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SFSFF Movies: Young Norma Shearer + Elegiac Douglas Fairbanks

Man and Wife movie Norma Shearer SFSFFMan and Wife movie with Norma Shearer: Costarring stage and film veteran Maurice Costello, this 1923 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) presentation features Shearer several years before her ascension as the Queen of MGM.
  • As usual, this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) screenings include both Hollywood/international rarities and well-known silent era classics.
  • Below is a brief overview of SFSFF’s July 12–13 titles: The Iron Mask, Man and Wife, The Johnstown Flood, Up in Mabel’s Room, and Stella Maris, in addition to the annual presentation Amazing Tales from the Archives. Among those featured are Douglas Fairbanks, Norma Shearer, George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Marie Prevost, and Mary Philbin.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) presentations include Douglas Fairbanks’ final (mostly) silent star vehicle and a young, dramatic Norma Shearer

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

The 26th San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) is kicking off on July 12 at the Castro Theatre with a screening of Allan Dwan’s The Iron Mask, Douglas Fairbanks’ final (mostly) silent star vehicle.

Another 20 or so features will be presented in the coming days, including little-known rarities from Hollywood and elsewhere. These include Roberto Roberti’s Voglio a ‘tte, directed by Roberto Roberti (father of Once Upon a Time in the West filmmaker Sergio Leone) and starring Italian diva Francesca Bertini; the obscure drama Man and Wife, directed by John L. McCutcheon and featuring veteran Maurice Costello and a pre-stardom Norma Shearer; and the long-thought-lost Ukrainian comedy Pigs Will Be Pigs, written and directed by the now largely forgotten Khanan Shmain.

Better-known, more readily available titles will also be screened at this year’s festival, among them Paul Leni’s “haunted house” comedy The Cat and the Canary, starring Laura La Plante; William Worthington’s The Dragon Painter, starring Sessue Hayakawa; and, as the closing-night presentation at 8 p.m. on July 16, Erich von Stroheim’s blockbuster The Merry Widow, starring Mae Murray and John Gilbert.

Each show will feature live music accompaniment by the likes of Ben Model, Stephen Horne, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and others.

Immediately below is a brief overview of SFSFF’s July 12–13 titles. (See the full two-day schedule further down.)

The Iron Mask (1929)

One of Hollywood’s last major silent era productions, the mostly dialogue-less The Iron Mask is an adaptation of The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later (serialized 1847–1850), the final installment in Alexandre Dumas père’s D’Artagnan trilogy.

Fairbanks reprises his The Three Musketeers (1921) role as – the now aged – D’Artagnan, while Marguerite De La Motte returns as Constance Bonacieux. William Bakewell – one of the movies’ busiest actors from the mid-1920s to the early 1940s – plays both King Louis XIV and his imprisoned twin brother. Allan Dwan directed.

SFSFF will be presenting the 1999 restored print of The Iron Mask, with further restoration of the analog elements performed in 2017. Although the original was released with a synchronized sound score, this screening will have live musical accompaniment by the Günter Buchwald Ensemble.

Directed by James Whale, the better-known 1939 version The Man in the Iron Mask stars Louis Hayward as Louis XIV/his twin, Joan Bennett as Princess Maria Theresa of Spain, and Warren William as the mature D’Artagnan.

Man and Wife (1923)

Restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Man and Wife is notable for featuring future Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer superstar Norma Shearer (Best Actress Academy Award winner for The Divorcee, 1929–30) in one of her earliest important roles – as the “ex”-wife of stage and movie veteran Maurice Costello (father of Dolores Costello, grandfather of John Drew Barrymore, and great-grandfather of Drew Barrymore).

The “ex” is between quotation marks because Costello never divorces Shearer. Instead, he believes her dead in a fire, so he marries her sister. But then Shearer, gone bonkers, reappears. What now?

The Johnstown Flood movie George O’Brien Janet GaynorThe Johnstown Flood movie with George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor, who would be reunited the following year in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, one of three movies that earned her the first Best Actress Academy Award. (The other two were 7th Heaven and Street Angel.).

The Johnstown Flood (1926)

In the Fox Film Corporation’s The Johnstown Flood, engineer George O’Brien attempts to make it clear to his business-oriented father-in-law-to-be that the dam near Johnstown, Pennsylvania, has a structural flaw that will cause it to collapse unless the floodgates are opened to relieve the pressure. Needless to say, O’Brien’s efforts are fruitless.

