Thursday, May 28, 2015


Over the span of two decades, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) has transformed itself from a one-day, three-film event into the second most prestigious silent movie showcase in the world. As you would expect, all the stops are being pulled for the 20th anniversary edition which begins Thursday, May 28 and runs through Monday. The staggering 21-program line-up includes a quartet of canon-worthy classics nestled alongside several highly anticipated restorations. There'll also be Pauline Kael's all-time favorite film (the 1926 French short Ménilmontant), Harold Lloyd's last silent picture (Speedy) and Frank Capra's first sound film (The Donovan Affair, whose lost soundtrack will be recreated by live actors). The roster of high-profile guests includes Kevin Brownlow, Serge Bromberg and Leonard Maltin.

All of this goes down, as it has for 20 years, at San Francisco's beloved 1922 movie palace, the Castro Theatre. All programs but one feature live music from SFSFF's stable of world-renowned silent movie accompanists, and every attendee receives a program guide full of enlightening essays about the films—all written specifically for the festival. Lovers of bona fide celluloid should find reason to cheer, with a dozen programs boasting at least some element of 35mm film exhibition. (I'll be indicating which ones based on information from the indispensable Film on Film Foundation.) Finally—if you'll permit a sentimental moment from a 40-year SF resident who barely recognizes his cherished city these days—congratulations SFSFF on your 20th anniversary, with wishes for 20 more. You continue to embody all that's ever been unique and wonderful about San Francisco. Now here's my overview of the 2015 line-up.

Classics Silent film virgins could scarcely receive a better education in what made the era great than by checking out the four gems SFSFF has placed in the festival's evening primetime slots. Kicking things off on opening night will be Lewis Milestone's brutally affecting anti-war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930, 35mm), which won Academy Awards for Outstanding Production and Best Director. Filmed with side-by-side cameras as both a sync-sound silent and as a talkie, it's the silent version that most film historians now consider superior. The presentation will be introduced by Mike Mason of the U.S. Library of Congress, which recently restored the silent version to commemorate WWI's centennial. My favorite bit of All Quiet trivia has it that comedic actress Zazu Pitts originally played the main character's mother, but erroneous laughter at preview screenings resulted in her scenes being reshot with a different actress. After the screening, opening night revelers will party at the McRoskey Mattress Company, whose top floor loft will be transformed into a 1920's era Berlin cabaret.

Closing out the fest on Monday night is Fred Niblo's Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925, 35mm), which is the movie I'm most anticipating. It was one of three films shown at the inaugural SFSFF in 1996, but alas I've never seen it (or the 1959 remake for that matter). Considered the most expensive Hollywood production of its time and the third highest grossing film of the silent era, Ben-Hur is best known for its legendary chariot race, which was shot with 42 cameras at what's now the intersection of La Cienega and Venice Boulevards in Los Angeles. The long list of stars believed to have worked as extras includes Fay Wray, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford and Lionel Barrymore. Legend further has it that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard first met on the Ben-Hur set. The Jesus sequences employ two-strip Technicolor, which is perhaps why it was promoted as "The Picture Every Christian Should See!" Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ will be the only SFSFF20 presentation not to include live musical accompaniment. In its stead, we'll hear a prerecorded score by revered silent film composer Carl Davis, which totally works for me. The program will be preceded by an on-stage conversation between Serge Bromberg and Kevin Brownlow, Ben-Hur having been restored by Brownlow's company, Photoplay.

Occupying the festival's primetime slot on Friday and Saturday evening respectively will be F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924) and Clarence Brown's Flesh and the Devil (1926, 35mm). The Murnau, which I'm shocked hasn't screened at SFSFF previously, stars the great Emil Jannings as a Grand Hotel doorman who faces societal shame when demoted to washroom attendant. This immortal, humanist film is noted for its near total absence of intertitles and the kinetic "unchained camera" technique that was revolutionary for its time. Renowned cinematographer Karl Freund would go on to shoot Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Tod Browning's Dracula and 150 episodes of I Love Lucy. Three years after The Last Laugh, Murnau came to Hollywood and made his masterpiece, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Flesh and the Devil, which SFSFF previously presented in 2007, is remembered for the on-screen chemistry of its two stars, Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. The handsome pair fell in love while making the film and were reportedly living together by the end of shooting. Kevin Brownlow will introduce this melodrama about two childhood friends whose lives are destroyed by a love for the same femme fatale.

