Silent Films Soar In San Francisco

Rare films from around the globe, featuring everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Walt Disney’s earliest animated characters, marked the 16th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival this past weekend…along with the announcement of the Festival’s plans to screen Abel Gance’s Napoleon with a live orchestra next spring. (see separate story HERE).

Executive director Stacey Wisnia, Artistic director Anita Monga, their dedicated staff and board of directors put on another great, wide-ranging show featuring films from Sweden, Japan, Germany, Italy, England, and Russia. It’s a far cry from the early years of the festival when founders Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons were grateful that anyone would show up to see Hollywood classics of the silent era. Now, the SFSFF has built up an audience that is willing to try unusual and challenging fare along with old favorites.

One of the happiest discoveries was the world premiere of a newly-restored Douglas Fairbanks film from 1918, Mr. Fix-It, written and directed by Allan Dwan. The day before its screening, preservationist Ken Fox (a graduate of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation) described the challenge of translating its—

Inspired by a Spanish cathedral, the tile work in the entryway to the Castro is as beautiful as the interior of the theater.

—Italian intertitles and matching the film’s original typeface. He even learned how to write with a fountain pen in order to replicate a handful of notes and letters seen in close-up during the course of the picture. The movie features Fairbanks at his most ebullient, playing an American attending Oxford University who agrees to help out a roommate by thawing out his hard-hearted family so he can marry the woman he loves. Tracy Goessel, who is working on a definitive Fairbanks biography, funded this restoration through her family foundation, and deserves a great vote of thanks for enabling George Eastman House to bring this long-lost movie back to life.

I hope this (amateur) photo offers some sense of the atmosphere inside the Castro, a perfect home for a silent film festival, with a giant-sized screen as icing on the cake.

Another world premiere was a restoration of Lois Weber’s Shoes from 1916. Far too few of this important director’s films survive today, so each new “find” is an event. Like her other crusading films, this one focuses on a social injustice: the plight of an underpaid working-girl who supports her entire family and yearns for an attractive pair of shoes she eyes in a shop window. To her they represent freedom and independence, as well as fashion, but in the end, she pays much too high a price to acquire them—by selling the only thing she has left to give, her body. The surviving nitrate prints of Shoes were plagued by deterioration and decay, but the Eye Institute of the Netherlands has performed a dazzling restoration. It’s one thing to retouch a photo on your computer; it’s quite another to eliminate blotches, specks, and gouges from every frame of a feature-length film. The new print still shows signs of decomposition, but this significant film is now watchable, and that’s a small miracle.

A shot from the recently discovered Walt Disney Laugh-O-Gram cartoon Goldilocks and the Three Bears, shot off the screen.

Speaking of miracles, it was only through the dogged determination and research of Cole Johnson and David Gerstein that two early Disney animated shorts, long missing, were discovered hiding in plain sight at the Museum of Modern Art. When British distributor Wardour Films acquired them in the early-talkie era they retitled Goldilocks and the Three Bears as The Peroxide Kid and Jack the Giant Killer became The K.O. Kid. As he did at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival, Disney scholar J.B. Kaufman presented these and all of Walt’s other early Kansas City animated shorts in an entertaining program cosponsored by San Francisco’s Walt Disney Family Museum.

On Sunday morning, film historian extraordinaire Kevin Brownlow gave a fascinating illustrated lecture about his lifelong fascination with Napoleon and traced his herculean efforts to piece the neglected film back together. Shunned and disparaged by the film establishment, Napoleon was not a priority for anyone except Kevin, who had to work surreptitiously over many years’ time to do justice to this extraordinary work by director Abel Gance. I know the Festival made a video of Kevin’s presentation, and I hope they will make it available online in the months leading up to their screenings next spring. Kevin’s partner-in-crime, Patrick Stanbury, prepared the magnificent trailer for this event which was screened several times—to a chorus of cheers—during the weekend.

Kevin Brownlow recounts his lifelong passion for Napoleon at left, as we see an image of the young film enthusiast on the giant screen.

