San Francisco Silent Film Festival - 20th Recap

It has been an exhilarating and exhausting weekend.  I am compelled to add it was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, too!  The festival weekend got off to a wonderful start with the opportunity to see many good friends made over the years at this same festival.  We had ample time to catch up, eat some good food, drink a fair amount of coffee, talk about movies and learn life lessons!  Most importantly, we had ample time to sit and watch movies which is what the festival is all about, watching and enjoying the art of silent film.  My pal Brooksie is adding her thoughts on the weekend and I encourage you to read it, she's a far better writer than I am!

Opening Night was Lewis Milestone's Academy Award Winning film All Quiet on the Western Front.  A powerful testament to the horrors and wasteful loss in times of war.  Having been familiar with the sound version of the film, I had not prepared myself for the sheer emotional power of the silent version.  One needs to take into account that all the actors in the film were trained in, and more suited, to silent film.  Their performances show their experience in the medium in which they began their careers. After viewing this film, it does not displace the June Mathis and Rex Ingram masterpiece The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from first place in my personal pantheon.  It does supplant and move William Wellman's 1927 Wings to third place and relegates King Vidor's excellent The Big Parade down to fourth place.  ymmv!
The film was introduced by Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress and we all applauded wildly for the announcement made by NBCUniversal Vice Chairman Ron Meyer breaking the news of Universal's intent to restore and release 15 silent films over the next few years.  I sincerely hope that All Quiet will be among the Universal Studios proposed restoration and release of silent films, this is one of them that makes it on to DVD or blu-ray.  I will go out on a limb and say that my other most-hoped-for DVD/blu-ray discs would be Clarence Brown's The Goose Woman and Smouldering Fires.  Both really fantastic films that deserve to be seen by a wider audience.

I skipped the crush of people at the opening night party after the film which is held at the McRoskey Mattress Company (longtime local business sponsor of the festival) and went home to catch some zzzz's before the real business of a film festival began.

Friday morning began with the free program Amazing Tales from the Archives, always a treat for me.  Jennifer Miko of Movette Film Transfer shared with us part of an amazing reel of two-color process Technicolor shot at La Cuesta Encantada (oh, okay, Hearst Castle) including footage of William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan.  It was really cool to see.  Next Rob Byrne (SFSFF President of the Board and all-around great guy) provided a journey through how Sherlock Holmes was found a mere 13 months ago and restored.

Rob Byrne telling us about restoring Sherlock Holmes
Bryony Dixon from the BFI brought us archive footage for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania.  While no footage of the sinking exists, we were treated to moving newsreel footage of family members waiting for word of survivors and scenes showing coffins in the mass graves of some of the victims.  Sadly, there were also scenes showing the vandalism and destruction of German run businesses in Liverpool after the disaster.  During the various newsreels, Paul McGann (Dr. Who people!) was conscripted to read moving eye-witness accounts of the tragedy.  We also were treated to a view of part of Winsor McKay's animated classic The Sinking of the Lusitania.

Bryony Dixon talking about the sinking of the Lusitania. 
Donald Sosin can be seen at the piano below.
Finally, Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films entertained us with a story of how Lobster obtained a collection of films and showed us one of the films saved, an early French film by Maurice Tourneur Figures de Cire.  A fun little film about a man who accepts a bet to stay in a creepy wax museum overnight and the scary results!  Serge is nothing if not a true showman and his epic story about the long process of negotiating for the films and then actually retrieving them is too long to relate here.  Hopefully he can be persuaded to tell the tale again in front of another audience.  All I can say is if you get a chance to see Serge present one of his Retour de Flame programs, or introduce any film, be prepared for a real treat.

Really poor iPhone pic of Serge Bromberg telling us how Lobster Films
obtained the collection of films.

