With the world spinning increasingly out of control, what better place to soothe those shaky synapses than at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival? This two-day event, now in its seventh year, is compelling cultural archaeology, unearthing six features and a sampling of "lost films" from what some devout souls consider cinema's most accomplished era.
One of the pleasant surprises of this year's fest is how modern some of the films seem. Jackie Chan has credited silent comic Harold Lloyd as a decisive influence, and it's doubtful that even Jackie can top the ending of Girl Shy(1924), a masterfully realized city chase that finds the supremely elastic Lloyd weaving in and out of harm's way via every known mode of transportation. Lloyd's engaging personality and advanced fashion sense -- his trademark horn-rim glasses started a national craze -- add to his appeal.
More contemporary concerns can be found in Lois Weber's The Blot(1921).Weber's films, most of which she also wrote, were sometimes denounced for taking on such dicey subjects as birth control and capitalist excess. Here she scrutinizes the degradations of poverty and class conflict to wrenching effect. Equally effective in a different vein is William Wyler's Hell's Heroes(1930). This grim early version of Three Godfatherswas shot mostly in California's Mojave Desert and Panamint Valley. Charles Bickford's chilling transformation from cocky outlaw to physical and psychological wreck is bravura work.
For sticklers who demand some sentimentality in their silents, there's Captain January(1924), a hoary vehicle for five-year-old megastar Baby Peggy. Peggy puts Shirley Temple to shame as a tiny, commanding cinematic presence. Obscurantists will want to check out the program of ads and snippets from movies they'll probably never see, and sophisticated viewers should sample DeMille's Male and Female(1919), a racy comedy of class reversal that features nudity (watch closely; it's quick), fetishism, and a real lion sniffing at Gloria Swanson.