Kevin Brownlow’s 80th birthday was celebrated with a showing of “Mare Nostrum.” Image courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Coming at a time when walls and words separate more people than ever, the 23rd Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival broke down barriers to salute the humanity that unites us in their moving selection of titles. Featuring motion pictures from Germany, Japan, India, Russia, France, Sweden, Italy, and even the United States, the festival’s unplanned theme revolved around individuals on a quest, working to unite rather than divide.
After missing opening night, I arrived for the full first day of films, showing individuals searching out treasure, be it a restored household, job, or just good times. The Annual free Amazing Tales from the Archives films reveals the behind-the-scenes detective stories in movie restoration, locating elements, scripts, stills, and titles to reconstruct lost or damaged films to as close as release form as possible.
Mary Mallory’s latest book, “Living With Grace: Life Lessons from America’s Princess,” will be released June 30.
A scene from “The Ancient Law,” from Pictures and the Picturegoer.
Cynthia Walk and Deutsch Kinemathek head Martin Koerber described how finding lost censorship cards with the film’s intertitles and worldwide quest for prints led to a thorough restoration of the 1923 German film “The Ancient Law,” the story of a rabbi’s son who leaves the shtetl to become an actor. Davide Pozzi of the L’Imaggine Ritrovato revealed the serendipitous discovery of how to restore two-color Kinemacolor travelogues, leading to the reconfiguration of lush early 1910s footage of Italy’s Lake Garda, Libya, and India.
SFSFF President Rob Byrne and board member Russell Merritt presented the amazing story of how the German film “Und Hund de Baskervilles” survived thanks to a film-loving Polish priest, and the film’s restoration process. Pianist Donald Sosin provided appropriate accompaniment for each presentation, from moving themes for “The Ancient Law” to lyrical passages for the travelogues to mysterioso movements for “Hund.”
Harry Carey played a jaunty sheriff turned cat burglar in the newly restored 1925 American film “Soft Shoes,” produced by future MGM producer Hunt Stromberg. The lighthearted, entertaining film revealed the rural lawman heading to San Francisco to obtain his wealthy bequest, only to face potential danger with thieving gangsters. Carey perfectly underplayed his part opposite such silent scene stealers as bad man Francis Ford and undercover Chinese policeman Sojin.
While supposedly set in San Francisco, the movie shows only an establishing shot of the Bay while focusing most of its footage on such Los Angeles locations as Wilshire Boulevard’s Bryson Apartments and the old Chinese Quarter. Sosin added a breezy, rollicking score on piano. Preceding the feature, the newly restored 1924 Stan Laurel short “Detained” showed Laurel mistakenly sent to prison and his highjinks there, already employing such character defining features as breaking the fourth wall and employing his expressive face to comment on the action.
A scene from “The Master of the House,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The ironic and nicely understated 1925 Carl Th. Dreyer film “The Master of the House” followed, revealing a family in disarray as they work to reestablish the master of the household. Arrogant father John (in English subtitles) demands his family serve his every need, leading his kids to nervousness and his wife to the point of exhaustion. Former nanny Nana arrives to take charge, setting in motion the father’s comeuppance. Fine performances and gorgeous mise-en-scene contribute to the moving story, particularly little touches like the heart-shaped clock’s pendulum that stops when the mother Mary departs for restoration, and begins beating again when she returns, the true master of the house. Pianist Stephen Horne provided elegant themes and pregnant pauses that enhanced emotional buttons.
Japanese master Ozu’s spare 1935 motion picture “An Inn in Tokyo” screened next, a poignant tone poem on finding sustenance in more ways than one, be it food, housing, or affection. Introduced by the lead Japanese archivist, the film showed a down-and-out laborer and his two restless sons roaming the Tokyo margins seeking out employment and nourishment, confronting bad choices, resentment, and loss. The moving story focuses on the humane, as unemployed and homeless people assist each other in their travels around the city, lightened with moments of sibling rivalry and affection. Ozu creates stark, gorgeous images of overpowering industry dwarfing vulnerable man, with the people small specks on the horizon. Guenther Buchwald and Frank Bockius’ percussive avant garde score underscored the family’s lonely march towards stability.