Our next film came from China by way of Norway, which is where this incomplete print survived.  The Cave of the Spider Women is based on a classic tale Journey to the West and is part adventure, fantasy and comedy.  The film was missing the first reel and a reel in the middle, the gist is a buddhist monk is traveling and stops near a cave where there is a group of women (spider women taking on human form).  He asks for food and drink.  They kidnap him with the intent to make him a husband of the lead spider woman. I presume also to make a meal of him.  His traveling spirit friends a Monkey King and Pigsy and Sandy strive to rescue him.  At the wedding a whole host of gorgeously costumed gods and spirits arrive to celebrate the wedding.  A battle ensues with the Monkey King victorious and the spider women's lair destroyed.  The shape-changing effects were fun, the big spiders in the cave brought out my inner Ron Weasley, creepy!  The costumes looked gorgeous and I really wished we could have seen them in color. Musical accompaniment was supplied by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius.

I guess I should note here that over the course of the weekend, several films were preceded by short newsreel clips of footage from the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition.  Not much was said about the clips during the festival, but there is an excellent article in the program booklet by Thomas Gladysz (Louise Brooks Society) which I hope the SFSFF will upload to their archive of essays for your enjoyment.  I wonder at the exclusion of the most obvious film to show (unless it preceded one of the few programs I missed) Fatty and Mabel at the Worlds Fair.

Another film of local interest was the 1913 Lubin film When the Earth Trembled or The Strength of Love.  As Rob Byrne mentioned in his introduction, the film takes us all over the place, east coast, San Francisco (with great earthquake effects for 1913), an island somewhere in the Pacific and even has a character in disguise with a terrific unmasking scene at the end.  This was a real corker of a picture.  It stars Ethel Clayton, a name I am familiar with, but have I seen her in any other films was my question at the end of this.  The answer is no.  She was quite marvelous and very natural.  She also gets real props for being a real trouper!  During the earthquake scenes, she gets a falling chandelier planted on her face, clearly not scripted and not reshot.  That had to have hurt!  If you get a chance to see this, do not miss it, I loved it.  Stephen Horne accompanied and was also wonderful.

We also got a bonus of a great short A Canine Sherlock Holmes starring Spot.   He was the undisputed star of the films on Friday.  The film is added as an extra on the DVD release of Sherlock Holmes later this year.  You can buy it just for this film and be a happy camper.  Link further down for doing just that!

F.W. Murnau is a legendary name in silent film, a director who brought us so many wonderful films including the 1922 Nosferatu and 1926 film Sunrise.  This year Emil Jannings returned to the Castro screen in one of his most dramatic films, The Last Laugh from 1924.  The story is a simple one, told entirely in pantomine without a title card until the epilogue.

Jannings plays a doorman for a famous hotel who is demoted to a lowly washroom attendant.  Modernization of the hotel out front, young attracts young.  He conceals his demotion from his friends and family, but his shame is discovered. His family believes he has lied to them from the get-go and rejects him out of shame. Griefstricken, he returns to the hotel to sleep in the washroom. The kindly night watchman blankets him from the cold with his coat as he falls asleep. Here we get the lone title card, "Here the story should really end, for, in real life, the forlorn old man would have little to look forward to but death. The author took pity on him and has provided a quite improbable epilogue."  The big reveal is the man is the beneficiary of a great fortune from a hotel guest who died in his arms.  Rich beyond measure, he then returns to the hotel, where he dines happily with the night watchman who is his friend.  A happy ending!

Legend has it that Murnau himself said the story was far fetched and that "everyone knows that a washroom attendant makes more money than a doorman."  Jannings was the star of the film and, at times, it can be difficult to watch him, he moves in such slow motion, the agony of the poor man.  The film was so ably and beautifully accompanied by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra in their San Francisco Silent Film Festival debut.  I hope, most sincerely, the festival powers that be bring them back again and again.  The score supported and enhanced the film so beautifully, it was just great.  That's how it should be!

From the opening credits of The Ghost Train
Bryony Dixon had a long day as well since she stayed up late after the morning show to introduce the last film of the day, a British/German co-production of The Ghost Train. This was based on a well known stage play by Arnold Ridley.  The plot has an equal balance of comedy and terror, much like Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary (another vote for Universal to restore and release this, though there is an excellent version available restored by Kevin Brownlow and Photoplay Productions).  Starring Guy Newell and the delightful Ilse Bois (new to me, must seek out more she was utterly fab) the plot took a while to get going. We were introduced to all the characters in this "old dark house" film, in this case and old dark haunted train station.  It was completely enjoyable and a do not miss if you get the chance, scads of fun!  The German titles were read by Paul McGann (Dr. Who!!!) and the score jauntily played by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.  Great way to end the first full day of the festival.

