27th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival Report


The Black Pirate 

The unofficial theme for the 2024 edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival might be There Be Pirates Afoot. With two of my favorite silent pirate films, starting with opening night with the BFI/Museum of Modern Art's brand spanking new restoration of Douglas Fairbanks The Black Pirate and later a UCLA restoration of The Sea Hawk starring Milton Sills. Other pirate-like hijinks showed up during the festival, just not literal pirates.

A trailer for the 2024 festival can be seen here.

Opening Night: April 10, 2024

Douglas Fairbanks and Billie Dove The Black Pirate

The Festival started with a BANG screening the newly restored 1926 The Black Pirate starring Douglas Fairbanks and Billie Dove. To say this was eye-popping is an understatement. The two-color process by Technicolor was like nothing I had ever seen before. This process filters via red and green through a prism, so you do not get the full spectrum that you would later with the Three-Strip Technicolor process. That said, this color palette was rich with browns and greens and a little extra, it was very burnished and golden (without yellows). I cannot really describe it, but it was magnificent in every way. Just beautiful! 

Seeing Douglas Fairbanks on the big screen is always a treat. Especially because any smaller T.V. screen just seems too small to contain the joy and action of Doug. Yes, I do mean a 70 inch television is too small for Doug.

The film enjoyed musical accompaniment by the Donald Sosin Ensemble (in pirate drag). This new restoration is a co-production of The Museum of Modern Art and the BFI. It premiered in London last October to absolute RAVE reviews. I can see why, I agree as it was completely breathtaking.

April 11, 2024:

My favorite program for the festival is always Amazing Tales From the Archive featuring presentations by scholars from the world of preservation and restoration. This program was well attended which did my heart very good to see. Starting off with Bryony Dixon from the BFI she brought us a presentation on the early days of Michael Powell and how he got in to the film business in France, working with Rex Ingram on films such as Mare Nostrum. that is a way to really cut your teeth and learn the business. More interesting, to me, was the story of the Travelaugh series of films where Powell was not a director, but an actor. We were treated to Fauny Business, Travelaugh No. 10 in which Powell plays a tourist who ends up falling asleep and transforms into a faune and revels with other like creatures of the forest. Bryony's dry wit was much in evidence as she had to riff as technical difficulties with the powerpoint/laptop were overcome. "It worked perfectly in rehearsal." Musical accompaniment was by Stephen Horne.

The Oath of the Sword (1914)

Next we had Denise Khor present on the recently restored film The Oath of the Sword (1914) by the sole production of the Japanese American Film Company. The first film company owned and operated by Japanese.  This film was a riff, of a fashion, on Madame Butterfly, no happy endings for anyone. Once again, the film was lifted by the sensitive musical support of Stephen Horne.

Finally, in a presentation all I spoke with felt was truly truncated, David Pierce presented on the dawn of Technicolor and the two color process we witnessed so magnificently with The Black Pirate. We're all a little bit geeky when it comes to film processes and David's engaging presentation was a terrific end to this program.  If you can score a copy, his massive book with James Layton The Dawn of Technicolor is a fantastic read.

One of the most exciting bits of news recently was the discovery of a presumed lost short comedy The Pill Pounder which featured a young Clara Bow in a small part.  Producer and author of the definitive biography of Clara Bow, David Stenn set out the story of ow the film was found and the journey it traveled to debut here at the festival. It was a thrill to see the rebirth of a film, even lacking intertitles and much missing footage. Clara Bow was all personality and here is hoping the trims from this film turn up and it can be rebuilt from the ground up. Wayne Barker provided a jaunty accompaniment for this short comedy.

