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Buster Keaton & 'Sunrise': San Francisco Silent Film Festival + Lost Pola Negri Film Found

Martha Mattox, Laura La Plante in The Cat and the Canary
Buster Keaton in Our Hospitality
Martha Mattox, Laura La Plante in The Cat and the Canary (top); Buster Keaton in Our Hospitality (bottom)

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present a special series of screenings on Valentine's Day, Saturday, Feb. 14, at the Castro Theatre. The screening films are the Buster Keaton vehicle Our Hospitality (1923), the Russian comedy A Kiss from Mary Pickford (1927), F.W. Murnau's Academy Award winner (for “Best Unique and Artistic Quality of Production”) Sunrise (1927), and the haunted-house caper The Cat and the Canary (1927).

I haven't seen either Our Hospitality or A Kiss from Mary Pickford. I'm not a silent-comedy fan, so Keaton films are usually a low priority (though I've stone-facedly sat through quite a few of them), but Sergei Komarov's Mary Pickford sounds particularly intriguing as it features newsreel footage of one of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford's European trips. (I'm not sure if it's the much publicized 1920 European honeymoon tour, during which they were reportedly mobbed by out-of-control fans, or some later visit.)

In The Story of Cinema, David Shipman wrote, “It is ironic that that tour should be best preserved via a film made in the Soviet Union – for the couple were, after all, two enormously wealthy people, major props of a capitalist industry. No one can doubt the charm and genuine pleasure of the couple, but one does notice them searching for the camera between smiles – just to make sure it's there.”

George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor in SunriseMurnau's Sunrise is considered by many one of the greatest silent films ever. I'm not one of those. I'm sure the original must have been great to look at (even the available restored prints look a bit fuzzy and dark), but the plot – what little there is of it – invariably leaves me cold. My chief problem with Sunrise, in fact, is that if I were George O'Brien I'd have unremorsefully drowned village lass Janet Gaynor to live sinfully (and blissfully) ever after with big-city gal Margaret Livingston.

Note: Janet Gaynor could be an outstanding actress; but not in Sunrise. Academy members (there were considerably fewer in those days) clearly felt otherwise, as Gaynor won the very first best actress Oscar for her performance in Sunrise, in addition to her work in the maudlin and way overlong 7th Heaven and the much superior – and now all but forgotten – Street Angel.

The Cat and the Canary is no masterpiece, but it's perfectly watchable thanks to Paul Leni's expressionistic touches, with the assistance of cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton's lenses. As the wimpish “hero,” Creighton Hale is more tolerable than Bob Hope in the 1939 remake, but that's not saying much. Laura La Plante, however, is a lovely heroine (La Plante was Universal's top female star in the mid-to-late 1920s), while veteran Flora Finch – she'd been in movies since the early 1900s – has the chance to display her well-honed comedic skills.

Photos: Courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

The schedule and synopses below are from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival press release:

At noon the Valentine's Day Event will begin with Buster Keaton's ingenious take on Romeo and Juliet, Our Hospitality (1923). Keaton turns the age-old drama of two lovers caught in the middle of a feud between families into a laugh-out-loud parody of Southern hospitality, circa 1830. Upon learning he's inherited the ancestral mansion, Buster takes the first train home to reclaim his heritage. Soon he's courting a sweetheart – and dodging her family's bullets. The climax of the film involves a daredevil rescue attempt above a roaring waterfall, a stunt which Keaton performed himself.

A Kiss from Mary PickfordNext at 2:40pm is a madcap slapstick farce from Russia, A Kiss from Mary Pickford (1927). The story involves a movie theater ticket-taker who's in love with an aspiring actress, but she only has eyes for movie idols like Douglas Fairbanks. Deciding he can win her over by becoming a famous screen star himself, the ticket-taker lands a stunt man job at a movie studio. When Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford arrive on a promotional tour, the ticket-taker gets all the fame he could ever want – at his own peril!

At 6:30pm the program will shift from comedy to drama with Sunrise (1927), a timeless ode to the forces of love, desire, guilt and redemption, widely regarded as one of the supreme artistic achievements of the silent era. Director F.W. Murnau infuses his fable of a man, a temptress, and a wife with a lyrical, dreamlike intensity that makes for a heightened emotional experience of unforgettable power.

Creighton Hale, Laura La Plante in The Cat and the CanaryAt 9:30pm the Valentine's Day Event will conclude with The Cat and the Canary (1927), directed with macabre abandon by Paul Leni (The Man Who Laughs). At the stroke of midnight, the heirs to a fortune gather in an old dark house for the reading of a will. One of them will inherit the estate and take possession of the famous West diamonds – but only if they can survive the night without going insane.