You can't see it but this is Suzanne Lloyd being interviewed by author John Bengston
before the screening of Speedy.

Saturday morning began with the great Harold Lloyd in his 1928 feature Speedy.  Newly restored print with an introduction by Suzanne Lloyd, Harold's granddaughter and champion.  Mont-Alto Motion Picture Orchestra played for the film and kept the film moving along at a very fast clip.  Not hard to do for the film is very much as the title suggests, speedy!  Lloyd's film shot in New York and on a huge set he built in Los Angeles is filled with little details.  The sequences in Coney Island and Luna Park are hilarious and to see the night lights from Luna Park (long gone) are magical.  It's a fun film, no need for a plot recap.  It's Harold Lloyd at his best with some really good matte and rear projection effects.  A fun cameo by Babe Ruth (and a brief glimpse of Lew Gehrig, too).  There is nothing like seeing a silent comedy in a theater full of people, Harold rocked the house with laughter.

Jean Forest (center) and cast and crew lunching during filming of Visage d'Enfants

Jean Forest was a hit of the festival in Jacques Feyder's Gribiche a few years back.  He did not disappoint in Visage d'Enfants this year.  Well, not to me, another pal thought the film was beautiful and like watching paint dry.  I enjoyed him, found the simple story moving, though I would have smacked his father upside the head for not being all that supportive of a kid adjusting to a new mother and sibling so soon after his mother's death.  This film had little bits of everything, mountain scenery, a raging waterfall rescue, an avalanche and a ski party rescue.  The last shot had me in tears, so it worked!  The print source was from Lobster Films and ably and sensitively supported by Stephen Horne (much as he did for the incredible 1925 Stella Dallas, yes he made me cry in that one, too).

Next up was the highly anticipated (except by me) The Donovan Affair. As you can see from the poster above, it was a talkie.  So what was it doing being shown at a silent film festival?  Well, the film is now silent by virtue of a lost audio track.  Bruce Goldstein of Film Forum in New York has screened this film with a bevy of actors reading the dialogue with music and sound effects added to the film to approximate a vintage 1929 soundtrack.  I went into this with trepidation and annoyance because, it's not a true silent film.  I get they're being clever about bringing back a talkie.  It was explained a lot of work went into finding the dialogue since no script survives.  It says something when the director Frank Capra did not even keep a script for the film in his archive.  

As a film it had plenty of strikes going against if, in my opinion, it's a classic early talkie, the script is very talkie.  It was also not a terribly good mystery.  A lot of the dialogue of Jack Holt's character Inspector Killian consisted of yelling, lines like "send those people in there," and  "send them in that other room over there," and back again.  Then there was the problem of Mr. Porter played by Wheeler Oakman on screen and sounding nothing at all like Wheeler Oakman.  Same for Detective Carney played by Fred Kelsey, he sounded nothing like the Kelsey I am familiar with.  The bonus was in the soundtrack of the trailer that survives, we got to hear the voice of Agnes Ayres (but no video of the trailer, go figure).  

In any case, and bottom line, it made me cranky watching this film.  The closely-miked voice actors gave me a headache.  The audience clearly enjoyed themselves, so I am in the minority on this one.  Cute experiment does not need repeating.  Instead, explain to me why T'olable David has never been screened at this festival, that would have been 90 minutes better spent as far as I'm concerned.

According to Clarence Brown, who recalled filming Flesh and the Devil in 1927 to Kevin Brownlow in The Parade's Gone By, he had the hottest thing going on screen with the blossoming of Greta Garbo's affair with John Gilbert.  You can see the pair of them fall in love and lust on screen.  There is also the love affair, of sorts, between Lars Hanson and John Gilbert.  It is always something that garners a laugh with modern audiences.  Kevin Brownlow alluded in his introduction of the film this triangle affair.  Let's face it, the guys end up with one another, their friendship strengthened and restored in the end.  To spoil it for you, the bad girl Garbo dies in the lake to cheers.  With William Daniels behind the camera and Brown's fluid directing, you do not need much to get you through this classic film.  It is always a pleasure to just wallow in it.  The understated scoring by the Matti Bye Ensemble lacked the romance of the Carl Davis score I'm accustomed to hearing.

