Monday, July 6, 2009

SF Silent Film Festival 2009

July is here – which means it's time to jump aboard the time machine with the dial set for 1920s San Francisco. The SF Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) returns for its 14th glorious edition this weekend, and lucky Bay Area filmgoers (and scores of devoted out-of-towners) will get to relive the magnificent era of silent movies once more.

SFSFF is a first-rate act, which explains why it's become the most prestigious annual event of its kind in the Americas. How so? First, you begin with a venue like the built-in-'22 Castro Theater, perhaps the nation's most beloved extant movie palace. Next you program an eclectic, challenging and fun group of films and exhibit them with the best possible 35mm prints. Then you hire the cream of internationally renowned silent movie musicians to accompany the films. Throw in a printed program of scholarly essays, informative slideshows before each screening, lots of special guests and a Grand Prize Raffle courtesy of San Francisco's McRoskey Mattress Company – and there you have it. Thanks to the festival, I've gone from being marginally interested in silent cinema, to having the SFSFF be the most anticipated three days of my film-going year.

When the line-up was announced last month, I'd hoped to find a program or two worth skipping out on. But of course, it all sounds too good, which means being sequestered in the Castro (with time off to go home and sleep) from 7 p.m. Friday until 10 p.m. Sunday. This year's roster is a typical SFSFF mix of familiar actors (Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Gish, W.C. Fields, John Gilbert) and directors (King Vidor, Josef von Sternberg, D.W. Griffith), with the distinctly less familiar (Soviet-era sci-fi and a French surrealist take on Edgar Allen Poe). Here's a cursory jaunt through the entire weekend's schedule.

Friday, July 10

7:00 P.M. The Gaucho
At the height of his career in 1927, Douglas Fairbanks wrote and starred in this adventure extravaganza, playing a rakish but honorable Argentine bandit called upon to defend a pilgrimage site from plunder. The film co-stars Lupe Velez in her first major role, an actress I only know from a dubious appearance in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon (a sordid story involving suicide and a toilet bowl). The film was directed by F. Richard Jones, Mary Pickford has a cameo as the Virgin Mary, and Mexican locations stand in for the Argentine pampas. I'm sure I'll know lots more after reading the film's program notes, written by none other than Hell On Frisco Bay's Brian Darr. Featuring the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. After the screening, the SFSFF opening night party takes place in the Castro mezzanine with drinks and live music.

Saturday, July 11

10:00 A.M Amazing Tales From the Archives
For the fourth year in a row, SFSFF offers this FREE-admission spotlight on film preservation. (And speaking of FREE, kids under 12 get into ALL SFSFF shows gratis!) The program's highlights include a restored 1911 Edison short, How the Hungry Man Was Fed, and Screen Snapshots: 7th Series, with behind the scenes footage of Ramon Navarro and Clara Bow. Presenters are Joe Lindner and Heather Olson of the Academy Film Archive, along with 2008's SFSFF preservation fellowship recipient Anne Smatia. Featuring Stephen Horne on piano.

12:00 P.M. Bardleys the Magnificent
This 1926 King Vidor-directed romantic swashbuckler was considered lost, until a near-complete, but unprojectable print was discovered in a French cellar in 2008. It's been digitally restored and will therefore be projected digitally at the festival, marking a SFSFF first. John Gilbert and Eleanor Boardman star in a tale of mistaken identity and political intrigue set in the court of Louis XIII. Featuring the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

2:30 P.M. Wild Rose
A romance between a poor country girl and a rich Shanghai artist is played out in this 1932 film from acclaimed Chinese director Sun Yu. Set against the backdrop of Japan's invasion of Manchuria, the film is said to explore issues of class-ism and the country's rural/urban divide. It stars Wang Renmei as the titular Wild Rose, and Jin Yan, the "Valentino of China." Jin Yan's widow, Qin Yi will be on hand to introduce the screening. Featuring Donald Sosin on piano.

