26th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival Recap


Stantsiya Pupky being introduced

The 26th edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was one of the strongest festivals in recent memory. The 2023 program of films was excellent. A good mix of foreign and U.S. silent films each of which was accompanied expertly by a phalanx of great musicians. Attending the festival this year there was an air of melancholy given the status of the much beloved, and last surviving motion picture palace in San Francisco the beautiful Castro Theater. Melancholy though it was, it made this 26th festival all the more meaningful.

The opening night film was Douglas Fairbanks last silent film The Iron Mask (1928). It was mostly silent, there were two small talking scenes voiced by the stage-trained veteran Fairbanks. The Guenter Buchwald Ensemble provided the rousing accompaniment to this sequel to Fairbanks' The Three Musketeers (1921). The 1921 film screened at SFSFF in 2017 in a restoration by The Museum of Modern Art. An updated restoration can be had on bluray thanks to MOMA and Film Preservation Society which includes restoration of original Handschiegl color process.

Back to The Iron Mask, this was a great opening night film. As my friend Lokke Heiss mentioned on social media, this film is one that should be better known. I agree with him 100%, the film has everything, a terrific script and Doug took care to bring back many cast members from the 1921 to reprise roles in the 1928 sequel. This included the lovely Margueritte De La Motte as Constance, Nigel De Brulier  as Cardinal Richlieu, Fairbanks regular Charles Stevens as Planchet, Leon Barry as Athos and Fairbanks reprising his role as the dashing d'Atagnan. Cast as Louis XIV and his twin was William Bakewell. As with all of Fairbanks productions, this is a lavishly produced film, the settings, the costumes are all just beautiful. The has action, romance, tragedy and hope at the end. As Fairbanks witnessed the change in Hollywood production with the coming of sound, he was reported to have said that the romance was gone making pictures. While he did make some more films, adeptly so in the sound era, Fairbanks was not long for this world and sadly passed 11 years after the film was made in 1939. Not to end on a sad note, it had been a long time since I had seen this film, and my first time on the big screen with such a witty and supportive score, we were off to a very good start.

The film was preceded by a short 1900 Biograph film Sherlock Holmes Baffled in tribute to the late Russell Merritt who passed away earlier this year. The festival was in memory of Russell and co-founder of the SF Silent Film Festival Stephen Salmons. I missed some films, so I do not know if there were any special moments devoted in Stephen's memory, I hope there was. Back when I used to podcast, my annual conversation with Stephen about the coming festival was always a joyous one, a conversation that continued long after I turned off the recorder. 

Amazing Tales from the Archives as I have repeatedly said is one of my favorite regular programs during the festival weekend. 2023 was no exception. We did have a little technical difficulties at the start in synching up the powerpoint presentations. Once that was ironed out, and HATS OFF to Nicholas White who had to hold the stage and riff while he waited for the IT problems to get ironed out. He educated us very entertainingly on "trap" artists who provided literal bells, whistles and other sound effects during the silent era. A collector of catalogues and vintage contraption "instruments" he ended with a demo reel to and a sample presentation of various sound effects that could be done. It was fantastic. A sample of Nick and what he does is shown here below.

Next we had Mindy Johnson present on a recent discovery of pioneering animator Bessie Mae Kelley. Kelley was previously unknown and this NPR piece explains far better than I could trying to paraphrase Mindy. This is a hugely important piece of history and the excitement was palpable as Mindy described leafing through original sketches and drawings saved by Bessie Mae Kelley and rediscovered by her family. The research is ongoing and I look forward to seeing any additional information that comes to light on this formerly male-dominated area of animated history. We were also treated to seeing a short, a Christmas Message animated that survives and it was lovely to see.

Finally, Kyle Westphal of the Chicago Film Society spoke about preservation and the search for information on non-theatrical films, Doll Messengers of Friendship chronicling the doll exchange between Japan and the United States. Click the link above to learn about this interesting fragment, which had the U.S. premiere during this festival. There is so much more about how the Chicago Film Society acquired the film, the research in trying to discover the history of it and the restoration. A curio and a completely fascinating tale. Stephen Horne provided musical accompaniment for the two programs not needing sound effects.

Die Grosse Liebe Einer Kleinen Tänzerin (1924)

Man and Wife was preceded by a short film from Germany Die Grosse Liebe Einer Kleinen Tänzerin/The Great Love of a Little Dancer (1924) acted entirely by marionette puppets. It took me a moment to realize I had seen this short film in Pordenone. It is a fever dream of a film, sort of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari meets The Red Shoes.It was fascinating to see again and accompanied by Will Lewis.

