All’s quiet on the cinematic front in this seductive survey of the artful ’20s
Superman had his Fortress of Solitude; San Francisco has its Silent Film Festival. This annual event, now in its sixth year, is a peaceful haven far from the relentless din of roaring SUVs, cacophonous cell phones, and death-rattling dot-commers that have become the official noises of the City. This admirably brief (one-day), four-features-and-shorts event covers considerable territory this year, and there’s enough queer/camp interest to add an extra frisson for viewers in the know.
Herbert Brenon’s Peter Pan (1924) was the first version of J. M. Barrie’s play and the one officially sanctioned by the author, who personally chose 17-year-old Betty Bronson for the role. Barrie’s decision to bypass such luminaries as Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford in favor of an untried teenager proved more than sensible: Bronson literally soars in the title role, beautifully capturing cinema’s first gendernaut’s alternating strains of pluck and melancholy at the prospect of growing up. Every version of this story has genderbending undertones – inescapable since Peter is always played by a female. But this time the actresses playing Wendy (Mary Brian) and Peter are about the same age, giving their relationship a sexy simpatico. Their scenes together, which include dialogue like Wendy’s “I’ll give you a kiss, Peter, if you like” (which she does), look a bit like a babydyke dress-up party, Wendy in her dressing gown, Peter in his dashing adventure-boy duds. Ernest Torrence’s Captain Hook adds to the gay merriment, prancing around his ship wearing black sausage curls and an endearing Dame Edna-like scowl. For viewers indifferent to such conceits, there’s still much to love here: a mermaid colony; fabulous sets; fine photography by James Wong Howe; and a wonderfully fey performance by George Ali in a dog suit as Nana, the Darling children’s inhumanly nimble dog-nursemaid. The film was a huge success at the time and then disappeared, resurfacing many decades later and here restored to 35mm glory with original tints. The eleven-piece Flower City Society Orchestra provides live accompaniment.
Moving into more serious territory is Oscar Micheaux’s rare second feature Within Our Gates. This 1919 black-cast melodrama, the earliest surviving black feature, was a belated answer to the perceived racism of Birth of a Nation (1915). The film is extremely sophisticated in juggling multiple plots and subplots revolving around the romantic travails of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) and her attempt to raise money from rich northern whites to save a black school in the south. Shot on location, Gates was expected to be a hit, perhaps even to cross over from the black circuit to white viewers. In fact, it was rejected by both audiences. Black viewers, particularly, found the long flashback sequence “Sylvia’s Story,” which is the heart of the film, too raw for their taste. This scene still packs a punch with its harrowing images of lynchings and a brutal attempted rape with an added angle of potential incest. Seen from today’s vantage point, Within Our Gates, despite its uneven acting, is important both as a black artist’s response to racism during the early part of the twentieth century and as a window into contemporary middle-class black life, a world previously unseen in cinema. Like Peter Pan, Gates was lost for decades. Discovered in a Spanish version in the 1980s, it was reconstructed, retranslated, and refurbished. Michael Mortilla will accompany the film on piano.
Next up is a must-see for muscle queens of all sexes, Maciste All’Inferno (Maciste in Hell). This 1926 epic was the last in a series of silent sword ‘n sandal spectaculars starring former Genovese dockworker and aging hunk Bartolomeo Pagano. This homely stud spends half the film in a heavy woolen suit, looking more than a dimwitted janitor than a bodybuilder. Fortunately, true to the title, he does go to hell, where he’s assaulted by demons, propositioned by demonettes in pasties and g-strings, and stripped to his overample but still fetching flesh. He keeps busy during his sojourn leading a demon revolt and battling an ungainly papier-mache dragon. Director Guido Brignone pulled out all the stops for this comic-Boschian vision of hell, with what looks a cast of thousands of demon-extras spilling off the screen. Fellini claimed Maciste inspired him to become a filmmaker, and the air of amusing depravity, seen to full advantage in this rare restored print, would seem to confirm it. Michael Mortilla’s piano accompaniment should add to the fun.
Aficionados usually associate “shopgirl” with Joan Crawford, but Clara Bow did Crawford one better in It, both establishing and perfecting the prototype. Bow plays Betty Lou Spence, the quintessential working-class flapper out to make the boss. Written by Elinor Glyn, this breezy 1927 comedy is loaded with period charm, including such dialogue as “Sweet Santa Claus, give me him!” and “Shall we gnaw a chop at the Club tonight?” There’s plenty of pathos too in Betty Lou’s loving friendship with single mother Molly, whom she defends against a pair of battleaxes trying to take the kid. There’s even a coded gay character, queeny alleged straight Monty (William Austin), who, assessing his sex appeal in a mirror, says “Old fruit, you’ve got IT!” The film’s mix of sophistication and sentiment proves an ideal vehicle for Bow, whose sincerity shines through as brightly as the wholesome eroticism (if that isn’t an oxymoron) for which she became famous. Contemporary audiences must have seen her that way too, because It made Bow an international sensation. Six years later, she was finished with film and fame, undone by apparently insurmountable emotional problems that are nowhere evident in this sweet divertissement. Chris Elliott (not the comedian!) will serenade her as she deserves, on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer.