Monday, July 15, 2013

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2013

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) celebrates its 18th edition this year with a line-up more international in scope than ever before. Ten of its 14 feature films originate from outside Hollywood, with movies postmarked Russia, Japan, Sweden, Germany, France, Denmark, Bali and the UK. The festival, which is the largest and most prestigious silent fest outside of Pordenone, Italy opens this Thursday with Louise Brooks' last great film (Prix de Beauté) and closes on Sunday with Harold Lloyd's iconic Safety Last! In between there'll be such amazements as a tribute to animator Winsor McCay, a 150-minute reconstruction of G.W. Pabst's Garbo-starring The Joyless Street, a two-strip Technicolor Goona-goona epic from Gloria Swanson's ex-husband (Legong: Dance of the Virgins) and a long-thought extinct 1925 drama set at our own San Francisco Chronicle (The Last Edition). Other marquee-worthy names include stars Douglas Fairbanks, Marion Davies and Charley Chase, as well as directors Yasujiro Ozu, King Vidor, Allan Dwan, Victor Sjöström, Jacques Feyder and the ubiquitous Keaton and Chaplin, who are represented with a pair of shorts. As always, each presentation will be accomapanied by live music.

Here's a closer program-by-program peek at what SFSFF has in store this weekend at the glorious Castro Theare.

Thursday, July 18 

7:00 PM Prix de Beauté (1930, France, dir. Augusto Genina, digital)
Proving that San Francisco can't get enough Louise Brooks, this year's festival opens with what is considered the iconic actress' last important film. She stars here as a conflicted, Parisian typist whose jealous husband can't handle the attention she receives after winning a Miss Europe beauty pageant. It was shot after the release of Pabst's Diary of a Lost Girl and was the only film she'd make in France. Released in both silent and (entirely dubbed) sound versions, the fest screens the silent version recently restored by the Cineteca di Bologna, accompanied by pianist Stephen Horne. Knowing I couldn't attend opening night this year, I checked out the chatty, cacophonous sound version available on YouTube. What stood out was Brooks' soulfully luminous performance in a decidedly non-vampy role (but still decked out in Jean Patou couture), a fascinating gaze at Parisian street life of 1929 and a suspenseful, shocking proto-Noir final act. At the SFSFF's Opening Night Party at McRoskey Mattress Company, costumed revelers can compete in the festival's first-ever Mr. and Ms. Silent Film beauty pageant.

Friday, July 19

11:00 AM Amazing Tales from the Archives
Each year this free-admission SFSFF presentation takes an insider's look at the current state of silent film restoration. First up, Céline Ruivo, Director of Film Collections at the Cinémathèque Française will speak on that organization's restoration of films from the Paris Exposition of 1900. Then preservationist and SFSFF board president Rob Byrne will elaborate on the collaborative effort between SFSFF and the Cinémathèque in restoring director Alla Dwan's once-lost The Half Breed from 1916, starring Douglas Fairbanks (screening Saturday at noon).

2:00 PM The First Born (1928, UK, dir. Miles Mander, 35mm)
This melodrama reps the directorial debut of actor-writer-playwright-novelist Miles Mander and is based on his novel and play – with screenwriting assistance from Alma Reville, aka the future Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock. It stars Madeleine Carroll, an actress best known as the first of Hitch's icy blonde heroines (The 39 Steps), who would also enjoy a brief but lucrative Hollywood career (The Prisoner of Zenda). (One source I stumbled upon claims she was the world's highest paid actress in 1938). The First Born's plot revolves around a barren society matron who adopts her unmarried manicurist's newborn while her philandering husband (Mander) is off on an African adventure. Upon his return she claims the child is theirs, which of course leads to nothing good for all concerned. This film is known for its naturalistic acting and surprise ending, which I've spoiled for myself by reading the film's plot synopsis on Wikipedia. Stephen Horne accompanies this recently restored print from the BFI National Archive.

