Recapping the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

This past weekend I attended the 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theater.  I had a fabulous time!  I’m not surprised by this nor should anyone be, they put on a grand show.  Over the course of the four days I missed four of the programs.  I came home on Sunday evening exhausted and exhilarated by what I had just seen and heard.


Opening Night
Accompanied by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra with Foley sound effects by Ben Burtt
USA, 1927, approximately 141 minutes
Directed by William Wellman
Cast: Clara Bow, Richard Arlen, Buddy Rogers, Gary Cooper

The opening night festivities began with a treat and I do mean and confectionary delight with the unannounced and added bonus of a recent Library of Congress acquisition of the opening credits and the opening sequence from the otherwise lost 1928 film Red Hair, in glorious Technicolor (2 color).  My seatmate and I gasped with delight when the Paramount logo appeared and the title card revealed “Red Hair” – I had hoped they would stop the clip and announce that the entire film had been found and restored.  Mike Mashon of the LOC confirmed to me later that this was all they had.  What a tantalizing snippet and what a great piece of film to have preserved.  This was a perfect bon-bon to open the festival and a terrific way to begin celebrating the 100th birthday of Paramount Pictures.  Paramount’s 100th birthday was the unofficial theme of the Festival with five features on the schedule for the weekend.

First up was William Wellman’s justly famous and revered Wings.  This 1927 epic story of two flyers (Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers) during the Great War had recently been restored by Paramount and the quality of the restoration was patently obvious from the first frames.  Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and with sound effects by Academy Award© winning Foley artist Ben Burtt I was swept up into the action.  Wings also features the delightful Clara Bow, the beautiful Jobyna Ralston and Gary Cooper in a small and quite memorable part as Cadet White.  Cooper’s brief screen time garnered a large eruption of applause from the audience.  Ralston was the love interest for Richard Arlen in the film and after Wings, they were soon married.

The combination of the music by Mont Alto and the sound effects by Mr. Burtt and his crew at times seemed overwhelming.  In the end it all worked to magnificent effect and I found myself wiping away tears, as I always do by the end of the film. 

Paramount’s restoration of the film is magnificent.  Every penny spent shows up on the screen and if you want to experience the film yourself, get thee to and buy it on standard DVD or blu-ray, you won’t regret it. 

Amazing Tales from the Archives
Friday, Jul 13, 2012 10:30 AM

Andrea Kalas, Vice President of archives at Paramount Pictures and Grover Crisp, Senior Vice President of Asset Management, Film Restoration and Digital Mastering at Sony Pictures Entertainment (still Columbia to me!).

Ms. Kalas spoke about the restoration of Wings and showed before and after clips of the work that was done.  The difference was amazing.  Sadly, Paramount had no original negative sources to use for the restoration and the film was as good as they could get it.  This is not to say it was not amazing, it was.  She also detailed the restoration of the color effects used in 1927, i.e., Handschiegl color process.  The before and after examples shown were quite illuminating. 

She said that Paramount spent $700,000.00 on the restoration (and I am assuming this includes the cost of music score and sound effects).  Unfortunately, she also said sales of the standard DVDs and blu-rays were disappointing and Paramount has not yet recouped the cost.  This will mean, naturally, we are unlikely to see any other silent features coming from Paramount on DVD in the future.  Hopefully Paramount might allow licensing of some extant features to companies such as Milestone, Flicker Alley, KINO or Criterion.  It would not make money but the Library of Congress has a stunning print of Valentino's Monsieur Beaucaire, an On Demand title would be the way to go as far as I can see.  The Warner Archive model seems to be fairly successful.  Just sayin.

Mr. Crisp spoke of about the problems of restoring Dr. Strangelove (or how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb).  Stanley Kubrick maintained control over the print and also over control of all prints made from the release onward.  Mr. Crisp spoke about the restoration and illustrated the differences between the film elements and the new digital restoration.  Both he and Ms. Callas took a lot of heated questions and discussion from audience members during the Q&A over the move industry wide from film to digital projection.  It’s clear a lot of purists are not happy about it.  In the distribution aspect, the move to digital makes complete sense.  It’s much less expensive than shipping cans of film and the digital projection won’t deteriorate as film does with multiple trips through the projector.  In any case, I can’t provide an opinion one way or the other and I suspect the argument will continue long after I’m gone.