Screengrab from Pan 1922

Next up and the last film of the day was the Norwegian film Pan (1922).  I bugged out and skipped it and, by all accounts on Sunday morning, I made the wise choice.  I am sure Guenter Buchwald played it beautifully.  If anyone saw it and feels differently, please let me know what I missed.

Sunday morning began with Serge Bromberg sharing a new discovery to me, the wacky world of Charley Bowers, the Rube Goldberg of silent comedy.  Subversive, wacky, these films are really dreams of a rarebit fiend.  We were treated to three films, each different a bearing the unmistakable stamp of Bowers touch.  His films featured animation, stop motion animation, mattes and some scary looking machinery!  I enjoyed all the films and Serge Bromberg accompanied them on the piano in his own bouncy fashion (he really is a one man band).  I can't explain them you really need to see them.  They're on DVD and there are a few on youtube like Now You Tell One, which was one we saw.  Here it is for your enjoyment and to see for yourself!


Next on the program was the Avant-Garde Paris set of films.  I skipped it due to a luncheon engagement with a group of fellow authors.  Stephen Horne told me later that Menilmontant was his favorite of the festival.  Until I see it, I will take his word for it.

Neil Hamilton necking with Colleen Moore for Why Be Good?
In the past we have been treated to the frenetic flapper Colleen Moore in Her Wild Oat.  This year we got the recently restored Why Be Good? which co-starred former D.W. Griffith leading man and future Commissioner Gordon in Batman, Neil Hamilton as the love interest.  The film was introduced by author Cari Beauchamp stepping in for an indisposed Leonard Maltin.  Her intro was funny and informative (and I'm told mimicked her intro at the screening at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).  I was thrilled since she is one of my favorite authors.

Next to Ella Cinders, this is now my favorite of the Colleen Moore films I've seen.  It is a charming film, with lots of dancing.  Colleen was a pretty hot dancer.  The plot runs a little along the line of a cross between It and My Best Girl and Moore more than holds her own, not much is demanded of her emotionally.  There is a bit more in a tender scene with her mother, played Bodil Rosing.  Rosing is much subtler here than her turn in F.W. Murnau's Sunrise.  It was a jaunty affair and supported by a cracking score by the Mont-Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.  There were half a dozen people afterwards asking, since the film was recently reunited with it's original Vitaphone synchronized score, why didn't we hear it?  I do not have an answer for that, but, if you are interested, it's on DVD and you can get it here.

Norrtullsligan 1923 was next up from Sweden.  A comedy/drama about women office workers sharing an apartment and their lives.  This would have been a commonplace film in the 1930's at Warner Brothers starring Aline McMahon, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak (or Ginger Rogers, Glenda Farrell, etc.) with loads of snappy dialogue.  Without the snappy dialogue, this film's leading character Pegg, played by Tora Teje (who reminded me a lot of Pauline Frederick) was the narrator and driving force in the film.  She plays secretary to a man who believes she is a woman with a past and a son.  In reality, the boy is her younger brother she supports.  It's clear they have feelings for one another, but they do not act upon them.  Her flatmates Baby and Eva have other romances.  Since I never read the program notes before the festival (not enough light in the Castro), it was happy surprise to see Nils Asther as Baby's love interest (and he does start out as a cad).  He can wield and Pola Negri style and insanely long cigarette holder with aplomb!  The film ends with some twists and turns before everyone has a happy ending at Christmas.  It was, ultimately a really sweet film that I enjoyed.  Once again, the understated score was performed by SFSFF regulars, The Matti Bye Ensemble. 