Directed by Irving Cummings (“considered” for the Best Director Academy Award for In Old Arizona,* 1928–29), The Johnstown Flood is notable both for the titular disaster (now in a 4K restoration) and for having helped to turn ingenue second lead Janet Gaynor into a major star. (O’Brien’s romantic interest is minor leading woman Florence Gilbert, who would later marry Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs [1935–1941].)

* Co-directed with Raoul Walsh, who, strangely, doesn’t seem to have been under Academy Award consideration.

Up in Mabel’s Room (1926)

A big-screen transfer of Wilson Collison and Otto Hauerbach’s popular 1919 Broadway romantic farce Up in Mabel’s Room – a husband, a wife, an ex, an embroidered chemise – might have been a good project for Ernst Lubitsch.

Moviegoers, however, had to be content with E. Mason Hopper. The cast in this radically altered adaptation includes two sassy scene-stealers: Marie Prevost (The Marriage Circle, for Lubitsch) as the ex-wife (the heroine in this one) and Phyllis Haver (Chicago) as a blonde seductress. Harrison Ford (no relation to the Indiana Jones actor) plays the husband.

In 1944, an apparently more faithful version of the play starred Marjorie Reynolds as the wife, Dennis O’Keefe as the husband, and Gail Patrick as the ex. The Iron Mask’s Allan Dwan directed.

Stella Maris (1925)

Like William Bakewell in The Iron Mask, Universal star Mary Philbin (The Phantom of the Opera) plays two different characters in Stella Maris: The titular bedridden-but-pretty rich girl and the orphaned, homely servant Unity Blake. Frequent Cecil B. DeMille collaborator Elliott Dexter (Old Wives for New, Don’t Change Your Husband) was cast as the young women’s (married) love interest.

Training for her role as Janet Gaynor’s vicious sister in 7th Heaven, the capable Gladys Brockwell is Unity’s abusive housemistress and Dexter’s shrewish wife.

Mary Pickford (Elliott Dexter’s leading woman in DeMille’s Romance of the Redwoods) had starred in the 1918 film version of William J. Locke’s 1913 novel. Curiously, there would be no sound version in the 1930s.

Amazing Tales from the Archives

This year’s Amazing Tales from the Archives will feature the following (info via the SFSFF website):

  • Chicago-based musician Nicholas White “will demonstrate the lost art of creating live sound effects in silent cinema.”
  • Author Mindy Johnson will discuss her discovery of the “earliest surviving hand-drawn animation animated and directed by a woman,” Bessie Mae Kelley.
  • The Chicago Film Society’s Kyle Westphal will present the discovery of a nine-minute fragment from the 1927 documentary short Doll Messengers of Friendship, “about a cultural exchange between the US and Japan after WWI.”

See below SFSFF’s July 12–13 schedule.

SFSFF schedule – July 12–13

The Iron Mask (1929) | 12 Jul at 7:00 PM
Director: Allan Dwan.
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Belle Bennett, Marguerite De La Motte, Dorothy Revier, William Blakewell, Vera Lewis.
Live music by the Günter Buchwald Ensemble

Amazing Tales from the Archives | 13 Jul at 11:00 AM
Live music by Stephen Horne

Man and Wife (1923) | 13 Jul at 2:15 PM
Director: John L. McCutcheon.
Cast: Norma Shearer, Maurice Costello, Gladys Leslie.
Live music by Wayne Barker

The Johnstown Flood (1926) | 13 Jul at 4:30 PM
Director: Irving Cummings.
Cast: George O’Brien, Florence Gilbert, Janet Gaynor.
Live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra

Up in Mabel’s Room (1926) | 13 Jul at 7:00 PM
Director: E. Mason Hopper.
Cast: Marie Prevost, Harrison Ford, Phyllis Haver.
Live music by the Günter Buchwald Ensemble

Stella Maris (1925) | 13 Jul at 9:00 PM
Director: Charles Brabin.
Cast: Mary Philbin, Elliott Dexter, Gladys Brockwell.
Live music by Stephen Horne

“SFSFF Movies: Young Norma Shearer + Elegiac Douglas Fairbanks” notes

See also: SFSFF revisits Fitzgerald’s muse and a ‘haunted house’ comedy; SFSFF showcases a rare Ukrainian satire banned in Nazi Germany; SFSFF wraps up with a blockbuster silent “operetta.”

Images of Norma Shearer in Man and Wife and George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor in The Johnstown Flood via the SFSFF website.

“SFSFF Movies: Young Norma Shearer + Elegiac Douglas Fairbanks” last updated in July 2023.

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