Silents, please

On New Year’s Eve, I had a brief discussion with a friend about silent movies and how he doesn’t enjoy them so much — not because you have to read on title cards whatever dialogue the actors are saying, but because the acting was so “stagey.”

Speaking of where to discover great silent films, if you live in the Bay Area you need to visit this place, where they show silents weekly, with live musical accompaniment.

That’s what I thought, too, for years. But recently I’ve seen a few silents that struck me for the subtle expressiveness many performers were able to get across on camera, performances in which actors knew they were not projecting to a theater balcony. If all you know of silents are slapstick chases and stunts, and you love films, there are some overlooked gems out there if you know where to look.

One of these for me was a 1929 feature, actually known as a transitional sound film, called Redskin. It was shot partially in Technicolor, and featured a synchronized score and sound effects.

By the title and the era it comes from, you might be expecting this to be a film full of racial stereotypes and other insensitivity. But you would be surprised. Redskin actually is a sympathetic and relatively nuanced tale of a young Navajo boy, a fast runner named Wingfoot, taken from his family and sent to an Indian boarding school. The cruelty and tragedy of this era comes through in a few deft scenes. Despite adversity, though, Wingfoot excels, and goes to college, where he encounters more racism, but excels again, only to find upon his return that he is no longer fits in with his traditional family.

Director Victor Schertzinger avoids the most glaring stereotypes in this picture. It would have been great if Native actors had been found for the lead roles, but that’s probably asking too much, considering the times. With Richard Dix in the role of Wingfoot, the film invites you to see these characters as people, remarkably complex, not cardboard heroes and villains. The scenes in the Navajo and Pueblo villages are particularly affecting, shot on location partially in Canyon de Chelly and Acoma Pueblo.

We discovered this picture on a DVD, Treasures II: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934, a feature-length film amid a collection of obscure short films from a variety of sources including businesses and advocacy groups, produced by the National Film Preservation Foundation. It’s worth seeking out. (We found it on Netflix.)

A note on the director: 

Sometimes it seems as though people long ago used to be able to stuff many more accomplishments into a life — even a short one — than we do now, despite all our technological toys. 

Pennsylvania-born Victor Schertzinger was much more than the director of this one remarkable film. He directed 89 films, in fact, including two of the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “Road” movies. But he was also a concert violinist and symphony conductor, and a pioneering film composer who won best musical score and sound recording Oscars in 1934 for One Night of Love. 

And if that’s not enough, he also composed two standards that you’ll hear today on jazz stations and in cabaret shows, I Remember You and Tangerine.

Schertzinger died in 1941, at the age of 53.