San Franciscan Eddie Muller, the “Czar of Noir” who heads the Film Noir Foundation and programs the Noir City Festival every January at the Castro, delivered an eloquent and impassioned speech before the Saturday night screening of the rare 1929 German feature The Woman Men Yearn For, featuring a pre-Blue Angel Marlene Dietrich. The film has more style than substance, but sometimes that’s enough, especially with Dietrich at her most hypnotic. I liked Eddie’s speech so much that I asked if I could reprint it. Find the complete text at the end of this piece.

Every year, the SFSFF invites a contemporary filmmaker who appreciates silent films to participate as well, and I had the pleasure of introducing Alexander Payne, the talented and articulate writer-director (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways) who delivered another wonderful speech about his introduction to silent films as a boy and his ongoing admiration for them. (Film collectors take note: he started out buying 8mm prints from Blackhawk Films, and years later took a film history course with the redoubtable David Shepard, who was in attendance.) Alexander’s highly personal and sincere speech provided a perfect prelude to Victor Seastrom’s He Who Gets Slapped with Lon Chaney on closing night.

More magnificence inside the 1922 Castro Theatre.

The Festival also continues to feature a broad spectrum of music to accompany the films. The Matti Bye Ensemble, from Sweden, returning for a second year, created marvelous moods, or soundscapes, for Mauritz Stiller’s The Blizzard, the evocative British documentary The Great White Silence, tracing the ill-fated Scott Expedition to the South Pole, and Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped. The gifted pianist Donald Sosin prepared a delightful score for John Ford’s recently-discovered feature Upstream and recruited a talented group of musicians from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and the Matti Bye Ensemble to perform with him on opening night. The Mont Alto group, led by Rodney Sauer, played an exquisite score for The Woman Men Yearn For. Accompanying Shoes and Mr. Fix-It, Dennis James revealed once again why he is a showman without peer at the Castro Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ. The Alloy Orchestra brought its unique sounds to a program called Wild and Weird, featuring an array of odd and experimental shorts that are a perfect fit for this innovative trio. (The program, with their score, is also available on DVD from Flicker Alley.) And Stephen Horne, from London, displayed dazzling virtuosity in his accompaniment for a variety of films including The Goose Woman, Yasojiro Ozu’s beautiful I Was Born, But…, and Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Nail in the Boot, creating orchestral effects with the piano soundboard and accompanying himself on flute and accordion!

The most controversial event of the weekend was a screening of F.W. Murnau’s exquisite Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans with a new score composed and performed by Giovanni Spinelli on electric guitar. There are many ways to approach a silent film score, and while I had trepidations about this particular approach, I tried to keep an open mind. Unfortunately, my worst fears were realized from the moment the film began. The loud, often dissonant sound of electric guitar seemed all wrong for this emotional, often delicate film, and although Spinelli experimented with different sonic qualities for his instrument, they never meshed with the images onscreen.

I find it difficult to convey the full scope of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which began on Thursday night and wound up Sunday. It is more than a festival; it’s an immersive experience, thanks in part to the beauty and almost magical spell cast by the 1922 Castro Theatre, and in part to a friendly and attentive audience. In between films, authors and musicians signed their work on the mezzanine and a handful of select vendors sold books, silent-film-related DVDs and merchandise.

Pianist Donald Sosin’s daughter pays close attention to organist Dennis James as the two musicians compare notes (no pun intended) between screenings.

I came away from the weekend with renewed admiration for Ozu’s incredibly moving, emotionally layered silent film work, awe for the vivid images in The Great White Silence, which seemed as if they’d been filmed this morning, and joy for the celebration of silent cinema which continues to flourish, thanks to events such as this.

Please allow me two postscripts:

I’ve already heard several people express the hope that Napoleon will travel to their home town. Given the enormous expense and cumbersome logistics involved with the screening and orchestral accompaniment, that isn’t likely to happen—and there are no plans for it to tour, as it did thirty years ago. If you want to see this unique film, I urge you to consider making a trip to the Bay Area next year.

Finally, I’m happy to report that Denver is mounting its own silent film festival this fall, September 23-25, at the University of Colorado Denver. Donald Sosin, The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Hank Troy, and CU Denver music students will provide scores for such films as The Kid and Nosferatu. What’s more, the Festival will present a Lifetime Achievement Award to one of the pioneers of film preservation, the great David Shepard. For more information, click HERE.


