Flappers, dandies and fetishists for all things 1920s will have their Wurlitzers in a bunch all weekend long for the 21st annual Silent Film Festival, kicking off tonight and running through Sunday at your favorite old-time movie palace The Castro Theatre. (You know Leonard Maltin’s gonna be there!) This year’s line-up of 19 programs promises all the bee’s knees, cat’s pajamas, and wooden nickels of 1920s cinematic gems. Fans who love the old silent movies know these films can often be troublingly racist and sexist, but this year’s Silent Film Fest features some remarkably progressive works that address race, homelessness and transgender issues.
The Oldest US Film Directed By An African-American
“We have the oldest existing film by an African-American director, Within Our Gates,” Silent Film Festival artistic director Anita Monga told SFist. Oscar Micheaux’s 1920 epic is considered a response to D.W. Griffith’s outrageously racist Birth Of A Nation, and shows a brutally honest depiction of lynchings, harassment, and hard life in the Jim Crow era.
“The print is from the Library of Congress,” Ms. Monga said. “There’s a new composition by Adolphus Hailstork that combines classical and gospel elements that will be performed with seven strings and 20 voices and will be conducted by Michael Morgan.” That’s Oakland Symphony conductor Michael Morgan, who will have members of the Oakland Symphony Chorus on hand to belt out the gospel truth.
Saturday, June 4, 5:15 p.m.
'Beggars Of Life', image courtesy SilentFilm.org
A Frank Depiction of 1920s Homelessness
After winning the first-ever Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings director William Wellman followed up with the hard-hitting homeless drama Beggars of Life that kicks off the festival tonight. The era’s reigning sex symbol Louise Brooks stars as a fugitive on the run forced to disguise herself as a man to blend in with a gang of train-hopping hobos. Audiences hated seeing Brooks in unsexy male attire and were turned off by the film’s co-mingling of the races. Beggars of Life was widely panned at the time, but is now considered Ms. Brooks’ greatest American film.
Thursday, June 2, 7 p.m.
'What's The World Coming To?', image courtesy SilentFilm.org
Cross-Dressing in the 1920s
Laura Horak’s acclaimed book Girls Will Be Boys: Cross-Dressed Women, Lesbians, and American Cinema, 1908-1934 has been a hit on the queer academia circuit and serves as the inspiration for this program of jazz-era gender fluidity. This screwball comedy double-feature starts with I Don’t Want To Be A Man, a wacky Weimar comedy about a woman who cross-dresses so she can drink, smoke, and play poker. We then transition to The Little Rascals producer Hal Roach’s gender-bending comedy What’s The World Coming To?, a full-drag howler that should be right at home on the Castro screen.
Sunday, June 5, 12 Noon
'When The Clouds Roll By', image courtesy SilentFilm.org
Wizard of Oz Director’s Debut Film
The festival closes Sunday night with the Douglas Fairbanks comedic crowd-pleaser When The Clouds Roll By. “It’s a crazy, surrealistic film,” Ms. Monga said, “and the directorial debut of Victor Fleming. He is, of course, the director of Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz.” Featuring several visually experimental comedic scenes, the film is perhaps best-known for a wall-walking special effects segment that was famously duplicated in 1980s music videos.