Just four months after blowing everyone away with the awesome spectacle that was Abel Gance’s Napoleon, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) returns for its 17th annual event at the Castro Theatre from July 12 to 15. When the line-up was first announced I heard a few people grouse about it having a”greatest hits” vibe. But the reality is only two of this year’s 17 programs are repeats – Wings from back in 1999 and Pandora’s Box, shown in 2003. Personally, I’ve never seen any of them on a big screen andam therefore completely psyched. Big Names from the silent era are much in evidence, both in front of the camera (Clara Bow, Emil Jannings, Felix the Cat, Pola Negri, Louise Brooks, Douglas Fairbanks, Roland Colman, Buster Keaton) and behind it (Ernst Lubitsch, Victor Fleming, Georg Wihelm Pabst, Josephvon Sternberg, William A. Wellman). There are several tempting, unfamiliar rarities as well. I searched for films I might skip out on – if only to get a breath of air and a decent meal – but came up empty handed.
An issue that’s sure to be a subject of discussion this year – and it’s one the festival isn’t shying away from – is that of digital exhibition. SFSFF dipped its toe in the digital waters two years ago with the restoration of Metropolis, saying it was the only option available. This year they’re wading ankle deep with two DCP presentations, Lubitsch’s The Loves of Pharaoh and Wellman’s Wings. The latter is SFSFF17′s opening night film, which isclearly making a statement. The great digital vs. 35mm divide is also the focus of this year’s Amazing Tales from the Archivespresentation (see below for details). So no matter which side you’re on – if a side needs to be taken at all – there should be plenty here to chew on.
Plain and simple, if you’ve never attended the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, you owe yourself the experience of seeing a silent film the way it was meant to be seen, in a landmark 1922 movie palace with accomplished live musical accompaniment. What follows is a stroll through SFSFF17′s line-up with some hopefully interesting facts, figures, gossip and trivia – a bit more than what’s available on the festival’s website and brochure, but considerably less than what we’ll find in the scholarly essays that appear in the complementary program guide during the festival.
Until The Artist, this drama about two WWI pilots in love with the same girl was technically the only silent film to win the Best Picture Oscar®, or rather, Most Outstanding Production. While I’ve never seen Wings, I am familiar with the famously heartbreaking kiss between Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen (both of whom served as pallbearers at the 1965 funeral ofWings co-star Clara Bow). Gary Cooper, who turns up in a supporting role as a doomed pilot, began a much-publicized affair with Bow during the shoot. The film seems best remembered for its aerial stunt photography – with director William Wellman having been hired specifically for his WWI aviator experience. None other than William Wellman Jr., author of “The Man and His Wings: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture,” will introduce this screening. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany, with Ben Burtt providing live Foley effects. Burtt is a nine-time Oscar® nominee for Best Sound/Sound Editing, with wins for ET: The Extra-Terrestrial and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Following the screening, a festive opening night party will be happening at the top-floor loft of The McRoskey Mattress Company.
One of the hottest topics amongst cinephiles this spring was the “This is DCP” series at NYC’s Film Forum, where several digitally restored classics, including Five Easy Pieces, The Red Shoes andRear Window, were screened in DCP, or “digital cinema package” format. The highlight was a comparative 35mm vs. DCP, side-by-side showing of Dr. Strangelove. This series was the undertaking of Grover Crisp, Sony Pictures executive vice president in charge of asset management, film restoration and digital mastering. I’m excited Crisp will be at the Castro performing another side-by-side demonstration for SFSFF audiences. (For an in-depth report on the Film Forum series, check outMiranda Popkey’s piece at Capital New York). Also on the program will be Andrea Kalas, vice president of archives at Paramount Pictures, who will discuss the restoration of Wings, which will have opened the festival the previous evening in DCP. Admission is free.
Director Sun Yu is known for a string of socially conscious dramas made in the silent era’s twilight years. In 2009 the festival brought us Sun’s 1932Wild Rose and now follows up with this decade-spanning epic about the calamities which befall a rural toymaker during a time of political upheaval. Sun made the movie to rouse nationalism following Japan’s invasion of Manchuria. It stars two of China’s most popular actresses of the 1930′s playing mother/daughter protagonists; Lingyu Ruan (who we saw at two years ago in A Spray of Plum Blossoms) and Li Lili (Wild Rose).
This historical melodrama was Lubitsch’s last German production, a Hollywood calling card to prove he could indeed helm large-scale epics boasting 6,000 extras, lavish costumes and gargantuan sets. The great Emil Jannings (The Last Laugh, The Blue Angel) stars as an Egyptian ruler who spurns an offer of marriage to the Ethiopian king’s daughter and thereby ignites a war by choosing the king’s beloved slave girl instead. Long considered a lost film, this new digital restoration – assembled from fragments found in far-flung places – was executed by the same company (Alpha Omega GmbH) that resurrected Fritz Lang’s complete Metropolis. Ten additional minutes are still thought to be missing. And who best to accompany this grandiose presentation than the incomparable Dennis James on the Castro Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer. The photograph below is one of only 17 stunning, high resolution stills from The Loves of Pharaoh to be found on the festival’s Press Room page.
