Recapping the 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival - Part 1

The Melies pin can be had here

The 23rd San Francisco Silent Film Festival has come, conquered and now gone with the wind. All that remains is for us to bask in the memories of a wonderful 5 days of cinema. 

I began attending this festival 23 years ago, when it was one day and one film. The festival grew gradually and is now considered as a world festival event, rightly so. This year every program I saw was terrific in one way or another. Every screening meshed into a nearly perfect whole. I came away very tired and very happy. All credit for this has to go to Board President Robert Byrne, Executive Director Stacey Wisnia and Artistic Director Anita Monga (and the volunteers). 

Rob Byrne, yours truly and Anita Monga
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has built lasting relationships with film archives internationally as well as movie studio archives, University archives, the Library of Congress, archivists and restorers.  This is reflected in the SF Silent Film Festival's ability to program films from around the globe.  The collaborations and friendships forged have enriched this festival and helped make the reputation it enjoys today. We (me) who cannot travel to all the festivals in Britain, Italy, Scotland, Turkey, etc. (come on Powerball ticket!) reap the rewards as lucky locals here.  

This festival is about seeing films, exploring beyond your own comfort zone, connecting with like-minded film nerds (I mean this in the very best complimentary way) and meeting new friends and film nerds. Unfortunately, eating and sleeping are not always considered when programming. You have no idea how exhausting 5 days of silent films can be. I am amazed at the staff, volunteers and the musicians who work so hard. 

This festival is also special for the many guests who come.  This year we were honored to have Kevin Brownlow for a return visit. Kevin is the equivalent of meeting the Beatles in my world, so I was pretty fired up for this.  Kevin is a hero to many, myself included.  I overcame my nervous fan girlishness and actually had some good conversations with him this year (and managed to work up the nerve for a photo OP).  That was enough to keep me high all weekend, who needs coffee?

As usual, I did miss some programs and will make those up by catching the screeners at home. Here is what I think about what I saw.

Opening Night - May 30

The festival opened with Paul Leni's great 1928 silent The Man Who Laughs. If you only know Conrad Veidt from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (last screened at this festival in 2014) or as Major Strasser in Casablanca, the classic from Warner Brothers, you are selling him short. Veidt had a long career spanning silents through sound.  In this film, he really shines. To quote a line spoken by Gloria Swanson from Sunset Boulevard, “I don't need dialogue, I can say anything I want with my eyes.”  So, too, could Conrad Veidt. You’ve seen all the stills from this film, know it was the inspiration for Batman’s villain The Joker, but you would be wrong to consider this a horror film in my opinion. It is equal parts swahbuckler, romantic drama with a bit of horror thrown in for good measure.  Originally offered to Lon Chaney, Veidt’s soulful and gentle Gwynplaine is simply poetry on film. Though heavily made up by Jack Pierce, the humanness of Gwynplaine comes through.  It is a masterful job of acting, very moving and tender.  Legend has it that in the sequence where Gwynplaine appears before the House of Lords, the extras were so moved by his performance they burst into applause. I believe it!

The film is well cast from top to bottom. Mary Philbin filled the bill as the beautiful blind heroine Dea. Philbin, in my opinion, never can be considered a great actress.  She is not stretched too far here.  Her limitations are plain to see in the 1925 Universal classic The Phantom of the Opera or in Edward Sloman’s 1927 film Surrender. Not to throw her completely under the bus, Philbin perhaps had the bad luck to be cast against three amazing actors in three equally amazing silent films.  Veidt in this film, Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera and Ivan Mosjoukine in Surrender. Each one a force to be reckoned with on screen. How's a girl to compete? Alternatively, it was really good luck to be cast in these films. Mary Philbin was beautiful and this is, by far, her most engaging performance of the three films.

Olga Baclanova or is that Madonna?

Brandon Hurst is far more frightening as Barkilphedro the jester to King James II (Sam de Grasse) and later to Queen Anne (D.W. Griffith alumni Josephine Crowell) than is Gwynplaine.  Olga Baclanova played the Duchess Josiana and who bears a remarkable resemblance in this film to pop singer Madonna. She wears her lust plainly on her face and is costumed gorgeously. She is both sexy and creepy.  Cesare Gravina portrayed Ursus, the man who adopts both Gwynplaine and Dea as children.  He is a traveling gypsy player, kindly of heart and father to both damaged orphans. The film’s large cast is littered with silent film veterans including Stuart Holmes and George Sigmann (this was Siegmann’s last film).  I would be remiss not to mention Kimbo the dog who played Homo the Wolf.  I am all about animal stars and actors.  Plus points for not killing the dog.

Paul Leni’s fantastic direction and Gilbert Warren’s magnificent cinematography really shone in Universal’s new restoration.  This film is a gothic, moody masterpiece. Leni had already proven himself with The Cat and the Canary and he took the camera and ran with it in this film.  This was a Universal special production, and it shows in every frame.  The settings and costumes and cast of thousands on the Universal Studio backlot fill the frames with movement and beauty. 

The music score was performed by The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra. It was a terrific score they composed for the film.  It lifted the film and earned a well deserved standing ovation from the nearly packed house. ***** stars, as you can well imagine.

Afterwards I skipped the Festival party over at the McRoskey Mattress Company to get some much needed shuteye.  Lots of movies and an early 10 am screening were just on the horizon. 

to be continued....... (Part Two of my recap is here)


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