After a two-year absence, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary May 5 through 11 at the Castro Theatre with a melange of films providing a feast for the eyes and the emotions. Thoughtful programming toured the world as it highlighted relationships, reunions, and the messiness of life in its heady schedule. Energetic and evocative accompaniment provided a touching undergirding of the movies, highlighting their emotions without overwhelming the poetry. For a few hours each day, the visceral impact of these beautiful films washed over the audience and wiped away any feelings of disillusionment and despair over current headlines.
Unexpected themes and subjects popped up throughout the week, from attractive train journeys to putting on a show to spectacular and dangerous stunts and visual effects to lively little dogs and possible violence to said animals.
Thanks to its longer length to celebrate the impressive milestone, the festival started a little later each day with longer breaks, making it possible to more easily process the emotional tidal wave of the films while also stretching and visiting with long-missed friends.
The festival opened May 5 with the over-the-top flamboyance of renowned director Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, newly restored by the SFSFF and the Museum of Modern Art to more closely approximate its actual release order and look. Von Stroheim’s luxurious drama provided a perfect dazzling visual feast to kick off proceedings.
Friday morning began with the always informative and educational program, Amazing Tales From the Archives, a wonderful free program. SFSFF senior film restorer Kathy Rose O’Regan presented the festival’s latest restoration project, the Gault Collection, documenting rare village life in rural Ireland in 1925-1926. Accidental anthropologist Benjamin T. Gault traveled to Ireland’s Counties Kerry and Cook to capture footage of seabirds and other specimens, but ended up also recording farming, celebrating, and the daily life of small villages. Martin Koerber and Julia Wallmuller of the Deutsche Kinematek documented the almost full restoration of the 1924 Lupu Pick feature Sylvester, thanks to the discovery of composer Klaus Pringsheim’s original score, which provided a visual map for a film without intertitles or dialogue. The Library of Congress’ laboratory officer Heather Linville revealed the restoration of the epic 1926 feature The Fire Brigade thanks to discovery of a reel featuring 2-strip Technicolor and Handschliegl color employed for a garden party and vivid fiery effects respectively. Guenther Buchwald provided lilting violin accompaniment for the Irish sequences, and evocative underplaying for the other two presentations.
Film veteran Hobart Bosworth starred in the second presentation of the day, the newly restored 1920 Irvin Willat feature Below the Surface. The tale of an undersea diver who must try to save his son from the evil machinations of a duplicitous woman, Below the Surface featured original tints to highlight strong underwater sequences and locations such as an abandoned Japanese fishing village near Santa Monica competing with Bosworth’s subtle acting and dead-eye stare. Philip Carli provided an appropriate muscular and biting accompaniment to the film.
Thanks to a lucky find by Darren Nemeth, the newly restored Primrose Path reveals a previously lost 1925 Clara Bow states-rights’ film, one of 14 she made that year. Although Bow was only a supporting player, she shows expressive range in a story of a roue who must decide between courting danger or finding redemption with a loyal chorus girl and his loving family. Wallace MacDonald gives a winning performance as the rescued ne’er do well, along with a sweet turn from child actor Pat Moore as his younger brother. Stuart Holmes and Tom Santschi play appropriately slimy villains. Wayne Barker’s uptempo, frisky beat kept the film flying along.
After missing the evening’s films, I returned Saturday for the marvelously hilarious and slapstick 1924 King of the Circus, dapper comedian Max Linder’s final feature. After Linder and his wife’s tragic deaths, the film virtually disappeared, before archivist Serge Bromberg helped to bring it back to life. Max plays dashing man about town Comte de Pompadour, who after a night of debauchery is forced to choose a bride from among three women chosen by his disapproving uncle, before meeting cute with trapeze artist Vilma Banky. Following her to the circus, Max humorously but failingly attempts all manner of acrobatic and fancy tricks to join the show before taming the vicious lion, saving the day, and winning the girl. Linder appears a tired but romantic soul, and the closing shot of the young couple soulfully gazing into each other’s eyes provides a poignant end to his career. Carli added a playful, theatrical underplaying to the comic and soulful film.
