The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) celebrates its 19th edition this weekend with a record-breaking 19 programs spread over four days. For diehard fans who believe nothing in the SFSFF line-up is "miss-able," that's going to mean back-to-back-to-back, 14-hour days happily ensconced in the bosom of San Francisco's renowned 1921 movie palace, the Castro Theatre. This year's fest kicks off on Thursday with the film that made Rudolph Valentino a star and ends Sunday evening with Buster Keaton's biggest commercial success. In between there'll be stops made for an Ozu gangster flick, an anomalous comedy from Carl Dreyer, a tribute to Max Linder, some Soviet sci-fi and a silent Sherlock Holmes.
In an unsettling, if inevitable sign of the times, it appears that only nine of this year's 17 feature films will be screened in 35mm (I've indicated which ones in the SFIFF preview below, based on information obtained from the indispensible Film On Film Foundation's Bay Area calendar.) I've also pointed out which presentations will additionally feature so-called "Orphan" films, i.e."newsreels, outtakes, amateur films, test reels, kinescopes, trailers, promotional and experimental films, early silent narratives, as well as random fragments with no discernible origin."
Thursday, May 29
7:00 PM The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA, 1921, dir. Rex Ingram, 35mm)
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of WWI, this year's festival opens with what many consider one of cinema's first anti-war films. It's also the movie that made Rudolph Valentino a household name and inspired an international obsession with gaucho pants and the tango. (It was also the top grossing film of 1921 and the silent era's sixth biggest all-time box office champ.) The unknown Valentino was hired at the insistence of screenwriter June Mathis, a personal friend who would pen several other Valentino vehicles including Blood and Sand. The actor was reportedly paid less than his fellow cast members and had to provide his own costumes. The latter I find a bit hard to believe. Valentino's co-star Alice Terry would soon marry the film's director Rex Ingram, who would himself go on to discover Ramon Navarro. Musical accompaniment will be provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, who are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year. An opening night party will follow the screening at the top floor loft of the historic McRoskey Mattress Company Building.
Friday, May 30
10:00 AM Amazing Tales from the Archives (35mm & digital)
This is always one of the most popular events of the festival, and not just because admission is FREE! First up, Bryony Dixon of the British Film Institute's National Archive will present several early nature films and discuss how the genre's pioneers invented equipment and methodology which is still used today. Then Dan Streible of the Orphan Film Symposium will reveal everything there is to know about Fred Ott's Sneeze, the iconic five-seconds-long film which became the first motion picture copyrighted in the U.S. Ott was an assistant to Thomas Edison and in 1894 he was filmed sneezing after having taken a pinch of snuff. Finally, Oscar winners Craig Baron (visual effects) and Ben Burtt (sound design) will employ stills, clips and animation to discuss Charlie Chaplin's significant use of technical effects. Stephen Horne will accompany the proceedings.
1:00 PM Song of the Fishermen (China, 1934, dir. Cai Chusheng, digital)
Shot in an actual fishing village, this was China's first social-realist film and the first Chinese movie to win an international festival prize (at the Moscow International Film Festival in 1935). It was also the second film for actress Wang Renmei, whose memorable debut Wild Rose screened at SFSFF in 2009. Song was responsible for giving Wang her nickname "Wildcat of Shanghai," and during filming she announced her marriage to Jin Yang, who was considered China's Valentino. She consequently had her contract dropped by the Linhua Film Company, who believed a married actress wouldn't appeal to male audiences. This program will also include a pair of "Orphan" shorts, fragments of early (1911 and 1912) travelogues shot in the Umbria region of Italy. Musical accompaniment will be provided by Donald Sosin.
