Wednesday, June 1, 2016

21st San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2016

Hot on the heels of last year's 20th anniversary blow-out, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) is back with another stunning roster for 2016. The Western Hemisphere's most prestigious silent movie showcase returns to the Castro Theatre from June 2 to 5 and features 19 programs and 11 new restorations, all screened with live music. Only four films have shown at previous SFSFF editions. Marquee-worthy stars such as Pola Negri, Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks and Emil Jannings appear in films by top directors like Fritz Lang, Yasujiro Ozu, Victor Fleming and Ernst Lubitsch. Special highlights include a pair of René Clément restorations and Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates accompanied by the Oakland Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The terrific news for celluloid lovers is that ten movies will screen in 35mm, according to the indispensible Film on Film Foundation


The festival opens Thursday night with William A. Wellman's 1928 Beggars of Life starring Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen and Wallace Beery. It's considered Brooks' best Hollywood film, wherein she plays a young woman fleeing police after killing her abusive stepfather. Hopping a freight train disguised as a boy, she hooks up with a fellow traveler (Arlen) and together they spend time in a hobo encampment run by Oklahoma Red (Beery). Brooks did her own stunts and apparently despised Wellman for making her jump on and off moving trains. The actress' penchant for subtlety and underplaying is in full evidence here, rendering her performance completely contemporary. Her next film would be the iconic Pandora's Box. Based on an autobiography by scrappy writer/boxer/ex-hobo Jim Tully, Beggars of Life originally contained several talking sequences and is credited as Paramount's first movie with spoken words. It will be shown in 35mm accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, who were also on hand when the festival first screened the film in 2007.

SFSFF21 concludes four days later with the 1919 comedy When the Clouds Roll By, which last played the fest in 2004. It was Victor Fleming's debut feature and the last "Coat and Tie" role for star Douglas Fairbanks before he shifted to swashbucklers. In this enchanting and surreal spoof on psychology, the actor plays a superstitious man who falls under the influence of a mad doctor's nefarious hypnosis experiments. The film is noted for two particular sequences, one of which has Fairbanks running up a wall and across the ceiling, a full 30 years before Fred Astaire's similar accomplishment in Royal Wedding. The other is a surrealistic dream sequence in which an onion, mincemeat pie, Welsh rarebit and lobster all do battle inside the actor's stomach. When the Clouds Roll By will be introduced by Fairbanks biographer Tracey Goessel and accompanied by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius.

Robert Flaherty's 1922 Nanook of the North is one of the silent era's most famous films, which is why I was shocked to discover SFSFF hadn't screened it previously. I'm pretty sure I haven't watched it since a university documentary film class in the early 1970's. This captivating year-in-the-life look at an Inuit family in the Canadian Arctic – how they hunt, fish, trade and migrate – is considered the granddaddy of non-fiction filmmaking, although today it would probably be deemed a "docudrama." A number of scenes were apparently staged. The director forced his subjects to hunt with spears instead of their customary rifles, and Nanook's "wife" was actually a common-law spouse of director Flaherty. None of this detracts from its greatness, however, which is why it was one of the first 25 films chosen for preservation by the US Library of Congress.

While not even remotely considered a "classic," the Norwegian Arctic setting of The Strongest makes it a appropriate companion piece to Nanook. This 1929 Swedish narrative feature was co-directed by Axel Lindblom, who got his start making Arctic newsreels earlier in the decade. Those experiences inspired him to write a melodramatic screenplay about rival hunting ships and rival suitors, and he enlisted the aid of Alf Sjöberg to co-direct. While Lindblom never made another film, Sjöberg would become Sweden's foremost 20th century theatre director, as well as a filmmaker who had five movies compete for the Palme d'Or at Cannes (including two that won). The Strongest is said to contain some of the most striking images in silent Swedish cinema. Nanook of the North and The Strongest will both be shown in 35mm and appropriately accompanied by the ethereal sounds of the  Matti Bye Ensemble.


The year's most highly anticipated silent film restoration is surely Laurel and Hardy's 1927 The Battle of the Century. The missing second reel, which contains the most insanely epic pie fight in the history of cinema (3,000 pies!) was discovered complete in 2015 by collector John Mirsalis. Now that it's been restored by Lobster Films, one of Hollywood's most deeply mourned lost treasures headlines the SFSFF21 program The Battle of the Century and Other Comedy Restorations! On the same bill we'll see The Dancing Pig, a 1907 French short from Pathé Studios, plus the Buster Keaton shorts, The Balloonatic (1923) and Cops (1922). The latter is regarded as one of Keaton's most entertaining two-reelers and features "The Great Stone Face" being chased through the streets of Pasadena. Both Mirsalis and Leonard Maltin will be on hand to introduce the screenings. Meanwhile, check out Matthew Dessem's article at Slate Magazine for a deeper appreciation of this wondrous discovery.  