Restoration Spotlights

There's no better way to get a leg up on the latest silent discoveries and restorations than by attending the free admission Amazing Tales from the Archives, which gets Friday's programming underway. This year Serge Bromberg will discuss and screen Figures de cire (House of Wax), a newly uncovered 1914 short by Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques Tourneur, of Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie fame). Then the British Film Institute's Bryony Dixon will present new footage pertaining to the infamous RMS Lusitania, with actor Paul McGann (the "I" in Withnail and I) narrating. In recognition of the Technicolor Corporation's centenary, we'll also get to see a two-strip Technicolor tour of Hearst Castle conducted by its architect, Julia Morgan and Hearst himself. Finally, film restorer and SFSFF Board of Directors President Rob Byrne will discuss the restoration of Sherlock Holmes (1916, 35mm), which will screen on Sunday night and is considered THE big archival discovery of the past year. Considered lost until its recent uncovering at the Cinémathèque Française—it had been improperly labeled—the film stars William Gillette as the quintessential Holmes. Gillette performed as the famed detective over 1,300 times on stage, and his mannerisms and costuming are said to be responsible for the Holmes-ian image we still carry today. Sherlock Holmes is believed the only record of his performance. This not-to-be missed event will be the U.S. premiere of a co-restoration undertaken by the Cinémathèque Française and the SFSFF.

Two additional programs highlight recent restorations. In 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black History (1913, 35mm), we'll experience the raw footage shot for an all African-American feature, starring Caribbean-American entertainer Bert Williams. Unedited and unreleased due to abandonment by its white producers, the seven reels of footage were discovered hiding in the MoMA's Biograph Studio collection. Highlights are said to include a jubilant two-minute dance sequence and unheard of for its time physical affection between its male and female leads. MoMA Associate Curator Ron Magliozzi will present a slideshow of stills and other materials relating to the would-be film. Another exciting new restoration is the U.S. premiere of Barry O'Neill's When the Earth Trembled (1913, 35mm), a 3-reel spectacular depicting the 1906 earthquake and fire. Rob Byrne introduces and discusses the restoration, which was performed by SFSFF in conjunction with Amsterdam's EYE Filmmuseum. That program will also include the now iconic A Trip Down Market Street, shot days before the earthquake. It's a film this San Franciscan can't watch too many times.

Cinéma muet

This year's festival includes a welcome collection of French silents, beginning with the double-billed shorts of Avant-Garde Paris. First on that program will be Man Ray's Emak-Bakia (1927, 35mm). I'm excited to finally see this after having experienced Oskar Alegria's weird and wonderful documentary The Search for Emak Bakia at the 2013 SF International Film Festival. "Emak Bakia" is a Basque term roughly meaning "leave me alone," and Alegria's film is about, amongst other things, a search for the Biarritz seaside mansion (named Emak Bakia) where Man Ray shot this experimental short. Sharing the program will be Dimitri Kirsanoff's Ménilmontant (1926), which Pauline Kael once called the favorite film of her "entire life." Director Kirsanoff was a Russian aristocrat who fled the revolution, and his 44-minute experimental melodrama is said to be an unforgettable record of 1920's Paris. The story concerns two sisters struggling to survive in the titular working class district, having fled the countryside as children following the double axe-murder of their parents (!?) There are no intertitles, with the movie's narrative being exclusively telegraphed via "the elegance of its images."

A pair of French narrative features also graces this year's SFSFF line-up. Director Jacques Feyder, best known for his 1935 classic Carnival in Flanders, shot Visages d'enfants in 1923 but didn't see its release until two years later. (His following film, Gribiche, played the fest in 2013). Set in the Swiss mountains, this psychological drama explores the consequences of a young man's cruel resentment towards his stepmother. The film is remembered for its "simple intimacy and emotional poignancy," as well as the authenticity of its setting (Visages d'enfants begins with an 11-minute depiction of a village funeral). Prior to the screening, Serge Bromberg will be awarded the 2015 SF Silent Film Festival Award—his company Lobster Films having completed the restoration of Visages d'enfants in 2004. The other French narrative is André Antoine's The Swallow and the Titmouse (1920). This tale of life aboard two Belgian cargo barges was the director's tenth and final feature. It was never released because the producers found Antoine's raw footage too "documentary-like" and refused the necessary financing to complete the picture. Nor was it ever edited—that is until Henri Colpi, co-editor on such classics as Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, sculpted a completed film from the existing footage in 1984.

Although he was born in Iowa and worked exclusively in the U.S., I'm lumping The Amazing Charley Bowers in with the French because of his championing by André Breton and the surrealists. Originally an animator on Mutt and Jeff cartoons, Bowers eventually created his own comedies that blended live action, animation and a penchant for Rube Goldberg-like contraptions. The program will spotlight four of his 15 surviving films, including A Wild Roomer (1926), Now You Tell One (1926), Many a Slip (1927) and There It Is (1928), the latter starring a cockroach detective. Bowers' shorts were restored by Lobster Films and appropriately enough, Serge Bromberg will provide the musical accompaniment.


