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SFSFF Movies: Blockbuster Silent Operetta + Cinema’s First Diva

The Merry Widow Mae Murray John Gilbert SFSFFThe Merry Widow with Mae Murray and John Gilbert: A blockbuster upon its release, Erich von Stroheim’s silent “operetta” is the closing night movie at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF).
  • Below is a brief overview of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s July 16 screenings: Three Edward Everett Horton shorts, and the features Kentucky Pride, directed by John Ford; Voglio a ‘tte!, starring Francesca Bertini; A Daughter of Destiny, starring Brigitte Helm; and the blockbuster The Merry Widow, directed by Erich von Stroheim.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) comes to a close with an eclectic array of titles, ranging from a Francesca Bertini drama to an Erich von Stroheim ‘operetta’

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

Currently being held at the Castro Theatre, the 2023 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) comes to a close on July 16 with the screening of three Edward Everett Horton shorts and four eclectic features: The horse-racing drama Kentucky Pride, the troubled Italian drama Voglio a ‘tte!, the mondo bizarro mix of science-fiction and social commentary A Daughter of Destiny, and the blockbuster silent version of Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow.

Showcased filmmakers include future four-time Best Director Academy Award winner John Ford (The Informer, 1935; The Grapes of Wrath, 1940; etc.); the extravagant Erich von Stroheim, also known as the man studio heads loved to hate; and Roberto Roberti, father of Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America director Sergio Leone.

Besides Edward Everett Horton, stars include major luminaries John Gilbert and Mae Murray, plus former D.W. Griffith leading man Henry B. Walthall, and cinema’s first Diva, Francesca Bertini. In addition to Brigitte Helm (Metropolis), Paul Wegener (The Golem), and Iván Petrovich (The Garden of Allah).

Each show will feature live music accompaniment by the likes of Ben Model, Wayne Barker, Stephen Horne, and others.

Immediately below is a brief overview of SFSFF’s July 16 titles. (See the day’s full schedule further down.)

‘The Edward Everett Horton Show!’

Perhaps best remembered for his supporting roles in a trio of Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals of the 1930s (The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Shall We Dance) and a couple of Carmen Miranda musicals of the 1940s (Springtime in the Rockies, The Gang’s All Here), Edward Everett Horton was also a stage and silent film actor.

He is at the center of three SFSFF comedy shorts: Nicholas T. Barrows’ No Publicity (1927) and Vacation Waves (1928), and J.A. Howe’s Horse Shy (1928).

The shorts will be screened with live musical accompaniment by the always excellent Ben Model.

Kentucky Pride (1925)

Relatively speaking, Kentucky Pride is an “early” John Ford – even though by 1925 the Stagecoach and The Quiet Man filmmaker had already directed dozens of features, including the Western epic The Iron Horse.

A far more modest Ford effort, Kentucky Pride tells one more story of a thoroughbred racehorse, here named Virginia’s Future. But unlike, say, Broadway Bill, Kentucky, National Velvet, Seabiscuit, and Ford’s own The Shamrock Handicap, the narrative unfolds through the horse’s point of view.

Warning: The plot (and perhaps the film itself) features instances of animal abuse, something that is all but inevitable in movies about horse-racing.

In the Kentucky Pride cast: The Birth of a Nation leading man Henry B. Walthall, Gertrude Astor, J. Farrell MacDonald, and Peaches Jackson.

SFSFF will be screening the Museum of Modern Art’s restored 4K print.

Voglio a ‘tte! (1921/1926)

One of the world’s biggest movie names of the 1910s, Francesca Bertini (The Lady of the Camellias, Assunta Spina) stars in Roberto Roberti’s Voglio a ‘tte!, which seems to have been a complicated – and oft-renamed – effort.

Described in Gianfranco Mingozzi’s biography Francesca Bertini as cinema’s “nth drama of jealousy,” the 1921 production The Girl from Amalfi (also known as Consuelita) was banned by Italian censors in 1922. Four years later, a reedited version renamed Voglio a ‘tte! was released. That was followed by another reedit in 1927, now retitled Amore vince sempre (“Love Always Wins”).

Whether as Voglio a ‘tte or Amore vince sempre, this Amalfi Coast-set release turned out to be Bertini’s final Italian star vehicle, though she would continue to work elsewhere (Odette in Germany, La Femme d’une nuit in France). In the ensuing decades, the former Great Diva would make sporadic film appearances until her swan song as a nun in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 / Novecento in 1976.

SFSFF will be presenting the Fondazione Cineteca Italiana’s 4K restoration.

A Daughter of Destiny Brigitte Helm Alraune SFSFFA Daughter of Destiny with Brigitte Helm as the human experiment Alraune: SFSFF will be presenting a recently reconstructed and restored version of Henrik Galeen’s mix of science fiction, psychological drama, and social commentary.

