2010 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Roundup

The 15th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival started with President of the Board of Directors Judy Wyler Sheldon welcoming the audience and opening the festivities with her pick for some highlights over the weekend. As the crowd roared in appreciation, the first reel began to spool.

Opening Night – Thursday July 15th

The Iron Horse 1924 John Ford, George O’Brien, Madge Bellamy

I feel in some respects this film is slightly better than James Cruze’s 1923 The Covered Wagon for Paramount. Both films take very seriously the history they are presenting. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve seen The Covered Wagon, but my recollection is that its overlong and a bit dull. Equally so with The Iron Horse. I found it very title heavy and overlong without the leading man showing up until well into the second half of the film. This was History 101 and, boy oh boy, John Ford sure let you know it. Once the grown up George O’Brien showed up in the film, the pacing as well as the action picked up appreciably. Dennis James played the original score on the Mighty Wurlitzer and was as he always is a terrific showman. I’d give it a solid **** for George O’Brien with a ripped shirt and ripped muscles (hubba hubba) and the rest of the film a solid ***

Saturday July 16th

Amazing Tales From the Archives #1

This is always a program I look forward to. Without the work of the archivists, we’d have no films to see. I missed the early half of the program and came in the middle of the presentation by Paula Felix-Didier and Fernando Pena from Argentina who were explaining Mr. Pena’s journey of twenty years to view the version of Metropolis that was lodged in the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires. It was fascinating and only served to make my mouth water to see the restored film later this evening. I understand I missed some splendid fashion reels earlier in the program, damn. Piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

A Spray of Plum Blossoms 1931 Bu Wangcang, Jin Yan, Ruan Lingyu

Author and President emeritus Richard J. Meyer introduced what is becoming an annual event, a Chinese silent film for the festival. A Spray of Plum Blossoms is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona with a little bit of The Mark of Zorro thrown in for good measure. Most of the films from this era that have been presented in the past have been sad, romantic tales, often with tragic endings. Plum Blossoms was a delightful alternative. It starred Jin Yan (the Rudolph Valentino of Shanghai as Meyer stated) and the tragic and stunning Ruan Lingyu. While some of the comedy was a tad forced, I had no trouble immersing myself in the unfamiliar and rather strange military lifestyle. Lin Chuchu played the love interest for Jin Yan and I found her to be quite naturalistic and fun. Jin Yan showed much charm (What a smile!) and an appeal reminiscent to Rudolph Valentino in his swashbuckler of a film, The Eagle. The print featured dual language titles which I thought was unusual. I quizzed Mr. Meyer after the film wondering if this was common. He said it was done in only three films he knew of. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed it and now I’m going to have to read the two bios authored by Mr. Meyer. Donald Sosin offered appropriate and some frothy music on the piano.

Rotaie 1928 Mario Camerini: Kathe von Nagy Maurizio D’Ancora and Daniele Crespi

Artistic Director, Anita Monga introduced this film and likened it to F.W. Murnau’s 1926 film Sunrise. To many silent film fans Sunrise is one of the greatest, if not the greatest silent film of the era. I would not go so far as to say Sunrise is the greatest film. It is, however, among my top 10 favorites. Her comparison perhaps resulted in my being unfairly harsh on this beautifully shot film. The first 10 or 15 minutes of the film sucked you in, it built slowly and there was great tension and curiosity once you got what exactly was going on. Then, after a twist of luck for the pair of protagonists the film dropped for me. The characters were all too human and not terribly likeable. I found myself squirming in my seat wondering why this woman would stay with her husband, who had been correctly described by her parents as “no good.” The character who proved wisest and most compelling to me was the rich playboy played by Daniele Crespi. He was subtle and while his character was a bit of a cad, in the end he proved to be a very decent fellow. I will give props 100% to the beautiful camerawork of Ubaldo Arata, some gorgeously lit and composed shots. In the end, it fell flat for me. Ably accompanied by Stephen Horne.

Metropolis 1927 Fritz Lang: Gustav Frohlich, Birgitte Helm

The film was introduced by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation and Paula Felix-Didier and Fernando Pena. The compelling story of Mr. Pena’s twenty year journey to see this version of the film was no less compelling that when I heard it earlier in the day. Loads of cineastes stick their collective noses in the air when referring to the Giorgio Moroder version of the film, I quite liked it. It had been that long since I’d seen this film and I was very much looking forward to seeing after so many years in a nearly complete print. The film was digitally projected and I heard many complaints about it from various people I spoke with later on. That did not bother me so much. What can one say about this landmark film? It’s Metropolis, after all. Visually stunning, the design is overwhelming. The acting was abysmally over the top. I’d forgotten what a terrific beating Birgitte Helm takes in the film, it’s a wonder she survived. What really made the experience for me and the 1400+ people in the audience was the score composed and performed by The Alloy Orchestra. This was my first time hearing them play a silent film live and it was an E-V-E-N-T in every sense of the word. Their massive, percussive score moved the film along and underscored and overscored the action. The rousing Standing O they received was richly deserved. I have to laugh, in speaking with Kevin Brownlow about it later on, he acknowledged their score and still sniffed “I saw it with the original score in Italy.” Here’s hoping the KINO DVD release has the option for both. That said, for me Alloy really made the film.

