For those who find it difficult to get to Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato or Pordenone’s Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, scheduled June 1-4) highlights classics of silent film the world over right here in California. Showcasing everything from Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, Clara Bow, Lois Weber, Wallace Beery, and Anna Pavlova to Polish, Italian, Swedish, Russian, and Japanese silent films, the festival covers virtually every genre and emotional gamut, all with moving live accompaniment. And who knew that Beery and Rupert Julian would lead the pack for most films over the festival?
The weekend features several recent restorations rarely shown on the big screen. The Library of Congress recently restored the Clara Bow/Buddy Rogers’ film “Get Your Man,” a story of a flirty, confident shopgirl who finally lands her handsome blue blood. Directed by one of the rare female directors of Hollywood’s sound era, “Get Your Man” was shot on location around Hollywood Boulevard and at Pasadena’s Jewett Estate. Following the feature is a twenty-three minute fragment of the Wallace Beery/Raymond Hatton “Now We’re in the Air!” with Louise Brooks putting in a supporting performance. SFSFF President Rob Byrne discovered the film in the Czechoslovakia Film Archive, and has restored it for the festival.
Clara Bow in a scene from “Get Your Man,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Another Library of Congress restoration,“The Dumb Girl of Portici,” screens after “Get Your Man.” Directed by renowned silent film director Lois Weber, one of early Hollywood’s major directors, the feature stands as an anomaly in Weber’s career, a grand melodramatic blockbuster with huge cast, ambitious sets, location filming, and an adaptation of a French opera about a mute Naples peasant girl in the 17th century, seduced and abandoned by a Spanish nobleman, leading to revolution. The film also stars early 20th century dance sensation Anna Pavlova, who gets little chance to dance in the film but stars as the much younger peasant girl. “The Dumb Girl of Portici” displays beautiful compositions and designs as it showcases the work of two powerhouse women working together like Bow and Dorothy Arzner in “Get Your Man.” Strong acting by Rupert Julian and Douglas Gerrard, widely praised at the time, brings believability and heart to the production.
In honor of their 100th anniversary, Universal Pictures has restored a number of its classic silent films, including the 1920 Tod Browning directed thriller, “Outside the Law.” While a little dated and startling with its use of yellow face and occasional melodrama, the film features strong performances by Lon Chaney (in multiple roles), Priscilla Dean, and Wheeler Oakman, along with gorgeous scenes actually filmed in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Chinese American actress Anna May Wong plays a very small part in the film as well.
Anna Pavlova dangles from a wall in “Dumb Girl of Portici” in an image from Motion Picture News.
The busy Film Preservation Society premieres the new Museum of Modern Art/San Francisco Silent Film festival restoration of the 1921 Douglas Fairbanks film, “The Three Musketeers,” featuring electric sword play, dazzling athletic action, and romantic adventures starring the ever jaunty Fairbanks. Gascon d’Artagnan joins up with the three Musketeers to save the day and France in one of Hollywood’s first true swashbucklers.
A smorgasbord of foreign films also play throughout the festival. The atmospheric, tense British thriller “The Informer” (1929), starring Lya de Putti and Lars Hanson, anticipates film noir with its lighting and aesthetics, only to be remade six years later by legendary director John Ford. Ernst Lubitsch 1919 German film, “The Doll” revolves around an uncle leaving his fortune to his unmarried nephew who must wed to obtain the funds. Thanks to the contrivances of a group of monks, he ends up married to a mechanical doll. The rarely screened 1915 Italian film “Filibus” reveals the story of a glamorous Baroness who is also secretly a criminal mastermind, flying around in her zeppelin committing crimes.
Other silents from far afield play as well. “A Man There Was,” Victor Sjostrom’s 1917 Swedish film based on an epic Henrik Ibsen poem, recounts the story of Terje, a sailor searching for food for his starving family who is ensnared by the British blockade and thrown in prison. While there, he discovers that his family has died. Directed and starring Sjostrom, the film began Sweden’s Golden Age of silent cinema. “Page of Madness,” a 1926 Japanese film,
shows a retired sailor working at an insane asylum to be near his wife, imprisoned years before. The film is shot from the point of view of the mentally disturbed, with its stunning camerawork and editing, as psychologically compelling as “the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”
A scene from “A Strong Man,” Courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Eastern Europe films also play a large part in this year’s festival. The 1929 Polish film, “A Strong Man,” based on a novel, tells the story of a writer who lifts the work of a friend after the man’s death and sells it as his own, only to see his story slowly unravel. “Two Days,” a 1927 Russian film, reveals the story of a servant who stays behind to guard his master’s mansion during Ukrainian’s Civil War (1917-1921), only to discover his son is one of the Bolsheviks’ leader. Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece “Battleship Potemkin” also screens, a look back at a failed 1905 revolution which established the power of montage filmmaking.
Several other American films screen as well, including the 1925 Wallace Beery starring film “The Lost World,” which features the most complete restoration in a story of fantastic creatures, with elaborate effects by Willis O’Brien. African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s “Body and Soul” starring the great Paul Robeson plays, accompanied by DJ. The almost forgotten 1926 film ‘Silence,” directed by renowned actor/director Rupert Julian and produced by legendary Cecil B. DeMille also screens. The Harold Lloyd classic “The Freshman” kicks things off Thursday night.
An image from “The Lost World,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival also features two special screenings. The always popular free event “Amazing Tales from the Archives” screens excerpts from recently restored films by the archivists who completed the work. “Magic and Mirth: A Collection of Enchanting Short Films 1906-1924” salutes the late, great film archivist David Shepard for his wonderful contribution to the history of cinema.
As always, beautiful live accompaniment brings the films alive, giving them dramatic heart and voice. Pianists/composers Donald Sosin and Stephen Horne will accompany films, along with the chamber group the Mont Alto Picture Orchestra and the Swedish based Matti Ensemble. The Berklee Chamber Orchestra, Frank Bockius, and Guenther Buchwald also will play during the festival.
The San Francisco Silent Film festival travels the world through the magic of cinema at this year’s festival, showing the emotional and visual grandeur of silent film.