19th San Francisco Silent Film Festival Recap

The 19th San Francisco Silent Film Festival has now come and gone.  I am still processing what I saw, who I met and what I thought.  My attendance this year was sketchier than I had intended, but, life got in the way.  I missed Song of the Fisherman, Cosmic Voyage, Underground, Under the Lantern, The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks, The Girl in Tails, Harbor Drift and The Navigator.  My friend Brooksie caught some of these and did a terrific write up on her own blog and because she’s such a fine writer and critic I encourage you to head over there for a look and read. 

Castro Marquee for Opening Night
Opening Night May 29th:
The festival opening night film was Rex Ingram's 1921 antiwar masterpiece The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  It is an old favorite and I was doubly excited to see it again at the Castro, I consider it a true masterpiece of silent cinema and I’d say this, even had Valentino not been in the cast. It’s a great film.  June Mathis’ scenario and Rex Ingram’s direction, John Seitz camerawork, it’s a masterful and still powerful film.  It holds up very well as a vision of the ultimate futility of war. It’s far less sentimental than both King Vidor’s The Big Parade(1925) and William Wellman’s Wings (1927). 

Valentino’s performance in the film is legendary.  He was offered what might be considered a bullet-proof part and he ran with it.  You truly see a star being born!  With the support of Ingram and Mathis, you have to really credit Valentino as he came to the table as a complete package.  He studied and worked hard on the film to bring the character of Julio to life and in this, he succeeded.  This film is also a case of the devil being in the details, Ingram and Mathis cast even the smallest parts with care.  Just take one look at the faces of the resistance fighters from Villeblanche as the camera dollies down the line before they are mercilessly shot.  A very powerful moment on film. 
The film was presented as a 35mm screening with musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. The print is the same that is telecast by Turner Classic Movies and restored by Photoplay Productions (Kevin Brownlow, the late David Gill and Patrick Stanbury). It’s always a pleasure to see this film and this restoration on the big screen.  Thursday evenings screening was no exception.

Mont Alto’s light score was beautifully played, but  I missed some heft of the Carl Davis orchestral score, which really suits this dramatic film.  Although I did like the stark percussion for the battle scenes, overall and on the whole it missed the mark for me.  Nevertheless, it  was a good show and the Castro’s audience was on their feet at the end.  Rightly so! 
Allow me to ascend my soapbox for a moment.  The essay in the program book for Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was a complete toss off.  It read like the author did a quick google search for factoids and that was, as they say, that.  Why was Kevin Brownlow not approached regarding the use  of his informative essay for an earlier BFI screening?  He could have dashed off something really terrific, as could have local to San Francisco Valentino biographer Emily W. Leider.  Stepping off the soapbox now.  End of tiny rant.

Also, as an aside, for those who could not make it, you can see The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse on the small home screen (or 90” flat screen) on July 11, 2014.  This is the Photoplay restoration along with the Carl Davis score.  I know I’ll be watching it, too!  Check TCM for the listing in your area. 

Orphan Film Symposium:

During various screenings we were treated to some rarities or “Orphan Films” thanks to Dan Streible of the Orphan Film Symposium.  (you can browse a bunch of cool stuff from the OPS past here at Internet Archive.

Among the treats we saw were hand tinted color footage taken in the Umbria Region of Italy circa 1911-1912.  We were treated to a cute newsreel short of Josephine Baker visiting Volendam in North Holland.  I can't embed the video, but you can see it here

Of real local interest was the footage shot on a destroyed Market Street after the 1906 earthquake and fire.  Very stark to see everything pretty much flattened by the fire.  You could also see many spots where the fire was still smoldering!  This is not the exact clip they screened, but, it’s a cool 14 minute video from the Library of Congress. 
I always enjoy seeing shorts prior to the films, be they orphans, fragments or true single or half reelers from the period.  There is always something to recommend them, a glimpse to the past, endlessly fascinating.  I would love to see this as an added attraction every year with a short preceding every film.  It would have been great to see this year, in particular, newsreels or bond rally films given it is the 100th anniversary of The Great War. 

Friday, May 30th:
Friday morning began with Amazing Tales from the Archives.  It was a corker of a program this year.  I thoroughly enjoyed it!  I always do!  This year was a lot of fun and we began with Bryony Dixon of the BFI presenting on The Birds and the Bees.  She brought with her and showed some fun nature films from pioneers Oliver Pike, Percy Smith and J.C. Bee-Mason
You can read more at the BFI website with Ms. Dixon’s essay on Nature in Film here.
Dan Streible of NYU Dept of Cinema Studies did a deconstruction of the reconstruction of the first copyrighted film, Fred Ott Record of a Sneeze
The sly and hilarious Raymond Rohauer edition is much better, if less historically significant. 

