The 11th San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theater begins this Friday, July 14.
The three-day festival will include screenings of Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven (1927 – Friday, July 14, 8:00pm), a huge box office and critical success at the time, and the winner of the first Best Direction (Drama) Academy Award. (That year, the Best Direction Award was divided in two categories: drama and comedy. For the record, Lewis Milestone’s Two Arabian Knights won in the comedy category.)
At about two hours running time, 7th Heaven does overstay its welcome. (I saw it recently at UCLA, during their Janet Gaynor retrospective.) Janet Gaynor, who won the first Best Actress Oscar for her sweet-as-pie would-be-streetwalker (also for Street Angel and Sunrise), is fine in a potentially saccharine part, and so is Charles Farrell as her protector-lover. The love story, which proves once and for all that love is anything but blind, does have its moments but it should have been a good half-hour shorter. Also, the plot is dangerously similar to that of Lucky Star (1929), another Gaynor-Farrell vehicle directed by Borzage. Lucky Star is basically a 7th Heaven rip-off – but it’s also a much better film. (Possibly because it’s about half an hour shorter.)
Sparrows (1926 – Saturday, July 15, 4:20pm) is the only Mary Pickford vehicle of the 1920s that I find enjoyable. (Her films – and her performances – in the late 1910s are much fresher, though I must admit that I haven’t seen her 1923 Rosita.) In Sparrows, she plays a poor, little orphan who tries to save other even poorer and littler orphans from the clutches of a sadistic farm owner. There are narrow escapes, alligator-infested swamps, and even a cameo by Jesus. If I remember it correctly, it’s not nearly as sickening as it sounds.
The festival will also present a couple of rarities. One is Boris Barnet’s Russian slapstick comedy Devushka s korobkoy / The Girl with the Hatbox (1927 – Sunday, July 16, 2:40pm), starring a very young Anna Sten. (Sten is best known for being one of the whitest elephants ever to land in the Hollywood jungle – courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn, who made a great fuss over his discovery, only to cast her in inadequate vehicles in the mid-1930s.)
The other rarity is Au Bonheur des dames (1930 – Saturday, July 15, 1:40pm), a French romantic comedy directed by Julien Duvivier (Un Carnet de bal, Panique), considered one of the greatest directors of French cinema, and starring Dita Parlo, best known as the leading lady in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934). The plot, about a young country girl who gets a job at a Parisian department store where she discovers both love and reckless consumerism, was taken from a novel by Emile Zola. The French title (it could be translated as “For the Happiness of Women”) is the name of the aforementioned store.
Also at the festival, the usual suspects: Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy (Sunday, July 16, 12:30pm), Marion Davies (with William Haines in Show People – Sunday, July 16, 8:00pm), Louise Brooks (meeting Jack the Ripper in Pandora’s Box – Saturday, July 15, 8:20pm), and Lon Chaney (not only a suspect, but also totally guilty as one of The Unholy Three – Sunday, July 16, 5:00pm).
11th San Francisco Silent Film Schedule:
FRIDAY, JULY 14
7th HEAVEN (1927)
SATURDAY, JULY 15
BUCKING BROADWAY (1917)
AU BONHEUR DES DAMES (1930)
PANDORA’S BOX (1929)
SUNDAY, JULY 16
AMAZING TALES FROM THE ARCHIVES
LAUREL AND HARDY
THE GIRL WITH THE HATBOX (1927)
THE UNHOLY THREE (1925)
SHOW PEOPLE (1928)
Rosita is the antithesis of everything that Mary Pickford had ever done on screen. And certainly not at all what Sparrows is, typical formula Mary Pickford. Mary hated Rosita and when one views it the can easily see why because, she is not at all herself in that film. One thing that can be said of Lubistch was that he knew exactly what to do with every actress that he every directed no matter what her strengths and weaknesses may have been (if only he had told Dietrich she used to be a hooker in Angel) he brought out something no one else seemed to find in Pickford, Negri, MacDonald, Hopkins, Oberon, etc. Funny though, he isn’t referred to as a “woman’s director” because he really was. He found a Mary Pickford that was sensual and sexy even dark, a Mary who would not appear for a second act, and a Mary that may have been in films for decades to come. One thing that can be said for Sparrows however is that Mary in all of her hoyden glory may be more beautiful than she ever was in any of her films.