The six programs that constitute A Day of Silents, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s annual winter event, feature some of cinema’s finest and most enduring pioneer artists.
Starting at 10 a.m this Saturday, Dec. 3, the Castro Theater screens three of the dozen or so short films that Charlie Chaplin made in the East Bay in 1915 for the Essanay film company, which signed the rising star after he had made a name for himself in a series of knockabout Keystone comedies. In these shorts, we see Chaplin developing his Tramp character and honing his unique brand of comedy, which would soon reach its apex in a string of classics that would stretch into the 1930s.
At 12:15 p.m., Ernst Lubitsch’s famed touch is on display in So This Is Paris (1926), a Jazz Age comedy in which the director depicts the sexual liberation of the era while foiling the censors with his deft use of suggestion and visual wit. The film culminates in a bravura dance scene that expresses the sensuous abandon of the age in the form of a vivid and joyful Charleston.
The scene shifts to Russia for the first feature-length film made by Sergei Eisenstein, one of the most innovative directors in cinema history. Strike depicts a series of abuses suffered by workers at a metalworks factory and the resulting strike against the factory owner and pre-revolutionary Russia’s czarist government. Eisenstein used this government-sponsored film to demonstrate his theory of montage, the juxtaposition of separate images to create new meanings, evoke emotions, or express rhetorical points.
The same year he played the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Conrad Veidt played what is thought to be the first homosexual protagonist on celluloid in Different from the Others (1919), a German film showing at 4:45 p.m. in which a violinist is blackmailed over his relationship with a protege in an era when homosexuality was a criminal offense under German law.
The Last Command (1928), showing at 7 p.m., is one of many beautiful films that Josef von Sternberg made in the 1920s and ’30s. The film features German star Emil Jannings as a fallen Russian general reduced to taking bit parts in Hollywood movies under an assumed name. One of his former minions, now a director, recognizes the general and casts him in a movie for the pleasure of subjecting his erstwhile tormenter to a series of humiliations. Von Sternberg’s trademark expressive photography is in evidence throughout the film, and Jannings’ performance is a sort of companion piece to his work in F. W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1925), in which Jannings played a proud hotel doorman stripped of his uniform and demoted to washroom attendant.
The festival closes with some good old American star power: Gloria Swanson, one of the most flamboyant actresses of the silent era, as San Francisco prostitute Sadie Thompson in the eponymous 1928 film, showing at 9:15 p.m. Swanson not only carries the film, she got it made almost single-handedly, by overcoming the concerns of censors and studio bosses who were reluctant to put the W. Somerset Maugham adaptation on the screen. Putting up $200,000 of her own money and casting the film herself, she tapped Lionel Barrymore and Raoul Walsh as her co-stars. The result was Swanson’s most famous film — until Sunset Blvd. two decades later — and one of her greatest commercial successes.
A Day of Silents, Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., silentfilm.org.