Clara Bow makes her second appearance at 2012′s festival in the film she claimed her personal favorite. Released shortly before It– the movie that gave her a moniker – Bow got rave reviews as the man-eating Minneapolis manicurist who strays from her backwoodsman husband and aims straight for a famous divorce lawyer. The story is adapted from a Sinclair Lewis novel, with Bow’s character considerably softened, and the titular Mantrap is actually a Canadian boondocks town where the action is set. Cinematography is by the great DP James Wong Howe and the film’s intertitles are said to be quite witty. Mantrap also witnessed the beginning of a hot and heavy affair between Bow and the film’s director Victor Fleming, who would of course go on to direct The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. Noted film critic Michael Sragow, who wrote “Victor Fleming, an American Movie Master,” will introduce the screening. Stephen Horne accompanies on grand piano.
Each year SFSFF engages a contemporary filmmaker to choose a film from the line-up and present it as a Director’s Pick – with past pickers ranging from Alexander Payne to Terry Zwigoff. The Bay Area’s Philip Kaufman has selected this tale of a St. Petersburg courtesan who leaves her officer lover for the affections of a lowly lieutenant. It’s considered the best of Austrian director Hanns Schwarz’ 24 films, with one ardent IMDb user gushing “it’s more poignant and visually dazzling than Ophuls, more erotic and atmospheric than Sternberg, with a camera more sinuously alive than Murnau or Lang.” The film stars Brigitte Helm as Nina Petrovna, two years after her mesmerizing screen debut in Metropolis and one year after starring in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Argent (SFSFF 2011 Winter Event). Accompaniment will be provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
Felix the Cat was the first cartoon character with a name famous enough to draw people into movie theaters. He was so iconic that Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic with a Felix doll and Aldous Huxley wrote the cartoon proved “what the cinema can do better than literature or spoken drama is to be fantastic.” These cartoons were also noted for integrating social issues and current events into their storylines. The festival will present seven Felix animated shorts, all but one from his days at the Educational Pictures distribution company. Leonard Maltin and film scholar Russell Merritt will introduce the screenings, which will be accompanied by Donald Sosin and Toychestra, an all-woman experimental music ensemble from Oakland. And remember, as with all SFSFF screenings, children under 10 are admitted free!
Pola Negri was one of the biggest stars of the silent era and the first European actor to be lured to Hollywood (by Paramount in 1922). Her German mentor, Ernst Lubitsch, had been the first European director to cross over. I haven’t seen any of her movies so I’m excited to experience this, her third American film and first big spectacle. Based on a Victor Hugo novel, it’s the story of a gypsy singer who becomes involved in 17th century Spanish court intrigue. Negri’s co-stars include the handsome Antonio Moreno as her lover and Wallace Beery as the King of Spain!? Adolphe Menjou also has a small role. The print we’ll be seeing is a new restoration done by the Dutch EYE Film Institute, which also restored last year’s Lois Weber film, Shoes. Rob Byrne, who worked on the restoration, will introduce and Donald Sosin accompanies on grand piano.
This is a remake of a 1917 film, The Land of Promise, which bears the name of the Somerset Maugham play on which both films are based. A destitute woman journeys to the wilds of Canada to live with her brother and then marries a rough homesteader (actor Thomas Meighan, who played the same part in both movies) to evade her sister-in-law’s ire. (Yes, it does sound a lot like Lillian Gish’s 1928 vehicle The Wind (SFSFF15). Director William Beaudine was known for his efficiency and prolificacy, directing nearly 30 silents. He later became known for making series films like The East Side Kids and The Bowery Boys. But for me he’s the guy who helmed notorious 1945 sex-ed feature Mom and Dad for exploitation pioneer Kroger Babb. Stephen Horne accompanies on grand piano.
The festival follows last year’s The Great White Silence with another Antarctic expedition documentary,South. It’s an assemblage of photos and film footage taken by Australian photographer-adventurer Frank Hurley, when he accompanied Ernest Shackleton on that ill-fated trans-Antarctic trip aboard the ship Endurance. These materials exist today only because the intrepid Hurley dove into icy Antarctic waters (“stripped to the waist” as he wrote in his diary) to rescue them from the sinking ship. If you saw the 2000 documentary The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, you’ve already been exposed to Hurley’s work, which is said to have changed expedition photography forever. The festival will screen a new restoration by the British Film Institute with original tints and toning. Actor Paul McGann (“Dr. Who,” Withnail & I) will read from Shackleton’s letters accompanied by pianist Stephen Horne.
