Hollywood Heights / Mary Mallory: San Francisco Silent Film Festival Travels the Globe


San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The Twenty Second Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival concluded Sunday, June 4, after screening an eclectic slate of entertaining and challenging films from around the globe. The festival’s films covered a diverse variety of themes, examining exploration of the land and heart, father figures and daughters, moral choices, and girl power, while coming to life through the magic of live accompaniment.

Harold Lloyd’s “The Freshman” kicked things off Thursday, June 1, a rousing tale of football team water boy makes good. With the climatic football game featuring footage of Memorial Coliseum, the Rose Bowl, and Berkeley’s Memorial Coliseum, likable Lloyd runs to victory, winning the girl and the game. The student group Berklee Silent Film Orchestra provided accompaniment.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival
A frame from one of the films show in “Tales From the Archives.” (Note the Indian motorcycle), courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Friday morning the fFestival truly jumped into high gear with the always fascinating and informative “Tales From the Archives“ program, featuring rousing and colorful accompaniment by pianist Donald Sosin. George Willeman from the Library of Congress enthusiastically brought to life Thomas Edison’s first “talkie” Kinetophone process, aided by his cinematic-like PowerPoint presentation. Introduced to audiences in 1913, Kinetophone was only as good as its operators as Willeman pointed out, requiring spot-on synchronization across a large apparatus by the busy projectionist. Dialogue, music, and effects were recorded on a master cylinder at the same time as filming, and then synced with the motion picture running through the projector and screen through a long series of linen cords, snack items for critters.

Willeman described the difficult job of restoring some of these surviving films, before presenting two very entertaining examples. The first, “The Musical Blacksmiths,” featured the Edison Blacksmiths quintet and Leonie Flugrath, eventually to become Viola Dana, singing and “dancing” their way through a short about the hard work of blacksmiths. Professionally dealing with mistakes like the stage pros they were, the group reached a hearty finish. The second, “Jack’s Joke,” featured a sober, speaking Arthur Housman as a successful young businessman attracting the girl, with some humorous byplay.

Elif Rongen-Kaynakci of the Eye Filmmuseum followed with an informative program about their Jean Desmet Collection, in which a pack rat preserving the ephemera of his career helped bring details of the traditions and practices of early silent cinema to life. Dutch entrepreneur Desmet worked in the circus/sideshow business before working as an early film exhibitor and later theatre magnate. His papers, donated by his family to the archive in 1957, provide an in-depth look at early distribution and exhibition practices, through the sales, costs, length, presentation, format, etc. of early 1900s-1910s motion pictures, demonstrating that most were either colorized or tinted. His archive reveals the popularity of American films in Europe, even before World War I.


Heather Linville of the Academy Film Archive concluded the captivating program with film excerpts from the collection of the engaging though largely unknown American female Indiana Jones, Aloha Wanderwell, romantic and inspiring world traveler. Inspired by the dramatic tales of her father’s adventure books, the sixteen year old Idris Hall joined Captain Walter Wanderwell’s daring around the world expedition in Model T Fords in 1922 in which intriguing locations and events were filmed for screening in local towns along the way. Acting as translator, seamstress, negotiator, ambassador, and driver after a name change to Aloha, the young woman visited more than 80 countries while traveling almost 400,000 miles and later acted as expressive host for many of these short films, narrating the excerpts she had often shot and then edited together. Linville played clips showing the expedition in such places as India, China, South America, Europe, and even exotic Hollywood, demonstrating Wanderwell’s charming magnetism and sense of adventure in circling the globe, a confident, ambitious young woman exploring the world and her own place in it.

Clara Bow and Louise Brooks followed, with Clara in strong pursuit of her goals and Louise only a supporting player in her recently discovered film. Effervescent Bow goes on the hunt in “Get Your Man“ (1927), chasing down the rich young Frenchman Buddy Rogers to his luxurious family estate after meet cutes around Paris (Hollywood Boulevard) and a romantic evening locked in a wax museum together. Director Dorothy Arzner crafts a witty, romantic little film featuring fine performances, and a lovely looking print restored by the Library of Congress, employing stills and intertitles for missing scenes. While I originally thought it was the Jewett estate that functioned as the film’s glorious setting, I now think parts of it, particularly a garden scene with a long walkway and a circular staircase might have been shot at the Huntington.

