Reviews From The 28th San Francisco Silent Film Festival

by on April 8, 2024

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (hereafter “SFSFF”) may have moved to the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre for this year and possibly the next one.  But one constant, exemplified by the inclusion of Mykola Shpykovskyi’s satirical comedy “The Opportunist,” is the programmers’ willingness to mix silent films from other countries into the festival programming rather than be totally beholden to Hollywood commercial product.

Shpykovskyi’s satire may not be perfect.  But its genial ridicule of the political true believers hits the mork more often than not.  The protagonist’s constant efforts to curry favor with those currently in charge of things makes him an anti-hero.  Yet his efforts more often than not yield absurd results such as a pre-posting resupply consisting of a comb, a can of shoe polish, and a headless fish.

Apollon Zaharovych Shmygiuev is the name of this protagonist, a supposedly honorable clerk who rubs his hands with glee at the sight of an abandoned cartful of cans left practically outside his front door.  But his attempts to successfully profit from that trove of potential black market material (or indeed any other opportunity that comes his way during the ongoing Bolsheviks vs. White Russians clashes) never amount to much.  One running joke through “The Opportunist” is that Shmygiuev’s lack of financial success matches the Bolsheviks’ and the White Russians’ efforts to fulfill their ambitions.

Shmygiuev’s survival to the last reel owes more to luck than any personal ingenuity on his part.  The illiteracy of a Bolshevik soldier saves Shmygiuev from being shot for lacking the proper papers.  A White Russian officer’s lethal anger at being spat on by the would-be profiteer’s camel gets dismissed once it’s revealed a more senior officer turns out to be a distant relative of the film’s protagonist.

The festival’s program notes state that “The Opportunist” fell afoul of Russian censors.  Watching the film and seeing what gets mocked, a viewer is likely to notice that the film’s better jokes are at the Bolsheviks’ expense.  The joking nepotism and borderline sexual harassment seen in Shmygiuev’s time with the White Russians can be found in many other films.  But the absurdities seen in “The Opportunist” excel by being logical yet ridiculous extensions of real problems under Bolshevik control.  The aforementioned resupply scene is an example of the almost continual shortages of necessities.  People crowd a train station to wait for a train as if they’re channeling their inner Vladimir and Estragons.  The task of fairly distributing some seized sugar gets buried under long-winded speeches and feckless inaction.

Two aspects of “The Opportunist” might prove confusing for some viewers.  One aspect is not always being able to distinguish at first when Shmygiuev is among the Bolsheviks and when he’s among the White Russians.  The other is a seemingly pointless extended sequence following farmers trying to harvest their grain.  Yet if both these aspects are considered together, they suggest that director Shpykovskyi ultimately has little sympathy for either the Bolsheviks or the White Russians.  As suggested by what ultimately happens to the camel Shmygiuev is initially stuck with and a literal loose cannon, what matters most in Russia are not politics but the genuine toil displayed by its country’s farmers.

***

This year’s SFSFF features works starring two of the three silent film comedians whose work provided a formative influence on future martial arts cinema star Jackie Chan.  There are no Charlie Chaplin films in this year’s SFSFF and this writer has not seen for review the Buster Keaton classic “Sherlock Jr.

On the other hand, the last of Chan’s silent cinema influences stars in another SFSFF offering.  That person is Harold Lloyd, who plays an underdog hero in Ted Wilde’s action comedy “The Kid Brother.”

Lloyd plays Harold Hickory, one of the sons of a famous sheriff.  Unlike his father and his big strapping older brothers who can effortlessly lug a big tree trunk up a hill, Harold’s comparative physical scrawniness means his household contributions are in the realm of cleaning the supper dishes and hanging out the laundry.  The arrival of a medicine show in the Hickoryville area sparks a series of events which might lead to Harold’s demonstrating he too possesses the Hickory family mettle.

“The Kid Brother”’s pathos comes from the gap between Harold’s desire to uphold the Hickory name and his assumption that he needs pronounced physical attributes (which he pointedly lacks) to do so.  One nice reminder of Harold’s dilemma is the noticeable height difference between Lloyd’s character and the other Hickorys, all of whom are at least a head taller than Lloyd.

Lloyd’s film is admittedly neither the first nor the last story to use the trope of “The underdog who proves their worth to significant others.”.  What makes Lloyd’s film special, aside from his affable “aw, shucks” personality, is seeing Harold eventually realizing that using his strongest attributes to solve a challenging problem best demonstrates his mettle.  Harold may lack the physical prowess of his older brothers, but his gift for improvising on the fly and being inventive prove critical to achieving victory.