Little Toys
Friday, Jul 13, 2012 1:00 PM
Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the grand piano
China, 1933, approximately 110 minutes
Directed by Sun Yu
Cast: Ruan Lingyu, Li Lili

Ruan Lingyu is well known among the regular attendees of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  Little Toys was a markedly different film for her and it did not give her a real opportunity to show off her talents as the tragic heroine until the end.  She plays a rural toymaker whose business is being squeezed by mass produced toys imported into China (what a switch that is).  She endures multiple tragedies including the abduction of her young son and the death of her husband and daughter and everyone she hold dear during the war with Japan.  Introduced by Richard Meyer he clarified some of the action, particularly at the end which was censored by the lack of subtitles.  It was quite obvious what Sister Ye’s (Lingyu) message was in the end.  Donald Sosin provided able accompaniment for the film.  In the end I came away feeling this was a lesser effort for the fans of Ruan Lingyu. 

The Loves of Pharaoh
Friday, Jul 13, 2012 4:00 PM
Accompanied by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer
Germany, 1922, approximately 100 minutes
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: Emil Jannings, Dagny Servaes, Paul Biensfeldt, Friedrich Kühne

I watched this film at home prior to seeing it on the big screen and was very impressed with the quality of the restoration and the print.  For a grand epic, The Loves of Pharaoh is certainly gorgeous to look at Alpha-Omega did a fabulous job on the restoration.  .  As a Lubitsch film, well, not much of a light touch in it at all.  Much of the acting is over the top, though there are some wonderful closeups that are quite intimate and a few winks here and there.  There is plenty of mugging by Emil Jannings Paul Wegener that makes my reaction similar to that of seeing the restored Metropolis.  The film in the end is a bit of a bore and can drag and this is where Dennis James came to the rescue.  His over the top and momentous score on the mighty Wurlitzer kept the film moving when the action or the plot seemed to lag and kept me interested.  The film seemed much shorter at the Castro than when I screened it at home.  Lots of money was spent but I think a friend summed it up nicely saying that this was just a bunch of overweight Germans trying to be Egyptians. 

Friday, Jul 13, 2012 7:00 PM
Accompanied by Stephen Horne on the grand piano
USA, 1926, approximately 71 minutes
Dir. Victor Fleming
Cast: Clara Bow, Ernest Torrence, Percy Marmont, Eugene Pallette

Mantrap is Clara Bow’s movie from the instant she shows up.  A star turn and you simply cannot take your eyes off her.  She plays a slightly opportunistic manicurist who ends up marrying rural storekeeper Ernest Torrance.  She is soon bored and meets and falls for visiting divorce attorney Percy Marmont and decides to run away with him.  Torrance goes after them in hot pursuit, as hot a as a motorboat can catch up to a canoe.  I won’t give it all away if you’ve not seen it.  It's a complete delight.  BTW, if you’ve not seen it you can see it on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s box set The West Treasures 5

I loved this Victor Fleming film and you can see how Bow blossomed under his direction and this was the start of their torrid affair.  James Wong Howe’s camerawork is pristine and filled with depth and clarity.  Clara looked fabulous and literally lights up the frame whenever she is in it.  Her charm, her playfulness and her comedic skills are in full force.  This was accented by Stephen Horne’s spritely accompaniment.  It was also a fun treat to see a slightly less portly Eugene Pallette in a supporting role.

