“Heretics entombed in flaming graves!”, cites actor Paul McGann, translating from the orchestra pit an Italian intertitle. His steep voice billows throughout the Castro Theater, palatial home of San Francisco’s 2019 Silent Film Festival, as the great Matti Bye Ensemble intones stirrings of doom and dread.
I saw five films in this year’s festival. The most astonishing was L’Inferno. Italy’s first feature length film, it yanks us into a headlong dunk in the diabolical. Released in 1911, it was completed after three years and three directors: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe de Liguoro. Cineteca di Bologna restored the film in 2007, using fourteen remaining prints with intertitles in various languages. A third of its original length, it now provides 66 minutes of devilish perversion, enumerating Hell’s bolgias (a.k.a. ditches, funnels or chasms) with tortured theatrics and special effects.
An unprecedented ambitious production for its time, it boasts a simple concept: List earthly crimes and depict matching punishments with graphic horror, as described in Dante Alighieri‘s Divine Comedy, written six centuries earlier. Modes of damnation include humans morphing into upright reptiles, a man carrying his own head “like a swinging lantern”, women bathing in excrement, sinners lodged to their chins in a pond of ice, and simonious popes buried head first, feet sticking upright from the ground.
We gain entry (and escape) to this horrid landscape by following Dante and his protector, Virgil, as they inspect the fiery valleys with the detachment of anthropologists. The mood is comfortless, the display carnal, the scope of punishable deeds familiar. With somber pace, we trespass landscapes we would never wish to imagine, much less visit. It all creates an intriguing opportunity to dwell among pitchforks and take tally of our own souls.
One of the most fascinating things about watching silent film is how the movies reveal cultural values, exposing fears and preoccupations of the era, so different from those of today. Mothers of Men stands squarely unapologetic, and exceptionally bold in its imaginings of a future of women leaders from the vantage point of 1917. Fictional Judge Clara Madison accepts the pleas of the Women’s Party to become their candidate for governor. Not only does she sentence criminals to death without appeal, she excels fully in the domestic realm as a loving wife, seamstress, and mother-to-be, pictured in gentle bedroom scenes wearing a flowing nightgown. Actress Dorothy Davenport harmonizes these two portrayals, and plays the role with a detached softness. Her diffident disposition appears unusual to a modern eye accustomed to more assertive women heroes.
In an act of revenge against a unwanted verdict, Judge Madson’s adversaries hatch a plot to frame her husband in the murder of a newspaper editor, which leads to his condemnation to hanging. The melodrama posits her loyalty toward her husband against duties as the newly-elected first female governor, where the prospect of pardoning her husband (and father of her child), jeopardizes the entire future of women leadership. She must choose intellect over emotionalism and the professional over the personal, to ensure the aspirations of her political party. This clever plot paints a glimpse of the high stakes and urgency of the women’s political movement of the time, two years before women won the right to vote nationally by passage of the 19th amendment.
Silent Film Festival ends tomorrow Sunday, June 5, after a full day of programs.
The one extant copy of The Grim Game (1919) starring Harry Houdini has at last been restored into glistening silver glory and brought to the public eye, presented yesterday by the San Francisco Silent Film Society as part of a December Day of Silents at the Castro Theater. I recently attended the Official Houdini Seance at the Brava Theater on Halloween, which was an exciting opportunity to renew my lifelong interest in the illusionist that began in elementary school. So watching him perform onscreen was a rare and awesome treat.
An obvious showman, Houdini exudes absolute confidence before the camera and plays himself more than he plays character Harvey Hanford, a newspaper reporter caught in a far-fetched plot to thwart villains who are after his uncle’s fortune. The film finds, through an otherwise mediocre storyline, every excuse to incorporate many of his classic escape acts: handcuffs, ball and chain, prison cell, straight jacket, and underwater. The cinematic medium, an illusion itself, removes most of the inherent suspense that his live stunts must have had, which drew thousands of spectators. However, Houdini on film still astounds, untangling himself from an adrenalized obstacle course, an early blueprint for Indiana Jones. One cannot deny the sheer bravery and risk of the climax where he hangs by rope off the wing of a flying airplane and jumps into another airplane below. Thank you to Rick Schmidlin and Turner Movie Classics for preserving this film for modern audiences to study and enjoy.