3:00 PM Midnight Madness (USA, 1928, dir. F. Harmon Weight, 35mm)
This silent melodrama is one of 75 once-thought-lost films which turned up in a New Zealand archive in 2009 and has since been restored. Loosely based on "The Taming of the Shrew," it's the story of a wealthy diamond mine owner (Clive Brook) who punishes his gold-digging bride (Jacqueline Logan) by dragging her off to live a miserable existence in Africa. The film was produced by Cecil B. DeMille in between tenures at Paramount and MGM, when he briefly had his own production company, DeMille Picture Corp. Star Clive Brook is best known, at least to me, as Marlene Dietrich's lover in Shanghai Express, and co-star Logan achieved some fame as Mary Magdalene in DeMille's 1927, The King of Kings. The film will be preceded by the "Orphan" film Josephine Baker Visits Volendam, a 1928 Fox Company newsreel in which the American entertainer goofs around during a visit to northwestern Holland. Accompaniment duties will be fulfilled by Stephen Horne.
5:00 PM The Parson's Widow (Sweden, 1920, dir. Carl Th. Dreyer, 35mm)
Eight years before his austere masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Dreyer made this rare comedy of manners in which a young man of the cloth is tricked into marrying the elderly widow of his deceased predecessor. A Swedish film set in 17th century Norway and based on a Danish story, it was one of the first Scandinavian movies to employ location shooting (the open air museum of Maihaugen in Lillehammer, Norway, which contains over 200 medieval buildings). One of the film's many highlights is said to be the titular performance by septuagenarian character actress Hildur Carlberg, who passed away just two months before the film opened. This screening will be accompanied by Matti Bye (presumably without his ensemble).
7:30 PM Ramona (USA, 1928, dir. Edwin Carewe, 35mm)
The great Mexican actress Dolores del Rio stars in this adaptation of Helen Hunt Jackson's classic 1884 novel about the persecution of a mixed race woman (Scottish/Native American) in 19th century California. It's director Edwin Carewe, himself part-Chickasaw Indian, "discovered" del Rio at a wedding in Mexico and convinced her and her husband to move to Hollywood. He would ultimately direct her in seven films. Ramona was the first United Artists release to feature a synchronized score, and a recording of del Rio singing the title song can be heard here. The film was considered lost until a print was discovered in the Czech National Archive in 2010 and subsequently restored by the U.S. Library of Congress. The colorful history behind that Czech print includes confiscation by the Nazis, a two-decade stint in the USSR and then a return to Czechoslovakia in the 1960's, where it disappeared from inventory lists for nearly half a century. The venerable Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany this presentation.
10:00 PM Cosmic Voyage (USSR, 1936, dir. Vasil Zhuravlyov, digital)
The festival's two Late Shows this year both hail from the USSR, starting with this near-futuristic fantasy about a professor, his female assistant, a boy scout and a cat all journeying to the moon in 1946. The film is noted for its grounding in actual science, thanks to the contributions of Soviet rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, as well as for its impressive sets, stop-motion animations, considerable humor and stupefying tracking shots. Although endorsed by the Communist Youth League – they wanted a film that would encourage an interest in space studies amongst the country's young – Cosmic Voyage was withdrawn from release shortly after its 1936 debut and remained unseen until the 1980's. The film will be preceded by the "Orphan" short, Niemeyer Pijptabak, a 1923 animated Dutch advertisement for Niemeyer brand pipe tobacco (presented in 35mm). Both will be accompanied by the Silent Movie Music Company (Guenter Buchwald and percussionist Frank Bockius).
Saturday, May 31
10:00 AM The Good Bad Man (USA, 1916, dir. Alan Dwan, 35mm)
1916 was a busy year for Douglas Fairbanks. He appeared in 11 films – 12 if you count an un-credited role in Griffith's Intolerance – including this Western in which he plays a Robin Hood-like bandit who steals from the rich in order to support "kids born in shame." (The Half-Breed, which was shown at last year's festival and also directed by Alan Dwan, hails from the same year). This screening marks the world premiere of a new restoration, completed via a three-way partnership between the festival, the Cinémathèque Française and the Film Preservation Society. The Good Bad Man will be preceded by the 1906 "Orphan" short, Fragment of Market Street, After the Fire. Donald Sosin will accompany.