The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna
Friday, Jul 13, 2012 9:15 PM
Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Germany, 1929, approximately 115 minutes
Directed by Hanns Schwarz
Cast: Brigitte Helm, Francis Lederer, Warwick Ward, Lya Jan

The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna was a new film for me and a revelation.  An incredibly stylish and very Hollywood-like romantic drama that only slightly paralleled Camille.  Brigitte Helm is a vampish kept woman who falls for a regular soldier.  The gorgeous Frances Lederer is the handsome youth and you can see how could she resist him?  Supported by an elegant and romantic score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra this was my favorite film of the weekend (until I saw Stella Dallas on Sunday).  The music supported the film and carried you on to the tragic conclusion, I was teary eyed and emotionally drained in the end.  Compared to her work in Metropolis, I thought this was an elegant and delightful, sly and tragic performance by Helm.  I did not find her to overact at all.  Of course, in this film she did not have the sets and Fritz Lang to overcome.  Warwick Ward was a perfect psuedo-villain and this elegant film made me long to see more of the work of director Hanns Schwarz.  The screening only suffered a minor snafu when the English title overlay stopped working for a few minutes. 

Irrepressible Felix the Cat!
Saturday, Jul 14, 2012 10:00 AM
Accompanied by Donald Sosin and Toychestra
USA, 1925–1929, Approximate total running time: 70 minutes
Created by Otto Mesmer and Pat Sullivan

Sadly, I skipped the Felix program.  I’d been at the Castro all day on Friday and needed a little sleep and a leisurely breakfast.  I understand it was fabulous and Donald Sosin and the Toychestra made the Felix cartoons come to life.

The Spanish Dancer
Saturday, Jul 14, 2012 12:00 PM
Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the grand piano
USA, 1923, approximately 105 minutes
Directed by Herbert Brenon
Cast: Pola Negri, Antonio Moreno, Wallace Beery, Kathlyn Williams, Adolphe Menjou

I was very much looking forward to the American debut of The Spanish Dancer.  This would be my first Pola Negri film on the big screen.  As I mentioned in an earlier posting, I have given Pola little due and it was time for me to revise my ill-advised opinion of her talents.  She did not disappoint. 

The Spanish Dancer was originally slated as a vehicle for Rudolph Valentino then entitled Don Cesar de Bazan.  Because of his dispute with Paramount, he went on strike and Paramount revamped the scenario to focus on the Gyspy role portrayed by Pola Negri.  It’s a great pity that Valentino was not in the finished film, I think he and Negri would have lit up the screen together. 

Antonio Moreno filled Valentino’s vacant shoes with great aplomb.  He was charming, devlish and quite the swashbuckler.  I can lament Valentino’s absence, but Moreno was not to be slighted, he was wonderful in the film.  Adolphe Menjou was a proper villain and Wallace Beery a lustful King Phillip.  

Negri was delightful as the Gypsy dancer Maritana.  She had some sly humor and moved with grace and showed more than a little fire when required.  Now I want to see more vintage Negri, she was quite wonderful.

Herbert Brenon helmed the film with his usual and capable hand.  The film was opulent by Paramount standards, this was a big picture.  Huge cast, large sets and a quality production.  The pacing of the film moved quickly and a good time was had by all. 

Donald Sosin’s able hands at the piano (and tambourine) were well matched with a pair of flamenco guitarists.  The score was absolutely great.  I loved it. 

The restoration utilizing many print sources was uneven according to Rob Byrne (San Francisco Silent Film Festival President) who introduced the film.  I blame that mostly on the source material, EyeFilm and the team including Rob Byrne did the best they could with the material they had.  The film was very watchable but there was plenty of evidence of nitrate damage and edgewear on the frames.  In the end this did not really matter, the film was good swashbuckling fun.  I loved it.

I also got my .0000015 milleseconds of fame during the slide show.

The Canadian
Saturday, Jul 14, 2012 2:30 PM
Accompanied by Stephen Horne on the grand piano.
USA, 1926, approximately 88 minutes
Directed by William Beaudine
Cast: Thomas Meighan, Mona Palma, Wyndham Standing, Dale Fuller

The Canadian was introduced by Artistic Director Anita Monga who compared it to Victor Sjostrom’s 1928 film The Wind with a different take.  While the characters have some similarity, I feel The Wind is much more operatic and The Canadian is much more along the lines of a small chamber piece.  It's an intimate film.