June is LGBTQ Pride month and Girls Will Be Boys fits right into the festivities. Inspired by Laura Horak's new book of the same title, the program spotlights two comedies with cross-dressing protagonists. First up is Ernst Lubitsch's 1918 I Don't Want to be a Man, made five years before the acclaimed director's arrival in Hollywood. The three-reeler stars Ossi Oswalda, aka "The German Mary Pickford," as a poker-playing tomboy who hits the town for a night of tuxedo-clad carousing, only to discover the grass isn't always greener. That will be followed by Richard Wallace's 1926 What's the World Coming To? in a new 35mm co-restoration by SFSFF, Carleton University and New York University. The opening intertitle of this Hal Roach-produced comedy announces its milieu, "one hundred years from now – when men have become more like women and women more like men." And indeed it is a world where men read "Husbands Home Journal," go to bed with curlers and receive expensive gifts from women on the prowl. Stan Laurel is listed as one of the writers and makes a brief on-screen appearance. Author Horak will be present to do the intro honors.

My first exposure to Pola Negri came four years ago when the fest played The Spanish Dancer. She utterly beguiled me and not just because of her spooky resemblance to 1920's photographs of my Polish grandmother. Negri returns to SFSFF in a new Paramount Archives 4K restoration of Malcolm St. Clair's A Woman of the World. In this 1925 "fish out of water" comedy of manners she plays a newly broken-hearted Italian countess who visits family in Maple Valley, Iowa. Naturally her wicked ways – which include but aren't limited to smoking, drinking and sporting a skull tattoo – provoke outrage amongst the puritanical townsfolk. When the district attorney tries to run her out of town, she responds by bloodily flogging him with a horsewhip. It's said that Negri was lampooning her vamp image in this picture, which had grown stale with the movie-going public. The cast includes the instantly recognizable, walrus-mustachioed Chester Conklin as her cousin.

For ardent admirers of director René Clair (À nous la liberté, Le million, I Married a Witch) this year's festival is all about the restorations of his final two silent features. By virtue of their accorded importance, The Italian Straw Hat (1928) and Les deux timides (1928) screen in the fest's choice weekend primetime slots. Both films are recent co-restorations by SFSFF and Cinémathèque Française and both will be shown in 35mm. Perhaps not coincidentally, each is also an adaptation of 19th century French playwright Eugène Labiche. Straw Hat is described as a fast moving poke at bourgeois manners that uses techniques common to early silent cinema (fixed camera, few close-ups or intertitles, stock characters). The plot concerns the complications that ensue when a horse eats a married woman's hat while she's off dallying with a lover. None other than Pauline Kael called it "one of the funniest films ever made and one of the most elegant as well." In the visually ambitious, "cheerful satire" Les deux timides, a shy lawyer's screw-up results in his wife-beating client going to prison. The tables turn when the ex-jailbird later sabotages the lawyer's relationship with a young woman. In his program notes from Pordenone, Lenny Borger writes that the film "owes much of its freshness and charm to Pierre Batcheff's hilariously Keatonesque performance" as one of the titular timides.

More Restorations

A program of tremendous local interest is Willis Robards' Mothers of Men or Every Woman's Problem, a pro-women's suffrage picture shot entirely in the Bay Area. First released in 1917, it was given a different title upon re-release in 1921. The majority of filming took place in Santa Cruz and over 500 extras were used. Additional footage from Berkeley includes scenes at the downtown train station and a suffrage march on Shattuck Avenue. Mothers of Men is based on a play by Hal Reid, whose actor son Wallace Reid died of morphine addition in 1923 and was married to the film's star, Dorothy Davenport. The story concerns a woman suffragist, turned judge, turned governor, who must prove her husband's innocence when he's falsely accused of murdering a newspaper editor. This restoration is a BFI National Institute and SFSFF collaboration. I recommend visiting the film's website, which has a nifty "then and now" slide show of Bay Area locations used in the shoot.

The festival's late shows are traditionally reserved for the offbeat and/or macabre. Friday night's selection is Irvin Willat's 1919 Behind the Door, in which a German-American naval officer seeks revenge against the German submarine commander whose crew raped and brutalized his wife. Hobart Bosworth, whose nearly 300 imdb credits include filmdom's first Wizard of Oz in 1910, stars as the hero. The ubiquitous Wallace Beery, appearing at his sleaziest here, chews up the villain's role. This new co-restoration from SFSFF, the Library of Congress and Russia's Gosfilmofond will screen in 35mm, with the festival's in-house restoration expert Rob Byrne introducing. Saturday's late show is 1929's The Last Warning. It would be the final film from director Paul Leni (The Cat and the Canary, The Man Who Laughs), who died of blood poisoning that same year. Set in a haunted Broadway theatre, it's the story of a producer who reunites the cast of a play that saw one of its actors murdered on stage. The Last Warning is a new restoration from Universal Pictures and the film is considered a prescient progenitor to the classic horror movies the studio would crank out just a few years later. At the festival's FREE Amazing Tales from the Archives program, Universal's Peter Schade and Emily Wensel will discuss this particular restoration in depth. Also appearing at Amazing Tales will be Georges Mourier, who is currently overseeing a six and 1/2 hour restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon, and festival regular Bryony Dixon from the British Film Institute's National Archive.