A Daughter of Destiny (1928)

Based on Hanns Heinz Ewers’ 1911 novel Alraune, Henrik Galeen’s A Daughter of Destiny stars Paul Wegener as a sociopathic genetics professor who devises an experiment that will reveal whether human behavior is the result of nature or nurture: He himself will raise the child Alraune (as an adult, Brigitte Helm), the progeny of a sex worker impregnated with a mandrake – a root that, according to legend, evolved from the semen of hanged criminals.

In real life the cousin of geographer Alfred Wegener and the father of physicist Peter P. Wegener, Paul Wegener had previously played a creative freak at least once, as the title character in Rex Ingram’s The Magician (1926). As for Brigitte Helm, she sure knew what it felt like to be the subject of a potentially disastrous experiment having previously brought to life the mechanical woman in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Serbian/Yugoslavian star Iván Petrovich plays the professor’s nephew and, later on, the movie’s voice of conscience, providing dire warnings to those – like his uncle – who violate the laws of nature.

SFSFF will present a digital restoration by the Filmmuseum München, effected under the supervision of Stefan Drössler, who will be the recipient of this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award “in recognition of his commitment to the preservation and exhibition of silent film.”

Note: The original German version of A Daughter of Destiny is lost. The current restoration is from surviving Danish and Russian distribution prints.

The Merry Widow (1925)

Along with Fred Niblo’s semi-biblical epic Ben-Hur and King Vidor’s World War I drama The Big Parade, Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow was one of three Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer blockbusters to come out in 1925 – thus paving the way for the relatively new studio (founded in 1924*) to become Hollywood’s most successful and most prestigious production outlet.

In addition, The Merry Widow – along with The Big Parade – solidified John Gilbert’s standing as filmdom’s most alluring romantic lead. A charismatic performer, Gilbert would be seen in many of MGM’s most impressive hits of the late silent era, among them La Bohème, Flesh and the Devil, and The Cossacks. It took the coming of sound, a serious drinking problem, and an irascible temper to destroy it all.

A movie star since the mid-1910s, Mae Murray was not as lucky as the John Gilbert of the late 1920s: None of her MGM follow-ups to The Merry Widow – Christy Cabanne’s now-lost The Masked Bride, Dimitri Buchowetzki’s Valencia, and Cabanne’s Altars of Desire – were significant box office hits. In fact, the last two are notable solely for showcasing their 40-something† star in a manner that rendered her facial lines invisible and her facial features all but indiscernible.

Ernst Lubitsch’s memorable 1934 big-screen transfer of The Merry Widow starred Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. Curtis Bernhardt’s less memorable 1952 color version starred Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas.

* MGM was the amalgamation of Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Productions.

† Although several online sources list May 10, 1889, as Mae Murray’s birthdate, as found in Michael G. Ankerich’s Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips she was actually born in 1885. Around the time Valencia and Altars of Desire came out, Murray was in her early 40s.

See below SFSFF’s July 16 schedule.

SFSFF schedule – July 16

The Edward E. Horton Show! | 16 Jul at 11:00 AM
Three Edward Everett Horton shorts: No Publicity (1927), Horse Shy (1928), and Vacation Waves (1928).
Live music by Ben Model

Kentucky Pride (1925) | 16 Jul at 1:00 PM
Director: John Ford.
Cast: Henry B. Walthall, Gertrude Astor, J. Farrell MacDonald, Peaches Jackson.
Live music by Wayne Barker

Voglio a ‘tte! (1921/1926) | 16 Jul at 3:00 PM
Director: Roberto Roberti.
Cast: Francesca Bertini, Guido Grazioni, Gino Viotti.
Live music by Stephen Horne

Alraune / A Daughter of Destiny (1928) | 16 Jul at 5:00 PM
Director: Henrik Galeen.
Cast: Brigitte Helm, Paul Wegener, Iván Petrovich.
Live music by Günter Buchwald

The Merry Widow (1925) | 16 Jul at 8:00 PM
Director: Erich von Stroheim.
Cast: Mae Murray, John Gilbert, Roy D’Arcy.
Live music by Maud Nelissen conducting Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

“SFSFF Movies: Blockbuster Silent Operetta + Cinema’s First Diva” notes

San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) website.

See also: SFSFF showcases a young Norma Shearer and an elegiac Douglas Fairbanks; SFSFF revisits Fitzgerald’s muse and a ‘haunted house’ comedy; SFSFF showcases a rare Ukrainian satire banned in Nazi Germany.

Images of Brigitte Helm in A Daughter of Destiny and John Gilbert and Mae Murray in The Merry Widow via the SFSFF site.

“SFSFF Movies: Blockbuster Silent Operetta + Cinema’s First Diva” last updated in July 2023.

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