Mona Palma was wonderful, but she was not the towering performance of Lillian Gish in the aforementioned film.  This is not to detract from her either.  She was another revelation for me.  She was muted and powerful and gave a moving performance.  Meighan has long been familiar for his work with Cecil B. De Mille in films like Manslaughter and Male and Female.  He’s quite engaging as the protagonist, a man trying to eke out a living harvesting wheat on the harsh plains of Calgary.  The quiet intensity of the characters as they develop made this an engrossing film to see. 

More familiar to talkie audiences it was a delight to see Charles Winninger in the role of Pop.  Dale Fuller had a larger and more sympathetic part than I can remember seeing her in and there were some fun scenes of gentle kitchen humor.

Beaudine’s direction was supportive and the cinematography of Alvin Wyckoff (noted for his incredible work with De Mille) was stark and beautiful.

I normally love Stephen Horne but in this I felt his score lacked focus and did not move the film along as I had hoped.  In the end The Canadian was a quiet film that won me over.  It showed a very different side of the product of Paramount, whereas the earlier (1923) The Spanish Dancer was a big film in every way, The Canadian was a small and intimate film that drew you in for the characters, much like William de mille’s Miss Lulu Bett.

Saturday, Jul 14, 2012 5:00 PM
Accompanied by Stephen Horne on the grand piano, with Paul McGann narrating.
United Kingdom, 1919, approximately 72 minutes
Directed by Frank Hurley

South like The Great White Silence (screened during the 2011 festival) is a documentary on the great explorers of Great Britain. A time when the world was a smaller place and there were still new and epic vistas to explore.  Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1016 voyage on the Endurance ended with the rescue of his crew and the destruction of his ship (those images are amazing).  This time supported by Stephen Horne (beautifully) and narrated by Paul McGann reading from Shackelton’s letters and memoirs.  The narration was a real treat and I was only sorry that there was not more of it.  McGann’s elegant voice illustrating the trials of the plucky and brave crew was a real highlight.

Hurley’s cinematography is a wonder considering the lengths he had to go to for his still and movie footage.  I found the slideshow that preceded the film to be very compelling showing some of Hurley’s color plates which were simply glorious.  Sadly, in the end I found the film wanting because I had a difficult time getting my mind in the set to view this as someone in 1919 would have, with all the new wonders to see.  Being brought up on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, endless footage of penguins and sea elephants is simply not as mesmerizing now as it was then.  Also, I had a hard time getting my mind past the knowledge that the dog teams that traveled with them were not rescued and it colored my mood for the last half of the film.  Particularly in view of the delightful footage devoted to the dogs in the beginning. 

Pandora's Box
Saturday, Jul 14, 2012 7:00 PM
Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble
Germany, 1929, approximately 143 minutes
Directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Cast: Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Franz Lederer, Carl Gotz

Sacrilegious!  I skipped Pandora’s Box this year.  It was screened in 2006 and even recently restored with 10 more minutes of footage, I begged off.  You will, I am confident, find a complete and literate review of the restored film by visiting The Louise Brooks Society and Thomas Gladysz’s blog on HuffPo.  Not to mention, he is the authority on Brooks who can really do the review and film justice!

I understand from peeps in attendance that Pandora’s Box started almost an hour behind schedule and there were technical issues with the English subtitles (as there were in Nina Petrovna).

The Overcoat
Saturday, Jul 14, 2012 10:00 PM
Accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra
USSR 1926, approximately 71 minutes
Directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg
Cast: Andrei Kostrichkin, Antonina Yeremeyeva, Sergei Gerasimov

Again, I also skipped this.  Given it started very late in the evening, I doubt I would have been able to stay awake for it.  I’m sure Alloy Orchestra did a fabulous job, they always do!

