SF Silent Film Festival Highlights Classic Films With Modern Relevance

In an age of CGI explosions and 3-D IMAX, silent cinema may seem anachronistic, but it's "still relevant today," said Anita Monga, programmer for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which will screen at the Castro Theatre from June 2-5.  

Take, for example, Beggars of Life, a 1928 film starring early screen star Louise Brooks. In the film, she stars as a girl who escapes a dangerous home life and crosses the country with fellow vagabond Richard Arlen, ultimately ending up in a hobo encampment. Though it's 86 years old, the film touches upon issues of poverty and homelessness that are reflected in modern San Francisco.

"It's a perfect film," Monga said. "It's very beautiful, and still socially relevant."

Beggars of Life, which screens on opening night, June 2nd, is one of 19 films to be shown at the SFSFF this year. Other notable titles include Within Our Gates, an exploration of racism that's also the oldest surviving film made by a black director, and Varieté, a showstopping film about trapeze artists that showcased the era's most cutting-edge camera effects. 

"There are numerous masterpieces from the silent era," Monga told Hoodline. "From these films came everything we know about motion pictures. Every director afterward was influenced by silent films."

YouTube has brought many of these languishing classics into the modern lexicon, but it's also damaged their perception, Monga said. They're often transferred to digital at the wrong speed, with scratchy prints that can be difficult to watch. Many also lack their full musical scores, which were played on a piano, an organ or with a full orchestra, depending on the theater.

Photo: Tommy Lau/SFSFF

Monga has words of reassurance for potential audience members who find it off-putting to have to "read" a silent film's inter-titles, which were used to present each character's dialogue and to help move the story forward.

"Most great silent films had very few titles," she said. "You get everything you need from the screen. And not all of the films are black-and-white; many of them are tinted with beautiful colors."

The Castro, which opened in 1922—the peak of the silent screen's golden age—is the perfect venue in which to view these rarely screened films, Monga said. She also verified a longstanding local legend: when the Castro first opened its doors around nine decades ago, a young neighborhood resident named Janet Gaynor was on the theater's staff. A few years later, Gaynor became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress.

While some of the silent stars the festival features, like Brooks, Laurel & Hardy, and Buster Keaton, are still known today, other screenings celebrate forgotten superstars of the past, such as Laura LaPlante and Pola Negri.

LaPlante can be seen in the festival's June 4th screening of director Paul Leni's 1929 film The Last Warning, a bizarre, expressionistic horror tale. One of Universal Studios' final silent films (Leni died soon after its completion), it's credited as an influence on the studio's "monstrous" horror hits of the '30s, like Dracula and Frankenstein.

Negri, a femme fatale, was considered one of the 1920s' most beautiful and fashionable women. While "she was very dramatic," Monga said, "she was also a great comedian," as showcased in 1925's A Woman of the World, screening on June 3rd. In the film, Negri cheerfully pokes fun at her saucy screen persona, portraying a fish-out-of-water European countess who scandalizes her Midwestern relatives when she comes for a visit.

Pola Negri.

The SFSFF is supported by a number of local businesses and organizations, including McRoskey Mattress Company, which will host an opening-night party in its loft at 1687 Market St. after Thursday's screening of Beggars of Life

"McRoskey is a longtime supporter of the festival," Monga noted. "They love silent films—the company was born in San Francisco during the silent era."

To see the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's full schedule and purchase tickets, visit their website

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