“When the Earth Trembled,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered a little something for everyone during their recently concluded 20th anniversary festival. From presentations by renowned historians and archivists to screenings of recently restored pictures, the Festival highlights the range and breadth of silent film through the power of live cinema. Live musical accompaniment by a diverse group of artists provided a strong emotional undercurrent to each presentation.
I missed Thursday night’s grand opening of the festival, the powerful World War I film, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” Universal’s strong antiwar conclusion to the silent era, which was introduced by Library of Congress curator, Mike Mashon. Universal chairman Ron Meyer announced that Universal and a consortium of archives will restore 15 Universal silent films over the next few years. Mont Alto Picture Orchestra performed actual music cues of the period in giving the moving film voice.
“Cave of the Spider Woman,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
‘Amazing Tales From the Archives,” one of the Festival’s yearly highlights, opened Friday morning’s festivities, covering the gamut of film discovery and restoration, revealing how much vintage film can tell us about history and people’s reactions to great events. Jennifer Miko of Movette Film Transfer presented beautiful, unique two strip Technicolor footage (Technicolor Process II) of William Randolph Hearst and Julia Morgan touring the grounds of El Cuesta Encantata, his fantastic Enchanted Hill, in 1925, reenacting their final inspection of what we know as Hearst Castle. SFSFF President Rob Byrne described the amazing discovery of “Sherlock Holmes” in Paris’ Cinematheque Francaise, and the process of restoring the once thought lost film. British Film Institute archivist Bryony Dixon showed rare footage from the BFI’s archives relating to the tragic sinking of the great Cunard cruise liner the Lusitania in 1915 by German torpedoes. Everything from a somber Winsor McKay animated film presenting the event, to virulent anti-German British cartoons to moving actuality footage of families dealing with the loss of their loved ones showed the wide range of emotion and thought around this tragedy. Dr. Who actor Paul McGann read excerpts of letters and sub-titles accompanying the films. Raconteur and preservationist Serge Bromberg concluded the informative event, relaying the informative tale of how Lobster Films acquired and restored the once thought lost Maurice Tourneur’s “Figures de Cire,” a beautifully shot film and one of the first Grand Guignol tales set in a wax museum.
The surreal Chinese film “Cave of the Spider Women,” opened the Festival’s strong line-up of foreign silent motion pictures that afternoon. Another long thought lost film, the motion picture turned up in the National Library of Norway, which recently restored the picture. Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius provided musical accompaniment to the otherworldly tale of a pilgrim monk and his monkey, pig, and shark spirit followers warding off the Spider Queen. Following the film, a short but powerful travelogue revealed early Twentieth Century Peking (now Beijing), with horse carts and human drawn wagons patiently traveling towards their destinations.
Friday’s third program highlighted the history of San Francisco itself, rising from the ashes of the great earthquake. The 1906 short, “A Trip Down Market Street,” preceded the feature, showing a streetcar trip down a crowded Market Street just a few days before the April 1906 earthquake, ending up at the stately Ferry Building on the bay. The film reveals bustling pedestrians, horse-drawn wagons, and speeding cars dashing across the street in front of the trolley, an early example of follow your own traffic rules. One of the Festival hits, “A Canine Sherlock Holmes,” followed, starring Spot the Urbanora dog as he helps his detective master find and arrest bank robbers. Spot, an energetic terrier, appears to have been Uggie’s acting predecessor.
The 1913 Lubin film, “When the Earth Trembled,” followed, recently restored by Eye Filmmuseum and SFSFF. Few Lubin films still survive, as many were destroyed in the late teens during a studio fire, making this find an extremely important one. This short but entertaining film packs everything but the kitchen sink into its 48 minutes, with everything from family feuds, torn apart lovers, ship wreck, earthquake, fire, disguise, to happily reunited family, with a grand mega reenactment of the 1906 earthquake. Harry Myers marries Ethel Clayton, the daughter of his father’s nemesis, causing a family rupture. He decides to travel to Samoa on business, and Clayton and children venture west to join him, before discovering he is lost at sea. They find themselves stuck in the middle of the cataclysmic 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, surviving to return to the East Coast. A destitute Clayton is reduced to turning over the children to her feuding father-in-law, and goes undercover as a governess to be with them. All’s well that ends well, with everyone happily reunited. Lubin spent five weeks creating a remarkable breakaway earthquake set for the time, which features strong performances by Myers and Clayton in early starring roles. Stephen Horne of Great Britain provided a wistful undercurrent to proceedings in his accompaniment.
That evening, F. W. Murnau’s devastating “The Last Laugh” starring the remarkable Emil Jannings screened, the emotional story of a proud and dignified chief porter of a luxurious hotel eventually reduced to serving as washroom attendant, before being redeemed in the end. The student filled Berklee Silent Film Orchestra gave emotional voice to proceedings, playing themes composed by several students to accompany the film.
Closing Friday night’s portion of the Festival was the entertaining 1927 British film, “The Ghost Train,” which BFI archivist Dixon described as a silent version of “Scooby Doo.” A group of travelers find themselves stranded overnight at a haunted train station, with spooky goings-on filling the evening. Creatively combining animation, superimposition, and effects to tell its shaggy dog old dark house story, the French sub-titled film featured a live translation by actor McGann, accompanied by the pleasing sounds of Horne and Frank Bockius. Film historian John Bengtson interviewed Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, before the screening of Harold Lloyd’s masterful New York comedy, “Speedy,” featuring the jaunty playing and whistling of the Mont Alto Orchestra. New York Yankees legends Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig make cameos in this madcap chase film through the streets of New York. The back left of the house unfortunately had to endure the world’s loudest laugher during the film.