Trade ad from Film Daily for Essanay's Sherlock Holmes
The main event Sunday was, arguably, the most anticipated premiere of the weekend.  This was, of course, the premiere of the formerly lost 1916 Sherlock Holmes.  Introduced by Rob Byrne who restored the film and Russell Merritt a Sherlockian and member of the Baker Street Irregulars since the 1950's (among his many other accomplishments).  I was so hoping Mark Gatiss might show up for this screening.  This film is important because it preserves and allows us to see something that was ephemeral and lost, the famed Sherlock Holmes of stage actor William Gillette.  What struck me, right off the bat, was how well Gillette adapted himself to screen acting and how subtle he was.  No Delsartian big gestures, small moments where you could swear you saw his Holmes thinking.  It was, by no means, a canon Sherlock Holmes story.  There were touches from stories, like A Scandal in Bohemia.  Nevertheless, it was grand good fun to watch and truly see history come to life.  Several of the cast were from the stage play, as well, and they did just fine on screen.  Not enough Watson for me and a really terrific Moriarty.  We also got the bonus, thanks to Russell Merritt pointing it out, of picking out a positively skinny Edward Arnold as one of Moriarty's henchmen.  The debut score was performed by the Donald Sosin Ensemble (Donald, Frank Bockius and Sascha Jacobsen).  The print quality was great, it was a miracle this survived and was found essentially complete, and with assembly instructions according to Rob Byrne.  The restoration was funded from several sources (including Stephen Moffat and Mark Gattis writers and producers of the BBC modern riff Sherlock starring Gatiss as Mycroft and Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock) and a co-production with the Cinémathèque Française and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  You can pre-order a copy from Flicker Alley, and I suggest you do, it was great good fun!

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes in his laboratory
The Swallow and the Titmouse followed Sherlock Holmes, and I could not muster the energy to stay for it.  Reports the following day were I missed a gem. #sadface  Next year I owe Stephen Horne a dinner/lunch/drinks when he is in town since this is not the first time I've missed one of his best showings.  My bad!

Monday, boo-hoo, the last day of the festival arrived.   The afternoon began with a quiz from Bruce Goldstein, So You Think You Know Silents?  It featured film clips and stills and, mostly, multiple choice questions.  You were handed a ballot/quiz form and a pencil upon entering the theater.  We handed them off to be tallied afterwards and Bruce revealed the answers.  I missed a couple and was surprised and delighted to hear my name called, the lone woman of the bunch, to be in the winner's circle.  I won a cool prize! 

Next up was a film I was looking forward to, The Deadlier Sex 1920 starring Blanche Sweet.  I've seen precious few Blanche Sweet films, Judith of Bethulia, some other Biograph Shorts and the 1915 feature The Case of Becky (which was pretty good).  In this film, a more lighthearted affair than the title might suggest, Blanche Sweet really shined.  Made me lament, like Dorothy Gish, so few of her features are known to exist.  Blanche plays Mary Willard who has taken control of her father's railroad after his death, has become so exasperated at the unscrupulous business practices of rival Harvey Judson (played by Malon Hamilton) that she has him kidnapped to teach him a lesson that acuiring money is not all life can offer.  (Ridiculous, I know, but it worked)  When he wakes up in the forest, he initially believes that robbery was the motive until he discovers that no money was taken. He tries to bribe his guide to take him to the nearest settlement but to no avail.  He tries to bribe a local hunter (a wonderful and young Boris Karloff) and instead makes Karloff try to not only get the girl, but rob him of his money. It all ends happily with Karloff beaten, and the pair agreeing to pair up in love and work together because, like death and taxes, the U.S. Government has taken their assets for the war effort.  It was rather unbelievable plotwise, but sometimes, you just have to let things go and just enjoy the heck out of the movie for everything else.  This was one of those movies.  It was shot up in gorgeous  Sierra Nevada mountains near Truckee and was just plain fun!  Guenter Buchwald kept the movie humming along with a nice score playing piano and violin.

Blanche Sweet enjoying a moment in The Deadlier Sex

Like Sherlock Holmes preserving William Gillette, we were treated to the exciting discovery of the rushes and outtakes of the unreleased 1913 film Lime Kiln Club Field Day starring Bert Williams.