4:30 PM Tokyo Chorus (1931, Japan, dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 35mm)
Released one year before Ozu's I Was Born, But… (SFSFF 2011), this bittersweet portrait of the Great Depression in Japan centers on a how a family copes when its insurance salesman father is fired for protesting the dismissal of an older employee. The family's young daughter is played by Hideko Takamine, later known for her acclaimed work for Mikio Naruse. Accompanying the film – and making his SFSFF debut – is composer-conductor-keyboardist Günter Buchwald.

7:00 PM The Patsy (1928, USA, dir. King Vidor, 35mm)
Marion Davies starred in three silent comedies directed by King Vidor. Unlike paramour-svengali William Randolph Hearst, he saw her as a comedic rather than dramatic actress – having witnessed her wild antics at many a Hollywood party. Davies is often credited with inventing the "screwball" style of comedic acting, and here she portrays the put-upon daughter of a social-climbing family who's in love with her younger sister's beau. The Patsy represented a comeback for Grande Dowager-Battleaxe Marie Dressler, who plays Davies' contentious mother. (Hollywood legend has it that a suicidal Dressler was eating her Last Supper at a restaurant, when director Allan Dwan, acting on behalf of Vidor, offered her this role). This is the festival's only revival for 2013, having screened previously in 2008. Clark Wilson accompanied on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer that evening and I remember it being riotously funny. There can be no doubt that the fabulous Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will do The Patsy justice as well.

9:30 PM The Golden Clown (1926, Denmark, dir. A.W. Sandberg, 35mm)
A.W. Sandberg directed 42 films between 1914 and 1937, and this melodrama remakes his own 1917 picture of the same title, albeit with a much larger production budget. It was the biggest commercial success of the 1920's for Nordisk Studio, which is still operational and now considered the oldest continually operating film studio in the world. The Golden Clown stars Gösta Ekman – last seen in the title role of Faust at the 2013 SFSFF Winter Event – as a rural circus clown who loses the love of his life after becoming the toast of Paris. Ekman was already a cocaine addict when shooting this film, and he would die from the drug in 1938. Sweden's Matti Bye Ensemble will accompany this restoration from the Danish Film Institute.

Saturday, July 20

10:00 AM Winsor McCay: His Life and Art
Generally acknowledged as the first master of both the comic strip and animated cartoon, Winsor McCay created ten films between 1911 and 1921, four of which will be screened at this presentation (Little Nemo, 1913, How a Mosquito Operates, 1912, Gertie the Dinosaur, 1914, and The Sinking of the Lusitania, 1918). John Canemaker, author of the definitive 1987 book on McCay, will present the films along with images from his book. McCay's longest running comic strip was "Dream of a Rarebit Fiend," which was adapted into a 1906 film by Edwin S. Porter and was screened at the festival in 2011. Stephen Horne will be on hand to accompany. If ten o'clock on a Saturday morning is too early for you to be inside a movie theater, all four films in this presentation are available to watch on Winsor McCay's voluminous Wikipedia page.

12:00 PM The Half-Breed (1916, USA, dir. Alan Dwan, 35mm)
The past two years have seen a bounty of Douglas Fairbanks films at SFSFF (Mr. Fix-It, The Mark of Zorro, The Thief of Bagdad). For 2013's fest they've reached back to 1916, a year when the actor shot 11 movies. In this outing Fairbanks plays a half-Native American societal outcast who lives in a hollowed-out redwood tree and ultimately finds acceptance from a medicine show dancing girl. Shot in Northern California near Boulder Creek (Santa Cruz County), the film has a number of interesting names attached to it. Victor Fleming was the cinematographer and Anita Loos wrote the screenplay (adapting Bret Harte's short story "In the Carquinez Woods"). There's a scene in which a nearly-nude Fairbanks bathes in a river, which was reputedly put in the film by director Dwan only because Fairbank's then-wife, a cotton industrialist's daughter named Ann Beth Sully, hated the idea of her husband playing a "dirty, unwashed" half-breed. Thank you, Ms. Sully! As mentioned previously, The Half-Breed is a co-restoration between SFSFF and the Cinémathèque Française, the details of which will be discussed at this year's Amazing Tales from the Archives presentation. Günter Buchwald will accompany on the Castro's (reportedly ailing) Mighty Wurlitzer, the only time the instrument will be used at this year's festival.

