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July 12-18, 2006

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The Silents Still Speak

The San Francisco Film Festival brings features by Janet Gaynor, Louise Brooks and Harry Carey to the Castro Theatre

By Richard von Busack


LOOKS SURE are destiny: Would George W. Bush have got as far in his political career if he didn't look so much like Harry Carey Jr.? With his adobe-colored hair, his firm, mouth and a trustworthy boyishness that lasted until his 60s, Carey was a genuine icon of the Western film.

Celebrating visual Esperanto—that universal language, that the coming of sound cinema made obsolete—the 11th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival (July 14-16 at the Castro Theatre) brings 85-year-old Carey, one of the last survivors of John Ford's stock cast, to town.

Carey appeared in all three films of Ford's cavalry trilogy. (He's also in The Searchers, as Brad, the man who goes mad with grief and rides off to his death at the hands of the Comanche.)

Carey got his start in the cinema as the son of a famous father who'd been riding the high country in silent films. One of Harry Carry Sr.'s Westerns, the recently restored 1917 Ford film Bucking Broadway, is on display this weekend: it features the elder Carey as a cowhand who heads to New York City to get his girlfriend back from an evil city slicker. Carey the younger will be prompted in his reminiscences by a top-drawer Hollywood historian: Joseph McBride, author of Searching for John Ford: A Life.

This small but superb festival opens July 14 with 1927's Seventh Heaven. As a street girl whose lover (Charles Farrell) goes off to World War I, Janet Gaynor won the first-ever Academy Award for best actress, under the direction of the first best-director winner, Frank Borzage. Borzage's theme is spelled out in the title card: He seeks out "human souls made great by love and adversity." Gaynor's son, Robin Adrian, will be on hand to discuss the actress.

There's a certain subsector of silent film fans who would see any 1920s film as long as it had Lon Chaney in it. Cunningly scheduled to take in some of the prop-wash of the recently released Little Man is Chaney's 1925 The Unholy Three (July 16), about a midget robber disguising himself as a baby—but the similarities end there; Chaney, under the direction of Todd Browning, plays a mastermind posing as a kindly old granny.

Louise Brooks—female trouble of an even more potent variety—turns up in Pandora's Box (July 15). She's a heart-shaped box full of poison candy, a hustler who goes from society courtesan to denizen of a Whitechapel garret. Brooks' distinctive coiffure ("the shingle-bob haircut" of which Mississippi John Hurt sang?) was still the emblem of the bad girl as recently as Rose McGowan in The Doom Generation. Au Bonheur des Dames is the 1930 Jacques Duvivier version of Zola's exposé of the horrors of department-store work.

The Sunday matinee is a program of Laurel and Hardy silents (an answer to the eternal question: "What can I take my kids to see?"). Also on Sunday is a free program on the struggles to save silent film, hosted by archivists from Haghefilm, the Pacific Film Archives, Eastman House and the Library of Congress. If current cinema seems underwhelming—a series of spectacles engineered to be lived-through and forgotten—it's worth revisiting the roots of cinema to see what we've lost and what we've managed to save.


Movie Times The San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs July 14-16 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. See www.silentfilm.org for schedule info and tickets.


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