Silent Films Live Again!

To celebrate the 15th year of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, its directors decided to extend the event by an extra day, kicking off Thursday night and screening all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The results were exhausting but exhilarating. As in years past, near-capacity crowds turned out at every show, with several shows, like the newly-restored Metropolis, turning customers away.

There are other vintage film festivals around the country but none is as elaborate, ambitious, or masterfully mounted as this one, a genuine cultural event in San Francisco. It has a perfect home in The Castro, a glorious 1927 movie palace, and its programmers and board of directors create a first-class experience. There are signings with authors of film-related books between showings, along with the sale of books and DVDs, and informative slide shows that set the stage for each screening. What’s more, the audience is treated to the widest possible variety of live music. This year, Dennis James kicked off the proceedings by accompanying John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ, the three-man Alloy Orchestra played for—

Metropolis (as they did at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood), and as if that weren’t enough, we heard Donald Sosin and Stephen Horne on piano, both sounding better than ever, I swear, plus the sublime Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, led by Rodney Sauer, and from Sweden, the Matti Bye Ensemble.

They each have a specific and individual approach to silent film accompaniment, which was not only self-evident but articulated during a lively discussion on Saturday afternoon with radio host and music expert Chloe Veltman. Dennis James champions the use of original scores from the period—on an instrument that was specifically designed to accompany silent movies—yet even he admits that playing something as familiar as “The William Tell Overture” might bring unintended laughter, so he does take liberties from time to time. The Alloy’s Ken Winokur knows that he is “the anti-Dennis James,” but his ensemble’s largely percussive approach is especially well suited to certain films like Metropolis and another selection at the festival, Dziga Vertov’s kinetic Man With a Movie Camera (1928). (I missed several shows that I had seen before, including these two Alloy performances, and a screening of Benjamin Christensen’s Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages. In a festival this jam-packed one has to take a breather now and then!)

This year, more than ever, the festival was an occasion of discovery and rediscovery. I saw silent films from China, Italy, and France that were new to me and revisited classics that seemed new because of the music, the simpatico audience, the setting, and the sheer size of the Castro screen (44 feet tall). It’s been many years since I saw G.W. Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) with Louise Brooks, but I don’t remember being affected by it the way I was this time around. I’m older, and perhaps that has something to do with my response, but I found it incredibly hypnotic, sad, and moving.

As to the other imports, A Spray of Plum Blossoms (Chinese, 1931) brought a local favorite, Chinese superstar Ruan Lingyu, back to the festival for what her biographer, Richard Meyer, labeled her most lighthearted role. The sad-eyed star, who killed herself at the age of 24, never smiled so much on screen as in this free modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s Two Gentleman of Verona, which also starred “the Chinese Valentino,” Jin Yan. I would call the film an interesting curio, but it seemed overlong to me. Festival artistic director Anita Monga fell in love with Rotaile (1929, Italy) at this year’s silent film festival in Pordenone and jumped through hoops to obtain a 35mm print. I can understand why. An early work by director Mario Camerini (whose career went on for decades, even including the 1954 adaptation of Ulysses starring Kirk Douglas), it was clearly influenced by F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise in its moving depiction of young lovers, consumed by despair, who chance upon some money, flee to a glittering resort, and live a make-believe existence of glamor and luxury before coming back to earth. This is a delicate, highly emotional piece of work and Stephen Horne’s accompaniment caught every nuance.

The closing night feature was another discovery, L’heureuse Mort (1924, France), directed by Serge Nadejdine, and adapted by its leading man, Nicolas Rimsky, from a novel by Countess Baillehache. I think the word that best describes this film is “droll,” and its cynical take on the nature of celebrity makes it seem quite modern. Rimsky portrays a playwright whose latest work is so awful he’s forced to flee Paris with his wife. He goes on a sailing trip with an old school chum and is washed overboard and presumed dead. The minute this happens an eager press—and an array of colleagues—start calling him a genius, and his “widow” is approached for the rights to his unperformed works. In fact, he’s very much alive, and quickly realizes that he’d be a fool to admit otherwise, since his demise has made him a commercial success! While this charming film was made in France, its creators were Russian émigrés, which proves that humor—or should I say, irony—is a universal commodity. The low-key accompaniment of the Matti Bye Ensemble suited the film to a T.

Pre-eminent film historian Kevin Brownlow poses with a bona fide silent film star, Baby Peggy, now better known as author Diana Serra Cary, between films and book signings.

The Flying Ace (1924) was a home-grown discovery from the Norman Studios in Jacksonville, Florida, whose representative, Rita Reagan, educated us about this still-standing facility and its history. Producer Richard Norman was white, but saw an opportunity to provide entertainment for black audiences, and this straightforward action-mystery was a prime example of his output.

