by Nicole V. Gagné

In its dedication to restoring and screening silent films, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) has established itself internationally as an essential player in the preservation of world cinema. Artistic Director Anita Monga and Board of Directors President Robert Byrne were welcome presences who introduced various screenings, and with the fine people at the Palace of Fine Arts and the promotional skills of Steve Indig PR, a treasure trove of great filmmaking was made available to the large and responsive audiences attending this year’s festival.

Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy’s mayhem extends to Dorothy
Coburn in The Finishing Touch.

In writing about last year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I mentioned the ongoing restoration of all the silent Laurel & Hardy two-reelers. This year’s festival included three more brilliant L&H comedies, all made in 1928. Two of them displayed the team’s genius for creating a brand of mayhem that expands continuously, like The Blob, sucking in more and more passersby until we’re watching a total maelstrom of insanity: You’re Darn Tootin’ has the boys as street musicians whose personal squabble soon becomes a street-wide melee of men tearing off each other’s pants; Two Tars, one of the all-time classics by Laurel & Hardy, carries the tiresome bickering at a lengthy traffic jam into a comic inferno of mutilated automobiles. But like many another L&H devotee, I have a special place in my heart for the boys’ attempt to build a house in The Finishing Touch. Although interlopers Edgar Kennedy and Dorothy Coburn do wind up disheveled, the film is mostly Stan and Ollie milking hilarious gags from the simplest tasks. Made with the gifted comedy writer/director Clyde Bruckman, The Finishing Touch can be considered the quintessential Laurel & Hardy film. 

Syd Chaplin (in drag) impresses heavy Edgar Kennedy in Oh! What a Nurse!

Beloved “slow-burn” comedian Edgar Kennedy also shines in his comic support for a comedian who is finally being rediscovered: Syd Chaplin, half-brother of the immortal Charlie Chaplin. A rare print of Oh! What a Nurse! (1926) provoked gales of laughter, with Syd showcasing his talents as a drag performer (also the highlights of two of his other features, Charley’s Aunt and The Man on the Box). The riotous scene where Syd’s nurse tries to tend to Kennedy’s fake maladies would have stopped the show – had anything been capable of stopping the momentum of this breakneck farce, which displays Syd’s skills at physical comedy as well as his winning personality, here playing a put-upon journalist trying to score a big scoop and rescue his girlfriend from a crowd of vicious gangsters. 

Harold Lloyd and friend in The Kid Brother.

Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother (1927), like Oh! What a Nurse!, has the comic hero fighting a thug in a ship. But the resemblance ends there, with Lloyd developing the sympathetic character of the youngest of three sons, totally outclassed by his macho brothers and father until he proves himself to be the bravest and most resourceful member of the entire clan. Lloyd’s winning personality, a lovely bucolic setting, and a literally non-stop torrent of inventive, character-driven gags makes The Kid Brother one of the standout films in an iconic career and one of the great comedies of the 1920s.


In Dancing Mothers, Alice Joyce is the stay-at-home mother of flapper Clara Bow – until she decides to stop staying at home.

Laughter and drama are skillfully blended in Dancing Mothers (1926), with a vibrant Clara Bow stealing every scene she’s in as the carefree flapper who enters into a relationship with an older man. Norman Trevor is effectively patriarchal as her stern father, who is also dallying with another woman. But the film belongs to the great Alice Joyce, playing the neglected wife and mother who decides to sow some oats of her own. In a nuanced and affecting performance, Joyce gives a definitive portrayal of a woman discovering her own worth and independence. Making the film seem even more contemporary is its startling conclusion: The plot appears ready to reassert the primacy of the family and reunite daughter, father, and mother, but Joyce declares that they both are still thinking more of themselves than of her or anyone else, and she courageously strides out of the house and off into a new life of her own. This first-rate feature, directed with realism and intelligence by Herbert Brenon, was complemented by a delightful short comedy that offered an early performance by Clara Bow: 1923’s The Pill Pounder, a recently recovered gem made by veteran director Gregory La Cava, making its first theatrical appearance since its premiere 101 years ago.

Brothers Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara come to a more mature perspective regarding their father (Tatsuo Saito) in I Was Born But…

Another film that created its own special blend of humor and drama was I Was Born But… (1932) from Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu. Unlike Ozu’s gangster story Walk Cheerfully, a special treat at last year’s festival, I Was Born But… presents this master writer/director in the milieu he was to make his own in the sound era: the interplay of aspirations and disillusionments within a family, where the intergenerational loves and conflicts reflect deeper social changes impacting Japanese life. The Yoshi family relocates to a Tokyo suburb where the two young sons struggle to fit in with the other schoolkids. That process, however, is complicated by their discovery that their father is not the big shot they’d always believed him to be. With outstanding performances from child actors Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara, I Was Born But… is one of the high points of Ozu’s filmmaking and a must-see.

