Orphan storm

The SF Silent Film Fest takes on the motherless and fatherless child
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The orphan was a staple figure in silent cinema. She or he evoked the pathos required in sentimental melodramas, and also highlighted a prevalent social problem. The predicament wasn't that orphans existed so much as that orphanages did. Dickensian clichés of wicked minders profiting from the ill-keeping of abused and undernourished charges were often not far from the truth.

The notion that flowers of pure innocence might spring from this kind of environmental mire was a popular dramatic conceit. It floated entire careers for such variably waiflike or plucky Pollyannas as Janet Gaynor, Lillian Gish, Mary Miles Minter (until she went down in a murder scandal), and of course, Mary Pickford, who was still playing foundlings in 1926, at 34. Their male counterparts were generally allowed to be scrappier: sad from being misunderstood, but gosh-darn-determined to prove the haters and snobs wrong.

One of the least-known titles in the 13th San Francisco Silent Film Festival, The Soul of Youth is a small delight that hews to and transcends the reigning tropes of screen ragamuffinery circa 1920. It opens on a note of heavy moral correctitude, as titles inform us that "A woman, who pray God there be no more like, has offered for sale her unborn child. Think of it: a helpless little baby, before its eyes have opened on the world, labeled 'unwanted' and sold!" Framed only to call the mother's character into question, it's no matter that this woman is impoverished, or that she dies after giving birth, or that she was initially tricked into the exchange by an addict who had the goods on her errant politician boyfriend.

Little Ed is then dumped into the nearest orphanage, a cruel place where — when next encountered at age 14, as played by 17-year-old Lewis Sergant — he is considered incorrigible and unfairly blamed for thefts and other misdeeds. His rescue of an imperiled black babe (cringingly named Rastus) goes unappreciated. It's only when he secretly takes in a fellow underdog — a stray canine named Simp — that "for the first time, love enters Ed's life." When this uninvited boarder is discovered, the pair must escape the orphanage and then the police, landing on that "Mecca of the homeless — the streets."

Meanwhile it turns out the sleazebag who rejected him as a son is now a corrupt mayoral candidate angling to defeat a terribly upstanding one. Ed's accidental involvement in that race — by risking his neck to preserve the respectability of virtuous rich folk and becoming a hero — proves his ultimate salvation. In classic wish-fulfillment fashion, he ends up (à la Little Orphan Annie) rewarded via adoption by the morally superior luxury class. But Soul of Youth is savvy enough to contrast Ed's new family with a wealthy neighbor who thinks she can replace her beloved lap-cat with a cherub sporting "blue eyes and golden curls." Just like Paris Hilton and her impulse-buy menagerie!

Soul of Youth was directed by William Desmond Taylor, whose yet-unsolved 1922 murder destroyed the futures of actresses (and intimates) Minter and Mabel Normand. The lovely work he does here makes one lament his too-short career. His protagonist, the floppy-banged, spunkily adorable Sargent, played Huckleberry Finn the same year. He subsequently suffered the usual post-juvenile career slide, resurfacing as a pal of Tarzan in mid-'30s serials and exiting as an unidentified thug in Miss Mink, a beyond-obscure film from 1949. He spent the next 20 years as a California state probation officer.

During Taylor's youth as a performer, Victorian morality still targeted his own lack of a parent — as well as his outright illegitimacy — as inherently morally suspect and something to be overcome.

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