Man and Wife was a real rarity, a very early film featuring Norma Shearer. While Norma did not have loads to do, when given the chance she got to emote and play a decent mad scene. The film which co-starred Robert Elliot and Maurice Costello had lots of plot, return of the prodigal and a guy who marries both sisters. Accompanied by Wayne Barker, it was a fun excursion.

Much anticipated and well attended was the restoration of the 1926 film The Johnstown Flood. I am down for any silent with the gorgeous George O'Brien. Janet Gaynor had her first big role in this film and just one year later was a bona fide star with both Sunrise and Street Angel (winning an Academy Award in the process). The plot was mostly pedestrian for the first two thirds and was a good enough set-up for the third act grand finale of the destructive flood. Filmed partially on location in Santa Cruz and surrounding areas to substitute for Pennsylvania, the location scenes were breathtaking. The flood sequences and miniature work were filmed Hollywood. One did want to shake George O'Brien's character for being so blind to Gaynor's Anna and her unrequited love. The restoration was wonderful and it was a corking action film. Rodney Saur's score played by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was wonderfully supportive of the action and the time recreated.

This was followed by the uproarious Up in Mabel's Room (1926) starring the incredible Marie Prevost as Mabel and Harrison Ford as her ex that she vows to woo back realizing their Paris divorce was a mistake. This bedroom farce was a hit in Pordenone in October 2022 and more than held up on a second viewing for me. It was supported by Guenter Buchwald's rollicking jazzy score (as it was in Italy) which lifted the comedy to another level. Supported by Phyllis Haver (1927 DeMille production of Chicago)  this film is a delight. I was so glad to see it again.

I skipped out on the 1925 Stella Maris, with regret. Hope to catch up with it another day.

Stark Love
(1927) is a film that is one of legend, rarely screened and any online freebies are virtually unwatchable. I had wanted to see this film for decades based on Kevin Brownlow's writings on the film. The sole silent directing credit by legendary cameraman Karl Brown, this film has been a legend of location filming and using non-actors in the lead roles. Claiming to use solely "mountain people" in the cast, that was Hollywood fol-de-rol and hoopla of the press agents. The two leads Helen Mundy and Forrest James were not professional actors, but, they did not come from the Great Smokey Mountains, either. This film was beautifully shot and well worth waiting decades to see. A simple tale of love between the two protagonists and the circumstances which threaten to engulf and thwart them. It is a lyrical film with more breathtaking locations to wonder at. The film is from a sole surviving European print preserved by the Museum of Modern Art. Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius provided the accompaniment that sounds as if it, too, came from the Great Smokey Mountains. A great experience.

Flowing Gold (1924) was up next. As a devoted Milton Sills fan, this was a not to be missed film for me. I know I have seen other films with leading lady Anna Q. Nilsson, but, off the top of my head I am not pulling up any silent titles. Milton Sills starts out as a fortune hunter in this wildcatting town of oil speculators and investors. He ends up working for a family newly enriched by the flowing gold on their land and falls for their daughter, too. His complicated past threatens to expose him unless he can force a confession from his past enemy. Concluding with a thunderstorm and a huge oil fire, this new restoration was a fun watch. Utsav Lal accompanied on the piano and was supportive and, by the end, exciting. 

The hit for me was Allan Dwan's 1926 film Padlocked. The plot was all over the place, was this a drama, comedy, weeper? It had something for everyone. Lois Moran (Stella Dallas) plays the daughter of a stuffy, stick in the mud moralizing father (uncharacteristic for Noah Beery) who thwarts any chance of fun in her life. Her supportive mother (Florence Turner) dies unexpectedly and soon after her father marries his loyal and equally sanctimonious secretary (Helen Jerome Eddy). She soon runs off to become a cabaret dancer. When discovered to be underage, she is relinquished to her father's care, and his new bride persuades him that the best place for Edith is a reform school. Meanwhile, father Henry is beset by bills for Bell's new wardrobe and other finery and his home invaded by her larcenous family (delightful Josephine Crowell and a young Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). Louise Dresser shines as a lady from the wrong side of the street with a proverbial heart of gold. Many plot twists happen before the proverbial happy ending. The film, while classic Hollywood, was enormously satisfying because of the performances by the ensemble of actors and Dwan's touch. Especially fabulous was the cinematography by legendary James Wong Howe. Stephen Horne provided a rich score that was equally satisfying.

Skipped the Buster Keaton Three Ages (1923) to have dinner with friends. 