Raymond Hatton, Charles Bickford, and Fred Kohler are three bad men who become godfathers in Hell’s Heroes.

Master American director William Wyler, revered for a string of sound classics that include Wuthering Heights, The Little Foxes, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Detective Story, cut his teeth as a director making two- and five-reel westerns in the 1920s. The culmination of his fledgling efforts was Hell’s Heroes, released in 1929 in both silent and limited-sound versions. Wyler’s stark and relentless vision turned Peter B. Kyne’s oft-filmed “Three Godfathers” scenario into a gritty, heartbreaking, and thoroughly realistic drama, one of the great Westerns of the era. Charles Bickford, Fred Kohler, and Raymond Hatton are the trio of desperados who escape a posse by entering a desert where they encounter a dying mother and her newborn baby. The challenge of protecting the child and bringing him to safety becomes a moving account of sacrifice and redemption for all three. Bravo to SFSFF for bringing this exceptional film to a new generation of audiences!

Multiple exposures abound in the expressionist sequences of Victor Sjöström’s classic The Phantom Carriage.

An equally harrowing redemption is the focus of The Phantom Carriage, made in Sweden in 1920 by writer/director Victor Sjöström, today best remembered as the elderly star of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 classic Wild Strawberries. But Sjöström had one of the most distinguished careers in silent cinema as both actor and filmmaker, creating landmark work throughout the 1910s and ‘20s. The Phantom Carriage, generally regarded as his masterpiece, is one of the finest films of the era, an indelible combination of expressionist imagination and blistering realism. Sjöström also stars as a vicious drunkard who is forced to reconsider his entire life when his soul enters the nether world of the dead, allowing him to witness the devastation he has inflicted upon others. An important influence on not just silent films but also Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick, and other later filmmakers, The Phantom Carriage is tragic and disturbing but ultimately uplifting – a truly unforgettable experience.

One final word about these screenings – always remember, silent movies were never a silent experience, because they were invariably accompanied by live music. SFSFF takes this truism to heart, and always brings in the most expert musicians to play for their films. The gifted pianist Wayne Barker brought The Pill Pounder and Dancing Mothers to their full lives. Veteran piano accompanist Donald Sosin likewise enlivened Oh! What a Nurse; with the assist of crack percussionist Frank Bockius, the same miracle was rendered for Laurel & Hardy. Multi-instrumentalists Guenter Buchwald and Mas Koga made real the rowdy frontier town and blistering desert of Hell’s Heroes. Pianist Utsav Lal brought his sensitive blend of jazz and raga to the family drama of I Was Born But… The five-piece Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra realized the headlong energy of The Kid Brother. The ghostly atmosphere and emotional rawness of The Phantom Carriage were raised to a higher level by the imagination, skill, and beauty of the four-piece Matti Bye Ensemble. And the audiences’ cheers for these artists were as heartfelt and thunderous as the huzzas for the films themselves.

If you’ve had enough of the same old same thing that dominates today’s movie houses, be sure to be first in line for tickets to next year’s 2025 San Francisco Silent Film Festival!

Laura Albert

Laura Albert has won international acclaim for her fiction. Writing as JT LeRoy, she is the author of the best-selling novels Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and the novella Harold's End. Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, reissued by HarperCollins, have also been released as audiobooks by Blackstone Publishing. Laura Albert is the subject of Jeff Feuerzeig's feature documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story and Lynn Hershman Leeson's film The Ballad of JT LeRoy. She has written for The New York Times, The Forward, The London Times, Spin, Man About Town, Vogue, Film Comment, Interview, L'Équipe Sport&Style, Filmmaker, I-D, and others – more recently, the cover article for Man About Town and her reflections on fashion for VESTOJ. A writer for the HBO series "Deadwood," she also wrote the original script for Gus Van Sant's Elephant and was the film's Associate Producer. She has written the short films Radiance for Drew Lightfoot and ContentMode, and Dreams of Levitation and Warfare of Pageantry for Sharif Hamza and Nowness. For Tiempo de Literatura 2020's “The Narrative Universe of Laura Albert,” she engaged in a wide-ranging ZOOM conversation with Fernanda Melchor, International Booker Prize Shortlist author for her acclaimed novel Hurricane Season. Twitter: @lauraalbert Instagram: @laura_albert