“Sherlock Holmes” starring William Gillette, courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Conceived by Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons as a way to share the beauty of early cinema with the world, The San Francisco Silent Film Festival celebrates its 20th Anniversary May 28 through June 1, 2015, as the largest and most important silent film festival in the Western Hemisphere. Exhibiting gorgeous prints on the big screen as they were meant to be seen, the festival extols silent cinema from around the world, accompanied by talented performers in a wide range of styles and instruments. This year’s Festival salutes top stars, exciting new restorations, and fascinating foreign films, with some eclectic programs thrown in.
Two newly restored films highlight this year’s schedule. The long thought lost 1916 film, “Sherlock Holmes,” stars the great stage actor William Gillette in the first feature adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s renowned mystery series, a holy grail for Holmes’ fans. Gillette adapted Doyle’s books about the Baker Street detective into a world-renowned play, which he toured globe-wide for years. Chicago’s Essanay Film Company finally convinced him to star in and produce his version of the deer stalk hat wearing Holmes in 1916, allowing him to cast the film almost entirely with actors who had starred with him in the production. As reviewed at the time, the film omitted any mention of Holmes’ drug use or possible addiction and maintained a deliberate style. It looked good on screen and seemed too long, but the May 1916 issue of Motography called it “Frankly melodrama, well produced…,” with Gillette and Ernest Maupain as Moriarty giving the best performances. It remains Gillette’s only film, as he never completed “Secret Service,” the second motion picture included in his contract.
South Bend New-Times, May 6, 1920.
The Festival also premieres the newly restored 1913 Lubin film, “When the Earth Trembled, or The Strength of Love,” a romantic melodrama with the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 as a major set piece. Many reviews noted the remarkable and realistic scenes showing the disaster, with the Bisbee Daily Review on April 11, 1914 stating that it “shows people dashing through the streets, the buildings toppling over and every particular of such a catastrophe.” They also called it “best in the line of earthquake photo plays ever made,” even though disaster films as such didn’t exist at the time. Along with the film, the Festival will screen the one reel short, “A Trip Down Market Street,” filmed by the San Francisco-based Miles brothers just a week before the actual 1906 earthquake.
Colleen Moore’s recently restored “Why Be Good?” makes its San Francisco bow at the Festival, providing an effervescent celebration of madcap flappers and the decadent Jazz Age. In the film, Moore’s vivacious Pert Kelly almost loses her rep thanks to her peppy dance moves, but is redeemed in the end by rich romantic interest Neil Hamilton. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany the film, rather than its original jazzy Vitaphone score.
The great African-American comedian Bert Williams’ only appearance on film has been resurrected to be screened for film audiences. Combining daily rushes and multiple takes from the never completed film, the hour long assemblage makes its West Coast debut. Museum of Modern Art project leader Ron Magliozzi will also narrate a selection of production photographs from the pioneering effort to star African-Americans in film, and will present visual material explaining the history of this lost 101-year-old landmark.
“Sherlock Holmes,” East Oregonian, July 15, 1916.
A fascinating look at a motion picture industry’s depiction of an intelligent and strong woman on screen, the 1920 film “The Deadlier Sex” stars the acclaimed actress Blanche Sweet in what the April 25, 1920 Los Angeles Times called “an amazing screen story of the primitive in women.” Sweet becomes the President of her father’s railroad, but a pawn “in the hands of the money-wolves who juggle stocks in Wall Street.” She ends up turning the tables on the most powerful man on the famed financial avenue, with everything ending happily. The Bemidji Daily Pioneer in its July 28, 1920 review stated, “In spite of its title which although it might be considered misleading is really apropos – it is clean, wholesome entertainment.” The production experienced its own adventures while filming, dealing with a train derailment in Mojave from a steer standing on the railroad tracks, two days of snowfall in Truckee, and a car accident in which an automobile chasing the car Sweet was driving crashed into the back of it.
Special programs dot the schedule, including the popular “Amazing Tales of the Archives,” in which archivists detail the fascinating stories of discovering and restoring lost or neglected films. French preservationist and raconteur Serge Bromberg reveals the entertaining story behind the finding of Jacques Tourneur’s 1914 film production, “Figures De Cire.” British curator Bryony Dixon presents fascinating footage of the RMS Lusitania, narrated by actor Paul McGann of “Dr. Who” fame. San Francisco Film Festival president and film restorer Rob Byrne will describe the meticulous process of reconstructing Gillette’s “Sherlock Holmes.”
Other special events include a live simultaneous dubbing of the lost soundtrack to the 1929 dark house comedy whodunit “The Donovan Affair,” Columbia’s first all-talkie picture, helmed by legendary director Frank Capra and showered with positive reviews upon release. Bromberg returns for a special program devoted to Charley Bowers, the creator and performer of fascinating live and puppet animation films in the late 1920s. Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum, will also host a challenging silent film trivia quiz.Films shot during the San Francisco Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915 will also appear throughout the Festival.
“When the Earth Trembled,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Films from around the world also appear, including the classic Chinese tale “Cave of the Spider Woman” (1927), the humorous but eccentric 1927 British film, “The Ghost Train,” the 1922 Norse movie, “Pan,” a simple story about overwhelming attraction,“Visages D’Enfants,” a moving 1925 French tale of childhood grief and humanity, “Norrtullsligan,” a 1923 Swedish film about four female office workers sharing a flat and being self-sufficient in a man’s world, the recently reconstituted 1920 French film, “The Swallow and the Titmouse,” and two Avant-Garde French shorts by Man Ray and Dimitri Kirsanoff, “Emak-Bakia” and “Menilmontant.”
American silent film classics “All Quiet On the Western Front” and “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ” open and close festivities, with legendary British historian Kevin Brownlow interviewed on stage by Serge Bromberg preceding the screening of “Ben Hur.” Harold Lloyd’s hilarious “Speedy” and the dreamily romantic “Flesh and the Devil” starring John Gilbert and Greta Garbo also will be screened.
“Cave of the Spider Woman,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Bringing the films magically to life is a diverse group of talented musicians from around the world. Students from the Berklee School of Music will accompany F. W. Murnau’s haunting film, “The Last Laugh.” British Film Institute accompanist Stephen Horne, Guenter Buchwald, and Donald Sosin provide piano accompaniment to films, assisted by such people as Frank Bockius and Diana Rowan. Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra presents scores composed of actual period music cues in their accompaniment. The Matti Bye Ensemble from Sweden gives an expressive soundtrack to films combining composed score and improvised music on both modern and traditional instruments.
One of the world’s outstanding film festivals, combining outstanding music, eclectic programming, and eloquent speakers, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival highlights the emotional and glorious world of silent cinema in this their 20th Anniversary year.