3. Get Your Man.AGILE

A scene from “Get Your Man,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

SFSFF President Rob Byrne discovered 23 minutes of the lost 1926 Wallace Beery/Raymond Hatton film “Now Were in the Air,“ also featuring the sexy Louise Brooks. Most footage features the two goofy airmen causing mayhem around a World War I airfield, with footage of the giant German plane and battle scenes from “Wings“ performing double duty here. The carnival scene with Bow wearing her famous black tutu was filmed on the Lasky Ranch in what is now Forest Lawn Hollywood, with Mt. Lee looming behind them, hiding the Hollywoodland Sign on the other side. Pianist Stephen Horne provided bouncy, romantic accompaniment with several witty touches.

Lois Weber’s “The Dumb Girl of Portici“ (1916) played next, a gorgeously shot film with innovative tracking and dolly shots during battle scenes. Based on an opera, the film features legendary ballet dancer Anna Pavlova as the mute young woman in the film, whose actions spark a revolution in 17th Century Spanish-occupied Naples. Universal’s most expensive film at the time, the first major historic epic directed by a woman, the feature focuses too much on bloody battle scenes and too little on dancing from Pavlova, though with story elements that seem to echo some of our own world today. Employing locations like the Santa Monica beach, Universal backlot, and Castle Sans Souci in Hollywood, the film contains fine performances by Rupert Julian and Douglas Gerrard and early performances by the likes of Nigel de Brulier, Jack Holt, and Jack Hoxie. Donald Sosin opened with lilting dance themes before building to a pounding, ferocious finish for the combat. Scholar Shelley Stamp put the film in context for its place in director Weber’s career, and provided background on the making of the film.

I missed Oscar Micheaux’s “Body and Soul“ (1925) and the 1929 British film “The Informer“ that evening, before hitting the ground running on Saturday.

Saturday morning started off with a touching, delightful program dedicated to the late, great archivist/film preservationist David Shepard, who helped bring many formerly considered lost silent films to the screen as well as provided glorious new restorations for many that had only previously existed in substandard prints. The impish Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films provided charming introductions and even hilarious narration to the 1906 Georges Melies’ “The Witch.“ The program included the first theatre behavior trailer “Those Awful Hats“ (1909), probably one of the mighty D. W. Griffith’s most hilarious films. “Cartoon Factory“ (1924) showed cartoonist Max Fleischer letting loose a surreal Koko the Clown, blending live action and animation, leading one to wonder did he influence Buster Keaton for the making of “Sherlock Jr.,“ or vice versa? Entertaining farces “First Prize for Cello Playing“ revealed the world’s worst cello player killing the hearing of surrounding neighbors, while “When the Devil Drives“ (1907) featured a family suffering from mischievous train and boat driving by a smirking devil. “The Dancing Pig“ (1907) once again slayed with its irrepressible prancing ham and his enormous tongue. Other beautiful hand colored shorts played as well.

8. Strong Man.AGILE

“A Strong Man,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Czar of Noir Eddie Muller introduced the 1929 Polish film “A Strong Man,“ describing the nightmarish lives of some of its filmmakers. A proto noir in which an unsuccessful writer learns the errors of his ways after stealing a manuscript from a dying, talented friend’s hands, the movie dripped with atmosphere and intensity, featuring gorgeous sets and costumes and a stylistic play showcasing characters in almost symbolic, kabuki-like masks, representing the main character’s somewhat bi-polar nature. Avant-garde Russian influences of multiple layered images, double exposures, and the like added to the feeling of claustrophobia, madness, and entrapment gradually overtaking the main character.

While lovely to look at, “Fibilus“ (1915) was frivolous, an action serial now comic like the Z level 1950s’ ones with hokey costumes and tiny models. While the main character was a daring young woman essaying three roles via cross dressing: Baroness, male count, and villain Filibus, she appeared unbelievable as a man and committed her crimes via dropping 6,000 feet unseen in a basket from her zeppelin. Mont Alto Picture Orchestra’s rich musical score gave class to the charming, popular film.

