The 12th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival -- Day 1, Friday July 13th 2007

Part of the charm of the SFSFF is its compactness. It unspools over a three-day weekend that starts out gently, in 2007, with a single 7 p.m. Friday night screening, a prelude to the two densely-programmed days that follow, where much of the audience finds itself inside the Castro from 10:30 a.m. until well after 11 p.m. This year the festival begins with Ernst Lubitsch’s 1927 The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, starring Ramon Navarro and Norma Shearer. It’s preceded by the screening of a rare short preserved by George Eastman House, the famous archive located in Rochester, New York, one of a travelogue series entitled Beauty Spots in America. It shows the Castle Hot Springs Resort in Arizona, eliciting a chuckle from the audience when a title promising an excellent road for autos shows a vertiginous mountain dirt track, followed by a 20s roadster splashing its way through a creek on its way to the massive stately hotel.

The movie is introduced by Mick LaSalle, whose affection for Norma Shearer, as documented in his book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, borders on the obsessive. He’s not alone; F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Raft were besotted with her, too. Fitzgerald based characters on Shearer in the short story Crazy Sunday and his last, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, while Raft was her odd-couple boyfriend, after her husband, Irving Thalberg, died. Thalberg was the production chief for Louis B. Mayer at MGM -- which is why Joan Crawford famously said, “How can I compete with Norma, she’s sleeping with the boss.”

I’m a little confused by LaSalle’s brief remarks, in which he disses nostalgia, which for me is a perfectly fine feeling, especially when seated in an exquisitely preserved movie palace, built in 1922, in order to see a 1927 film itself set nostalgically in, as the title implies, a vanished era. I hate to pull the lazy old dictionary trick, but my Webster’s gives nostalgia two definitions: first, “homesickness”, and then “a longing for something far away or long ago”, which seems entirely appropriate in a room packed with silent film fans, including a noticeable percentage wearing snappy vintage dress and volubly discussing the films of Ramon Navarro and Cedric Gibbons’ set designs.

As I said in my first SFSFF post, the audience at this festival is superb. They breathe in and out with the film, with evident delight, applauding not only the first appearances of Shearer and Novarro, but such niceties as the obviously fake but deliriously beautiful hilly set covered with flowers where the lovers dash to share a romantic interlude. (The audience later shared a knowing sigh when Navarro returns to say goodbye to Shearer, his commoner lover, since he’s obliged to marry royalty, and the same set was winter-barren and flower-free. The sturdy plot later showed up, roles reversed, in Roman Holiday (1953) with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.) The audience’s emotions were skillfully guided not only by the movie, but by the superb, energetic accompaniment by Castro and SFSFF fave Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer. One of my companions pointed out that she was disappointed that, unlike in previous years, James did not introduce his score with a brief speech about its origins -- some scores performed during the Festival are the period originals, others composed specifically for the Festival, still others improvised. I enjoy the Fest’s educational aspects, which include beautifully produced illustrated slide shows designed for each presentation, a free booklet with essays on each film, and book-signings all Festival long with temptingly-laden tables from Booksmith on Haight. And tonight I miss learning more about the music.

What I don’t enjoy, indeed it leaves me feeling quite unbalanced, is that I saw The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg a couple of years ago on TCM and thought I knew the movie. But the movie seen in the Castro at the Fest is so different from what I remembered that I once again question why I watch movies on TV (and I watch a lot of movies on TV) at all. The last time I had this unsettling feeling was during last January’s Dark City film noir festival, also at the Castro, watching Fred Zinneman’s Kid Glove Killer, which I’d seen a couple of times on TV, and found much more nuanced and amusing on the big screen. Is it merely due to the greater size, the greater amount of information available when the screen is measured in feet instead of inches? I have yet to join the chase after ever-more- pixels and HDTV and bigger and bigger TV sets. I feel like I’m kidding myself with my constantly-humming TiVo and stacks of DVDs and (yes) even videotapes. I’m clearly not seeing exactly what I think I’m seeing. But what to do? Like Miss O’Hara, I will think about that yet another day, for tomorrow is Day Two of the SFSFF.

--Meredith Brody


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