Some background

The only way to begin responsibly is with some facts about the status of the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the long-time home of the Silent Film Festival up to and including this year’s edition, its 26th. Locals to the Bay are familiar with the controversy following the theatre’s acquisition by the concert promotion conglomerate Another Planet Entertainment in January 2022, the centenary of the theatre, with plans to convert the building into a concert hall by stripping the theatre of its nearly 1,400 orchestra-level seats. Since April of last year, community activists have sought to preserve the venue as a movie palace, primarily by appealing to the theatre’s status as a historical landmark. The year-long fight to extend its landmark designation to its interior design concluded on 15 June 2023 – a month before this year’s Silent Fest – when the city’s planning commission voted 4-2 in favour of APE’s plans to remove the seats.

One could reasonably expect for the disappointment surrounding this decision to seep into this year’s festival as it did last year, where cries from the audience to “Save the seats!” could be heard at least once a day. Whether the success of APE’s plans truly spells the end of the movies at Castro is yet to be determined. In an interview with Screen Slate, festival director Anita Monga expressed some optimistic uncertainty, citing several changes to APE’s original plan that could still make it possible for it to function as a movie palace.1 Yet it’s hard not to feel the city’s decision as a blow, not just for Silent Fest, but for the many other film festivals that program out of the Castro each year. A recent article by KQED outlines the higher costs festivals will be charged by APE to operate out of the theatre, pricing out smaller festivals that had long found a home there.2 As for Silent Fest, the Castro has served as its home since its founding in 1996, as well as the home to its spin-off event, the “Day of Silents”, held each winter. In fact, looking over the programs for all of its events on the festival’s website, nearly every event since the ‘90s, with few exceptions, was programmed at the Castro. 

I want Silent Fest to continue to operate out of the Castro, an appropriate home for one of the most unique film festivals in the United States: dedicated exclusively to silent films, often prioritizing film restorations (even funding and overseeing restorations of their own), each accompanied by a live performance of an original score. One of the charms of the festival is that it values the artistry at all three levels – the films, their restoration, and their accompaniment – and, in keeping with this, I have opted wherever possible to mention alongside the title and director for each film the company responsible for its restoration and the performers who played alongside it.


New Restorations

And where else to begin than with the three films restored by the festival itself, Flowing Gold (Joseph De Grasse, 1924), accompanied by Utsav Lal, Padlocked (Allan Dwan, 1926), accompanied by Stephen Horne, and The Dragon Painter (William Worthington, 1919), accompanied by the Masaru Koga ensemble. Together, these represented three of the four films projected on 35mm – the other, Yasujirô Ozu’s Hogaraka ni ayume (Walk Cheerfully, 1930), also accompanied with a score by Ustav Lal, discussed below – with the first and the last not only restored on film, but even tinted. Most heavily promoted of the three was The Dragon Painter, the most famous of the many collaborations between Worthington and Japanese-American actor Sessue Hayakawa. I’ve seen three of these collaborations, produced by Hayakawa’s company Haworth Pictures Corporation, though none have left a considerable impression. Several of the films retain the character archetype of Hayakawa’s most famous role in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915), although as the program notes rightly clarify, Hayakawa’s turn to producing aimed to correct the anti-Asian stereotypes that followed that film. The Dragon Painter finds him playing against type, here in a role as a painter who draws inspiration for his beautiful canvases from his belief that the spirit of a dragon princess is dormant below the surface of a mountain lake. Hayakawa’s international fame was born from the imposing stillness of his expressionless face, so it’s interesting to see him in a role that requires him to make big choices with his performance. Shot on location in Yosemite, which doubles for Japan, the outdoor scenes are sometimes very catching, though one would be hard pressed to say much about Worthington, who merely carries out the script as ordered, without invention.

The film critic Michel Mourlet once likened the function of mise en scène to man’s domination over his environment.3 Might we not also draw an inverse tradition of films, where the environment towers over man? It’s not for nothing that Dwan’s Padlocked ends with a scene shot en plein air, after eighty minutes of cavernous sets handsomely lensed by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. Unfortunately for me, I haven’t had the opportunity to get properly acquainted with Dwan’s films, though their legend precedes them. Ten years before Padlocked, he directed some of the first American films to move the camera during a take.4 His career continued for four decades after, well into the ’60s, where he directed westerns with Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan. (One of his collaborations with Douglas Fairbanks, The Iron Mask, 1929), opened this year’s festival, accompanied by the Guenter Buchwald ensemble.) Dwan doesn’t leave the impression of being a determinist. The big halls at the home of his protagonist, Henry Gilbert (Noah Beery), or of his villain (Allan Simpson), are less metaphysical descriptions than they are traps of their own making. Each force the heroine into different kinds of submission, before coming to realize they’re as trapped as she is. For Gilbert, this means realizing the mistress for whom he abandoned his child and killed his wife is even more conniving than he is, spending his vast fortune on parties with her sleezy friends. Dwan stages Gilbert’s downfall in a manner that anticipates Welles in Citizen Kane (1941) fifteen years later, wandering empty halls dwarfed by their shallow opulence. 

