A still from “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” listed on EBay at $14.95.
The 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival acts as a mini United Nations with its smorgasbord of films and accompaniment, offering a little something for every taste and nation. Classic American films, programmers, artistic foreign movies, comedy shorts, documentaries, and newly restored prints highlighted the fest, from counties like Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, China, Sweden and Russia. It shows the breadth of silent film, though sometimes just something full of fun can leave audiences wanting more.
The festival opened Thursday with a screening of Rex Ingram’s powerful antiwar film, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” making a star of its ravishing young male lead, Rudolph Valentino, as he sensually leads his tango partner across the floor. Released just a few years after World War I, the Great War, “Four Horsemen” shows the brutality and waste of war, tearing families and nations apart. Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provided another of their romantic, historically accurate scores, compiled from actual score/cue sheets of the period.
Mary Mallory’s “Hollywoodland: Tales Lost and Found” is available for the Kindle.
Fred Ott’s Sneeze, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Friday morning featured one of the highlights of the last few years, a program called “Tales From the Archives.” Archivists and rights holders revealed lost or forgotten footage and stories, revealing historic clues about the past. Bryony Dixon, curator of silent film at the British Film Institute, introduced four short motion pictures by British filmmakers who captured film in miniature. Advanced filmmaking frozen in time, these films showed the growth of a bee colony, microbes, birds in their natural habitats and the natural unfurling of flowers. These shorts revealed advanced scientific and filming techniques helping advance the century.
Professor Dan Streible from New York University and the Orphan Film Symposium, revealed the intriguing backstory and missing footage from “Fred Ott’s Sneeze, 1894,” the first film sent for copyright to the Library of Congress. The footage, found abandoned but intact in books of the period and copyright cards, demonstrated that the film was actually twice as long as originally believed, and consists of two sneezes by Ott over eight seconds, filmed by Thomas Edison for Harper’s Weekly magazine.
Academy Award-winning visual and sound effects designers Craig Barron and Ben Burtt revealed the wide variety of filmic tricks employed by Charlie Chaplin as he converted to sound filmmaking. Stephen Horne, regular accompanist at the BFI, provided a nice light touch in backing them up, adding in dashes of humor and poignancy.
The DeMille Producing Corp.’s “Midnight Madness (1928)” played late Friday night. A true programmer, the motion picture revealed how a wealthy diamond miner feigns financial straits when he realizes his new wife is still attracted to her slimy boss. Fun character actor Sidney Bracey once again plays a butler in the movie. Horne helped add some nice humor and irony in his accompaniment.
Carl Theodore Dreyer’s “The Parson’s Widow (1920)” demonstrates Dreyer’s sly, darkly humorous tale of a young seminary graduate coming to audition for the role of town parson. Once there, he learns the winner must wed the parson’s widow, leaving his young fiancée in the lurch. Will he marry the widow, or will mature and think independently? “The Parson’s Widow” features some lovely shots and fine acting, enhanced by Matti Bye’s understated, Scandinavian-style score.
The newly restored “Ramona (1928),” presented at UCLA in March, opened the evening part of the program. Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra once again accompanied the film with its lush, romantic score, adding the right touch of nostalgia and romance to a fictional tale saluting native Americans of California. Mont Alto plays authentic music of the silent period, compiling score and scene cues from silent film orchestra music.
The day also featured the 1934 Chinese silent, “The Song of the Fishermen,” accompanied by New York based pianist Donald Sosin, and the 1936 Russian sci-fi, “Cosmic Voyage,” accompanied by the Silent Movie Music Company.
“The Epic of Everest.”
Saturday, May 31 saw the premiere of the recently restored 1916 Douglas Fairbanks’ film, “The Good Bad Man,” with Fairbanks biographer and restoration organizer Tracey Goessel providing a spirited introduction describing Fairbanks’ great abilities to play in miniature as well as broad strokes. Sosin provided a rollicking western beat to the film.
The irrepressible French preservationist Serge Bromberg gave an entertaining and informative look at some restored and still being completed shorts, after demonstrating the quick combustibility of a small piece of nitrate film. The full length 1918 “The Waiter’s Ball” starring Roscoe Arbuckle and Al St. John played for the first time since its original release, much more detailed after almost a full reel of material was found and restored to the short. A cleaned up version of a Chaplin short showed how clear and goofy these films might be to audiences. For the Grand Finale, Bromberg introduced Fernando Pena, who described finding a 9.5mm version of Buster Keaton’s “The Blacksmith,” long forgotten and lost since the original 1921 release, but which more fully paid off the gags and provided more footage of early Hollywood, like the castle from “The Robin Hood” set and Yamashiro’s. Bromberg provided his own gentle accompaniment to the films.
The 1924 mystical and beautiful “The Epic of Everest” opened next, enhanced by the spiritual and other worldly score organized by pianist Horne and percussionist Frank Bockius. Chant bells, gongs, stringed instruments, and the like emphasize the mystic, majestic Mt. Everest, Goddess Mother of the World, brought beautifully to life in tinted film and delicate telephoto shots. The film emphasized man attempting to beat the elements, danger, and uncertainty, and therefore to conquer new physical heights. As a documentary, it provides a look at the life of Nepalese and the trek to become one with Everest.
Anthony Asquith’s 1928 “Underground” followed, an English version of German Expressionism, starring a young Brian Aherne as a subway man chased through the dark tunnels by a competitor.
I missed the German “Under the Lantern” and Russian “The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks.”
Sunday got off to a rousing start with the stylish, cosmopolitan Max Linder in “Seven Years’ Bad Luck,” conducting an hilarious mirror act as he frantically tries to save the day.
Ozu’s 1933 “The Dragnet Girl” combined noirish tough guys and poignant family into a tale of a girl attempting to go straight. The film creates a world of juvenile delinquents that existed only in the imagination of Ozu, filmed in stylish angles and really enhanced by Sosin’s driving, propelling playing.
I missed the rest of the program preparing to come back to Los Angeles, which included the 1923 Swedish, “The Girl in Tails,” a Sherlock Holmes’ favorite, “The Sign of Four,” “Harbor Dift,” and “The Navigator.”
Anita Monga’s diverse programming helps emphasize the customs and filmic voices of many lands, enhanced by the gorgeous accompaniment. While a little more traditional American popular films could be screened, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival provides a gorgeous, thoughtful look at world cinema during the hey day of the silent period. Most importantly, it demonstrates how powerful and majestic silent films remain, when projected on giant screens and speaking through lush, rich accompaniment.