San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Minus the speaking voice, but hardly muzzled
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PREVIEW According to (disputed) legend, the 1944 death of 36-year-old Lupe Velez was far from glamorous, yet had classic Hollywood form: face-down in the toilet, choked on the pills she was regurgitating in a suicide attempt that succeeded, albeit not as planned. That sad end — she was despondent over a married lover and their unborn child — provided high contrast with her live-wire persona on and off-screen. The latter included high-drama involvements with legendary hunks Gary Cooper and Johnny "Tarzan" Weissmuller. In movies, she both defined and transcended a "Mexican Spitfire" stereotype (the actual name of her popular B-flick comedy series) with manic comic energy reminiscent of a Latina Clara Bow on one hand and a blueprint for Charo on the other.

Two features in this year's Silent Film Festival find her minus speaking voice, but hardly muzzled. She was just 18 (and a convent school dropout) when picked to star opposite superstar Douglas Fairbanks in 1927's The Gaucho. As his highly temperamental, jealous sweetheart, she gave as good as she got, frequently engaging his rakish hero in knock-down fights — a rehearsal for notorious later public spats with short-term husband Weissmuller, perhaps? Two years later she'd assumed a title role herself in Lady of the Pavements, a very late silent (its added "part-talkie" sequences have been lost) and one of D.W. Griffith's last films. She plays a 19th-century Parisian cafe dancer who gets the Pygmalion treatment by a duplicitous countess seeking to humiliate her ex-fiancée. Material better suited to Lubitsch or Von Stroheim, this sophisticated seriocomic fluff wasn't ideal for stuffy Griffith; and he couldn't (or didn't want to) tap Velez's natural rambunctiousness as Fairbanks had. But this rare antique is still worth a look.

Other festival program highlights include Josef von Sternberg's Oscar-winning gangster tale Underworld (1927), Victor Sjostrom's poetic melodrama The Wind (1928), Gustav Machaty's scandalous Czech Erotikon (1929), early W.C. Fields vehicle So's Your Old Man (1926), and delirious Russian sci-fi exercise Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924). Live music will accompany each program.

SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL July 10–12, free–$20. Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF.

(415) 621-6120, www.silentfilm.org

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