Kentucky Pride

Ford Restored

A few years ago, a friend described John Ford’s Kentucky Pride (1925) to me as an attempt at Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), forty years too early. At the time, I took this to mean that, like Bresson’s film, Kentucky Pride, here scored by Wayne Barker with a restoration provided by the Museum of Modern Art, took up an animal as its protagonist rather than a human character. I did not expect that it would equally mean that the intertitles were also written from the horse’s point of view, even using “I” instead of third person pronouns. (Helpfully, a horse is drawn in the corner of each intertitle to remind us of its unusual narrator). I don’t know that I’d ordinarily associate Ford and Bresson – I also don’t know that I wouldn’t – but both films draw the same conclusion from centring an animal in the film, allowing them to follow a more sociological interest in many different strata of society. The main difference between them is that Bresson’s interest is horizontal and Ford’s vertical. Balthazar passes through many hands – farmers, criminals, circus performers – while Ford’s focuses on the differences in what the horse represents to the various members of the household that owns the horse, who view it either as property or a life valuable in itself. Part of Ford’s uniqueness stems from the interest he takes in detailing life at different classes and backgrounds, an interest few of his peers can claim. This is not to exonerate the dimensions of his work that are unmissably ignorant, or to dismiss the comparable achievements of his peers, but merely to point out an aspect to his work that is easy to take for granted.

At the end of Steven Spielberg’s recent autobiographical film, The Fabelmans (2022), the young filmmaker is advised by Ford to always shoot from high or low angles, since “When the horizon’s in the middle, it’s boring as shit!” I have no idea as to the truth of the scene, but the sentiment – while maybe held by Ford himself – underappreciates the extent to which Ford was equally a master of the tableau, both at the beginning (Kentucky Pride, Four Sons 1928, Hangman’s House, 1928) and end of his career (The Long Grey Line, 1955, The Wings of Eagles, 1957, 7 Women, 1965) – hardly an easy skill to do well, and certainly not one to scoff at. Consider, for instance, this scene in Kentucky Pride: the horse trainer Mike Donovan (Ford regular J. Farrell MacDonald) comes home late to his family at dinner, bringing news that he has been instructed to shoot one of the horses favoured by his son. Ford turns the scene into a drama of the body. At the announcement of the news, he cuts from a two shot of Donovan and his wife to a full shot of the three of them in the kitchen. Ford puts the conflict into motion: the boy turns left to look back at his father, and the wife moves forward in the room toward her child. Donovan, for his part, moves to the left of the frame where his rifle is kept. As he moves back to the centre of the room, his son crosses to his left, blocking the way to the door. His wife follows, and a line between them is formed in the frame. Finally, the wife and son walk to the furthest wall of the room, and Donovan crosses them again to finish the job. Like the French silent director Louis Feuillade, Ford knew how to make the blocking of a scene carry out the dramatic weight of the sequence, putting a character’s thoughts into action.

Pigs Will Be Pigs

A sidebar on comedy

In addition to two shorts programs, one dedicated to Laurel and Hardy and the other to character actor Edward Everett Horton, the centrepiece of this year’s festival as far as comedy was concerned was Buster Keaton’s Three Ages (1923), his three-part historical epic scored by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and restored last year by the Cineteca di Bologna as part of its Keaton project. I have long held that Three Ages is Keaton’s worst feature (released the same year as Our Hospitality, possibly his best), and seeing it again has done nothing to improve this view. Rossellini once said he would make an entire film for the sake of a single gesture, and we can very easily imagine Keaton saying, for his part, that he would make an entire film for the sake of a single gag. The difference between them is that Keaton seldom finds it necessary to fill in the rest. In a sense, he’s perfect for clip montages, because the scenarios that contextualize his gags are so slight that, at their worst, they’re basically perfunctory. I think what I like least about his films is that they often choose the easiest path forward. There’s a limit to the mileage one can get out of sarcasm, but in Keaton’s features this is sometimes the only thing holding the film up for long stretches between the more technically dazzling bits. In his best films – it might be more generous to say they’re like mosaics, in the sense that they’re a composition made up of pieces of different grandeur – only some of the pieces shine. 

Drawing as many laughs was the Soviet film Stantsiya Pupki (Pigs Will Be Pigs, 1931), presented by the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre (film archive) in Ukraine and here scored by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius. One of many things I appreciate about the programmers at Silent Fest is that they often seek to show a more multifaceted Soviet cinema: last year, it featured an excellent noir, Order na Arest (Arrest Warrant, Heorhii Tasin, 1926), and this year’s film, directed by Soviet Ukrainian director Khanan Shmain, is equally interesting for its comedy. I only know of two soviet comedies, Shkurnyk (The Self-Seeker, 1929) by Mykola Shpykovskyi and of course Schaste (Happiness, 1935) by Aleksandr Medvedkin, which Eisenstein famously greeted as the first film to make Bolsheviks laugh. It’s intriguing that between these three, there is always something zoological to the humour, each centring a different animal as an emblem of its satire. Here, a passenger train is stopped by wild pigs on the tracks at the small Station Pupki – the film’s literal title, meaning something like “umbilical station” – deep in the Soviet countryside. One of the passengers is carrying a small cage of guinea pigs, with which none of the station hands know what to do. (“Are there regulations for guinea pigs?” one asks, “Or is it the same for regular pigs?”) The ending of the film makes no small point of its intended target, the Soviet bureaucracy, but it is easy to carry the jab to all kinds of corporate bureaucracy, the voluminous rules it creates and the ineptitude with which people carry them out. 