Saturday July 17th

The Big Business of Short, Funny Films hosted by Leonard Maltin and Pete Doctor and Variations on a Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Film. Sadly, I missed these two programs due to a lovely brunch at the home of author Matthew Kennedy. I have seen The Cook and laughed uproariously and would have again. Hopefully I made up for that with the Sunday morning breakfast, eh Rodney?

The Flying Ace 1926 Richard Norman: Laurence Griner, Katherine Boyd and Steve Reynolds.

I’ve long wanted to see one of the few surviving films produced by Norman Films. I had done no homework and was really surprised to discover that producer/director Richard Norman was not an African American. I thoroughly enjoyed the introduction to the film by Ann Burt and Caroline Williams of the Norman Studios Museum. The film was not an action film, at least not in the sense I thought it might be given the title. Aerial footage was kept to a minimum. This was not a large budget feature, nor was it an action film in the strictest sense. It was more of a detective film. Low budget or not, I found it to be rather enjoyable. Kathryn Boyd did not have a lot to do, but she was lovely just the same. The star of the film may have been Laurence Griner, but the person whole stole the picture was Steve Reynolds “Peg” a veteran who lost a leg and did the most amazing stunts in the film. Donald Sosin provided the music.

The Strong Man 1926 Frank Capra: Harry Langdon Priscilla Bonner

Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury of Photoplay Productions were on hand to receive The Silent Film Festival Award. Richly deserved and long overdue for all of the beautiful and hard work Photoplay Productions has done over the years with restorations and their documentary films. I lack the slapstick comedy gene. I love Buster Keaton, Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Laurel and Hardy never fail to make me laugh. I can take it all in small doses. I confess, the artistry and humor of Harry Langdon escapes me. Perhaps I am being unfair, I've only seen this one film of his. Yes, I've seen clips of many bits, but I do not get it. While there were moments of mild amusement, I came away from this film wondering why he is considered the “Fourth Great Comedian” of the silent era. Much of the film was, to me, really unfunny and, frankly, downright creepy. I’ll chalk this up to my lack of slapstick gene LP14-IL.

Diary of a Lost Girl and Haxan were missed due to having to prepare for an early breakfast I was hosting the next morning. No snubs were intended, I had bacon to cook and had seen both films before.

Sunday July 18th

Amazing Tales From the Archives #2

I missed out on the first half of this program and came in time to see the presentation by the National Film Preservation Foundation giving us the lowdown on the remarkable re-patriation of 75 formerly lost films discovered in New Zealand. I was doubly proud and chuffed to see on the big screen an early Vitagraph film entitled The Better Man. This film is one of the films that was preserved with the help of bloggers Marilyn Ferdinand (Ferdy on Films) and Farran Smith Nehme (Self Styled Siren) who organized the Film Preservation Blogathon in February. The credit card for the blogathon made me cheer loudly and clap hard. The Better Man was a good little film and had the unusual twist of portraying the “bad guy” Mexican bandit as, truly, the better man in a most flattering light. Yay for the good guys!

The Shakedown 1929 William Wyler: James Murray, Barbara Kent and Jack Hanlon.

This was the best film of the weekend for me. This was a small film, a programmer and William Wyler’s second film. It was, in short, a revelation. That Wyler could pretty much come out of the box and give us a film that moved at breakneck speed and tell a story with such slim and easily hackneyed material in such an entertaining fashion shows what a raw talent he was. The film also showcased what a tragic loss was the career of James Murray. I’d only seen him in King Vidor’s 1928 film The Crowd. He’s affecting in that film. In The Shakedown he is even more moving, more natural. This illustrated to me all the more how tragic that his career was so short and his end so swift. Murray’s scenes with young Jack Hanlon as the orphaned boy are great, very natural camaraderie between the two and blossoming into a very heartfelt father and son-like affection. Murray and Hanlon’s tears were real, so too were mine. Barbara Kent, who is one of the few silent players still with us, had little to do but to look pretty. She did that well. Harry Gribbon mugged and did his scenes with the boy to great effect. I came away so pleased with the film. It’s a sleeper and was my favorite of the weekend. A programmer that hit a home run out of the ballpark and into McCovey Cove.

Man With a Movie Camera 1929 Dziga Vertov

This film can easily be identified as one of the “arty farty” kind of films that could bore the pants off you and give you a headache. Frankly, after reading the program notes by Hell on Frisco Bay’s Brian Darr, I thought I’d be doing just that, snoring through the movie. I could not have been further wrong. As much as I did enjoy this film, I have to give props to Alloy Orchestra for making this movie for me. I can appreciate the rapid cutting and endless montage, but without Alloy’s score, I think I would have headed to the nearest bar for a pick me up. Instead, I was cheering at the end, it was splendid seeing it this way.

