Valentino, Mussolini and the 12th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival: Notes on Day Two

Categories: Arts

By Meredith Brody

Day Two
Saturday July 14th 2007
Despite rather stern signs forbidding patrons to bring any outside food or drink into the Castro, I improve the already delightful 10:30 am screening of four Hal Roach comedies by smuggling in a BLT from the excellent, tiny Rossi’s Deli across the street (well, three BLTs, actually, in order to treat my invariable Silent Film Festival companions Hilary and Martine). I don’t feel at all guilty because

(a) I am surrounded by numerous other miscreants, including a guy sitting across from us on the aisle who, it seems, has carefully wrapped all of his foodstuffs in numerous crinkly paper bags and (b) I think I cause much less disturbance, quietly munching my sandwich, than is caused by anybody eating popcorn. Popcorn is a foodstuff which I admire in theory and occasionally in practice, but NOT in movie theaters, where I think its introduction was stage-managed by the devil. I hate all its noises: the rat-like one caused by fingers scrabbling to gain purchase on a handful; the maracas-like one when bags are joggled between handfuls to re-distribute salt and/or butter; and finally the diabolical crackling, crunchy, sometimes thundering sound of chewing. I’ve resigned myself to enduring popcorn noises for, say, the first twenty or thirty minutes of a commercial movie, but at times I’m amazed at how long someone can make one irritating tub last.

We also imported wonderful stone fruit (apricots, plums, and accurately-named monster cherries, all at their height) and expensive chocolate bars. But the Roach films (an Our Gang short, Fast Company; Just a Good Guy, starring the little-known, gifted Arthur Stone; The Boy Friend; and Movie Night, which provided the meta-pleasure of watching people watching movies) were even more improved by the lively, witty piano playing of East Coaster Donald Sosin.

The astonishing scenery of the redwoods of Humboldt County was the setting for program 3 of the festival, The Valley of the Giants, starring the all-but-forgotten married pair of Gary Cooperesque Milton Sills and the likable Doris Kenyon, whose acting style was notably relaxed and modern. The vivid and vital piano accompaniment was by Londoner Stephen Horne. When we queued up to congratulate Mr. Horne after the show, we listened as organist and veteran of the festival Dennis James proffered his own vivid compliments, especially at the force and power of the playing: “I couldn’t believe how you kept it up!”, he said, “I play the piano myself, and I know how hard that is.”

Program 4 is a Fascist oddity, Maciste, the first of a series based on a half-naked slave character in 1914’s Italian period epic, Cabiria. In the 1915 Maciste, a young girl escapes her malicious pursuers by dashing into a movie theater playing Cabiria. She tracks down the strapping actor who played Maciste, and indeed he rescues her, episodically, in vignettes that anticipate, at their best, the surrealist pleasures-to-come of Judex(1916) and Fantomas (!920). Alas, one of Maciste’s fans is Benito Mussolini, who bases certain aspects of his own Strongman character on the movie (including a penchant for appearing in public half-naked).

Following hard upon its heels is another oddity, an especially decorative version of Camille, incarnated by the doll-like, stylized Nazimova as the doomed courtesan Marguerite Gautier. Playing opposite her in only his second starring role (Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was yet to be released as it was shooting) was Rudolph Valentino, whose acting seems naturalistic opposite the balletic Nazimova, with pursed beestung lips and an amazing halo of curls like a 20s afro. The production designer, Natacha Rambova (nee Winifred Hudnut), not only created amazing sets that combined Art Deco and Art Nouveau with her own wacky flair, but eventually married Valentino, in yet another of his perplexing liasons. Horsemen was released before Camille, and Valentino’s stardom encouraged Metro to change their ad campaign to feature him. Though she’d made 20 films for Metro, Nazimova was dropped by them. Nazimova, Rambova, and Valentino joined forces again to make the equally stylized, Aubrey-Beardsley-influenced Salome.

Here, alas, my day at the Festival ended: I had to dash across the Bay to attend a Bar Mitzvah (luscious salmon and pasta Alfredo!) and a Bastille Day party at Chez Panisse, where Alice Waters and friends danced with abandon to accordion music and I tasted the best fried rabbit I’d ever had. But Festival-goers were in for a final treat: watching the luminous Louise Brooks in drag as a hobo, catching trains with Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery in William Wellman’s 1928 Beggars of Life. I heard that the jazzy accompaniment by the Colorado-based quintet the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra resulted in the first standing ovation of the day.

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