The San Francisco Silent Film Festival spices up the fall with a presentation of silent films Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014, at the glorious Art Deco Castro Theatre for its Autumn Film Festival. The one-day event highlights the glories of what film historian Kevin Brownlow calls “live cinema,” by screening new restorations and highlighting film anniversaries, accompanied by live music performed by top practitioners in the field. The eclectic lineup includes gentle slapstick humor, romantic adventure, historic intrigue, dark shadows and a day at the cinema.
The day opens at 11 a.m., with the screening of three Laurel and Hardy shorts to tickle any funny bone. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Hal Roach’s superb comedy duo who became film superstars and icons, continue to influence screen funny teams today with their superb sense of timing and reaction shots. They demonstrate their unique blend of character study and slapstick with two all-time great two-reelers, “Two Tars,” presenting an over-the-top example of road rage, and “ Big Business,” demonstrating how not to sell a Christmas tree. New Yorker Donald Sosin will provide the musical voice for the films.
At 1 p.m., Rudolph Valentino expert Donna Hill introduces a newly restored and tinted print of Valentino’s grand desert adventure, “The Son of the Sheik.” Modern music performers, the Alloy Orchestra, will premiere their own newly composed, African rhythmic score to the film, Valentino’s last film appearance.
Saluting a centennial of movie-going and moviemaking, the British Film Institute presents “A Night at the Cinema in 1914” at 3:30 p.m., compiling a fascinating mix of film shorts, travelogues and serials to demonstrate what British audiences might have viewed on a typical night at the cinema. Documentary and newsreel films “Looping the Loop at Herndon,” “Palace Pandemonium,” “Austrian Tragedy,” “Dogs for Antarctica,” “Scouts’ Valuable Aid,” “German Occupation of Historic Louvain,” and “The Christmas Front” show British aviators, suffragettes, the Austro-Hungarian royal family, Sir Ernest Shackleton, German troops occupying the French town, Louvain, and British troops celebrating Christmas at the front in 1914. The color-tinted travelogue “Egypt and Her Defenders” reveals British troops occupying Egypt. Film shorts “Daisy Doodad’s Dial,” “Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine” and “Gen. French’s Contemptible Little Army” reveal comedic misadventures. One chapter of “The Perils of Pauline” serial screens, along with a Vivaphone song film, “The Rollicking Rajah,” the music video of its day. Charlie Chaplin concludes the presentation by causing all manner of problems at a cinema in “A Film Johnnie.” Donald Sosin provides musical accompaniment.
Buster Keaton’s masterpiece, “The General,” screens at 7 p.m., accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra. Keaton plays a Southern railway engineer during the Civil War “with only two loves in his life” — his steam locomotive and the lovely Annabelle Lee. Ultimately he must attempt to rescue both his girlfriend and his train from Union officers, resulting in one of the most spectacular and expensive action sequences in silent films as an actual locomotive hurtles from a burning trestle into the river below. Inspired by actual Civil War events, “The General” ranks as one of the greatest action films of all time.
Concluding the day-long event, the new 4k digital restoration of the German Expressionist film, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” makes its United States’ premiere, accompanied by the nimble Sosin. The psychological thriller reveals carnival hypnotist, Dr. Caligari, presenting his star attraction, the somnambulist, Cesare, to amazed crowds. Danger lurks in the darkened streets as Cesare commits murder in the midnight hour. The dramatic, expressionist sets and lighting suggest a nightmarish world of danger and threat.
Full passes for the event cost $52 for members and $60 for the public. Individual tickets cost $13 for members and $15 for the public. Advance tickets are for sale online at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website. The SFSFF salutes amazing giants of the silent cinema, truly showing that “true art transcends time.”