Talk about fun! Every year the San Francisco Silent Film Festival offers rarities, restorations, and surprises from around the world. But this year’s highlights, for me, involved two immortal stars who produced their own pictures. I’ve waited fifty years to see Mary Pickford’s notorious “flop,” Rosita, which she detested so much she allegedly wanted it to have it destroyed! When I was attending NYU ages ago the Museum of Modern Art did an exhaustive Ernst Lubitsch retrospective and acquired a print of this 1923 silent from the Soviet Union. This triumph was only a Pyrrhic victory. Because Miss Pickford was still alive they dared not show it publicly without her permission. I’m told that a handful of insiders viewed it in the Museum’s private screening room, but that’s as far as it went.
Museum curator Dave Kehr has narrated a video that’s well worth watching about the film’s strange history and aftermath. Apparently, it wasn’t the picture itself that Mary despised so much as her performance and what her attempt at playing a saucy grownup did to her career. You’ll learn more, and see clips from MoMA’s beautiful restoration, HERE. Only digital technology could have produced such a gorgeous print of this enjoyable movie, which shows off William Cameron Menzies’ stately, enormous sets to such advantage. To anyone who has settled for a substandard bootleg copy in recent years I would encourage you to seek out this breathtaking new edition.
I was asked to introduce the closing-night attraction, Buster Keaton’s BATTLING BUTLER (1926), in tribute to my old friend Frank Buxton who, with his wife Cynthia Sears, was a friend, benefactor, and enthusiastic participant in the San Francisco festival. I also wrote a tribute to Frank for the program book.
I admitted that BATTLING BUTLER was not one of my favorite Keaton features, nor was it high on anyone else’s list, although it was a great success in its time—much more so than his next film, THE GENERAL. Go figure. But something magical occurred Sunday night. There in the intoxicating atmosphere of the Castro Theatre, with a simpatico audience, a stunning new print from the Cohen Film Collection, and an ideal score played by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the movie sprang to vivid life and played like gangbusters. Afterwards, all my film buff friends were saying the same thing: “I never enjoyed it so much” and “What a great comedy. Why haven’t I realized it before?”
This comes as a timely reminder that the audience plays a crucial role in the unspooling of any movie, new or old…but it’s especially important where silent are concerned. As much as I enjoy the convenience of DVDs and Blu-rays, they are no substitute for a screening in a darkened theater, on a giant screen, with the right music and an enthusiastic audience.
I can’t begin to cite all the other films and musical performances that made an impression on me. Donald Sosin and Stephen Horne are masters at the art of silent-movie accompaniment and proved it all over again. And despite my reservations about the opening-night selection, The Man Who Laughs, the extraordinary Berklee Silent Film Orchestra provided a thrilling experience—with each of seven student-composers conducting his or her portion of the score. Bravo to all the people who work so hard to make the San Francisco Silent Film Festival such a special occasion.