The Woman Disputed 1928 Henry King and Sam Taylor: Norma Talmadge, Gilbert Roland and Arnold Kent.

No question this is a star turn by Norma Talmadge. I’ve long wanted to see one of her films on the big screen. This was a special treat because it was not only Norma, it was Norma in the midst of her torrid affair with the tremendously yummy Gilbert Roland. Yes, I am exactly this shallow. This is a film that was made during the bridge of the silent to talkie era. The production values were rich, the camera work was glossy and the story a little over the top. Talmadge was in her element, her large expressive eyes really did emote in a subtle and devastating fashion. In only one instance would I say Talmadge appeared uncomfortable on screen. That was during the kitchen scenes. I can’t believe she ever, in real life, hoisted a skillet to so much as fry an egg. I showed. The sparks between she and Gilbert Roland were obvious. The ending was over the top as every report I’ve read has stated. Nevertheless, this was a FUN film, all Hollywood gloss and that’s what I expected and that’s exactly what I received.

L’Heureuse Mort 1924 Serge Najadene: Nicholas Rimsky, Suzanne Bianchetti

This film was probably my second favorite of the weekend. It was so reminiscent of the light touch of Rene Clair, it was funny, a bit silly and in the end totally enjoyable. Props must be given to the witty score by the Matti Bye Ensemble. It fit the film like a glove, this was the dessert that ended the festival on a light and fun note. Nicholas Rimsky shined in his dual role and Suzanne Bianchetti reminded me so much of Edna Purviance. She had the same easy charm, the same delightful personality and she stole the film as she retold the tale of the storm at sea. The animated sequence of the duel was so cleverly done, I totally loved it.

Upon Sleeping it Off
I must admit, when I first read the schedule for the festival I felt some disappointment. I thought it was far too heavy on arty films. I had expected that for the 15th Anniversary the Board of Directors, Stacey Wisnia and Anita Monga would pull out all the stops for some great silent film blockbuster hits. They didn’t and regardless of my silent inner grumbling, I have to give it to them, I really enjoyed the films far more than I’d expected. That said, I think it is time to bring back some of the big guns like a Mary Pickford, a De Mille, a Clara Bow, a Chaplin or a couple of westerns. There is plenty out there to choose from. I'd like to put in yet another plug for the Festival to bring back Photoplay Productions and have them bring along their legendary print of The Eagle with Valentino. It's off a 35mm camera negative for pity's sake. In the Castro this will shine and Valentino will draw a nice crowd, too.

This brings up another complaint, print quality. I bitched and moaned about the prints in the 2009 festival. I applaud heartily the SFSFF's attention to screening the films with terrific live music. I wish they'd pay a little more attention to the quality of the prints that are getting screened. I know it (1) costs money and (2) sometimes there is a SNAFU. With the great reputation the SFSFF has, I would think going after the primo prints would be a natural.

I loved the Melies films and think that it would be great to showcase some more short films. A program of some early situation comedies would bring down the house, especially if your able to program some Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew comedies. Just my 2 cents!

Chris Snowden posted on his Silent Movie Blog listed some valid complaints about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I'd tend to agree with items #5 and #7. Most of the notes in the program book were, to me, snobby film school speak. The notes did little in giving some history of the making of the films and in some cases really did nothing to encourage me to even want to see the films. I do not pretend to be a great writer, but I know enough about some film history that you can write entertaining and informative notes and not make it read like you've got a broomstick up your backbone. I'd like to add another complaint. Not a big one, but, if the festival is going to continue to be spread out over 4 days with fewer films per day, can you schedule some of the in between times to be a hair longer? We found ourselves rushing back to the theatre more than once as the break time was not long enough to acommodate a meal.

More Lucid Voices From the Peanut Gallery
Other fine reports of the festival can be found at San Francisco Silent Film Confidential. Michael Guillen at The Evening Class has written way more than I've been able to between the end of the festival and now. I've hardly recovered! Brian Darr of Hell on Frisco Bay has done his wrap up here. Brian thanks for stopping by the book table to say hello, it was great to meet you face to face. Thomas Gladysz of The Louise Brooks Society offers his thoughts on Louise at his blog as well as at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival blog which links to other blogs with their roundups.

I may be tired after a whirlwind weekend of movies and social events, nonetheless, I am already looking forward to next year.

The Daughters of Naldi
Joan Myers, Greta de Groat, Karie Bible, Donna Hill, Mary Mallory


Tinky said…
Thanks for the report! Very informative and fun for those of us who couldn't make it. I really enjoy your candid writing style and would like to consider myself a Daughter of Naldi in spirit.
Nice blog i like it
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