Title Lobby Card 

The feature accompanying The Pill Pounder was another feature with Clara Bow, Dancing Mothers (1926). Of course, for me as much as I adore Clara Bow, and I do, the s-t-a-r of the picture is Alice Joyce as Bow's mother. Alice Joyce is an underappreciated and mostly forgotten leading lady of the silent era. I encourage you to visit my friend Greta de Groat's excellent website Unsung Divas of the Silent Screen to read more about the life and career of Alice Joyce. That's a real shame as she never disappoints and often gives a performance that is both subtle and powerful. This was the case here, as the wife and mother who is overlooked by both husband (who steps out on her) and daughter (who relies on her when convenient). This spoiled daughter character was out of step for Bow and she's terrific as the spoilt girl about to take a very bad false step. I will not spoil the ending, but, I was practically shouting in my seat as the film ended. Wayne Barker played beautifully and brought the house down with his score for the film. This was my favorite new discovery of the festival.

Title Lobby Card

Sydney Chaplin, I believe, makes his SFSFF debut in Oh! What a Nurse (1926) which was delightfully introduced by Director of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Jay Weissberg who gave a brief history of drag performers and recounted some now forgotten performers by their reviews (oh to have seen their gowns!).  This was one film I missed in Pordenone and, frankly, I could have missed it this time around as well. Sydney Chaplin was not a very convincing as a lady nurse in this film, to me. The comedy was forced and the story predictable. the film was very well received in Italy, so, I am just missing something (the slapstick gene). I will give props to Donald Sosin who kept the film moving with a terrific score.

Two times I have missed Norma Talmadge in The Lady (1925). First I missed it in Pordenone in 2022 and this was the second time. I ended up having dinner with friends who were leaving town. I regret this since the film is not available in watchable form (the youtube version is terrible) and it is not on dvd/bluray. So, my bad. Of course, everyone who saw it were raving and emotional wrecks. I have no doubt part of this was due to pairing Norma with Stephen Horne. 

The final film of the evening was a very familiar favorite, The Sea Hawk (1924) starring the appealing and hunky Milton Sills. This is an epic buckler of swash, very faithful to the original Rafael Sabatini novel. Sills gives a virile performance as a many wrongly accused of murder and betrayed by his brother (Lloyd Hughes) who was the actual murderer. Who further arranged for him to be shanghaied by pirates (Wallace Beery). Hardened by years at the oars as a galley slave, we get to see Sills shirtless and in a loincloth which is always delightful.  Filled with action, revenge, piracy and romance, this film has something for everyone. This was a new 4K scan and restoration by UCLA Film and Television Archive. I need to watch the Warner Archive dvd again to see what is different from the new print. Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provided perfect accompaniment, swashing and buckling beautifully. Was great to see this on the big screen.

April 12, 2024:

The star of The Opportunist

Our first film was a film from Ukraine, The Opportunist (1929) about a character who, like Capt. Renault in Casablanca, loyalties swung whichever the way the wind was blowing. It was sort of hard to follow, murky, but, the best thing was the camel that was the sole constant moving in and out of the various sequences. Ustav Lal accompanied and did a great job.

Trade Ad for East Side West Side

The 1927 feature East Side West Side starring George O'Brien was a treat for many reasons. One of which was George on a barge in tight pants and another George as a boxer. They did not call him Gorgeous George O'Brien for nothing. He was a good looking and very fit guy, so if you are shallow like me, you appreciate this. Director Allan Dwan is one of the truly unsung directors of the silent era. I cannot think of a single film of his that is not entertaining and well done. Two of my favorite Gloria Swanson silents Stage Struck (#1) and Manhandled (#2) are well worth seeking out. Both were released on bluray, sadly now out of print. George O'Brien probably gave his best performance on film in Murnau's Sunrise, but during the introduction we were treated to an anecdote from O'Brien about what a relief it was working with the easy going Dwan compared to being screamed at by F.W. Murnau or John Ford,  The film was filled with drama, action and, ultimately a happy ending romance. Wayne Barker supported the action like the pro he is. It was lovely and I really enjoyed it.

