Many rarely seen and newly restored films from all over the globe examining relationships and the human condition will screen May 1 through 5 at the Castro Theatre as part of the 24th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival. From acknowledged masterpieces to obscure chamber plays, all express the longing for connection or affection, through the deep emotionalism of silent cinema.
Classic American filmmakers receive their due this year covering virtually every genre of silent film. Horror maven Tod Browning directs Lon Chaney in their 1928 revenge-driven horror film “West of Zanzibar,” with despicable Phroso plotting retribution on the man who left him paralyzed. The picture features another of Chaney’s remarkable portrayals of men consumed with madness, anger, and deep sorrow.
Future western master John Ford displays early promise in his 1918 picture “Hell Bent” with Harry Carey, with plenty of hard-driving, fast-paced action, rugged camerawork, and a tight morality play. The program includes the screening of the Baby Peggy short, “Brownie’s Little Venus,” featuring the adorable tyke sharing adventures with cute dog Brownie.
William Wellman displays his talent for tender romance, sly comic relief, and thrilling stunts in a story of romance behind-the-scenes of a Russian circus troupe in the 1926 film “You Never Know Women.” Directed the year before Wellman soared into immortality with the Academy Award-winning “Wings, the movie stars dashing Clive Brook as an escape artist looking to catch the heart of his performing partner.
Virile Victor Fleming combines western adventure and ardent romance in the late 1929 silent “The Wolf Song.” Starring a chiseled young Gary Cooper, the film features a misty nude bathing scene of the sexy cowboy and electric passion between real life paramours Cooper and Lupe Velez.
Remembered more for his 1940s film noir “Leave Her to Heaven” and 1930’s moving melodramas “Only Yesterday” and “Imitation of Life,” John M. Stahl directs the 1924 “Husbands and Lovers.” The film blends his artful mastery of nuanced comedy and deep emotion, as cad Lew Cody attempts to seduce loyal Florence Vidor away from stolid Lewis Stone.
A sparking Marion Davies gently highlights the divide between upper class haves and Irish have-nots in the 1925 MGM backstage musical romp, “Lights of Old Broadway.” Featuring two-color Technicolor vaudeville sequences of renowned Tony Pastor’s stage along with cameos saluting a young Thomas Edison, juvenile performers Weber and Fields, and the night Broadway was electrified in 1880, the film features Davies in dual roles of twins separated at birth.
Decadent director Erich von Stroheim reveals deep romanticism in his 1928 Paramount film “The Wedding March” in a story of troubled love. Filled with gorgeous touches like a romantic embrace under a blossoming cherry tree to more sordid scenes of a debauched orgy, the movie captures the lyrical artistry and complicated mind of the overly ambitious filmmaker.
Virtually forgotten actor and director King Baggot blends marital relationship and gender expectations into a remarkable concoction in the little seen, revolutionary 1925 Universal film “The Home Maker.” Based on best-selling author and social activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s novel, the thoughtful movie stars Clive Brook and Alice Joyce as a couple stuck in their roles as provider and homemaker, both out of place and sorts. When his job is downsized, gender roles are overturned and both feel more at home.
Thanks to the efforts of SFSFF and Photoplay Productions, renowned director Clarence Brown’s long unavailable 1924 Universal picture “The Signal Tower” has been restored and will premiere at the festival. Featuring evocative scenes shot deep in the redwood forest around Mendocino, the film examines a railroad signal worker (Rockcliffe Fellows) and his wife (Virginia Valli) dealing with the slimy machinations of oily Wallace Beery before a runaway train on a stormy night as the film races to a conclusion.
The great comedian Buster Keaton bookends the Festival with his 1928 film “The Cameraman” kicking off proceedings and his 1923 movie “Our Hospitality” concluding the program.
Early Italian cinema receives its due with the screening of two pictures filled with luscious color and mise-en-scene, the 1917 “Rapsodia Satanica” and the 1911 “L’Inferno.” “Rapsodia Satanica” blends masterful use of color, lush settings, and elegant costumes to highlight diva Lyda Borelli’s electric performance as a countess who makes a Faustian bargain to regain her youthful beauty.
Live translation will augment the screening of “L’Inferno,” the first blockbuster that ignited the worldwide drive to turn out ambitious features. Full of luscious imagery, elaborate pageantry and stunning special effects, the film depicts the first part of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” with a tour of the Nine Circles of Hell.
Coming at the tail end of the silent era, the 1930 Czechoslovakian movie “Tonka of the Gallows” combines astonishing camera angles and breathtaking chiaroscuro lighting in a tale of cruelty and petty small-mindedness. The film is considered director Karel Anton’s tour de force.
The 1919 German picture “Opium” represents the hallucinatory delusions of Professor Gesellius, who falls victim to the very drug he has been studying. Featuring mind-blowing camerawork, the picture was the first by virtually forgotten German director Robert Reinert and has recently been restored.
Three films from the Far East get rare screenings highlighting the Pacific’s exoticism. The 1933 film “Japanese Girls at the Harbor” walks the line between tradition and modernity and youth and happiness as two childhood friends end up taking widely divergent paths in this tale of crime and decadence. Recently restored by the British Film Institute, the lavish 1928 “Shiraz” is one of only a few Indian narrative movies to have survived. Based on the romantic true life story of the Taj Mahal’s construction, the epic film features a cast of thousands and actual locations throughout India. Foreigners Andre Roosevelt and Armand Dennis filmed locals reenacting a Balinese legend as melodrama in the 1932 film “Goona Goona,” emphasizing the photogenic nature and beauty of the island.
Such films as Ernst Lubitsch’s 1919 “The Oyster Princess,” Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1930 “Earth,” the third part of his “Ukraine Trilogy,” the 1927 G.W. Pabst film “The Love of Jeanne Ney,” and Marcel L’Herbier’s “L’Homme du Large” also screen during the festival.
The always fascinating free program “Tales From the Archives” kicks off regular proceedings, with presentations by SFSFF President Rob Byrne and Thierry Lecointe on fin-de-siecle flipbooks, Filmmuseum Munchen head Stefan Drossler describing “Opium’s” restoration, National Film Archive of Japan director Hisashi Okajima demonstrating the Mina Talkie Sound System, and Film Forum director Bruce Goldstein illustrating the quick demotion of silents after talkies came in.
Such renowned musicians as Stephen Horne, Frank Bockius, Gunther Buchwald, and Eastman House’s Phil Carli will acompany the films, along with the chamber ensemble Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and the atmospheric Matti Bye Ensemble.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents an eclectic range of films sure to delight any silent cineaste.