Silent Is Golden

Long-lost films and beloved chestnuts abound at the Silent Film Festival

San Francisco's enterprising Silent Film Festival marks its first decade this weekend with a solid three days of both rare and beloved nonspeaking cinema. One hesitates to say “silent,” as every entry features a live musical performance — organ or piano or even an ensemble score. Ambient noise will also include laughter, particularly for the opening-night screening of Harold Lloyd's For Heaven's Sake, a slapstick comedy in which a millionaire inadvertently bankrolls a mission in an urban slum. Lloyd initially plays against type as an elegant dude who smashes up two limos in one day and nonchalantly walks away, but reverts to his regular bashful-guy persona once he encounters doe-eyed Jobyna Ralston as the mission chief's beautiful daughter. Lloyd was one of the most class-conscious of the major silent comics, and many of the film's gags are built around misrecognition of social cues. Just as many, however, involve elaborate contrivances in which Lloyd mistakes sponges for pastries and takes hooligans for a spin on runaway trolleys.

Swedish émigré Victor Sjöström's adaptation of The Scarlet Letter was a daring project in 1926. The virginal Lillian Gish's casting as the unlucky Hester Prynne helped square the deal with MGM executives worried about boycott threats from conservative women's clubs, which functioned as the Moral Majority of the day. Familiar with the puritanical society he'd left behind him, Sjöström found a match for his homeland in colonial New England. Gish's luminous performance emphasizes Hester's saintliness as opposed to the intense physicality of Nathaniel Hawthorne's original, but the film remains to date the best adaptation of the novel (topping the Wim Wenders and Demi Moore versions).

The festival also includes two films that are effectively premieres, as no one's been able to see them for eight decades: a Gloria Swanson comedy, Stage Struck (1925), and The Sideshow (1928), which stars midget actor “Little Billy” Rhodes as a circus owner. Rhodes — later a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz — anticipates Michael J. Anderson's tenure as the carnival manager in the HBO series Carnivàle by 75 years. He's a grumpy business tycoon who lords it over his employees and outfoxes the competition; a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte decorates his wall. Viewers will discover whether his Waterloo comes in the form of a new hire, Marie Prevost, who may prefer his taller and more handsome assistant, Ralph Graves. With workmanlike direction by Erle C. Kenton, The Sideshow is more fascinating for its circus atmosphere than any dazzling cinema, but it's a major rediscovery nonetheless.

Topping everything is an animated collection that includes Dave Fleischer's brilliant Koko's Earth Control, wherein the planet is destroyed in a loopy mix of “out of the inkwell” cartoons and live action. Only Fitz the Dog can save us — where is he now that we really need him?

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