The Mark of Zorro
Sunday, Jul 15, 2012 10:00 AM
Accompanied by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer
USA, 1920, approximately 90 minutes
Directed by Fred Niblo
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Marguerite De La Motte, Noah Beery

What more is there to be said about the joys and charms of Douglas Fairbanks?  The Mark of Zorro was his first real swashbuckler (well, after 1917’s A Modern Musketeer).  Zorro is a film that without doubt launched the second phase of Fairbanks cinematic career in which he jettisoned the earlier go getter (as in the delightful Mr. Fix-It, screened in 2011) to the swashbuckling fantasy hero. 

Zorro is ably directed by the usually pedestrian Fred Niblo and I think a lot of the credit is due to the fact that Niblo just could not contain the energetic Fairbanks and The Mark of Zorro is a rip-roaring film from start to finish. 

The print quality was not 100% all the time on this one.  Some spots nice a clear and others surprisingly dark and some occasional focus issues on the left side of the screen.  The film was kept moving along by Dennis James making another appearance at the mighty Wurlitzer.  A fun way to begin the final day of the festival.

The Docks of New York
Sunday, Jul 15, 2012 12:00 PM
Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the grand piano
USA, 1928, approximately 76 minutes
Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Cast: George Bancroft, Betty Compson, Olga Baclanova, Clyde Cook

The Docks of New York is a film you either love or you hate it (while you appreciate the deep and gritty visuals of it).  I loved it.  As was discussed before the film with my knowledgeable seatmates J.B. and Camille, Von Sternberg’s silent output surpasses his talkies for quality of plot since he was not mesmerized and derailed by the charms of Marlene Dietrich.  Ymmv on this, discuss. 

It’s a crisp and simple film that takes place in one evening.  Right off the bat you feel that coal dust incrusted stoker Bill Robinson (played by the burly George Bancroft) may be a tough guy on the outside, but inside he’s vulnerable and a real softie if given half the chance.  On his one night of leave from the ship, on the way to the local dive on the dock, Bill saves Mae (Betty Compson) from an attempt at suicide.  In the course of the film he not only rescues her but himself, too from a life of loneliness and darkness.  At least the way the film ends we hope they have a happy ending. 

Directed by Von Sternberg and lensed by the cinematographic master Harold Rosson (nominated for multiple Oscars© and only awarded an honorary for his beautiful work on Selznick’s 1936 The Garden of Allah) the frame shimmers with light and dark and deep shadows.  It was wonderful to look at. 

I also enjoyed seeing Olga Baclavona in another film, she’s much more subtle in this than in say The Man Who Laughs or Tod Browning’s Freaks.  It is a shame she did not come to Hollywood earlier in the silent era.

Sunday, Jul 15, 2012 2:00 PM
Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble
Sweden, 1920, approximately 106 minutes
Directed by Mauritz Stiller
Cast: Anders de Wahl, Tora Teje, Lars Hanson, Karin Molande

Erotikon was a strange film for me.  I did not really warm to the charm or humor of it as much as I would have liked.  I’d long wanted to see it as I remembered reading (or seeing) Billy Wilder refer to it as a hugely influential film for him.  While the charms of Tora Teje were very apparent (and I’d love to see more films with her, she was a natural), handsome Lars Hanson had little of substance to do.  Karin Molande also had little to do, but it was clear she was adorable. 

When L’Heureuse Mort screened a few years back I was introduced to the wonderful Matti Bye Ensemble and loved them.  In this film, for me they had a rare misfire.  They sometimes competed with the narration of Frank Buxton (the titles were in Swedish and mine is abysmal) and at other points where you expected there to be a punctuation of humor, there was silence.  It was a strange minimalist score that did not keep the film going for me.  A lot of the humor was in the titles so much of it fell a little flat for me.  I’m sad as I really wanted to like it far more than I did.