The morning session concluded with Academy Award winning Craig Barron (visual effects) and Ben Burtt (sound design) examining Chaplin’s use of technology, hanging minatures, matte or glass shots to entertaining effect.  If only grammar school had been this fun!
I’ve not done any real justice to their excellent presentations.  Let me simply say that it was a great start to the first full day of festival.

Midnight Madness

Midnight Madness produced by Cecil B. DeMille and directed by F. Harmon Weight stars Clive Brook and Jacqueline Logan (perhaps better remembered as Mary Magdalene in DeMille’s King of Kings) in a pretty silly programer.  It involves a nefarious son of a diamond importer trying to locate Clive Brook’s lucrative mine in South Africa, Jacqueline Logan who is recruited to marry him and spill the secret location, Clive Brook’s efforts to teach her a lesson for being a greedy girl thinking she married a millionaire and (spoiler alert) her rescue of him by shooting and killing (boo) a lion.  Even my brief plot spoiler might make this film sound a lot more fun than it was.  Believe me it took all the gorilla glue I could muster to stick my butt in the seat for this one.  The print was lovely, some wonderful closeups of Logan and Brook.  But it was so slight and part of me wants to say it was midnight madness to give this a go for a prime spot at such a prestigious festival. Stephen Horne provided lively accompaniment for it which was most enjoyable.  Robert S. Birchard's essay was informative and delightful, especially the photo of DeMille's office!

The Parson's Widow, this was not in the film
The still used in the program book for Carl Dreyer’s The Parson’s Widow filled me with dread (see above).  I’ll be honest, I’m not really a fan of Dreyer and God knows, I’ve tried.  Who knew The Parson’s Widow would end up being a comedy?  Droll and ultimately a sweet tale of a young parson who must marry the thrice married and to his eyes (and ours) ancient, prior parson’s widow in order to secure his position.  Sadly, his fiancé must masquerade as the maid for the Parson and his Wife.  He tries, without any success, to steal a rendezvous with her, much to his frustration.  There is a happy and sweet ending, it was a lovely film.  Plenty of laugh out loud moments, too.  This proved to be an unexpected highlight for me.  The print was excellent and the accompaniment was provided by San Francisco Silent Film Festival regular Matti Bye on the piano.  It took the Swedish Consul who introduced the film to teach us all how to pronounce Matti Bye and, believe me, the last name pronunciation does not rhyme with “high.”

I do not know anyone who was not looking forward to Edwin Carewe’s 1928 version of the ever popular novel by Helen Hunt Jackson Ramona.  Starring a luminous Dolores Del Rio as Ramona, Warner Baxter as Alessandro and Roland Drew as Felipe.  Drew also co-starred with Del Rio in Evangeline.  He is better remembered by sci-fi fans today as Prince Barin in the 1936 serial Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe with the delectable and beefy Buster Crabbe.

The film started with the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra leading the audience in a sing-a-long (complete with color slides) of the popular theme song for the film also entitled Ramona before the film started.  Happily, it kept the song from being repeated endlessly during the film (as a music track of the day might have).  I did have friends complain that they had the tune repeating endlessly in their own heads for days.  Mont Alto’s score was spot on for the film, I loved it!
The print was beautiful, Del Rio never looked lovelier and neither did Roland Drew!  I have to say, they were both shot through what looked like many layers of gauze.  Del Rio did not need it, she was an incredible beauty.  She also had that hoyden/gamine quality down for the start of the film, she was utterly charming.  The audience enjoyed hissing Vera Lewis as the stern stepmother and land baroness of ye olde California.  There was applause when the title card appeared that she had died.  Coming to Warner Baxter backwards, knowing his talkie career before his silent, it seemed odd to see him without his trademark mustache as Alessandro.  He was and looked a good 15 years older than his lady love Ramona.  I can’t say he did not do an admirable job, but, he lacked something as Alessandro.  He's not the "it" boy if you know what I mean.  For the film, they covered him with buckets of baby oil so he glistened in the sun which was nice. He flashed his teeth quite a bit and that reminded me a good deal of John Gilbert. 

The real shock for the film was the very realistic (for the time) rampage and murder of the Indian villagers (including shooting a baby point blank).  It was quite horrifyingly graphic.  The ending left something to be desired, as Felipe searches for the battle shocked Ramona to find her catatonic and an amnesiac in her grief.  Upon finally waking, she seems to have completely forgotten her murdered love Alessandro and is happy to be back with her adoring step brother.  Weird.  I urge you to keep an eye on the SFSFF website archive so you can read Marilyn Ferdinand’s excellent write up from the program book (she blogs regularly at Ferdy on Films).
I do wish that Hugh Neely had been invited to introduce the film he helped restore.  He was in the audience and the next day we met up between films and he told me some lovely anecdotes that would have been wonderful to share with the audience.