Serge Bromberg received the 2015 SFSFF Award preceding the screening of the emotionally moving French film, “Visages D’Enfants,” a touching and humane examination of childhood grief.
That afternoon, Bruce Goldstein and the Gower Gulch Players provided an over-the-top live performance to Frank Capra’s 1929 film, “The Donovan Affair,” missing its soundtrack. An early talkie picture combining mystery and comedy, “The Donovan Affair” featured live narration which laughed at the film rather than with it.
The lavish and romantic “Flesh and the Devil” screened that evening, accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble. Long renowned as the film during which stars John Gilbert and Greta Garbo fell in love, “Flesh and the Devil” features exquisite William Daniels cinematography as it reveals the unraveling friendship between Gilbert and Lars Hanson due to their mutual love of Garbo.
I missed the concluding film of the night, “Pan,” a Norse film about an overwhelming attraction which many found underwhelming.
On Sunday morning, an entertaining Serge Bromberg presented surreal short films by the relatively unknown comedian Charley Bowers, which combine stop motion, drawn, and live animation with Rube Goldbergesque devices in tales of a man before his time. Providing a humorous undertone to the films himself, Bromberg revealed the discovery of “Many a Slip,” “A Wild Roomer,” “Now You Tell One,” a Baron Munchausen tale, and ‘There it Is,” which concluded with shots of Hollywood and Vine, and the Christie Hotel on Hollywood Blvd.
I missed the French avant-garde short films “Emak-Bakia” by the renowned surreal photographer Man Ray and “Menilmontant” by Dimitri Kirsanoff.
Mont Alto provided some zippy Jazz Age dance tunes to vivacious Colleen Moore’s “Why Be Good?,” in which her perky Pert Kelly’s charming personality almost destroys her reputation. Historian and author Cari Beauchamp introduced the jazzy, entertaining film, which also featured small cameos by such performers as Jean Harlow, Mischa Auer, Grady Sutton, and Andy Devine at the beginning of their careers. Audiences roared their approval following the film.
Nils Asther makes an early appearance in the 1923 Swedish film, “Nortullsligan,” the story of four working girls providing for themselves as they work, love, and play in the big city. Featuring some gorgeous cinematography, the film features a shot of busy typists in a large office space years before “The Crowd” or “The Apartment.” Matti Bye Ensemble’s gentle Swedish folk score provided nice understated accompaniment for the lovely images.
Sunday’s centerpiece was the screening of the newly restored 1916 film, “Sherlock Holmes,” the only screen appearance of stage legend William Gillette. Discovered in the archives of the Cinematheque Francaise, the motion picture had been edited into a serial in 1919 France, telling the story of Holmes trying to obtain the Prince’s letters to a former lover from the dead woman’s grieving sister as he battles the evil Moriarty and other villains. The film featured gorgeous orange and blue tints and a nice score by The Donald Sosin Ensemble, but I found it a typical 1916 feature, slow and stately. Though cut into a serial, it featured no action, combining several of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous stories into a stage bound plot for the theatre actor Gillette. He had little detecting to do, standing around and pondering things, while his valet Billy got most of the comedy and action. Gillette cut a striking figure in his stiff way, though the story was blah and uneven, with dangling plot points. Edward Arnold played a small role as a part of the criminal gang. For those Sherlock Holmes’ fanatics, this would be interesting,
but it’s slow going otherwise.
I missed the concluding film, “The Swallow and the Titmouse,” compiled by editor Henri Colpi in 1983 from six hours of director Andre Antoine’s footage shot 63 years before. Many spoke of how beautiful it was.
Monday’s proceedings kicked off with a free silent film trivia quiz offering prizes to winners, a hit with festival goers.
A strong Blanche Sweet battles romance and Wall Street shenanigans in the 1920 “The Deadlier Sex,” filmed mostly in Truckee, California. Inheriting her father’s railroad, Sweet grows tired of the cutthroat business practices of stockbroker Harvey Judson and has him kidnapped to the forest to learn the simple pleasures of life. A handsome and young Boris Karloff plays a trapper who spars with Mahlon Hamilton over Sweet and money, and the film concludes with the U. S. government taking over the two railroads. A fun entertaining little film, with a quirky Western score featuring piano and fiddle by Guenter Buchwald.
Museum of Modern Art’s Ron Magliozzi gave a PowerPoint presentation on the history of unfinished Bert Williams’ film, “Lime Kiln Field Day,” followed by compiled rushes and dailies. This would have been an intriguing feature starring the famed Williams and other African-American performers, but it was abandoned by producers before completion.
I missed Bromberg’s interview with the legendary Kevin Brownlow before the action-packed thriller, “Ben Hur,” one of the great silent films, featuring the great Carl Davis’ lavish scores.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival concluded its recent 20th Anniversary Festival with screenings of classic motion pictures and long-thought-lost restorations, offering a smorgasbord of entertainment and music for silent film fans.