THE WOMAN MEN YEARN FOR — Opening Remarks by Eddie Muller

"Thank you, Anita, and all the wonderful folks at the Silent Film Festival. It is an honor and a privilege to once again be part of your spectacular event.

I’m doubly excited that you asked me to introduce tonight’s film because A) I had not seen it before, and B) my research on it led me to a invaluable new word, courtesy of the film’s director, Kurt Bernhardt. In an interview he gave late in his life, Bernhardt was asked about working with Marlene Dietrich.

He said: “She is an intrigante. Pure and simple.” Intrigante. I loved it immediately, but had to look it up. It means, “A person who fosters intrigue.” With an “e” on the end it becomes specifically, “A woman who fosters intrigue.”

The reason I was thrilled to discover this word is because it is long overdue that we film writers wean ourselves of the term femme fatale — not because we don’t love our femme fatales, but because in many cases the term is being applied inappropriately. In my view, a femme fatale is a woman who intentionally uses her sexual allure to destroy others. An intrigante, by contrast—just can’t help being an object of so much passion and desire. In so many cases, including much of what’s been written about tonight’s film, we see the woman described as a femme fatale, when in fact, she is the one most desperately trapped by fate and circumstance.

Another shot taken off the screen: Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Kortner in The Woman Men Yearn For.

Not to say that Dietrich herself was not as calculating as the femme fatales and intrigantes she portrayed onscreen. The legend, of course, is that she was discovered, and virtually hand-made, by Joseph von Sternberg, when he cast her as Lola Lola in his 1930 classic The Blue Angel. This is a myth Dietrich herself fostered, largely because in von Sternberg she had found the perfect accomplice to create the larger-than-life character she’d always intended to be. In later years she disavowed the existence of any work prior to The Blue Angel, even though she’d achieved success on the German stage in the mid-20s and had already appeared in almost a dozen films, albeit in small roles. It was, we now know, Kurt Bernhardt, casting Dietrich as Stascha in The Woman Men Yearn For, who gave Dietrich her first starring role … as Dietrich.

To be perfectly clear … neither Kurt Bernhardt nor Joseph von Sternberg created Marlene Dietrich. She had mapped out a plan to become this iconic character and was seeking the perfect craftsman to help her build the image.

To quote Bernhardt: “As a director, I found her particularly difficult to deal with—she never moved her head from the spotlight. She stayed stiff and would talk to her partner indirectly if the light guided her to. I wanted her to turn to him, to be natural. She wouldn’t do it. She was so aware of the lighting, right from the beginning, and how it hit her upturned nose. … She was a real bitch.”

Kurt Bernhardt had begun his career as a theater actor, and although he had success, by the mid-1920s he wanted to direct; it really didn’t matter if it was theater or film. He was allied with the leftist movement in Berlin, and in 1924 shot a feature funded by the Communist party called War, about a blinded soldier leading an anti-war movement in the city. From the making of this film came one of the earliest and most succinct examples of the traditional battle between art and economics: looking to add excitement to a scene of war protestors storming the streets of Berlin, Bernhardt decided to hire a taxi to move the camera in front of the onrushing actors. At the last moment the film’s producer jumped into the taxi, only to scream a running ledger as the director tried to conduct the scene — “It’s costing us one mark fifty … now it’s one mark seventy! One ninety! How long will this go on?!”

Unlike some directors who became notable for imposing their personalities on whatever story they’re telling, Bernhardt prided himself on finding the most effective style and technique for each film. In 1927, he directed The Souls of Children Accuse You, an anti-abortion tale funded by the Catholic Church. Bernhardt took great personal pride in having been hired by both Communists and Catholics to convincingly tell their tales.

Although Bernhardt is not as well known today as contemporaries such as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, or Billy Wilder—it is worth noting that in the late 20s he directed several films—The Last Fort, The Last Company, The Rebel, as well as tonight’s film—which set him up as one of the leading stars of the German film industry’s early sound era. In 1932, many of Germany’s best and brightest were called together to receive “guidelines” from Joseph Goebbels—soon to be the Reich’s Minister of Propaganda—on the future of filmmaking under Nazi rule. He offered five examples of the types of film the Nazis wanted to make: Greta Garbo’s 1927 version of Anna Karenina, directed by Edmund Goulding; Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen, Eisenstein’s Potemkin (“Not for its Communist poison,” Goebbels declared, “but for the style of filmmaking.”), and Kurt Bernhardt’s The Last Company and The Rebel. Goebbels was particularly fond of these films because, “None of them could have been conceived in the degenerate brain of a Jewish director.”