Saturday May 31:

One of the highlights of the festival for me was the screening of the early, pre-swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks in a modest western The Good Bad Man.  In the interest of full disclosure, I am affiliated with the Film Preservation Society as the Secretary.  That said, prior to the screening I had only seen a few clips of the film in progress and some still shots showing the before and after restoration.  I can state with puffed out pride that FPS did a fabulous job on the film, the print was gorgeous. 

It was an absolute corker, Fairbanks plays an outlaw named “Passin Through,” a roguish Western Robin Hood.  Bessie Love plays his love interest and gets prettier and prettier as the film rolls along.  Pomeroy Cameron (better known as The Centaur in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) plays the good lawman Bob Evans.  As Tracey Goessel noted in her introduction to the film, Fairbanks is known for his broad gestures and big personality.  In this film he really did tone that down to the small gestures and graces.  His scenes with Bessie Love exuded a sweetness that was hard to resist.  The film had plenty of action, too. 

The source of the print was via material held by the Cinematheque Francais.  The restoration came about by the joint efforts of The Film Preservation Society, the Cinematheque and The San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  A job well done!
Donald Sosin provided a jaunty score that both suited Fairbanks and the film!

Next up was the documentary I was really looking forward to see, The Epic of Everest.  I have long had a fascination with the tragic story of the ill-fated 1924 ascent to the summit of Everest (Chomolungma).  There was some simply stunning footage taken with early telephoto/telescopic lenses that took your breath away.  It also chronicled what it was like to trek to the base camps with primitive equipment and see the Tibetan villages along the way.  I am also sure that some of the Buddhist Monastaries filmed along the journey were later destroyed by the Chinese Government as so many have been.

There is not as much footage of Mallory and Irvine as I would have liked, this was more pure documentary about Everest, than it is about the personalities and chronicling their journey.  That said, the footage of the tiny figures on the face of the mountain and the description of them disappearing in wisps of clouds left a haunting image. 

Accompanied by Stephen Horne and Frank Bokius with a variety of instruments including piano, flute, Tibetan bowls, percussion, it also left one feeling haunted as the image of the awesome Chomolungma faded to black.

Sunday June 1:

Serge Bromberg’s Treasure Trove was a delight from start to finish on this Sunday morning.  How can it not be good when he starts by burning a piece of real honest to goodness stupidly dangerously flammable nitrate?!  We were treated to three two reelers, Charles Chaplin’s A Night in at the Show struck from an original negative.  The clarity was amazing.  Chaplin plays two roles, an inebriated swell and a rowdy common man in the upper balcony.  It’s always amazing how nimble Chaplin was. 
This was followed by The Waiter’s Ball starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Al St. John and a short appearance by Alice Lake. There are many gags in this film that are familiar to me only because I am fond of Arbuckle’s later hilarious comedy The Cook which also featured Buster Keaton.  This film was plenty funny, I enjoyed it quite a bit.  If you get a chance to see this, do, and then watch The Cook!

Finally we were treated to Buster Keaton in The Blacksmith.  What was exciting about this was there is a whole different half of the film that has been found.  It makes much more sense, logically in comedic form, I mean.  Serge ran the film up to a point and then started it again with the newly discovered and different second reel.  Hilarious!  Serge also brought up Fernando Pena to take a bow.  He’s another one of those great discoverers of film, he found the footage that enabled further restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis a few years back.  Now he has discovered a film that was not so much lost as forgotten.  Someone should buy him a free ticket to any archive to poke around amongst the unmarked cans of film. 
All three films were accompanied by Serge Bromberg on the piano, he plays so well and is so idiomatic in his accompaniment, everything is suited to the film you are watching.  A joy!

Next up were two films featuring Max Linder, Max Wants a Divorce (a shorter and just as funny precursor to Keaton’s Seven Chances) and Seven Years Bad Luck.  Both films are after Linder’s pre-war prime and produced in America for Essanay.  Linder had a tragic life post WWI, he suffered most likely from what is known today as PTSD as well as the ill effects of being gassed in the trenches.  He suffered from poor health and fought what was ,ultimately, a losing battle with depression.  He ended his and his wife’s lives in a murder/suicide in 1925.  Cheery way to start the day, isn’t it?  Max was a very funny man.

Max Wants a Divorce was a fun two reeler in which Max learns he will inherit a large sum of cash providing he is not married.  Sadly, he’s just been married!  He and his bride fight over who will be chosen as the perfect corespondent so they can quickly divorce and get the cash.  It was a charming piece of fun.

