San Francisco International Film Festival 57
Stephin Merritt’s ukulele score got mixed reviews but no one could deny the fabulousness of a very young Joan Crawford in Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927). A silent film, it served as a warm-up for Browning’s better known talkie, Freaks (1932), also set in a carnival (“One of us! One of us!”). Lon Chaney stars as Alonzo, an arm-less performer with a dark past. Crawford is Nanon, his assistant in a knife throwing act. Norman Kerry is Malabar, the strong man who comes between them. Fascinated with carnival life, Browning uses this set-up to create a startling drama. Cinematographer Merritt B. Gerstad also shot Freaks.
Crawford plays a sort of gypsy flapper. Having first seen her in movies when she was elderly, it’s always a shock to see the younger Crawford. Costumes were by Lucia Coulter, who was born during the first months of the Civil War.
At the San Francisco International Film Festival, Stephin Merritt once again took to the stage of the Castro Theatre to accompany a silent film. He last appeared with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916). As much as I like Merritt and his band The Magnetic Fields (their “69 Love Songs” is a classic), I found his baritone warbling insufferable. This time, he didn’t sing but instead strummed on a ukulele. Some found it tedious, but I disagree. Merritt went to the limits of the humble uke’s capabilities. He stayed within the context of the film and gave it enough harmonic variation to keep it interesting.