The Festival switched from goofy to suspense, moving to the 1920 Tod Browning thriller “Outside the Law.“ The film helps set location with a few, gorgeous establishing shots looking towards San Francisco’s Ferry Building from Nob Hill, helped by atmospheric lighting. An impressive Priscilla Dean plays Silky Moll, the daughter of a San Francisco crime boss who must decide whether to go to the dark side or walk the straight line after a setup by underworld gangster Black Mike Sylva (Lon Chaney). Chaney plays two roles, one unfortunately in yellow face, while an uncredited Anna May Wong appears in one scene. Little man John George gains some of his largest screen time as the duplicitous instigator of action. Dean demonstrates great chemistry with her co-star Wheeler Oakman, her husband at the time. The film features an intertitle with the words, “You dirty rat,“ perhaps the influence for Cagney’s line in “Public Enemy.“ Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius provided great character and power to the film.

While I only saw the last twenty minutes of “Battleship Potemkin“ (1925), I was moved by the Matti Bye Ensemble’s evocative almost Philip Glass-like score, flowing like water while percussively accompanying revving engines and guns and subtly underscoring emotion.

Sunday, June 4 opened with the comic Ernest Lubitsch 1919 film “The Doll,“ featuring a charming opening cameo by the director himself and witty performances from Ossi Oswalda pretending to be a mechanical doll and Hermann Thimig as a nervous, repressed young man who must marry a la Buster Keaton in “Seven Chances“ to gain his inheritance. Perhaps the film influenced Keaton, as it featured a crowd of brides comically chasing the prospective bridegroom through the streets of the little village. The irrepressible young assistant looks and almost acts like a mischievous Spec O’Donnell, while the mad inventor somewhat looks like a crazed version of Max Linder. Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius’ witty, bouncy score added nice energy and naughty touches.

Recently rediscovered at the Cinematheque Francaise, the 1926 film “Silence“ followed, a well-directed Rupert Julian film produced by Cecil B. DeMille and adapted from a famous play of the time, already reaching towards sound with opening scenes heavily dependent on audio effects to add to the dramatic pressure. A moving melodrama, an expressive H. B. Warner plays Jim Warren, a convict awaiting execution, who flashes back on a gripping tale of love and sacrifice. Jack Mulhall and Vera Reynolds in a dual role give good performances, while Raymond Hatton displays his talent as a slimy shyster. Mont Alto Picture Orchestra’s lush accompaniment and visceral effects won the musical prize for the weekend, blending romanticism with heart rending intensity.

15. A Man There Was.AGILE

“A Man There Was,” Courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Victor Sjostrom provided strong double duty as director and star of the 1917 Swedish film “A Man There Was,“ based on Henrik Ibsen’s epic poem. Sjostrom brilliantly captures the dramatic spirit of the powerful story through his fierce performance and gorgeous photography by Julius Jaenzon. Terje goes in search of food for his starving family during the British blockade, ending up captured and imprisoned. The Matti Bye Ensemble provided powerful accompaniment that moved between gentle melodies and swirling emotions. The music ebbed and flowed like the placid water or the crashing waves.

Serge Bromberg described the long restoration process behind the 1925 film “The Lost World,“ forever altered in 1933 in order not to detract from another little out of this world film, “King Kong.“ Close to its original length, the film details the adventures of a ragtag group of adventurers (Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Lloyd Hughes, Bessie Love, and Arthur Hoyt) on an Amazonian expedition to find prehistoric creatures. Featuring cameos by the like of Holmes Herbert and Leo White as well as comic bits from animal star Jocko the Monkey, the film contains impressive, out of this world creatures from the hands of Willis O’Brien, as well as gorgeous handschliegel effects. How ironic that on a day of sorrow on London’s Tower Bridge that this film about creatures from another world landing in that same city and destroying Tower Bridge should appear. The Alloy Orchestra’s percussive score captured the pounding heat and noisy atmosphere of the dinosaur-overrun jungle.

Intentional or not, many of the films during the festival focused on diverse themes. Several centered on father/daughter relationships, with loving dads trying to provide a safe, secure home in a sometimes topsy-turvy world. Some of the films provided ironic or sometimes sad comment on events in the world today, showing how little life actually changes. Many also examined exploring strange new lands to gain insight and connections with others and revealing the interconnections of human, animal, and planet. Others focused on strong, daring young women blazing new trails, seeking amazing adventures, achieving high goals, and following their own destinies.

This year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival provided an informative primer on the power and glory of silent cinema around the world, how its gorgeous images imprint beauty on the screen while its compelling stories rend powerful emotions on the heart. Moving music helps blend these two elements into a sensuous smorgasbord of great power.


About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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