Lightening the mood, the whimsical 1929 German film “People on Sunday” came next, fusing documentary with fiction as one of the first projects of soon to be influential American directors Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Robert Siodmak. The story of five (really four) people enjoying a lighthearted day at the park on their Sunday day off, the film focuses on Berlin and its people seeking out relief from the busy daily lives. There are some somber undercurrents in the scene of a man posing with concrete statues of lions and eagles, Nazis waiting to pounce, as well as a group of men stepping in time down the street. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s festive cafe waltzes provided gorgeous accompaniment.
A scene from the Constance Talmadge film “Good References.” From Motion Picture News.
I missed the last two films on Thursday to rest up for Friday’s full day. The bouncy Constance Talmadge feature “Good References” opened the day, a 1920 romance of a young secretary looking for work and finding it, with her charming, vivacious attitude winning the attention of everyone she meets. Sourpuss comedian Ned Sparks plays a supporting role as a sponging friend of her employer’s son, who sells his part even without his cheese grater voice. Matthew Betz plays a grandstanding boxer and George Fawcett plays a helpful tippler. Sosin’s buoyant, upbeat accompaniment added nice underpinnings.
Author David Stenn introduced the recently restored “The Other Woman’s Story,” providing an excellent showpiece for little-known showgirl Helen Lee Worthing, finding her footing as a strong career woman searching for answers to a lawyer’s murder. Told mostly through flashbacks, the romantic melodrama contained some moments of humor and rich settings. Mahlon Hamilton played one of his late big roles, and Worthing demonstrated an expressive range, which scandal sadly prevented her from really exploring onscreen. Horne provided dramatic touches through knocks on the piano, bangs on the wires, and dark flute playing.
The avant-garde program featured an almost performance art-like introduction before the screening, an oil and water mixture of flat irony and stark reality. The 1931 Jay Leyda film “A Bronx Morning” captured the bleak landscape of a struggling community during the Depression, forlorn, tattered, and hurting. “The Life and Death of Hollywood Extra 9413” featured innovative camerawork from director Robert Florey and strong visuals from montage master Slavko Vorkapich, blending off-kilter images of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the Montmartre Cafe, Hollywood and Vine, and Los Angeles City Hall as a naive extra finds himself ridiculed and then abandoned by the Hollywood film industry. Three Vorkapich montages created for motion pictures but cut from the final prints concluded the program, taking a dark, surreal look at the sinister big city, the oppressiveness of Prohibition, and the otherworldly nature of crimes of passion. The Matti Bye Ensemble melancholic and Phillip Glass-like score for “A Bronx Morning” captured the film’s haunted feeling.
Mary Pickford in “Rosita.”
Lightening the mood, the newly restored 1923 romantic epic “Rosita” followed with an introduction by author Cari Beauchamp describing superstar Mary Pickford and ace director Ernst Lubitsch’s only collaboration. A huge crowd pleaser, “Rosita” featured charming performances, wonderful mise en scene, and beautiful camerawork, including a digitally recreated hand schliegel effect for night time fireworks shots. Pickford’s spirited dancer demonstrated her comic skills as well as her potential success in adult roles. Holbrook Blinn provides sly charm and Irene Rich gives a delightful performance as the wise queen. Romantic Lubitsch touches can be seen in the playful opening shot of hands flirtatiously hitting each other, Pickford appearing from behind opening curtains, and gorgeous deep focus and silhouettes. Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra played a moving cut-down of the recently composed score, full of passionate paso dobles and rondos.
Once again I skipped the last films of the evening to rest up for the Saturday films. The energetic, entertaining 1919 Tom Mix film “No Man’s Gold” that morning featured nonstop action in a story of romance, rodeos, and roustabout treasure hunt. Mix’s cowboy must protect a pretty cowgirl and vulnerable young boy in a search for gold, aided by the support of scene stealing Tony the horse. Sosin provided a rousing, crackling score, as well as a charming Saturday matinee theme song with the refrain, “No Man’s Gold,” and live accompaniment also helped sell the film.