Bryony Dixon of the British Film Institute next presented delightful and beautiful 68-millimeter and other large-format clips by W. K. L. Dickson of the Biograph Company and others, documenting life during the Victorian era. These short actualities or documentaries provided a way around Thomas Edison’s patents while presenting a larger than life look at locations and people around the world. Dixon showcased rare examples with clips featuring celebrities like staid royalty and a playful pope, popular sporting events like cricket and regattas, spot-on branding in early commercials for products like whiskey and bicycles, stark early war footage of the Boer War, and sweet clips of children and animals. Some of the most dramatic and stunning footage showed locomotives passing through a romantic and dreamy English countryside, rushing to scoop up water, and traversing a dramatic, awe-inspiring Western United States gorge. Stephen Horne’s evocative accompaniment and Frank Bockius’ joyful percussion added to the period atmosphere.
Buster Keaton’s visually stunning last feature Steamboat Bill Jr. came next, with its fantastic visual effects and awe-inspiring stunts like the death-defying falling house sequence. The film also features nice sight gags like the hat choosing sequence and Buster’s special loaf of bread, along with humorous performances from Ernest Torrence and Marion Bryon. Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provided the right mix of comically breezy and subtly romantic selections in their lovely score.
On Sunday morning, adorable kids led off the day, beginning with the newly restored 1923 Baby Peggy short The Kid Reporter, a miniature takeoff on the Richard Talmadge action feature The Cub Reporter. The entertaining short featured cute as a button Baby Peggy (Diana Sera Cary) as a lowly newspaper stenographer whose super sleuthing and smarts capture a robber and outwit her fellow newsboys, all while wearing a mini mustache and monocle. Eighteen year old William Lewis made his San Francisco debut with his pleasing period counterpoint.
The lovely 1923 feature Penrod and Sam, adapted from novelist Booth Tarkington’s series of popular short stories, contained excellent natural performances from precocious youngsters in a darling look at childhood through a young boy’s eyes. Director William Beaudine’s beautifully tinted film contains a series of vignettes about local neighborhood kids, their misadventures in playing war games and putting on a circus, and a lively little dog who comes under threat. Lead actor Ben Alexander’s poutish but stolid performance headlines the film, stolen by the charming and delightful Joe Butterworth, Eugene Jackson, and Joe McCray. Rockliffe Fellowes and Gladys Brockwell provide solid support as Penrod’s loving and thoughtful parents. Donald Sosin’s energetic, lilting period score highlighted the sweet, nostalgic film.
Richly poetic Prem Sanyas followed, an evocative look at the life of Buddha. The 1926 Indian film featured strong performances, lovely cinematography and lighting, as well as epic sets and scenery, all supplied by the Maharajah of Jaipur in a dreamy Oriental fantasy of spirituality and romance. Club Foot Hindustani and sitar player Pandit Krishna Bhatt provided expressive and sensual accompaniment for the story.
Timely and thought provoking, the 1926 Soviet Ukrainian film Arrest Warrant tells the story of a society in revolution and the deceits and deceptions there-in in a quasi subjective military story and melodramatic potboiler. “Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller provided an articulate and moving introduction to the film, giving context to the period and highlighting Ukraine’s struggle with Russia, even now. Vira Varetska gives a remarkable performance as a woman caught between guarding her revolutionary comrades while protecting her son. The darkly ironic motion picture contains wonderful camera compositions and effects from spiders caught in a web to nightmarish episodes to loose sheets of paper floating in the air, the flotsam and jetsam of people’s lives. The Sascha Jacobsen Quintet played the Ukrainian National Anthem before adding soulful Ukrainian folk tunes as accompaniment. Ticket sales from the event benefited the Olesandr Dovzhenko National Centre and Ukrainian causes.
Monday morning began with the lighthearted 1926 Universal confection Skinner’s Dress Suit, featuring charming yet goofy performances from “All-American” but British boy Reginald Denny and vivacious Laura La Plante, who pushes her husband to overachieving success. Carli’s toe-tapping, uptempo accompaniment provided sparkling gusto.