The familiarity of the underdog story doesn’t necessarily mean the trope is a bad one.  Its continued power comes from tapping into the desire to show people the negative assumptions they have about the protagonist do not constitute the sum of the hero(ine)’s identity.  The familiar phrase “undisclosed personal depths” comes from this desire.  Yet such stories also possess dark aspects.  What if such hypothetical others decline to admit their erroneous assumptions were wrong?  What if the egotistical desire to inflict retaliatory humiliation is the prime motivation behind the underdog’s actions?

Harold gets humiliated by sworn enemy Hank Hooper several times over the course of the film, and by the end he does exert payback.  But it’s the scene where Lloyd’s character pretends to assume his father’s role as sheriff that shows he’s not primarily motivated by egotism but pride in upholding the family name.

Mary, the woman from the medicine show, describes Harold’s problem as his lacking self-confidence.  This assessment is true, but Lloyd’s character has to also endure living in an environment (the Wild West) where his ingenuity is not always appreciated or recognized.  Harold’s semi-successful rescue of Mr. Hickory’s best shirt shows the limits of his ingenuity.  But when “The Kid Brother” gets to the abandoned ship, that’s where Harold’s inventiveness and quick thinking soon comes to be a strength.

Lloyd’s displays of physical comedy turn out to be a timeless miracle.  The comic payoff to Harold’s prolonged farewell to Mary may give the average Lloyd’s of London agent a week’s worth of nightmares.  But it would be an insult to the comedian’s hard work for audience members to not be astounded by Lloyd’s pulling off that stunt and several others in the film without apparently suffering injury.  (This comment should definitely not be taken as an endorsement of BART train surfing, as its practitioners aren’t in Lloyd’s skill class.)

“The Kid Brother” may not ultimately mock the extolling of its period’s masculine ideal.  What it does do quite well is entertainingly show that there’s more than one way to demonstrate the more positive aspects of masculinity.

***

Those who miss the SFSFF screening of “The Kid Brother” can take some comfort in knowing that the Criterion Collection now has the film available for sale, even if it does lack the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s live score.  Now if only the Criterion Collection will add Karl Grune’s influential “The Street” to its offerings…

This is not an idle wish.  Grune’s film launched the German film genre known as “Strassenfilm,” so named in honor of the director’s achievement in this film.  Its prosaic title treats its central locale as both a physical place and a state of mind to explore for the unexpected wonders and dangers lying hidden in the night.  The use of Expressionist-style studio sets helps create this impression.

The film can be described as an ensemble drama which takes place over the course of one eventful night.  A bored husband departs from his comfortable and predictable domesticity for what he hopes will be a night of discovery and adventure.  An old blind man loses first his son then his grandchild while wandering the streets at night.  An old gentleman thinks his wealth will lead to fun and excitement at a nightclub.  Finally, two men and a woman prowl the night looking for marks both monetary and human.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, plot turns out to be the least important element of Grune’s film.  Its dramatis personae are not given character names, just named after their roles in the film.  This is a movie where individual perceptions clash knowingly or not with realities.  Early in the film, Grune epitomizes this clash with the husband and wife looking out the same window on the night time streets.  The wife just sees people normally walking along the sidewalks and motorcars running down the road.  The husband, on the other hand, absorbs different pieces of the same scene and mentally assembles it into a place of wonders worthy of personal exploration.

Grune doesn’t deny that the night can be filled with wondrous sights.  Two of the most memorable are the cityscape as seen from a park bench and the lighting pattern of an optometrist’s business sign.

Yet “The Street” is ultimately a cautionary tale.  Physical claws or fangs may not be seen.  But there are figurative predators of various stripes prowling the pavements of this urban jungle.  Whether it’s a nightclub dancer who milks the old gentleman to buy her expensive gifts or the old gentleman displaying his unexpected skills at the card table, this world is not a place for innocents.  For all his embrace of the tokens of middle-class respectability, the husband is little better than a rabbit or some other prey animal.  As his fortunes at the card table reveal, the husband’s survival in this world depends on the capricious whims of Lady Luck.

What makes Grune’s film timeless rather than a more upfront Hays Code-complying Hollywood picture way past its cultural expiration date is its lack of interest in dropping a grand piano of a moralistic message onto the viewer’s head.  It acknowledges the story’s perils (the trouble the husband ultimately gets into turns out to be the film’s least interesting part) but is more concerned with creating such memorable moments as the imagined image seen inside the husband’s wedding ring and the sight of the streets the husband walked along earlier now denuded of the night’s glamour.

(“The Opportunist” screens at 11:00 AM on April 12, 2024.  “The Kid Brother” screens at 12:15 PM on April 14, 2024.  “The Street” screens at 5:00 PM on April 13, 2024.  All screenings take place at the Palace Of Fine Arts Theatre (3301 Lyon Street, SF).  For further information about the films and to order advance tickets, go to https://silentfilm.org/festival-2024-schedule/ .)

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