Stella Dallas
Sunday, Jul 15, 2012 4:30 PM
Accompanied by Stephen Horne on the grand piano
USA, 1925, approximately 120 minutes
Directed by Henry King
Cast: Ronald Colman, Belle Bennett, Alice Joyce, Jean Hersholt

Stella Dallas is a film that ticked all the boxes for me.  Not a single wrong note on the screen or from Stephen Horne.  It’s hard for me to pick which Henry King film I like better, Tol’able David or Stella Dallas and I think it is the 1925 tearjerker that wins the nod.  King’s direction is sensitive and all the performances from the patrician Alice Joyce to the dapper Ronald Colman and a young Douglas Fairbanks Jr. are note perfect.  Lois Moran was wonderful as Laurel, heartbreaking and heartbroken as she ages from 10 years to nearly 20.  Jean Hersholt was coarse and unpleasant in his way as Ed Munn.  All this paled in comparison to a performance I can only describe as operatic in scope and epic in execution of Belle Bennett as the title character Stella Dallas.  This is not to say that Bennett overacted in any grand manner, she did not.  She was vulnerable, understated and devastating.  It was a brave performance in the days when actresses were all about glamour and being pretty.
The notes on the film state Bennett lobbied hard for this part and it was the part of a lifetime for her.  Bennett’s was a brave portrayal in the vein and possibly surpassing the great Louise Dresser in her portrayal of the alcoholic ex-opera singer in Clarence Brown’s The Goose Woman of the same year.  She did not shy from Stella’s tragic descent as a young girl who marries above her station to the sacrificing and tragic mother in the end who feels some redemption in her daughter’s happiness at the end.  I really cannot do justice to the film here.  It was a magnificent and probably producer Samuel Goldwyn’s silent masterpiece.

The film was preceded by an intro by Eddie Muller (Film Noir Foundation) and he brought up Stephen Horne who related a tale of a private screening at the behest of Kevin Brownlow that primed us all for the emotional roller coaster we were about to ride.  His support of the film on the piano was tender and emotional and like the cast on the silver sheet, note perfect.  The print was beautiful and was only blurred through the tears I kept wiping away. 

Tragically this film is not available on DVD and it should be as it far surpasses the 1937 remake (also by Goldwyn) starring Barbara Stanwyck.  This was, for me, one of the finest silent films it’s been my pleasure to see.  After this I could not conceive seeing either the Melies short (and I am mad I missed the narration by Paul McGann) and Buster Keaton in The Camaeraman.

The Cameraman
Sunday, Jul 15, 2012 7:30 PM
Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
USA, 1928, approximately 76 minutes
Directed by Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin

I hope that I can be forgiven by my friends, colleagues and fellow Buster fans for skipping out on The Cameraman.  This 1928 film is one of my favorite of the MGM Keaton films.  In all honesty, after seeing Stella Dallas, I felt that I had reached the logical conclusion to the weekend and just could not see how I was going to get past what I had just seen.  Regrettably, this meant missing the screening of Georges Melies’ Voyage a la Lune.  Happily, I have the Lobster Films/Flicker Alley DVD, and you should too!  It won’t be the same as sharing the experience with 1400 other friends, but it will be amazing just the same.

I came into the festival looking at the films listed on paper and I was not 100% enthused about all of them.  I came out of the festival feeling more satisfied than I had in the last few years.  I thoroughly and completely enjoyed myself.  Having seen thirteen of the seventeen items scheduled I think I did pretty good.  It was plain the audience enjoyed the films and programs as much as I did.  I look forward to this festival every year and feel an empty sadness when it is over all too quickly.  I've said it numerous times above, I loved it.  I did!

I hope there will be a winter program later in the year so we can have a silent film fix.  I thank the volunteers who are tireless, the board and the staff who bring the festival to the beautiful Castro Theater every year.  2012 starting with Napoleon in March/April and ending with the summer program was absolutely fabulous fun.  Thank you and see you next year!


Mary said…
Really enjoyed your articulate review. One correction, Stanley Kubrick directed DR. STRANGELOVE.
rudyfan1926 said…
Ah! You're so right, now corrected thank you!
mike schlesinger said…
Fine report! And one more correction: the Paramount lady spells her name Kalas.
rudyfan1926 said…
Thanks Mike! Now corrected! It was the opera fan in me that made the typo! ;-)
Nice article, thanks for sharing.

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