MGM’s 1926 socially conscious yet action adventure The Fire Brigade followed, filled with fabulous color effects like a dreamy two-strip Technicolor party sequence and spectacular Handschliegl effects creating elaborate conflagrations in a story of a dedicated Irish firefighting family modestly yet valiantly sacrificing all for the good of the community. Hotshot young fireman Charles Ray learns humility and strength before saving a tiny toddler from a raging inferno. Eugenie Besserer gives a rich performance as the stalwart mother with subtle but moving acting from May McAvoy and Ray and slimy villainy from Erwin Connelly, along with strong camerawork by John Arnold. Shot around downtown Los Angeles and Exposition Park, the film featured elaborate equipment and hundreds of firemen provided by the Los Angeles Fire Department in a heroic salute to the courageous profession. Horne and Bockius provided a rousing score with appropriate effects like blazing bells and percussive marching beats. I believe little Mary Louise Miller from Sparrows plays the threatened child.
The charmingly delightful 1926 Swedish-German A Sister of Six proved an hilarious, rip-snorting romantic comedy full of mistaken identities, mismatched couples, and drag disguises. Geza van Radvanyi convinces his flirtatious friend Court Horkay (Willy Fritsch) to visit the rural farm of his Gyurkovics’ relatives and their six daughters and over-the-top mischief ensues. The debonair Fritsch pairs up nicely with the exuberant, impish Betty Balfour as they play a cat and mouse game of romance, enhanced by Carl Hoffmann’s handheld camera and frisky camerawork. Once again an adorable dog and a cute monkey bring smiles to the picture. Filmed on location in Hungary, the movie featured shots of Budapest’s Chain Bridge, dramatic Parliament Building, and Fisherman’s Bastion. Buchwald’s rollicking, rhythmic Eastern European folk tunes and Bockius’ percussion effects brought a joyous addition to the movie.
Darkly pensive and atmospheric, the 1925 Paramount film Street of Forgotten Men featured humanistic direction from Herbert Brenon in a story of Bowery district dishonest crooks preying on society by portraying disabled and handicapped persons for a living. Filled with shadows, expressionistic lighting, and a slight foreshadowing of Freaks, the film tells the story of Easy Money Charlie (Percy Marmont), king of the district, who agrees to raise a dying woman’s daughter away from the mean streets and who must then rise to the occasion when his past threatens to destroy her future. Mary Brian and Neil Hamilton play the young ingenues, but Marmont gives the understated but moving performance of a man trying to escape his destiny. The film features Louise Brooks in one of her first uncredited roles as a moll in a dive bar, along with another lovable but doomed dog. Sosin’s sensitive score combined dance hall vigor with steady almost cocky beat highlighted with a hint of melancholy.
The dazzling restored 1923 Universal epic The Hunchback of Notre Dame crowned the evening’s proceedings, featuring the most gorgeous tinting and cleanest look since its premiere. Universal gorgeously re-created Paris’ Ile de Cite and its monumental Notre Dame Cathedral for its super special, enhanced by the scene stealing performance of Lon Chaney as the deformed but vulnerable bellringer Quasimodo. The gorgeous camerawork and fine acting from Patsy Ruth Miller, Torrence, Brockwell, and Nigel de Brulier provide rich character, with a small cameo by the character actress Mrs. Louise Emmons. Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s emotional and majestic score sweeps the audience along.
For the last day, I only saw the opening film, Smouldering Fires, director Clarence Brown’s 1925 lyrical, eloquent story of a 40-year-old female executive who finds love with a younger man until her baby sister arrives home from college and threatens to unravel the marriage. Gorgeous camerawork and framing along with Brown’s nuanced handling of the May-December romance highlight Pauline Frederick’s magnificent and exquisite performance of a rigid businesswoman letting down her guard and her desires before it grows too late. Tully Marshall offers an understated, compassionate portrayal of Frederick’s right hand man, with Malcolm McGregor solid as the do-gooder, passionate young man. Dramatic shots of Yosemite add nice atmosphere. Horne’s wistful and melancholic score highlights the subtle tragedy of the story.
What a wonderful way to return to magical films on the big screen. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival offered a intoxicating and ravishing return to moviegoing in movie palaces with its 25th edition, showcasing the power and poetry of silent film.