The Organist at St. Vitus’ Cathedral

International works

In her introduction to Varhaník u sv. Víta (The Organist at St. Vitus’ Cathedral, 1929), festival director Monga named the Czech noir as one of her personal favourites in the line-up. It was certainly among the most stylish, directed by Martin Frič – later, one of the prominent directors in Czech film history during the first half of the century – and written in collaboration with the Surrealist poet Vítězslav Nezval. Much of the film’s design brings to mind the German expressionist films of the early ’20s, and the film’s crosscutting between the poorer neighbourhood where the Organist (Karel Hašler) lives and the more idyllic scenes between the young bourgeois couple with whom he is entangled recall the German director G.W. Pabst and particularly his silent masterpiece Die freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street, 1925). Some of these scenes between the couple drew laughs from the audience, and it’s true that Frič renders the upper-class male suitor with almost plastic features. Yet I think it would be a mistake to believe Frič is unaware of how unbelievable these scenes frequently are. Rather, he leans into them, raising them to such a level of artifice so that he can plunge the characters into an equally extreme depravity – an execution that places him well within a tradition that extends from Jean Epstein’s La glace à trois faces (The Three-Sided Mirror, 1927) to Humberto Mauro’s Ganga Bruta (1933). 

A few last words on Ozu. The fate of great filmmakers is that the popular admiration of their work often seems to coalesce around the extreme ends of their career. No matter how many masterpieces he made in his later years, Jean-Luc Godard will always be best known for his suite of early films in the ‘60s. The consensus around Ozu’s career clearly favours his later years, and perhaps it’s for this reason I find myself taken especially by his earlier work. It gives an opportunity to iron out some of the gross generalizations that mischaracterize, even mythologize the artist. I love Ozu when he does the things we expect him to do; I love him more when he does things we don’t. 

Case in point: the travelling shot in Ozu. One could easily be led to believe from general accounts of his career that Ozu rarely moved the camera. So, it may surprise some viewers less versed with his earlier career to watch as the first shot of Walk Cheerfully pulls around the edge of a car and through a parking lot, the first of several elaborate camera moves in the film. Walk Cheerfully was released in 1930, but, like Chaplin, he would continue to release silent films through 1936, long after his peers – Heinosuke Gosho, director of the first Japanese sound film, Yasujiro Shimazu, Mikio Naruse, Kenji Mizoguchi – had all adopted sound. Many qualities to the film run counter to the image we have of Ozu: it features moving shots rather than fixed composition; it is a genre vehicle, one of several crime films made in the early ’30s alongside Sono yo no tsuma (That Night’s Wife, 1930) and Hijôsen no onna (Dragnet Girl, 1933), in homage to Josef von Sternberg; it foregrounds youth, especially masculine youth, rather than emphasize the family as a collective unit. One of the striking features of early Ozu is the use of repetition. Very often, a tracking shot will pass over a series of bodies more or less alike in dress or occupation. One can usually find in all of his early films such a moment: a masterful tracking shot across men at the office in Otona no miru ehon – Umarete wa mita keredo (I Was Born, But…, 1932), for example, or the dolly through the classroom in Seishun no yume ima izuko (Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth?, 1932), or better still, the tracking shot of the teacher and pupil near the end of Tôkyô no kôrasu (Tokyo Chorus, 1931). And so, too, we find similar shots in Walk Cheerfully, and as in all of the above examples, the meaning remains the same. In each, Ozu tracks the likelihood that modern living narrows the lives of human beings until they submit to an equally unsatisfying fate. For the protagonist of Walk Cheerfully, at least, he manages to break free of the self-same criminal milieu and define himself in separation from it, an inverse of the frequently melancholic realization at the end of an Ozu film of how far we’ve fallen from what we were. It is the appropriate, anarchic view of a lifelong troublemaker who, despite finding enormous personal success as a director, never truly adjusted himself to social normativity, and who preferred to be thought of as nothing at the time of his death than whatever readymade position there was for him in society. In any case, like so many of Ozu’s films, it is largely masterful and, along with Kentucky Pride, it was probably the best film I saw at the festival. 

San Francisco Silent Film Festival
12-16 July 2023
Festival Website: https://silentfilm.org


  1. Amanda Salazar, “https://www.screenslate.com/articles/analog-means-little-bit-more-us-anita-monga-san-francisco-silent-film-festival-and-bayScreen Slate, 12 July 2023
  2. Olivia Cruz Mayeda, “Higher Rental Costs at Castro Theatre Put Small Film Festivals Under Strain”, KQED, 10 August 2023
  3. Michel Mourlet, “In Defense of Violence,” translated by David Wilson, in Cahiers du cinéma 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevaluating Hollywood, Jim Hillier, eds. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 132-4
  4. Kevin Brownlow, The Parade’s Gone By… (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), p. 100.