Bert Williams and Odessa Warren Gray getting ready for a take.

Ron Magliozzi of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) gave a lengthy presentation on the discovery of the film (hiding in plain sight) from the original cans acquired and saved by Iris Barry from American Biograph.  Films that would have otherwise been thrown away.  Think on that for a second and then make a donation to the National Film Preservation Foundation (or your archive of choice, they ALL need the money).  There was so much information, so fast in his presentation, I got lost about midway.  Seeing Bert Williams, however, was terrific.  One gets glimpses of his famous makeup, walks and style.  It was also wonderful to see the beautiful gowns worn by Odessa Warren Gray (herself a milliner and designer in New York).  I think for many this will be a curiosity, but, it really does fill a hole in modern knowledge of black entertainers of the time.  It was, for me, a thrill to experience it.  I hope that once the film elements are complete and edited, if they are to be, it will be a terrific thing to see this recreation in its entirety.

Serge Bromberg interviewing Kevin Brownlow prior to Ben-Hur

Our final film for the festival weekend was an epic and legendary film, the 1925 Ben-Hur starring Ramon Novarro and a literal cast of thousands.  The film was preceded by a conversation with Kevin Brownlow (conversing with Serge Bromberg and us).  Kevin told some amusing stories of how he discovered silent film and what inspired him to make films and, ultimately spend his lifetime preserving them.  It was grand!

Ben-Hur needs no recap or introduction from me.  The story of the making of the film is an epic all by itself (one that Kevin tells me is being written now).  The film is all that is grand about a silent film, sweeping story, beautifully photographed, sensitive direction and acting (for the most part Francis X. Bushman does tend to chew scenery) and a literal cast of thousands.  The chariot race is really exciting, the sets and effects are amazing.  Then there are the two color Technicolor sequences, Novarro riding triumphantly into Rome, bare-breasted girls showering him with rose petals, it is an Alma-Tadema painting come to life.  Kevin Brownlow, himself, said that the film could use a new restoration.  With the improvements in technology today, as he said, a terrific job could be done on the film.  I would agree with him.  The film was beautiful, and a little soft around the edges.  It could do with a 4K restoration and a stand-alone dvd release instead of being an extra on the 1959 Wyler remake.

What was unusual about this screening was that the film was shown with the pre-recorded score by Carl Davis. May I say, the audience reaction was not dimmed by the fact the musicians were not there playing live, it was epic and enhanced the film hearing the full orchestral score.  I loved it and so did a lot of people.  The ovation for the film did not go long, but, I expect that was due to the fact that the film started nearly an hour later than it was originally scheduled to.  People wanted to hotfoot it out of there and catch MUNI home.  I know I did not linger too long afterward.  It was, however, a grand exit, grand finale to an incredible weekend of cinema.  Rob Byrne ended the festival thanking everyone involved, including the audience.  I am incredibly blessed this great festival of film is literally in my own backyard.  I treasure it and may it continue for another 20 years, there are loads more silent films out there to rediscover!

See you on December 5, 2015 for the one-day festival winter program.  I can hardly contain my excitement!


Marilyn said…
Great wrap-up, and some great short surprises.I am going to see Sherlock Holmes in two weeks in the Essanay building (now a college) where it was filmed, and I really can't wait. Is it really all that?
Tinky said…
You squeezed in a LOT of viewing! Thank you for the fascinating report. Until we get the Hawley Silent Film Festival (a very long shot) you are my eyes and ears.
I read this and drooled. What an opportunity to watch great films! I am truly envious. (Except for the Spider Women movie -- it's more like Ron Weasley has an inner me than that I have an inner Ron Weasley.) Thanks so much for sharing all these thoughts on your experience!
Lisa said…
Wow! I'm a huge fan of Kevin Brownlow, this must have been completely bonkers to see him in person dishing on some of these pictures. Or just to see any of the films themselves on the big screen period. I was able to catch the new restoration of Wellman's "Wings" last year at a local repertory I'm jealous though because I haven't seen the silent "All Quiet" in proper dimensions. Great post (so the rest of us could be vicariously there)! :)


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