2:15 PM Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1935, Bali, dir. Henri de la Falaise, 35mm)
"Nudity Without Crudity" is how the adverts read when this Balinese docu-drama-cum-ethnographic travelogue opened in NYC in 1935. Tickets reportedly cost $5.00 or $84.20 adjusted for inflation. Financed by the director's wife, actress Constance Bennett (Henri de la Falaise was also the former Mr. Gloria Swanson), Legong applied Western plot contrivances to tell its tale of a Balinese dancer who pines for a musician, but he's got eyes for her sister. Butchered by censors for bare breasts and cock-fighting, the film played American grindhouses for decades under various lurid titles. Today it's recognized as an significant document of Bali's traditional dances, funeral rites and marketplace scenes of 80 years ago. It's also one of the very last silent films produced in Hollywood and a near-final example of the two-strip Technicolor process. Although Legong is making its SFSFF debut, the film was exhibited at the Castro for an entire weekend in the spring of 1999, accompanied by the Club Foot Orchestra and Gamelan Sekar Jaya. Those same musicians will be performing again at this year's SFSFF screening.

4:00 PM Gribiche (1926, France, dir. Jacques Feyder, 35mm)
In addition to being a classic French sauce, Gribiche is the title of this silent from the director of 1935's Carnival in Flanders, a classic I recently saw for the first time and wholeheartedly adored. Shot both in the studio and authentic Paris locations, the film tells the story of a poor boy who gets adopted by a rich American woman, but soon becomes bored and rebellious. Gribiche was made by the notable Films Albatros, a studio founded by Russian émigrés in France that produced important works by Marcel L'Herbier (L'Argent, SFSFF Winter Event 2011) and René Clair. Acclaimed art director Lazare Meerson created an entire 17th century Flemish village for Carnival in Flanders and his art deco sets for Gribiche are said to be no less spectacular. We'll be seeing a new restoration by the Cinémathèque Française, who will also receive this year's SFSFF Award at the screening. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanies.

6:30 PM The House On Trubnaya Square (1928, USSR, dir. Boris Barnet, 35mm)
In this Russian comedy of manners from the director of The Girl with the Hat Box (SFSFF 2006), a young peasant woman and her duck travel to Moscow searching an uncle and a new life. What she finds is romance and political consciousness after securing a servant's job with a barber and his bossy, lay-about wife who live in a crowded tenement. The film is said to use charm and cinematic invention to poke fun at bourgeois urban Soviet society, housing shortages and labor unions. Stephen Horne provides the accompaniment.

8:30 PM The Joyless Street (1925, Germany, dir. G.W. Pabst, 35mm)
SFSFF's 2013 Centerpiece Film was the third directorial effort of G.W. Pabst, who would go on to make such important films as Pandora's Box with Louise Brooks and The 3 Penny Opera. Set in post-WWI Vienna during a time of extreme economic duress and wealth disparity, the film stars Asta Nielsen and Greta Garbo as two women in dire straits, one of whom will turn to prostitution for survival. This was 19-year-old Garbo's second major role and her own personal favorite. She would depart for Hollywood later in the year. The Joyless Street, exhibited in the U.S. as The Street of Sorrow, served as a bridge between German Expressionism and a "new realism" style of European filmmaking. It is known to most film buffs via a butchered 61-minute version. The festival will be show a reconstruction by Stefan Drössler that runs nearly 2 1/2 times that length, with accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble.

Sunday, July 21

10:00 AM Kings of (Silent) Comedy (Digital)
If you've never seen charismatic French preservationist Serge Bromberg in action, you owe it to yourself to catch this program of four silent comedy shorts he's chosen for digital preservation. The titles include a Felix the Cat cartoon (Felix Goes West, 1924, dir. Otto Messmer), Charles Chaplin's The Immigrant (1917) and Buster Keaton's The Love Nest (1923). The one I'm most excited about, however, is Hal Roach Studio's Mighty Like a Moose (1926), directed by Leo McCarey (The Awful Truth, Going My Way) and starring Charley Chase, a silent comedian I know only by name and reputation. The film was selected for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry in 2007, and it details the shenanigans which ensue when an equally homely husband and wife decide to have plastic surgery on the same day. Günter Buchwald will accompany the merriment. It's worth mentioning here that children under 10 are admitted free to all SFSFF screenings!