5:00 P.M. Underworld
George Bancroft and Evelyn Brent star as gangster Bull Weed and his moll Feathers, in this slice of 1927 silent proto-noir from director Josef von Sternberg. Ben Hecht wrote the story (in tandem with an uncredited scenario by Howard Hawks) and then demanded his name be removed once he saw what Von Sternberg had done with it. He won an Oscar anyway. This film will be introduced by San Francisco's own Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller. Featuring Stephen Horne on piano.

7:30 P.M. The Wind
Lillian Gish plays a Virginia transplant driven nuts by West Texas wind, sand, cyclones and despicable suitors in SFSFF's 2009 Centerpiece Film. The movie was made under grueling conditions in the Mojave Desert, and Gish is once again directed by Victor Sjöström (The Scarlet Letter). The performance includes a special wind effect used in silent movie scores of the 1920s. Leonard Maltin will do the intro. Featuring Dennis James on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer.

9:45 P.M. Aelita, Queen of Mars
I missed this at the PFA two years ago when it screened as part of their Journey Through Russian Fantastik Cinema series, so I'm really glad to see it turn up here. Aided by eye-popping futuristic sets and costumes, the story concerns an earthman who takes a rocket ship to Mars and helps lead a revolution there. Directed by Yakov Protazanov and released in 1924. Featuring Dennis James on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer and theremin, and Mark Goldstein on the Buchla Lightning.

Sunday, July 12

10:30 A.M. Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Before there was Mickey Mouse, there was Oswald, a cartoon character created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks at Universal Studios in 1927. Disney lost control of the character in a 1928 legal dispute, and future episodes were produced by Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker). This program highlights eight Disney/Iwerks Oswald cartoons with guidance from Leonard Maltin and Iwerks' granddaughter Leslie Iwerks. Featuring Donald Sosin on piano.

1:30 P.M. Erotikon
Once the kiddies have been cleared from the Castro, the SFSFF heats up with this 1929 Czech silent from Gustav Machatý. This is the director who would scandalize the world four years later with Heddy Lamar's nude swimming scene in Ecstasy. In this melodramatic precursor, a young girl has sex with a stranger, gets pregnant, marries another man and then returns to her former lover. The film is noted for its expressionistic imagery and non-judgmental approach to female sexual desire. It's also the first Czech film to appear in the SFSFF. Featuring the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

4:00 P.M. So's Your Old Man
I guess I was vaguely aware that W.C. Fields made silent films, but it's hard to imagine him without that lilting sneer of a voice. This year we get to experience a "muted" Fields, thanks to the SFSFF Director's Pick program and Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World, Bad Santa). Fields plays a New Jersey "put-upon paterfamilias" who invents a shatterproof windshield. After a disastrous demonstration at an auto convention, he meets a Spanish princess who leads the way to redemption. Directed by Gregory La Cava in 1926, the film was remade by Fields eight years later as You're Telling Me. This screening will be hosted by Zwigoff, writer Daniel Clowes (Art School Confidential) and esteemed actor/writer/director/SFSFF Board Member Frank Buxton. Featuring Philip Carli on piano.

6:15 P.M. The Fall of the House of Usher
Of all the films in the festival, this is the one I'm perhaps most intrigued by. French director/film theorist Jean Epstein adapted this Edgar Allen Poe story in 1928, with the assistance of an ultimately disgruntled Luis Buñuel (fresh from making Un chien andalou with Salvador Dali). It's said to be light on plot, but very heavy on atmospherics denoting dread, decay and discomfort. Marguerite Gance (wife of director Abel Gance) stars as Madeleine Usher, the model/muse whose death drives her husband to madness. Featuring Stephen Horne on Piano.

8:15 P.M. Lady of the Pavements
The 2009 SFSFF comes full circle for its Closing Night Film, with yet another vehicle showcasing the talents of Lupe Velez. This time she's a Spanish cabaret singer being pursued by a Prussian aristocrat in 19th century Paris. This 1929 picture would turn out to be maestro D.W. Griffith's final silent film, and it's generally considered the artistic high point of his later career. Two musical numbers and a dialogue sequence were re-shot to qualify the film as a part-talkie, but the original soundtrack discs are considered lost. In the SFSFF presentation, the two musical numbers will be sung live by vocalist Johanna Seaton. Featuring Donald Sosin on piano.

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