trend, restricting itself to a mere three features and a cartoon program over a one-day run. Such brevity is refreshing, especially with such a strong mix.

Opening the show is a group of visually primitive but often droll pre-Disney animations, including selections from Walt's own Alice series and the Fleischer Brothers' Koko the Clown. Director Edmund Goulding, meanwhile, marshals all of MGM's resources for the 1927 Garbo-John Gilbert vehicle Love, a gorgeously mounted, intensely emotional revamp of Anna Karenina. Gilbert makes a serviceable Count Vronsky, but it's Garbo's show all the way. She's luminous in the tragic title role, and even affectingly maternal in her scenes with her son. The studio released the film with two endings -- a happy one for domestic consumption, and a more accurate unhappy one for European audiences. Attendees of the fest will get to vote on which ending will be shown. (Demand both!)

Anyone who questions Love's sumptuous re-creation of Imperial Russia on MGM's sound stages may find solace in Lev Kuleshov's 1926 Po Zakonu (By the Law). Based on a Jack London short story, it's a gorgeously photographed psychodrama about a group of Yukon gold miners who begin to unravel in a rickety cabin against a backdrop of massive ice floes and storms. One of them murders two others, and the two remaining hold a trial for the killer. Reputed to be the cheapest feature ever shot in Russia, Po Zakonu puts Kuleshov's pioneering theories of montage and "film acting" to fine use.

Wrapping up the show is William Wellman's legendary World War I drama Wings (1927), winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture. The film is most noted for its superb aerial acrobatics, which retain their freshness and punch 70 years later. Better still, the director leavens the epic dogfights with broad comedy and a homoerotically charged relationship between two pilots (Richard Arlen and Charles "Buddy" Rogers) in love with the same girl and -- if the penultimate sequence is proof -- each other. Dennis James provides live organ accompaniment for both Love and Wings. The festival begins at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro, S.F. Admission is $10-12; call 552-2075.

-- Gary Morris

 
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