Poil de Carotte

We've been treated to Julien Duvivier in past festivals, so I already knew I would not be missing Poil de Carotte (1925). Duvivier is a very special director, his films have such humaneness and humanity, I find them to be very emotionally satisfying. This was no different. The sensitive and beautiful performance by Andre Heuze as Francois, nicknamed Carrot Top by his terrible family. The youngest member, abused terribly by his truly terrifying mother (Charlotte Barbier-Krauss) and ignored by his father (Henry Krauss) he finds love and support from the new maid which begins his healing. Once again, Stephen Horne provided such sensitive accompaniment that rose and fell with each twist and turn, and really twisted my heart into knots. My second favorite discovery was beautifully introduced by author, historian, blogger and all around source of cinema knowledge Pamela Hutchinson

Poker Faces (1926) was screened in Pordenone last year and was a sheer delight. When Artistic Director Anita Monga asked me what I would suggest from Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, I did not hesitate to mention this film. I was honored and surprised that she took my suggestion to heart! Much like Up in Mabel's Room which  screened a while back, this is a delicious farce that never lets up. Edward Everett Horton was a delight as husband Jimmie and Laura La Plante always a delight as wife Betty who get in to an argument over her wanting a new rug. George Siegmann, normally a heavy, is a hoot in a rare comic turn. The Guenter Buchwald Quartet recreated the score from the Italian screening to the delight of the audience who loved the film as much as I did.

I elected to skip the final film Haxan since I've seen it before a few times and because for a late night screening, I was confident the Matti Bye Ensemble would put me to sleep.  I was also freezing cold in the theater and wanted to find a way to warm up.

April 13, 2024:

I woke up with a sore throat and opted to stay home with chicken soup so I could rest up for Sunday. This was a good decision since there was not a film on the Saturday program I had not seen. Did I feel bad as I missed a day, of course I did. Hell's Heroes screened in Pordenone in 2023 and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was Born But screened here in 2011. The Street screened in Pordenone and I loved it. Would have loved to see it again. Sherlock Jr. is an old favorite and always a pleasure to see. The Joker I also saw in Pordenone. You can see it online at the stumfilm dk website, complete with Stephen Horne. Do it, you won't be sorry.

April 14, 2024:

Chicken soup and rest worked it's magic, sore throat gone and I was ready for more movies.

The Gorilla (1927) was a title much anticipated from the  excited chatter I saw in some of the silent film groups and message boards. Very much an Old Dark House kind of film, it started out very stylishly with artistic cityscapes shown and the shadow of the menacing gorilla superimposed. Loved this and it bode well up until the protagonist (Claude Gillingwater) was bumped off. Then the film descended into a much lesser version of The Cat and the Canary old dark house comedy/horror. This was my second film with Charles Murray (who mugs with his very elastic face) and Fred Kelsey (who made a career playing cigar chomping cops - my favorite being in The Gold Diggers of 1933). Ah well, you cannot love everything. At least Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius kept the film lively with their accompaniment.

The Kid Brother (1927) with Harold Lloyd and my favorite of his leading ladies Jobyna Ralston (this her final film with Lloyd) is one of my favorites. Lloyd is the kid brother with two burly brothers matching their burly father who is the town sheriff. The build up of Harold from bumbling younger brother, a milktoasty guy if ever there were one to hero of the day is paced beautifully. Lloyd and Ralston were perfect on screen, never more charming than here. Once again, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra led by Rodney Sauer supported the film beautifully. We also enjoyed extra foley sound effects courtesy of Rodney's other half Nancy Sauer. It was delightful in every way.

The Phantom Carriage (1921) is another film not new to me, but, always a treat to see on the big screen.  Victor Sjoestrom directs and himself gives a haunting performance as a man caught literally between life and death, can he redeem himself?  It's a terrific and very haunting film. I am not a fan of the Matti Bye score for the film, the meandering, sluggish and very soft accompaniment even made me nod my head a few times. Thank goodness I knew what was going on. I know there are people who love his scores, I do not count myself among the lovers just because no matter the film, they induce sleep for me. Pamela Hutchinson did another stellar job introducing the film, she's quite engaging and filled with humor and bonhomie.