12:00 PM Serge Bromberg's Treasure Trove (digital)
If I could only see one program at this year's fest, it would certainly be this new presentation from charismatic French preservationist/master showman Serge Bromberg, whose most recent Bay Area appearance was a mind-blowing program of rare and restored 3-D films at the 2011 SF International Film Festival. This go-round Bromberg will be showcasing a new version of Buster Keaton's 1922 short The Blacksmith, the world premiere of a complete two-reel version of Roscoe "Fatty" Arcbuckle's 1916 The Waiter's Ball and a work-in-progress look at Chaplin's 1916 Night in the Show, in which he plays two different characters. "Other surprises" are promised as well. As always, M. Bromberg will provide his own accompaniment.
2:00 PM The Epic of Everest (UK, 1924, dir. John Noel, digital)
This documentary is the official filmed record of explorer George Mallory and Andrew Irvine's failed (and fatal) attempt to climb the world's highest peak. It features some of our earliest moving images of Tibet and its people, and employed a specially designed telephoto lens which photographed the intrepid heroes from a distance of over two miles. The film was recently restored by the British Film Institute with help from the director's daughter, Sandra Noel. The BFI will receive this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award at the screening, and the film itself will be introduced by Bryony Dixon, the BFI's Curator of Silent Film. Musical accompaniment will be provided by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.
4:30 PM Underground (UK, 1928, dir. Anthony Asquith, digital)
Saturday afternoon at the festival continues with a second recent BFI restoration, this one produced to celebrate the 150th anniversary of London's subway. This working class love story was the second film for director Anthony Asquith, whose revelatory 1929 A Cottage on Dartmoor thrilled this festival back in 2007. Although an aristocrat by birth, Asquith was also a staunch socialist (and rumored homosexual). His Underground is particularly noted for its German Expressionist lighting, use of Soviet-influenced montage and a climatic chase scene that's said to rival Hitchcock. Should you need further enticement, check out this lovely clip of the film's lovers flirting on a subway station escalator. None other than Leonard Maltin himself will be on hand to introduce the screening and Stephen Horne will accompany on piano.
7:00 PM Under the Lantern (Germany, 1928, dir. Gerhard Lamprecht, digital)
For the second year in a row, the festival's Saturday night primetime slot will be taken with a German film about a young woman's descent into prostitution. Let's hope it's half as brilliant as last year's radical reconstruction and restoration of G.W. Pabst's The Joyless Street. The Berlin-set Under the Latern is one of four silents from director Gerhard Lamprecht that were restored by Deutsche Kinemathek and premiered at 2013's Pordenone festival. Musical accompaniment for this screening will come from the Donald Sosin Ensemble, which includes Donald Sosin (composer/piano), Günter Buchwald (violin), Frank Bockius (percussion), and Sascha Jacobsen (bass).
10:00 PM The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (USSR, 1924, dir. Lev Kuleshov, digital)
Another late night, another Soviet silent – this one being an energetic spoof of American ignorance about the USSR, from one of Russia's foremost film theoreticians, Lev Kuleshov. The story concerns a YMCA executive who travels to Moscow and is kidnapped by a gang thieves pretending to be Bolsheviks (their leader is played by none other than fellow director/theoretician Vsevolod Pudovkin). As a longtime Russophile, I'm especially looking forward to the sightseeing tour of 1924 Moscow which purportedly ends the film. Speaking of comrade Pudovkin, Mr. West will be preceded by the Austrian trailer for his 1927 masterwork, Mother, which was recently discovered in the collection of the Austrian Film Museum and restored (and will be screened in 35mm). The Matti Bye Ensemble will accompany this program.