Of all the programs in this year’s festival, this tops my list – a new frame-by-frame restoration of one of the great films of all time, starring iconic Louise Brooks as cinema’s quintessential femme fatale. I’m embarrassed that I’ve never seen it on a big screen, but am happy I’ve saved the experience for this opportune moment. Diary of a Lost Girl (1928), another memorable Pabst/Brooks collaboration, played the festival two years ago. This new restoration – paid for by good old Hugh Hefner – was produced by San Francisco-based Angela Holm and David Ferguson, who will introduce the film with some on-screen ‘before and after’ comparisons. Sweden’s Matti Bye Ensemble will provide accompaniment for this, the festival’s 2012 Centerpiece Presentation.
It’s become a SFSFF tradition to reserve Saturday’s final screening as a Late Show slot for silent cinema’s off-kilter output. Past selections have included Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages, Aelita, Queen of Mars and a trio of Tod Browing/Lon Chaney collaborations (West of Zanzibar, The Unholy Three, The Unknown). This year’s unsettling oddity is an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s most famous short story about the repercussions of a lowly office worker’s obsession with obtaining a new overcoat. An acquaintance who attends the Pordenone Silent Film Festival wrote me that it’s “a real jaw-dropper” and said people came out of the screening “completely mind-blown.” I recently watched it on YouTube in the hopes of being disappointed – an early evening might have been nice, but nothing doing. This should be excellent and I can only imagine what the Alloy Orchestra has cooked up in the way of a score.
This is a movie I’ve wanted to see for ages and I’m surprised the festival has never shown it. Based on Johnston McCulley’s 1919 short story “The Curse of Capistrano,” the film was Hollywood’s first big swashbuckler and made Douglas Fairbanks a bigger star than he already was. He had a hand in writing the script and was responsible for coming up with that unmistakable Zorro “look.” It was released the same year Fairbanks married Mary Pickford and was the debut release of United Artists, the company he co-founded with Pickford, Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. Director Fred Niblo would later work with Ramon Navarro inBen Hur and Rudolph Valentino inBlood and Sand. Be on the lookout for 12-year-old Milton Berle in the uncredited role as “Boy.” Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer would seem the perfect choice for accompaniment. And once again, kids under 10 are admitted free!
Don’t confuse this with Gustav Machatý’s 1929 Czech film of the same title which played the festival three years ago. Stiller’sErotikon is a drawing room comedy about an entomologist studying the sex life of bugs. He has a mutual infatuation with his niece and a free-wheeling wife who’s juggling the affections of a sculptor and an aviator. Detached and observational, the film is noted for its complete lack of moral judgment, unlike Hollywood films of the period. It sounds like a major highlight is the opera scene, with a half naked “Queen of the Shah” writhing lubriciously on a stage set worth of Busby Berkeley. Five years afterErotikon, Stiller would set sail for America with a little known actress he had discovered and given the name Greta Garbo. The Matti Bye Ensemble, who accompanied Stiller’s The Blizzard at last year’s festival, will repeat that honor for Erotikon.
I knew the name Stella Dallas growing up because whenever I’d complain about how tough life was, one or both parents would respond, “Kid, you’ve got more problems than Stella Dallas.” Oddly, I never sought out the famous 1937 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle – or the 18-years-running radio serial or Bette Midler’s 1990 remake – so this will be my first exposure to the ultimate tale of maternal self sacrifice based on Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1923 novel. The film was Belle Bennett’s big break, as she was chosen over 73 other actresses by Samuel Goldwyn. Tragically, her 16-year-old son, whom she’d been passing off as her “brother” to hide her age from Hollywood producers, died during the production. The film co-stars Ronald Colman as Stella’s wealthy husband, reuniting the actor with Henry King, who had directed his first Hollywood starring role (1923′s The White Sister.) Also making an appearance is 16-year-old Douglas Fairbanks Jr., in his fourth screen appearance. Czar of Noir City Eddie Muller will provide one of his customarily entertaining introductions, and Stephen Horne will accompany the film on grand piano.
The festival ends with what many consider Buster Keaton’s final masterpiece. It was his first film for MGM (a move he’d later call “the worst mistake of my career”) and never again would he possess the independence and control necessary to create films worthy of his talents. Shot on both NYC locations and Hollywood sets, the film stars Keaton as accidental news photographer who becomes embroiled in Chinatown Tong Wars. Highlights include a hilarious sequence shot at a public swimming pool and one of film history’s best performances by a monkey. The Cameramanwas considered lost until an entire print was discovered in Paris in 1968. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany the film, with introductions by Leonard Maltin and SFSFF board member Frank Buxton, who was an acquaintance of Keaton.