At this point it's worth mentioning that children 12 and under enjoy greatly reduced ticket prices for all SFSFF programs. Over past years I've come to gleefully anticipate the sound of 21st century children howling at the antics of silent comedy on weekend mornings at the festival. Charley Bowers occupies that timeslot on Sunday this year, while on Saturday it'll be Harold Lloyd's final silent feature Speedy (1928). Lloyd plays a failed soda jerk turned distracted cab driver who's also a diehard NY Yankees fan trying to save his girlfriend's grandfather's horse-drawn streetcar business. I'm especially dying to see the 20-minute segment set at Coney Island's legendary Luna amusement park, where Lloyd gives himself "the finger" in a funhouse mirror. It represents the first on-screen delivery of the now-obscene gesture. Another Speedy highlight is a frantic taxi ride Lloyd gives Babe Ruth, who was just weeks away from hitting his record-breaking 60th season home run. Director Ted Wilde, who also made Lloyd's Kid Brother, directed the baseball star in the previous year's now-lost feature Babe Comes Home. This program is co-presented by the San Francisco Giants and the comedian's granddaughter Suzanne Lloyd will do the introduction.

Comedy continues with a pair of films starring actresses who were enormous stars in their heyday, but whose legacies are now somewhat muted. Robert Thornby's The Deadlier Sex (1920, 35mm) stars Blanche Sweet, who made her first film in 1909 with D.W. Griffith's Biograph Studios. Sweet was known for her independence and vivaciousness, qualities not normally accorded Griffith heroines. Her popularity lasted until the end of the silent era, with Sweet's IMDb profile listing 164 credits (the final one being an appearance on the 1960 TV sitcom, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis). The Deadlier Sex will be introduced by Josef Linder of the Academy Film Archive, which restored the film, and will be preceded by Dave Fleischer's Koko's Queen (1926), an animated Koko the Clown short restored by the National Film Preservation Board and EYE Filmmuseum. William Seiter's Why Be Good? (1929) was the final silent film for actress Colleen Moore, who soon retired from Hollywood after making three unsuccessful talkies. Moore plays a "shop girl by day and flapper by night" in a film that was accompanied by a Vitaphone soundtrack with music and sound effects. Why Be Good? was considered a lost film until a print was discovered in Italy sometime in the late '90s. Restoration was completed just last year. The screening will be introduced by Leonard Maltin.

For those who dig comedy with a darker edge, SFSFF20 offers two movies that'll fit the bill. Géza von Bolváry's The Ghost Train (1927, 35mm) is said to give comedy and horror equal weight, with a story about passengers stranded at a haunted station where a phantom train passes each year on the anniversary of a grisly train wreck. The film was a true international co-production, with a Hungarian director and both British and German actors. (It was shot a UFA Studios in Berlin). The print we'll see contains French intertitles, which will be translated live by actor Paul McGann. Next, Frank Capra's The Donovan Affair (1929) was the director's first "100% all-Dialogue Picture." The soundtrack, however, is permanently lost, in effect rendering the film silent. That imagined soundtrack will be recreated live at the Castro Theatre with actors from the Gower Gulch Players, along with music and sound effects by Bruce Goldstein, Repertory Director at NYC's famed Film Forum. Starring Columbia Pictures' square-jawed leading man Jack Holt, The Donovan Affair's plot is one I'm sure you've heard before. The lights go out at a high society dinner party and the titular Mr. Donovan gets a knife in the back. Inspector Killigan (Holt) is called to investigate and he insists on recreating the crime by cutting the lights again. Somebody else gets murdered. Rinse and repeat.

This and That

Rounding out the 2015 SFSFF line-up are two films from Scandinavia. Per Lindberg's Norrtullsligan (1923, 35mm) stars the terrific Swedish actress Tora Teje, whom SFSFF audiences have seen previously in Mauritz Stiller's 1920 Erotikon and Benjamin Christensen's 1922 Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages. She plays one of four secretaries who share an apartment, and her sardonic observations provide the movie's narration via verbose intertitles lifted directly from the 1908 source novel. The other Scandinavian film is also a novel adaptation, this time from Norwegian Nobel prize-winning author Knut Hamsum. Pan (1922, 35mm) is the only film ever directed by actor Harald Schwenzen and it's a romantic tale about a wealthy woman and a reclusive ex-soldier/hunter.

Last but not least, perhaps the most singular selection at this year's fest is Dan Duyu's fantastical Cave of the Spider Woman (1927, 35mm). A prime example of the "magic spirit" films popular in Shanghai at the time, Cave is based on a chapter from Journey to the West, a Ming Dynasty-era literary work considered one of China's great classical novels. Although it set box office records in 1927, the film was considered lost until its recent discovery and restoration by the National Library of Norway (whose representative Tina Anckarman will be on hand to give an introduction). This program will also include the U.S. premiere of Modern China, an eight-minute look at 1910 Beijing, recently restored by the British Film Institute.

And finally, the last day of the festival commences with the free admission program So You Think You Know Silents, a silent movie trivia contest hosted by Bruce Goldstein of NYC's Film Forum. Yes, there will be prizes!

Cross-published on film-415.

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