Sunday, June 1
10:00 AM Seven Years Bad Luck (USA, 1921, dir. Max Linder, digital)
The final day of the festival kicks off with a tribute to Max Linder, the French actor/writer/director now considered cinema's first comedy star and an inspiration to Chaplin. In this American-made feature, Linder's character breaks a mirror and finds that his luck worsens the more he tries to avoid unlucky circumstances. It features his famous empty mirror gag, which would be copied by the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball and others. Four years after making this film, the depression-prone Linder would commit double suicide with his wife. He would be remembered in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds in a scene where German soldiers discuss the relative merits of Linder vs. Chaplin. Also featured in this program is an American two-reeler from 1917 titled Max Wants a Divorce. The films will be introduced by fellow countryman Serge Bromberg, and Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius will accompany the hilarity.
12:00 PM Dragnet Girl (Japan, 1933, Yasujiro Ozu, 35mm)
The festival has screened several Ozu silents in the past, but for one reason or another I've always managed to miss them. I'm therefore doubly determined to not forego this anomalous Ozu gangster film starring future Kenji Mizoguchi muse Kinuyo Tanaka as a gun-toting moll. The film is said to reflect the Japanese master's love of old Hollywood, with its pulpy storyline, moody lighting, proto-noir shadows, fluid camerawork and cluttered mise-en-scène (the latter evoking Joseph von Sternberg). Appropriately enough, the film will be introduced by San Francisco's very own Czar of Noir, Eddie Muller, and Guenter Buchwald will accompany.
2:30 PM The Girl in Tails (Sweden, 1926, dir. Karin Swanström, 35mm)
This feminist comedy would be the fourth and final directorial effort of Karin Swanström, a beloved character actress who later became Swedish cinema's most influential figure as head of production for AB Svensk Filmindustri. The story revolves around a small-town girl who attends her graduation dance dressed in male attire and consequently falls in with a feminist collective upon being disowned by her father. (Swanström has a memorable role as the town's leading citizen). Accompanying this feature will be the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
5:00 PM The Sign of Four (UK, 1923, dir. Maurice Elvey, 35mm)
Between 1921 and 1923, actor Eille Norwood portrayed detective Sherlock Holmes in 45 shorts and two features, with The Sign of Four marking his silver screen farewell. No less than Arthur Conan Doyle was said to be an enormous fan of the actor's interpretation of Holmes. In this adventure, Holmes and Dr. Watson (the latter played by Arthur Cullin, substituting for Hubert Ellis who played the venerable doctor in all of the other films) investigate a murder which appears to have roots in India some years earlier. The film was shot on the streets of London and includes a thrilling chase on the Thames. Musical accompaniment will be provided by Donald Sosin on piano and Guenter Buchwald on violin.
7:00 PM Harbor Drift (Germany, 1929, dir. Leo Mittler, 35mm)
The festival's penultimate selection for 2014 is yet another slice of German miserablism from the 1920's. This one is a Hamburg-set parable about an old beggar, a prostitute and an unemployed young man who find a pearl necklace they hope will bring salvation. But of course it only leads to further degradation. Produced by Germany's communist-leaning "Prometheus" film collective, the film is said to be heavily influenced by Soviet cinema and is perhaps the best film directed by the little known Leo Mittler. Stephen Horne will accompany the film on piano, with assistance from Frank Bockius on percussion.
9:00 PM The Navigator (USA, 1924, dir. Buster Keaton, Donald Crisp, digital)
The 2014 SF Silent Film Festival sails into the sunset aboard an empty 370-foot long steamship, together with a pair of hapless passengers played by Buster Keaton and Kathryn McGuire. This comedy was Keaton's fourth feature and biggest commercial success, with a script written after Keaton's longtime art director Fred Gabourie, had rescued the film's ship from the scrapheap. Officially known as the USAT Buford, the vessel had been used to transport 249 American "undesirables," including activist Emma Goldman, from the US to the USSR in 1919. The movie's underwater scenes were filmed at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, where the water was so cold the crew could only shoot for 10 minutes at a time. Preceding The Navigator will be the 1929 short Pochta, a masterpiece of Soviet animation which follows a letter on its trip around the world. Guenter Buchwald will accompany the short (which will be presented in 35mm) and the Matti Bye Ensemble will do the musical honors for the Keaton film. The program will be introduced by Leonard Maltin and Frank Buxton.