One of my favorite SFSFF discoveries has been the work of British filmmaker Anthony Asquith. A Cottage on Dartmoor and Underground screened in 2007 and 2014 respectively and now the festival presents a restoration of his 1928 debut feature, Shooting Stars. This tragicomic morality tale about the illusions of filmmaking contains the same Hitchcockian plot twists and expressionist visuals that would come to signify Asquith's style. The plot centers on a husband and wife acting team that's torn asunder when she becomes involved with another actor. Brian Aherne, who would secure an Oscar nomination playing Mexico's Maximillian I to Bette Davis' Carlotta in Juarez, is thought to be particularly good as the film's lunkish, cuckolded husband. I'm thrilled that musician Stephen Horne, who did such a breathtaking job accompanying Dartmoor and Underground, will perform with Shooting Stars as well. Writer and historian David Robinson, who recently retired as director of the Giornate del Cinema in Pordenone, will receive this year's SFSFF Award prior to the screening.

The final two SFSFF21 restorations are from Germany. I'm very excited about Destiny (Der müde Tod) from 1921, which is regarded as Fritz Lang's first masterwork. Alfred Hitchcock and Luis Bunuel have both claimed the film as enormously influential, with its proto-surrealism, lavish spectacle and special effects. In this story about one woman's efforts to defy death and save her lover, the character of "Death" itself gets a surprisingly sympathetic, world-weary portrayal by actor Bernhard Goetzke. The film's highlight is said to be three fanciful vignettes set in Persia, Venice and China. Destiny will be introduced by actress Illeana Douglas, who recently hosted the TCM series Trailblazing Women. Douglas is expected to speak on the contributions of Thea von Harbou, who co-wrote many Lang screenplays including Metropolis, M and Destiny.

The other German restoration is Ewald André Dupont's 1925 Varieté, which arrives courtesy of the F.W. Murnau Foundation. Alternately known as Jealousy, the film is a morality play about sexual envy amongst three trapeze artists in Berlin – an older acrobat, his young wife and the hunky star who comes between them. The great Emil Jannings, who starred in the classic The Last Laugh just the year before, was ludicrously overweight for the role and often replaced by stunt doubles. The film is regarded for the kinetic camerawork by master DP Karl Freund (Metropolis, I Love Lucy) as well as its fascinating depiction of 1920's Berlin nightlife. Four years later A.E. Dupont would direct Anna May Wong in her acclaimed silent film Piccadilly. Composer Sheldon Mirowitz, whose Berklee Silent Film Orchestra will accompany the film, introduces the screening.

This and That

In terms of shear spectacle, the event to catch at this year's festival would seem to be Oscar Micheaux's 1920 Within Our Gates. The oldest surviving film made by an African-American director will be accompanied by members of the Oakland Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, performing a new score for strings and voice by composer Adolphus Hailstork. The film's title is lifted directly from an intertitle in D.W. Griffith's racist epic Birth of a Nation, which sought to glorify the KKK and oppression of African Americans. Micheaux's film served as a direct rebuttal to Griffith, with its story of a young woman who travels North to solicit funds for a rural Southern school. It depicts the early years of Jim Crow, the rebirth of the KKK and the Northern urban migration of African Americans. It also unflinchingly dramatizes lynching and rape. A novelist and former homesteader, Micheaux would direct roughly 30 films over three decades. Within Our Gates was a lost film until the early 70's when a print turned up in Madrid's Filmoteca. Restored by the Library of Congress in 1993, the movie's intertitles are an approximation of Spanish translated back into English. This SFSFF presentation will be in 35mm and introduced by Michael Morgan, conductor of the Oakland Symphony.

SFSFF is progressively making its way through the silent filmography of Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu. Thus far we've had the pleasure of seeing I Was Born, But..., Tokyo Chorus and most recently in 2014, Dragnet Girl. This year's fest brings us That Night's Wife, a 1930 noir-ish family crime drama that takes place over a single evening. Tokihiko Okada plays a father who commits robbery to buy medicine for his sick daughter, thereby presently a moral dilemma for the cop who tracks him down. The film is notable for Ozu's trademark empathy for everyday characters as well as an expressionistic 20-minute opening sequence in which the father is pursued through dark abandoned streets. Pay close attention to the family's apartment walls, upon which Ozu advertises his filmmaking influences via American movie posters. That Night's Wife will screen in 35mm.

Thanks to the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, this year's SFSFF audience gets to experience a Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema. The program's 15 films represent various techniques for creating colorized celluloid in the days before Technicolor's invention. All but three hail from France and they span an era from 1897 to 1915. Hand-painting, dyeing and stenciling were all used to embellish images ranging from Dutch windmills to Versailles fountains to Algerian folkdancing. On the EYE Filmmuseum's website, a promotional film for the Fantasia of Color collector's book gives an idea of what to expect.