San Francisco Silent Film Festival - Recap of Days 2-4

The Castro Theater (photo by Tommy Lau)

Festival Recap Day 2
The Amazing Tales from the Archive program is always a pleasure for me.  It’s a free program, open to the public and is always informative and always has surprises.  This year was no exception.
The presentation started with Bryony Dixon of the BFI showing four short films “behind the scenes” on filmmaking and studio tours in the U.K.  We also got treated to seeing a visiting Jackie Coogan touring British Instructional Films (this company produced Shooting Stars, which I will talk about later on).  It was fun to watch Coogan assumed the position (standing, leg crossed over, hand on hip, direct stare into the camera) as soon as he knew he had to pose with a group.  Coogan was wearing his jaunty sailor’s cap from the S.S. Leviathan. 

Next up we had Emily Wensel of Universal Pictures telling us about the restoration of Paul Leni’s final film, The Last Warning. We also had another member of the team, but I failed to include her name in my notes, my bad!  I will talk about this film later on, it screened Saturday night.  It is remarkable to see some of the repair work that was done on the various sources.  It’s hard work, but, so much like magic.  Universal was not a pioneer in preserving their silent output, in fact they actively destroyed much of it. (Every studio was also guilty of this, either deliberate or accident, or merely neglect).  Things have changed these days, Universal announced at their centenary they would work toward preserving and restoring films, including a number of silent films.  One of which this year is Leni’s The Last Warning.  It was interesting to see samples of the restoration, from holes in the film frames, scratches, nitrate decomposition and everything in between.  Some elements of the film that screened as the “before” while damaged, the basic image looked good, sometimes a little washed out.  What I saw in the samples of restoration bothered me as they seemed to have really darkened the image on film, and in this process darkening and vignetting the frame, losing background and much detail.  Of course, I need to reserve judgement until I see the film.

Lastly, and the biggest surprise was the presentation by Georges Mourier on the new 6.5 hour restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon.  This is the one being done in conjunction with Frances Ford Coppola (and I expect will make the festival rounds and make it onto DVD/Blu-Ray in the US). 
I was part of the rapturous crowd who saw the Kevin Brownlow restoration on Napoleon vu par Abel Gance in 2012 at Oakland’s Paramount.  It remains the greatest single cinematic event I have ever witnessed.  Brownlow’s life work and his restoration is a monumental achievement.  I wondered, what more could be done?  Apparently, a whole lot more.
Mourier spoke at length about the various versions of Napoleon, including the two versions that screened in France in 1927; the “Opera” version which was the de facto premiere clocking in at about four and a half hours; and the “Apollo” version which was not open to the general public and clocked in a about nine hours.  There were multiple versions, even as we know, three by Kevin Brownlow over the years. 

What we did not know was that a lifelong friend of director Abel Gance had a cache of literally hundreds of cans of film.  Incredibly, he also had documentation, including shot for shot continuity of the “Apollo” version down to the metre of film on each reel for each individual sequence. 

Screen capture from A Woman of the World

Next up was one of the films I most anticipated, A Woman of the World with Pola Negri.  This 1925 film directed by Mal St. Clair was a delight from start to finish.  Having seen Negri in some of the Lubitsch films, Barbed Wire and more recently The Spanish Dancer, I now consider myself to be a real fan.  The film opens in Monte Carlo (really the southern California coastline) with the Countess Elenora Natatorini finding out her lover is unfaithful decides to leave the lush life and visit an American relation by marriage (Chester Conklin) in a small town, like any other small town.  She crosses swords with the local D.A. who is the moral majority of the town, You can guess how that goes.  Negri showed a great flair for the comedic touch.  She's very sly and seemed to enjoy ribbing her own on-screen persona.  The film was scored by Donald Sosin, who was just great.  The print from Paramount was really good.  ***** from me on this one.

Tokihiko Okada in That Night's Wife

I skipped Ozu's That Night's Wife having the DVD at home (Criterion's silent Ozu if you must know).  It's a great film, don't miss it if you get a chance.  I know, I know, but one does need time to eat during the tightly packed festival.

Dorothy Davenport (center) in Mothers of Men

A great deal of local interest was stirred up by the discovery of Mothers of Men which featured locations shot in Santa Cruz, CA, a lovely coastal town south of San Francisco.  Also of interest is the angle, given this is an election year, with a woman candidate for President, in the film woman's Governor and, ultimately must decide her husband's fate (he was wrongly accused of murder).  Will she uphold the death sentence or will she rescue her husband?  Played ably by The Mont-Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the film moved along at a brisk pace.  Sadly, I felt the local interest connection being shot in Santa Cruz was  a bit overplayed and over-hyped, there was little footage of Santa Cruz in the surviving print.  Nonetheless, an important Women's suffrage film to survive and to be preserved, an interesting curiosity.

Emil Jannings (prisoner 28) confesses his crimes in Variete.
Varieté, E.A Dupont's great 1925 film starring Emil Jannings and Lya de Putti.  Set in a run down circus, filled with lust and jealousy.  Some amazing camerawork in this film and played hell for leather by the Berklee Symphony Orchestra.

Hobart Bosworth and Jane Novak in Behind the Door.