On Saturday morning, Pixar writer-director Pete Docter, the proud possessor of an Oscar for his work on last year’s Up, joined me on stage to introduce three hilarious two-reel comedies: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in The Cook (1918), Max Davidson in Pass the Gravy (1928), and Laurel and Hardy in the incomparable Big Business (1929). It was heartening to hear peals of laughter from the children who attended this late-morning show along with their parents. Pete spoke about discovering Laurel and Hardy on television as a boy, and how he and his colleagues at Pixar have followed in Walt Disney’s footsteps by studying the great silent clowns for inspiration. It isn’t coincidental that WALL*E was conceived as a silent film and that the most moving and memorable segment of Up is played entirely without dialogue.

I happened to be at the Cinefest in Syracuse some years ago when a private collector brought along an original 16mm print of William Wyler’s 1929 feature The Shakedown. Realizing its value, Paolo Cherchai Usai immediately negotiated with the collector to borrow the print and make a 35mm blowup for George Eastman House, and thank goodness he did. This formulaic but highly entertaining yarn about con artists who run a boxing racket played like gangbusters, and it was plain to see that Wyler was already feeling his oats as a filmmaker, peppering the action with moving-camera and even point-of-view camera shots (one on a huge crane lifting leading man James Murray to the top of an oil derrick). Before the showing I interviewed the late director’s three daughters, Judy (who also serves as President of the festival’s Board of Directors), Cathy, and Melanie, who being of different ages had interesting—and varied—memories of their father. Melanie recalled him taking her to see a revival screening of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives and praising it to the skies; the other girls seemed slightly jealous of that experience, topped by the fact that she got to play in next-door neighbor Charlie Chaplin’s dumbwaiter. When I asked the sisters to name their favorite of their father’s films each one, without prompting, cited a different title: Dodsworth, Roman Holiday, and The Best Years of Our Lives. How could one argue with any of those choices?

Proof of my movie amnesia is the fact that I didn’t remember much about The Woman Disputed (1929) with Norma Talmadge, even though I saw it at Cinefest a while back. Then again, it’s such a silly movie—with an absurd finale—perhaps there’s a reason I blanked on it. Even so, it provides evidence of Talmadge’s formidable star power, little remembered today, and its handsome production was marked by Oliver Marsh’s beautiful cinematography and William Cameron Menzies’ expansive sets.

Dennis James, seated at the console of the Mighty Wurlitzer, participates in a lively discussion of silent film music.

It’s been even longer since I saw Harry Langdon in The Strong Man (1926), so this was a welcome opportunity to see it in a perfect setting, introduced by the men who restored it, Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury of Photoplay Productions. Throughout the weekend people approached Kevin to thank him for guiding so many of us through silent film history, in his ground-breaking book The Parade’s Gone By and many projects since. He delivered witty and interesting introductions to several films during the festival, once again helping us to appreciate them all the more.

The Strong Man represents Langdon at the height of his career, in a film that bears the unmistakable stamp of its director, Frank Capra. While Capra doesn’t share screenwriting credit, the fact that Langdon’s post-Capra features are so poor gives credence to the filmmaker’s later claim that Langdon became impossible to direct after achieving real success. Yet in this film and its successor, Long Pants, he reached greatness, thanks to a perfect combination of expert storytelling, well-executed gag sequences, and precise characterization.

As in previous years, there were several fascinating programs featuring leading archivists where we got to see recently discovered extracts, trailers, and what can only be called miscellany. Mike Mashon, from the Library of Congress, delivered a compelling presentation (based on David Pierce’s massive research project) about the number of surviving silent features. Joe Lindner of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences brought a number of goodies, including a reel of silent trailers that had just been discovered by a “civilian.” Annette Melville, of the National Film Preservation Foundation (which makes its home in San Francisco) spoke about the exciting project of repatriating lost American films from New Zealand and presented a 1912 one-reeler that just came back from the lab. And Fernando Pena of Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina told the truly astonishing story of how he pursued the existence of a complete print of Metropolis for twenty years, only to be rebuffed time and time again—until Paula Felix Didier took over the institution and said “Yes, let’s look for it.” She said that perhaps it was just as well it took twenty years, because digital technology didn’t exist when he began his search, to which he responded, “No.” The two visitors from South America then screened an early-talkie short, made in an imitation-Vitaphone process that documented three musical acts, including the first performance of tango music captured on film!

It is difficult to describe the “high” one feels from being immersed in this world for nearly four days straight. An award was presented to festival founders Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons, who still can’t believe how their baby has grown. Similar recognition is due to Anita Monga and Stacey Wisnia, who have stepped into their shoes so gracefully. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival succeeds because it has a strong support system, as well as a strong constituency. My wife and I consider it a highpoint of the year, every year, and we hope it continues ad infinitum.

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