Last for the day was the new restoration of Sessue Hayakawa's 1919 file The Dragon Painter. I saw this film previously when it screened in 2004. Famed for the location shooting in Yosemite Valley, this film is a poem as delicate as a lotus floating in the garden. Tsuru Aoki (then Hayakawa's on and off screen partner) plays the inspiration for the painter of dragons, a wild man who is tamed by love. The new restoration of the film is stunning and I hope is one that gets a bluray release. A beautiful score by the Masaru Koga Ensemble highlighted this beautiful film.

Had a late start to the next day by skipping the Laurel and Hardy films and showed up for the fun and magical Midsummer Night's Dream (1925). Seeing this made it abundantly clear that Max Reinhardt's influence was potent and this film was a visual precursor to Reinhardt's 1935 Warner Bros. prestige film of 1935. It mirrors the later film focusing on the forest sequences and the Pyrimus and Thisbe performance by the townspeople. It was lushly costumed and the scenes were equally well done. It was silent Shakespeare done well. Entertaining it never flagged in inventiveness nor with the special effects. Sascha Jacobson Quartet provided accompaniment without so much as a note of Mendelssohn which I think would have been distracting. 

The non-Hollywood big hit for me was the 1929 Czech film The Organist at St. Vitus Cathedral. WOW, what a movie! Amazing performance by Karel Hašler as the organist. Incredibly moving, especially when you learn of his real-life and the tragedy of it. Eddie Muller's introduction of the film and prefacing with his story almost overshadowed the film. Also, the tragedy of the producer going bankrupt mid-film and commiting suicide, sounds like it was going to go all Tonka of the Gallows on us. Surprisingly, it did not. The film had dramatic plot twists NOBODY in the theater saw coming. Incredible lighting and cinematography and uniformly excellent performances. We were blessed with incredible accompaniment by Maul Nelissen on the piano and a virtual organ, amazing.

Stantsiya Pupky/Pigs Will Be Pigs  (1931) was a Ukrainian send up of Soviet bureaucracy. In that is succeeded while I found the laugh out loud humor to be wanting for me. Even at 60 minutes I found the jokes to fall flat after the first presentation. Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius keep the soundtrack light to point out the jokes, which certainly helped!

My body gave out after this and I had to head home to recline. Even having found a comfortable spot in the theater, my mystery malaise cut the day short.

Sunday began in the best possible way, Ben Model accompanying three of the delightful Edward Everett Horton short (and silent) comedies I never knew about (before I helped kickstart Ben's bluray). Having seen them on my television, it was a pure please to hear Ben play live and see them on the big screen. You can order a bluray here, you will not be disappointed if you do.

Skipped most of the John Ford Kentucky Pride to enjoy lunch with out of town pals. I had seen this in Pordenone, so was not distressed coming in the middle of the film It is sentimental and mildly enjoyable. Best part was right about where I came in, the last third of the film. It is always a pleasure to see J. Farrell MacDonald and in this he had a leading role.

My last film was the 1922 Voglio a Te! starring the great Italian silent Diva Francesca Bertini. Shot in Italy and after objections by the way southern Italy was portrayed, setting changed to Spain. Bertini plays a young lady from a small fishing village who has a mystical ability to calm the mind of a diplomat's crazy son. So they travel all over Europe while he recovers. As they travel, he declares his love for her and she does not love him. After traveling for some time, they travel to his home in London. He proposes and she accepts, only to have him fall apart all over again on their wedding night. She escapes back home to find she is the subject of cruel gossip and branded as a harlot. Meanwhile, he undergoes surgery that relieves his symptoms and recovers and travels to find his lost bride. Much drama ensues in finding her and avoiding the wrath of a jealous former suitor before we have a happy ending. Bertini is such a special artist, it is always a pleasure to watch her. Stephen Horne offered a wonderful accompaniment to the film. 

My festival was shortened, sadly, thanks to a mystery ailment. It was also bittersweet since this will be one of the last times we will attend the Castro Theater with the original seating configuration intact. What the future holds is anyone's guess. I will be in attendance for the Day of Silents in December.   

It was very sad to see that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival fundraising table nor the book table usually hosted by the Niles Essanay Film Museum were in the mezzanine. This was because the new concessionaire APE (Another Planet Entertainment) will not allow sales during the festival without APE getting a cut of some kind from any sales. Since both the SF Silent Film Fesitval and Niles Essanay folks are non-profit organizations, that seems to be really shitty and rather greedy to me. On my part, I chose not to spend any money at the concession now run by APE. Tit for tat. 


Karen said…
Wow, what an awesome festival! I'm sorry that your experience was cut short, but so glad you were able to see so many films, especially Stark Love and The Organist at St. Vitus Cathedral. I would love to have seen Padlocked and Up in Mabel's Room. Thanks for this first-rate review!

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