Vilma Banky and Rudolph Valentino in “Son of the Sheik,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Earning enthusiastic praise and reception from thrilled audiences, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s inaugural Autumn Fest Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014, introduced newly restored prints, treasured classics and an intriguing compiled program on the giant screen at the glorious Art Deco Castro Theatre in San Francisco. The new event replaces the Festival’s Winter Fest, but continues the group’s mission of screening silent motion pictures highlighting the artistic nature of the medium, accompanied by talented accompanists who give voice to proceedings. Besides presenting silent films old and new, the Autumn Fest aims to educate veteran and new fans alike through informative PowerPoint slide shows featuring fascinating factoids and visually arresting images between screenings, as well as thoughtful program notes and excerpted articles from period trade journals.
Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts kicked off proceedings with the screening of three landmark Laurel and Hardy short films perfect for introducing young and new audiences alike to the wonder and joy of silent films. “Should Married Men Go Home?,” “Two Tars,” and “Big Business” present hilarious examples of misbehaving husbands, road rage and selling a Christmas tree, brought magically to life through the nimble fingers of accompanist Donald Sosin.
Buster Keaton in “The General,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The Alloy Orchestra accompanied the world premiere of the newly cleaned up and tinted print of Rudolph Valentino’s last film, “The Son of the Sheik,” to generous applause. A true star vehicle, the film highlights Valentino’s sexual allure in dramatic close-ups of his expressive face and toned physique. The luscious, romantic “The Son of the Sheik,” a sweeping adventure that could more aptly be renamed, “Sensuality on the Sahara,” features thrilling adventure, tongue-in-cheek humor, and over-the-top romantic intrigue in a S & M/rape-tinged fantasy. Alloy’s world premiere of their evocative new score thrilled audiences with its hints of wafting incense and simmering passions through the melodic use of native drums, rhythmic hand cymbals, suggestive chimes, and the like to evoke the mystery and heat of the searing desert.
Historian Donna Hill presented a knowledgeable and pleasing introduction to the film, giving a short production history and describing Valentino’s happiness at working with director George Fitzmaurice and shooting the exciting action sequences. The preceding slide show included stunning images of Valentino and the film from Hill’s own collection.
The British Film Institute’s compiled program, “A Night at The Cinema in 1914,” showcased actual travelogues, documentaries, actualities, and film shorts replicating a typical evening bill of fare at an English local neighborhood cinema. “Egypt and Her Defenders” featured stunning images of the Sphinx, pyramids, and rooftops of Cairo, long before the world’s population descended on them. Florence Turner revealed great comic skill and pantomime in “Daily Doodad’s Dial (Face),” earning arrest for the rubbery manipulation of her face into hilarious poses. On the other extreme, “Dogs For the Antarctic” happy-go-lucky display of young, gorgeous sled dogs meant to accompany Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic brought feelings of sadness and despair knowing their tragic ending. Donald Sosin offered appropriate period accompaniment to the diverse slate, earning accolades for his charming and jolly singing of the title song of the Vivaphone short, “The Rollicking Rajah.”
The informative slide show offered pertinent background knowledge and facts of the historic events and individuals featured in the program.
Following a fascinating slide show revealing then and now images of Cottage Grove, Ore., and the filming of “The General,” author and historian John Bengtson gave a thoughtful introduction to Buster Keaton’s great masterpiece, describing how the making of the movie in the summer of 1926 as possibly the happiest intersection of Keaton’s personal and artistic lives. Alloy Orchestra’s avant-garde blend of propelling rhythm and creative sound effects accompanied Keaton’s hilarious and exciting non-stop chase film.
Screening of the new 4K digital restoration of the shadowy 1922 “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” closed proceedings, which unfortunately I missed due to time constraints.
San Francisco Silent Film Festival closes another successful season of highlighting historic and artistic silent motion pictures with its new Autumn Fest, a great way to fully experience the powerful draw of silent films accompanied by moving live music on a giant theatre screen, the way these works of arts were meant to be seen.