Now Playing! Before the Movies Learned to Talk

Evelyn Brent and Emil Jannings in Josef von Sternberg's 'The Last Command,' 1928. (Courtesy SF Silent Film Festival)

Even in its earliest years, the toddling American film industry quickly discovered that while the public was fascinated by moving-picture stories, it was positively mad for stars. The funeral of 31-year-old Rudolph Valentino on a memorable August day in 1926 drew 100,000 mourners (many of them hysterical) onto the steamy streets of Manhattan. Rudy isn’t on the marquee of the annual A Day of Silents marathon this Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Castro, but the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has summoned a litany of immortal names from the heavenly firmament.

Lilyan Tashman in Ernst Lubitsch's 'So This is Paris,' 1926.
Lilyan Tashman in Ernst Lubitsch's 'So This is Paris,' 1926. (Courtesy SF Silent Film Festival)

Charlie Chaplin hot-wires the program with three kid- and adult-friendly shorts from 1915, then makes way for the adult shenanigans of Ernst Lubitsch’s playfully adulterous and exuberant 1926 romp So This Is Paris (whose cast, I must concede, is not engraved in the book of household names). Then we’re off to radical Russia and Sergei Eisenstein’s legendary pro-labor paean Strike, followed by the landmark German drama Different From the Others. Written by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld and starring Conrad Veidt, the film dared to tell a sympathetic story of (unlawful) gay attraction in 1919.

The prime-time slot goes to The Last Command, a comparatively unknown title in the great Josef von Sternberg’s filmography that boasts the great Emil Jannings and William Powell squaring off on a Hollywood set to the careening accompaniment of the superlative Alloy Orchestra. The day wraps with the glorious Gloria Swanson as the titular Sadie Thompson, a San Francisco working girl adrift on Pago Pago with Lionel Barrymore and Raoul Walsh -- whose acting endeavors ceased after he lost an eye in a car accident following this film, though it didn’t affect his extensive and remarkable directing career. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival evokes a time when the movies offered something for everyone.

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