Of course, of Lang, Eisenstein and Bernhardt—all were Jewish. So it was at this meeting that Bernhardt decided his future was most likely in France, rather than Germany. Fortunately, in 1933 he was contracted by a French film company to direct The Tunnel in Paris. Unfortunately, as soon as he arrived there the producer announced: “Good news! We’re going to shoot the picture in Munich!” During the Nazis rise to power, Bernhardt was in the unenviable position of being a Jew in Germany and a German in France.

It would not be until 1939 that Bernhardt—under constant scrutiny by the Third Reich—was able to flee the Nazis completely, coming to America with no money except what was cabled to him by his former colleague, director Henry Koster. In short order he was weighing seven-year contracts from both Warner Bros. and MGM, largely on the strength of his 1938 French-financed drama Carrefour.

We’ve shown several of his Hollywood films at NOIR CITY, including the Joan Crawford classic Possessed and the Humphrey Bogart rarity Conflict, based on a story by Robert Siodmak, who had once been Bernhardt’s assistant director. Last January we were proud to kick off the NOIR CITY festival with the Film Noir Foundation’s preservation of Bernhardt’s 1947 noir thriller High Wall.

Although he couldn’t be there for that screening, I am extremely pleased to introduce this evening—Bay Area resident, renowned retired physicist at Lawrence Livermore Lab, holder of ten electrochemical patents, and the son of Curtis Bernhardt — Anthony Bernhardt.

That’s an impressive life’s work, Tony … but wow, your dad actually knew Marlene Dietrich.

Final notes on the film you are about to see: Perhaps the single most important person, culturally speaking, involved with this film is the author of the source novel, Three Loves. Writer Max Brod was the lifelong friend of Franz Kafka, and the executor of his literary estate. When Kafka died at 40 years of age, largely unpublished, his will demanded that all his writings be burned. Brod, who was a successful author and critic by that time, completely ignored his friend’s request and, before Kafka’s novels were even published, Brod announced in the press what he’d been trying to tell his neurotic friend for years—that he was “the greatest writer of his generation.”

If you were here three years ago for the revelatory screening of Anthony Asquith’s 1929 thriller A Cottage on Dartmoor, you are in luck again—the star of that film is also in tonight’s feature, the mesmerizing Danish actor Uno Henning, who plays wayward groom Henri LeBlanc.

His rival, Dr. Karoff, is played by the great Austrian actor/writer/director Fritz Kortner. Kortner was a major character actor on the European stage in the 20s, and the costar, with Louise Brooks, of Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, made the same year he made this film. Like so many others, Kortner chose to flee the Nazi regime and ended up in Hollywood playing roles far beneath his previous achievements. He’s a familiar face from Hollywood films of the 1940s, including noir such as Somewhere In the Night, Berlin Express, and The Brasher Doubloon—although I suspect his favorite from this period is 1943’s The Strange Death of Adolph Hitler, for which Kortner also wrote the screenplay.

Just to show you that some people never get it, many German critics in 1929 dismissed Dietrich’s performance in this film, declaring that she was impossibly impassive, a blank slate, or that she “does nothing.” I would argue that the definition of a movie star is someone who is utterly compelling doing absolutely nothing. In truth, Dietrich never did much in her movies—but while not doing it she was always— Dietrich —and that was more than enough, as the public agreed.

Finally, taking this evening’s event from the special to the sublime—we will experience the film with a live score from the magnificent Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

You’ve already been introduced to violinist Britt Swenson … Britt, did you know that Marlene Dietrich began her career playing the violin in a small orchestra that accompanied silent films? That’s absolutely true. And she was reportedly fired because her legs were too distracting to the other musicians!

Okay—billions of words have been written trying to explain the magic of the movies, but I can do it with these few:

On December 27, 1901, Marlene Dietrich was born.

On May 6, 1992, Marlene Dietrich died.

On July 16, 2011 … Marlene Dietrich is still The Woman Men Yearn For."

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