Sadly, I need to catch up and actually see Behind the Door.  I skipped it, not due to lack of interest,but, for the need for sleep.  Alas, not a 20-something film geek anymore and the late night screenings are tougher for me to get to and then make it to the following morning screenings.  I know, it seems lame.  Happily, I do have a screener and will watch this.  I am also hoping this title might make it onto a legit DVD, I know it deserves to be.  The musical accompaniment was by Stephen Horne, and I am sure it went just fine.

Festival Recap Day 3:

The morning got off to a rollicking start with the Castro and SFSFF Premiere of the restoration of Laurel and Hardy's 1927 short film The Battle of the Century.  Long missing reel 2, preservationist and accompanist Jon Mirsalis found what may well be the sole surviving copy of reel 2 which now completes the film and what is arguably the greatest pie fight ever filmed.  No argument from me, it was amazing.  Also on this program was Buster Keaton's hilarious The Balloonatic. We were also "treated" to a repeat of Pathe-Freres incomprehensible and nightmare-inducing The Dancing Pig (1907).  Please, I beg of you, never show The Dancing Pig ever again, Once was more than enough, twice is two time too much.  Instead please do show the Vitagraph The Thieving Hand, from 1908, I believe.  It's imaginative, has a creep factor and is truly marvelous. Here it is, imagine it on the big screen!

In what is a continuing tradition for the 2016 festival, I skipped The Strongest (1929) directed by Axel Lindblom and Alf Sjoberg.  One, I was not about to watch the slaughter of seals and I also wanted lunch (and to keep it down).  This was played by the ever-present Matti Bye Ensemble.  I was told afterward that it was terrific and I missed an event.  C'est la vie!

A scene from Shooting Stars

Next up was Anthony Asquith's amazing 1928 film Shooting Stars.  This started like a spoof of behind the camera films, but sure did not end that way, it's a thriller.  This was, for me, the film of the weekend.  Stephen Horne played the hell out of this film.  There are so many layers, an impossibly young Brian Aherne (you cannot un-see his entrance in the film) and a truly remarkable performance by Annette Benson.  I do not want to give this film away, you simply must see it if you can.  If you have a multi-region dvd, please do order the BFI restoration.

Next we had three films I am very familiar with, so I made it an early night and a lovely dinner with some film pals.  Oscar Michaeux's Within Our Gates, and  a new restorations of Rene Clair's The Italian Straw Hat were left behind.

Vitagraph veteran Flora Finch in The Last Warning
I was dying to see the restored 1929 film by Paul Leni, The Last Warning, again, too late in the evening.  Darn it!  I will get another chance!

Festival Recap Day 4:

Les Tulipes (1907)

We started the final day with some wonderful treats, confections a Fantasia in Early Color.  Fifteen short films, all color tinted, the most amazing of which was the short Les Six Soeurs Danif.  I share this video, sadly not tinted as we saw, nonetheless utterly amazing.

It is always a pleasure for me to see an Ernest Lubitsch film.  I had seen the 1918 I Don't Want to be a Man several years ago and was utterly charmed by Ossi Oswalda (who was saddled with the moniker the Mary Pickford of Germany).  The film has lost none of it's charm or wit.  My favorite scoring of the weekend was this film by Maud Nelissen and Frank Bockius, idiomatic, jazzy and fun. Also on the program was the weird Hal Roach short, What's the World Coming to?  Set in the future, men and women have switched roles, the women are more masculine and in charge, the men more feminine, and cross dressers to boot!  It was pretty fun to watch, a natural with a regular Castro crowd, high camp.
Ossi Oswalda in I Don't Want to be a Man

I saw Nanook of the North when I was taking film history.  It has been many decades since I'd seen it. Having seen many more silent film true documentaries, this holds up less well as it is a a dramatic/documentary.  It does not hold up as well, but, it is the grandfather of all the National Geographic Specials I grew up with.

Next up was what is the second real highlight for me, Fritz Lang's Destiny.  Lang's evocative tale of will love conquer death, three stories in one film.  Visually arresting, some great special effects and fantastic sets.  The film was played by the Stephen Horne Ensemble.  Their score was the perfect accent to the film.  Lil Dagover was just terrific, too.  Do not miss this film if you have a chance.

Next up was the restored Le Deux Timides.  I enjoyed this film when it played at the festival in 2008.  The restoration was fine and the film lost none of it's pep.  I did find some sequences a tad too long this time.  One joke. went on for too long.  That said, in the end it was a fun bonbon and I thought the restored print was lovely. Scored by Mont-Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Lastly we had Douglas Fairbanks close the show in When the Clouds Roll By accompanied by Frank Bockius and Gunter Buchwald. Doug, directed by his good friend Victor Fleming, is a young man who is tormented by his demented psychiatrist.  After a series of misadventures, he meets an artist, falls in love and goes west.  It is one of the last of Fairbanks modern dress comedies.  It's a pip! I love Doug.

That's it, the end.

Do not miss what promise to be excellent recaps by friends and fellow bloggers, Lara over at Backlots, BethAnn at Spellbound by Movies, Lea at Silent-ology and  Mary who writes over at Larry Harnisch’s The Daily Mirror.  Thomas Gladysz writes for Huffington Post and you can be sure he will have a thoughtful review up soon, too.  Some had been posting throughout the weekend of events.  How do they do it, I’m exhausted???!!

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival winter event A Day of Silents is December 3, 2016.  Buy your tickets now here.


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