1:00 PM The Outlaw and His Wife (1918, Sweden, dir. Victor Sjöström, 35mm)
Filmmaker and actor Victor Sjöström directed over 40 films in Sweden before emigrating to Hollywood in 1924, adapting the name Victor Seastrom. While SFSFF has shown several of his American films over the years (He Who Gets Slapped, The Scarlett Letter, The Wind), I believe this is the first time they're screening one of his Swedish silents. (According to the festival archive, even his 1921 silent classic The Phantom Carriage has been M.I.A.). In this 1918 film based on a real 18th century Icelandic outlaw, an escaped convict (played by the director) takes up with a wealthy widow and the two escape to a life in the wilderness. Appropriately, musical accompaniment will be provided by Sweden's Matti Bye Ensemble.

3:30 PM The Last Edition (1925, USA, dir. Emory Johnson, 35mm)
Actor and San Francisco native Emory Johnson appeared in over 70 films before turning his hand to directing in 1922. He would make 13 features, most of them stories about blue collar professions adapted from stories written by his mother, Emilie Johnson. In The Last Edition, veteran actor Ralph Lewis (Birth of a Nation, Intolerance) plays a pressman for the San Francisco Chronicle who has a son that works for the D.A.'s office. When a gang of bootleggers frame the son on trumped-up bribery charges, the father literally tries to stop the presses, resulting in the printing plant blowing up. The film was shot in and around the Chronicle Building(s) – both the old one on Market Street and then brand new one at 5th and Mission – and the film's nifty website contains a Chronicle front-page article about the film's preview for newspapermen at the St. Francis Theatre on Market Street. Until two years ago the film was considered lost, then SFSFF's Rob Byrne discovered that the EYE Film Institute Netherlands possessed an original nitrate print. This screening will be the world premiere of the restoration. Stephen Horne accompanies.

6:00 PM The Weavers (1927, Germany, dir. Friedrich Zelnik, digital)
This Soviet-influenced historical drama centers on a 1844 uprising of Silesian cotton weavers, who were concerned about the impact of steam-powered looms upon their livelihood (the event took place roughly 30 years after the Luddite revolt in Britain). The film stars Paul Wegener (best known for his silent film Golem portrayals) as the heartless mill owner and the inter-title art by renowned caricaturist/Dadaist George Grosz is said to be one of its many highlights. Günter Buchwald will accompany. As an added attraction at this screening, Ken Winokur of the Alloy Orchestra and Beth Custer of the Club Foot Orchestra will accompany a two-minute trailer for Dziga Vertov's The Eleventh Year, which was recently discovered in the Ukraine.

8:30 PM Safety Last! (1923, USA, dir. Sam Taylor, Fred Newmeyer, digital)
Is there a more iconic image from the silent film era than Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock face high above a busy city street? Hard to believe it's taken SFSFF 18 years to get around to showing it, but I for one am thrilled to finally be seeing this classic in its entirety. Lloyd, of course, was the "third genius" of silent film comedy, though at the time his films were more commercially successful than either Chaplin's or Keaton's. Safety Last! was his final film with Hal Roach Productions before striking out on his own. Lloyd stars here as an ambitious small town boy who departs for the Big City, leaving his girlfriend (played by the actor's wife Mildred Davis) behind. He secures a lowly sales clerk job and through a combination of circumstances finds himself ascending a 12-storey department store façade with a new peril – pigeons, a mad dog, a mouse running up his pant leg – awaiting him at each floor. The film joined the National Film Registry in 1994 and while most film scholars don't consider it his best – that honor seems to go to either The Freshman or The Kid Brother – it is certainly his best known and most beloved. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany this Closing Night presentation.

Cross-published on The Evening Class.