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07.09.08

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Phaedra

STAR POWER: Harold Lloyd tries to help out in 'The Kid Brother.'

Harold Kids Around

Annual Silent Film Festival brings back golden era

By Richard von Busack


LET'S GO from lighter to darker. The opening-night presentation of the 13th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which runs July 11–13 at the Castro Theatre, is 1927's The Kid Brother, Harold Lloyd's penultimate pre-sound film; it shows July 11 at 7pm. The Hickory family of Hickoryville consists of a trio of frontier bruisers, like the Cartwrights on Bonanza. The runt of the litter, Harold (Lloyd), is responsible for the domestic chores. A troupe of traveling mountebanks comes to town, with a Spanish dancer in tow (Jobyna Ralston, Lloyd's beautiful co-star in several comedies). The city hall is burgled, Sheriff Hickory gets the rap and it's up to Harold to solve the crime and win the lady. Writing about a Lloyd comedy is a bit tough. They usually consist of a sequence of events linked by a breezy young guy in specs and a straw hat, distinguished by his monkeyish ability to climb. Lloyd's co-star here, in fact, is an amazing circus monkey in a sailor suit. The big climb is perhaps the most soulful bit in Lloyd's work; the slow ascension of a tree to see the last of the girl he's sweet on, as she heads down the road.But The Kid Brother bests the usual high standard of Lloyd films in its rather serious finale. Silent-comedy fight scenes usually conclude with a quick konk on the head. The villain in The Kid Brother is played by the professional wrestler Constantine Romanoff, who looks like an evil Abe Lincoln. He keeps coming after being severely manhandled, just like the villain in a serious thriller. This movie has a range of moods, from light-footed comedy to unironic romance to serious suspense. The Kid Brother might be your first silent film, but it won't be your last.

Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg) is the one living director most committed to keeping the impact of silent drama alive. At the festival, he will personally present a film after his own heart, 1927's The Unknown (July 12; 10:45pm), one of the most aromatic orchids in Lon Chaney's little hothouse. "It's all about the cowardly nonthreatening way to win a woman's heart, something I think we've all tried at one point," Maddin told me when I interviewed him this spring. Joan Crawford plays an Andrea Dworkinish dancer who cannot bear the touch of men. Chaney plays her seemingly perfect date: a look-Ma-no-hands knife thrower named "Alonzo the Armless."Darker still: The Man Who Laughs, Paul Leni's engrossing 1928 adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel (July 12 at 7:45pm). The face of a son of a Scots rebel is deliberately disfigured by King James II into a fixed smile. Later on, when the Protestants reclaim the throne, the mutilated one is recalled to his inheritance, after years as a street performer. He, Gwynplaine (the amazing Conrad Veidt), is recalled to the English court and forcibly affianced by a decadent duchess (Olga Baclanova, a vet of the Moscow Art Theater). Misremembered as a horror film, it's actually a dark adventure. The young Bob Kane saw Veidt in this role; years later, in 1940, he remembered the pale face, the coarse pompadoured hair and the wide fixed horror-smile and created a certain evil clown as a look-alike nemesis for his comic-book hero Batman. The festival screens 13 films this year.

Also at this weekend's San Francisco Silent Film Festival:

The Silent Enemy (July 13, 1:10 pm) Only six members of the Ojibway Indian band seen in this film had ever seen a movie themselves—or so we're assured in this 1930 docu-drama account of a famine winter. Hunger is the enemy of the title, represented by a snarling wolf. Under the guidance of their chief, a group of Indians head north to the caribou grounds, despite the doom-saying of the evil medicine man (Chief Akawanush).

Chief Yellow Robe, very good as the tribe's elder, introduces the film in a sound prologue. It's true that producer W. Douglas Burden was there to capture the vanishing of a way of life, and the caribou herd stampede at the end is still a stunner many decades later.

Still, the backstory of the cast is interesting in itself: the muscular star Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance turned out to be a Southern African American who spun himself a new identity. Spotted Elk, the romantic lead, was indeed a Native American, a Penobscot from Maine. She was also a dancer at Texas Guinan's nightclub when she was discovered. Warning to the sensitive: animals are treated rather harshly in this film.

Her Wild Oat (July 13, 3:50pm) Late one night, while out on the tiles, a top-hatted playboy gets mugged and stripped. He has to borrow greasy overalls from a work crew, and thus attired, he turns up for coffee at a roach coach, owned and operated by the slangy, salty Colleen Moore. The egregious puns on the title card will shake you to the marrow ("She was one of those Iowa girls: 'Daddy, Iowa month on the rent'"). The print was found in Prague two years ago and restored by the Academy Film Archive.

The Patsy (Jul 13, 8:45). Certain to be the biggest surprise of the festival, this gusty 1928 King Vidor comedy stars Marion Davies as Patty, the put-upon kid sister in a middle-class family. (Her mother, played by Marie Dressler, is as fine a specimen of gorgonus sububicanus as ever seen in a movie.) Davies' Patty moons over her big sister's boyfriend Tony (Orville Caldwell), but the guy doesn't seem to register it. "I'd like to be entrancing, alluring, ravishing...like a stocking advertisement," Patty complains. Meanwhile the elder sister (Jane Winton) is two-timing with a fatuous rich kid called Billy Caldwell with a thing for (shudder) practical jokes. All get their due, just as Patty gets the attention she deserves.

The legend of Davies' skills as a comedienne haven't been exaggerated, despite her more famous name as the longtime companion of William Randolph Hearst. The Patsy's uproarious centerpiece has Patty trying to amuse Billy with her impressions of the famous movie stars of the day: Davies' sunken-cheeked Lillian Gish in The Scarlet Letter is especially lethal.

Vidor's vision of family life is just as acute in comedy as it is in his more famous drama The Crowd. Movies today have a drought of good comediennes and a flood of gross big-baby comics. Davies deserves to be honored as a funny woman, embodying common sense during a horribly affected era. Davies might also be remembered for perhaps being the first to endorse the deep thought recorded on a title card in The Patsy: "Work is the curse of the drinking class."


Movie Times THE SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL takes place July 11–13 at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco. See www.silentfilm.org for details.


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