Brigitte Helm fans unite! The Devious Path/Abwege (1928) directed by G.W. Pabst is far less famous than either Pandora's Box or Diary of a Lost Girl. That said, this film has many delights, the best of which is a searing performance by Helm and her fantastic gowns. This film screened during the online Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2020. I reviewed it here. It was terrific to see this on the big screen with Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius supporting. Less plot than I remembered, but, still I enjoyed the heck out of this film. NOW, let's get Anita Monga to program Manolescu (1929) with Ivan Mosjukine and Brigitte Helm. THAT was HOT SEX on film. 

The film that closed the festival was The Red Mark (1928) starring tow leads I am not entirely well acquainted with, Gaston Glass (Monte Cristo 1922) and Nina Quartero. The star of the film is the perennial baddie Gustav von Seyffertitz (never scarier than in Sparrows 1926). Set on a fictional prison island, like Devil's Island, Gustav is the bad governor who like to wield his power by using his trusty guillotine to punish his enemies. Seen as the local barber is a slightly less portly Eugene Pallette, I can still hear his voice in my head. There was less dark/moody terrifying than I was expecting, still the creep factor was there. James Cruze is a director I have always enjoyed when I have had the chance to see one of his films. Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra gave us fine accompaniment and Nancy Sauer provided very creepy guillotine sound effects to go with.

That was a wrap!

The Palace of Fine Arts Theater

For those wanting to know how it was watching films at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater rather than The Castro Theater, it was fine. While I think it is safe to say we all missed being in and at The Castro, I have no complaints. This was a terrific venue, a fewer number of seats and a much larger space.

The sightlines were great, aka no tall person's head blocking the screen and subtitles at all. This was a real plus as my karma in life is that I can be sitting in my seat at The Castro and the tallest person on earth will sit directly in front of me. Here this was not a problem, the rows were separated enough you had a clear sight to the stage and the screen. That was great!  I expect the sightlines were very different if you were off to the side. I expect the skew on the screen was something. We stuck pretty much to the center. Must mention, the seats were pretty darn comfy. The photos I have seen of the temporary floor seating for the revamped Castro do not look like anyone's butt will be happy sitting in them for 6-8 hours for a film festival. 

The theater staff for the Palace of Fine Arts Theater were lovely and helpful. Those who know The Castro Theater, well, the ladies room queue was not terrible. If there was a line, it quieted down fairly quickly. staff was dedicated/designated to keep things clean and tidy. 

The concession was yummy and I had no problem spending some $$ there which I refuse to support APE at the Castro (now and in future, yes I said it). The food truck on site was a wonderful option for a meal which we indulged on Sunday. This was a downside to the location, no chance to run across the street for a slice of pizza or other fast casual meal. The closest sit down restos are blocks away. If the SFSFF has to return to the Palace in future, I expect more that one food truck would be a welcome addition to augment the on site catering in the theater. If we did not have to compete with locals on Castro Street, a food truck or two would be a great idea there to add to the local restaurants.

I had not been to this venue for decades, literally. Last concert I saw there was Ravi Shankar & Ali Akbar Khan. Last event there was seeing & receiving a blessing from the Dalai Lama. Looong time ago. The Palace of Fine Arts is lovely to visit. Walking along the marina is nice, too. So picturesque. 

It was sad to see some of the screenings not so well attended. A week before TCM Fest and the fact it is not a centrally located venue (not super MUNI convenient nor BART adjacent for East Bay peeps) surely contributed to this. There was parking available. I expect many out of SF travelers opted not to drive in. I am sorry, people did miss out not coming and supporting, I really enjoyed the films.

Again, while it is not an optimal space, old movie palace, I have zero complaints that the 27th Festival pulled it together and put on such a great show. The Palace of Fine Arts Theater, their staff and the SFSFF staff are to be commended for their hard work getting the festival on and running, from my perspective, so very smoothly. Job well done!

It was so lovely to see so many old friends and get in at least a few minutes of visiting in a much larger lobby space. I had a great time and I think everyone else who was there did, too.


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