Seven Years Bad Luck begins with an inebriated Max coming home from his bachelor party.  If you are a Marx Brothers fan, you will be familiar with the famed mirror scene with Harpo Marx (of Marx and Lucille Ball if you are an I Love Lucy fan).  I love Harpo, but, his version pales in comparison to Linder.  It was marvelous and you can watch it now thanks to youtube.

The plot pretty much is Max goes to see his bride to be and due to mishaps, she refuses to marry him.  He enlists one of his friends to put in a good word for him (and he doesn’t, the cad wants to marry her himself) and so Max takes a trip on a train.  He is robbed by a couple of light fingered thugs and then you can pretty much toss the plot out the window and enjoy the ride.  Which I most certainly did. 
Donald Sosin again manned the piano bench and delighted us with an insouciant score that matched Max's antics on screen.  I knew vaguely of Max Linder and the respect with which Chaplin held him (among legions of others).  My exposure to him has been slight and it was a real treat to get to see him on the big screen.  I will be buying one of the Linder DVDs to enjoy him some more on the home screen.

Opening scene from Dragnet Girl
I loved Tokyo Story last year and  was looking very much forward to Ozu’s film Dragnet Girl.  Cinematically this was just a joy to watch, incredible and evocative closeups of Joji Oka and Kinuyo Tanaka.  The film was what might be considered Ozu’s American film, it is an ode to the gangster films he must have loved.  As Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation alluded to in his introduction to the film, most of the signage and art in the backgrounds are in English.  I had fun spotting the movie posters used in the boxing gym (MGM’s 1931 The Champ with Wallace Berry) and a French poster for the 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front in Koji Mitsui’s bedroom.  Plenty of real vintage boxing placards on display, too.   Muller stated he could feel this film to be a Warner Brothers film starring Cagney and Blondell.  I can’t quite see that, the story was much more a vague fantasy of gangsterism. 

The bad guys were nothing much more than small time hoods with too much time on their hands.  Not nearly as michievious as the Dead End Kids and entirely without the humor and snappy dialogue of Cagney and Blondell.  Not much depth to their badness.  Lots of style and no substance.  I do not mean to undercut the film in the slightest.  It is as much a cultural thing as a tribute to American gangster films with a Japanese bent.  The film, the characters and the stunning camerawork swept you along and I enjoyed it a whole heck of a lot.  The film was helped tremendously by Gunter Buchwald’s really percussive jazzy score. 
My last film for the weekend was the 1920 version of The Sign of Four.  Ellie Norwood did Sherlock Holmes on film more than any other actor.  What is remarkable is that this film was the last of 47 and they are all extant.  While it is my understanding that each film is not as fine as this was, methinks it would be time to release a Sherlock Holmes box set. 

With the current interest in all things Sherlockian thanks to the BBC's excellent series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman and co-creator Mark Gatiss, it would be a natural.  The modern riff on Arthur Conan Doyle totally works for me, I am a rabid fan.  I understand that Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber owns the films, someone please put a bug in his ear.  These beg for some attention.

Ellie Norwood as Sherlock Holmes
Presented by the BFI, the print was pretty good in unrestored condition and had a real wow finish with a gripping chase on the Thames.  It did play a bit fast and loose with the Arthur Conan Doyle original story, but, what Hollywood version of Holmes hasn’t done that? 

With the end of The Sign of Four, I had to head out of the Castro Theater until the Winter Festival brings me back.  Are there films I regret to have missed, certainly.  This is equal to the films that offered no temptation to me. 

I hope for the 20th anniversary of the festival they program some big pictures that bring us full circle to how the festival began.  Perhaps it is time for a closer look at the art of American silent cinema.  True art does transcend time and space, but, there is a laundry list of truly great American silent films that beg to be shown on the big screen for a big blowout of a 20th anniversary party.  I hope they consider and program something really special for the event.  I also hope they bring back the Mighty Wurlitzer because that, too, is really an authentic way to sit back and enjoy and be engulfed by a silent film. 

Only time will tell.


DKoren said…
Wow! That sounds fantastic, even if you didn't catch as many films as you may have wanted. I love the Castro. It is a great venue. Thanks for the nice writeup. I wish I still lived in San Francisco to have caught part of that!
Tinky said…
It sounds to me as though you saw A LOT. Thank you for sharing your impressions of the films--and I'm so happy you got to see my old grad-school pal Danny S. Of course, in my opinion, the program-book editors should have asked YOU to write about "Four Horsemen."
Hamlette said…
It's one of my dreams to someday see a Valentino movie on the big screen. I'm envious! And even if you missed a bunch of movies -- wow! You saw a LOT! Thanks for sharing so many details.

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