Glamour revival

Vintage stars and restored celluloid gleam at the SF Silent Film Festival

Prix de Beauté

FILM The 18th San Francisco Silent Film Festival opens with Augusto Genino's 1930 Prix de Beauté, literally translated as "beauty prize" but more often referred to in English as Miss Europe. Memo to all wannabe pageant queens: you might as well shuffle off the stage when Louise Brooks — flawless features, perfect hair, sparkling smile, star quality oozing from every pore — shows up to compete.

Though she knows her jealous boyfriend will disapprove, vivacious typist Lucienne (Brooks) impulsively enters herself into the Miss France contest; after she wins, she advances to Miss Europe, where she's also victorious. (Apparently Miss Universe hadn't been invented yet, because obviously she'd take that title, too.) When her sourpuss love orders her home, she mourns her lost-and-found glamorous life while confined to their small apartment, where she's kept company by a caged bird and a cuckoo clock. Amid all this dreary symbolism, a movie contract (offered by a worldly, dandy prince who'd pursued her at the beauty pageant) seems just the ticket to a better life — but as any Brooks fan can tell you, happy endings were not exactly her specialty.

Scripted by frequent Brooks collaborator G.W. Pabst (with René Clair, director of 1924's Entr'acte), Prix de Beauté was the Hollywood rebel's last major starring role; though it was shot as a very early sound film, Brooks' part was dubbed, and it'll be shown at the Silent Film Festival in traditional silent form. Look forward to a gorgeous print, thanks to a full restoration done last year by Italian film archive Cineteca di Bologna, and accompaniment by seasoned silent film pianist Stephen Horne.

More movie-star charisma comes courtesy of the oft-misunderstood Marion Davies, who gets a chance to display her considerable comedic talents in King Vidor's 1928 The Patsy. Modern audiences remember Davies for her long association with William Randolph Hearst; some assume she was more or less exactly like the shrill Susan Alexander character in 1941 roman à clef Citizen Kane. And while Hearst did manipulate her career, he was said to prefer her in costume dramas, like 1922's When Knighthood Was in Flower, in which she played Mary Tudor — hardly similar to The Patsy's goofy heroine, sort of a proto-Greta Gerwig type.

The Silent Film Festival's description of the film attributes The Patsy's existence to star director Vidor's "Hollywood clout." But its enduring popularity (it closed the 2008 fest) is surely due to Davies' performance, which famously includes her dead-on impressions of fellow silent stars Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri. Living in the shadow of her elegant older sister, Grace (Jane Winton), awkward Pat (Davies) is forever stumbling and messy-haired. ("I wish I were beautiful and seductive, like a stocking advertisement," she says, in one of the play-turned-film's many hilarious intertitles.)

Pat pines for Grace's nerdy beau, Tony — but even when Grace starts sneaking around with a local bad boy, Tony doesn't notice Pat, despite her attempts to get his attention via some silly self-improvement efforts. Blustering on the sidelines is stage and screen legend Marie Dressler, a 1930 Best Actress Oscar winner for Min and Bill, who plays the sisters' comedically overbearing mother. The Library of Congress supplies The Patsy on 35mm, with live accompaniment by the five-piece Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

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