The Castro Theatre is located at 429 Castro Street in San Francisco.

Pola Negri

Lost Pola Negri Film Found

The News/Polskie Radio reports that an early (and thus far unnamed) Pola Negri vehicle has been discovered at Rome's Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia by the husband-and-wife team of Marek and Malgorzata Hendrykowski from Poznan University. Dating from the 1910s, the Polish production is a detective story set in Warsaw. The print has Italian subtitles and is said to be in good condition.

Born (Barbara) Apolonia Chalupiec in 1894 in Lipno, central Poland, Pola Negri began her show business career dancing with the Imperial Ballet in Warsaw, later enrolling in Poland's Academy of Dramatic Arts. Following her stage debut in 1913, Negri rapidly ascended to the top of her profession, and by the late 1910s she had become a film star in German productions as well. Among those were several directed by Ernst Lubitsch, including worldwide blockbusters Carmen / Gypsy Blood (1918) and Madame DuBarry / Passion (1919).

Pola NegriParamount beckoned in the early 1920s, and even though Negri remained a star in her Hollywood films – her publicity-driven rivalry with fellow Paramountie Gloria Swanson was legendary – she never quite achieved the superstardom that had been hers in Germany.

After the coming of sound, Negri moved back to Germany where she became a major star once again – Mazurka (1935) is her best-known film of that period – but her career came to a halt in 1938. She returned to the US following the advent of World War II, where she remained until her death at the age of 93, in 1987.

In addition to much-publicized affairs with Charles Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino (with whom in reality she may have had a mere passing acquaintance, if that much), Negri was married to Prince Serge Mdivani in the late 1920s (the prince reportedly helped to squander her fortune) and allegedly was Adolf Hitler's favorite actress. Her last companion was Texan heiress Margaret West, with whom she lived in San Antonio.

Negri's last screen appearance, in the Disney production The Moon-Spinners (1964), showed that getting older doesn't necessarily mean getting any less flamboyant.

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12 Comments to Buster Keaton & 'Sunrise': San Francisco Silent Film Festival + Lost Pola Negri Film Found

  1. debbie

    Umm, Pola Negri had much much more than as this article puts “a mere passing acquaintance” with Mr. Valentino. Umm, i don't understand why this article plays down their much written about romantic and sexual affair. Very strange.

  2. Dave

    What's up with the discovered Pola film — I haven't heard any more about it. Does anyone even know the title?

  3. Tony Villecco

    This is so incredible: When might the public get a chance to see this? I am writing a bio on Negri: This gives me hope more silent films may hopefully exists somewhere. Where was this discovered? In a vault? Museum?

  4. Maddie

    Hey cool info! I myself am a buster fan.

  5. seneca

    I wish they would lose a number of films made today. They could start with the Apatow comedies.

  6. titta

    I wish they would find some lost Theda Bara film. Cleopatra, for instance. Now, THAT is something I'd love to see!

  7. Andre

    I respectfully (but strongly) disagree. I've seen a number of silent films that feel less dated than many of the movies being made today. Check out Erich von Stroheim's “Greed” one of these days, or Rex Ingram's “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” Or “Ben-Hur,” which, though no masterpiece, I find infinitely superior to the more recent (and more famous) version with Charlton Heston.

    For lesbians, I'd recommend everything with Corinne Griffith. Others might recommend everything with Louise Brooks as well, especially “Pandora's Box.”

  8. Movies For Lesbians

    I think these silent movies were great…IN THEIR TIME. But now I really think that we are only holding on to them for nostalgias sake and not for any intrinsic cinematic value

  9. Andre

    Donna, it's certainly tempting.
    I actually saw a restored print of “Sunrise” just a few years ago, at the Academy. I did look better than previous prints, but it still gave only an idea of what the movie must have looked like when it first came out.

  10. Donna

    Ah, but you're not George O'Brien. ;-)

    I won't call Sunrise the greatest silent film, but it is one of my top films. I never fail to be moved by the simple story, sometimes achingly told and always weep at the wedding sequence in the city. The plot is no less creaky than a dozen films from the same era, or even today.

    There may have been fewer Academy members, but Gaynor did just fine, she had a terrible wig as has been mentioned by others elsewhere.

    Andre, you need to come up to SF and revisit it!

  11. Dora

    “The Cat and the Canary” has been on TV. But I've never seen the 1939 version. Where can I find it?

  12. Marcus Tucker

    Any lost film found is worth taking a look at. It makes me truly sad that in the 20th century so many people didn't realize how important those early years of film really were.