The festival celebrated renowned historian Kevin Brownlow’s 80th birthday with the screening of Rex Ingram’s gorgeous but overblown 1926 movie “Mare Nostrum,” like Bernstein’s “Candide” brilliant in parts but not quite coming together. Brownlow introduced the film before the audience sang him “Happy Birthday.” Following his friend Erich von Stroheim, Ingram threw just about everything at the screen, from travelogue to melodrama to action to romance. Alice Terry provides regal attitude opposite Antonio Moreno’s somewhat stiff lead, in a story of an Italian seaman enamored of the Mediterranean and a foreign spy. Ingram captures moving visuals of Pompeii, Mount Etna, Naples, and Paestum, a foreshadowing of civilization’s destruction by war, along with stunning mise-en-scene and visuals throughout the film. Horne and Bockius provided a lush score full of powerful emotion, romantic themes, and pounding action.
A scene from “Trappola,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
To lighten the mood, the 1922 Italian film “Trappola” followed, an energetic, romantic comedy featuring a vivacious, winning performance by comic diva Leda Gys. The story of a young convent educated girl, who finds a way to escape the nuns and solve her friend’s romantic problems by chasing down her wayward boyfriend at a movie studio, the film includes detailed behind-the-scenes shots of moviemaking, as well as great comic timing and sight jokes. Mont alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s lively rondos added verve and zest. Live narration added a fun touch, thanks to the expressive reading of the young actress.
Showing a bit of showmanship, the striking 1929 German version of “The Hound of the Baskevilles” followed, filled with dramatic Expressionism and chiaroscuro lighting. Following pretty closely to the Arthur Conan Doyle novel, the film opens on a foreboding, stormy night on the moors, full of eerie lighting effects. Beautiful lighting enhances the story, including dramatic shadow shots, before the satisfying ending. Carlyle Blackwell is a little too jocular as the intelligent Sherlock, but the cast sells the film. The Guenther Buchwald Ensemble’s avant-garde score added the right notes of menace through howling, dark percussion, running scales and arpeggios, and banging on the piano wires.
I skipped the Greta Garbo saga Saturday night to prepare for Sunday’s films. Irrepressible impresario and showman Serge Bromberg introduced an entertaining program of silent 3-D films, from some of the earliest around 1900, to 1930s reshoots of Lumiere early shorts, to accidental 3-D shorts from Georges Melies. Opening with his dramatic stunt of setting nitrate on fire, Bromberg then showed the Technicolor 3-D sound film “Motor Rhythm,” showing the sweet animated construction of an automobile. Bromberg provided hilarious narration to Melies’ “Robinson Crusoe” and “The Merry Frolics of Satan,” a 1906 short full of tricks played by a wily devil. Sosin provided a merry melange of energetic accompaniment to the program.
“A Throw of Dice,” courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The dramatic 1929 Indian film “A Throw of Dice” followed, an almost biblical-like Cain and Abel tale of a nefarious Indian prince attempting to scam his cousin out of his kingdom. Featuring a cast of thousands and filmed in Rajasthan, the film combined pageantry, drama, spectacle, and deceit in a tale of romantic passion. Gorgeous production design and costumes brought the epic story alive. Buchwald and Bochius added Eastern mysticism and intrigue to proceedings.
My festival concluded with the thoughtful, evocative 1923 German film “The Ancient Law,” filled with gorgeous Rembrandt like images, beautiful tints, and striking set design by production designer Alfred Junge, who later worked with Powell and Pressburger. A dramatic forerunner of “The Jazz Singer,” the story revolves around a rabbi’s son who falls in love with acting and must abandon the shtetl to discover his thespian talents. Torn between succeeding in a gentile world and following the ancient laws, young Baruch, powerfully played by Ernst Deutch, must find a balance in promoting his spiritual values. Adding to the moving nature of the film, the Donald Sosin Ensemble featured klezmer violin and strings in a poignant score, full of wailing and weeping violins and strings.
The 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival featured a thoughtful selection of moving films grappling with what it means to follow dreams, unite past and present, and provide care and concern for others.