My Time At The San Francisco Silent Film Festival

So awhile back, when I was planning a trip to San Francisco with two of my best friends, little did I expect that the dates we chose would just happen to coincide with a very cool event. Which event? Why, nothing less than one of the very best silent film festivals this planet has to offer–the San Francisco Silent Film Festival!

Once I knew this, I just had to go, because A) it was the SFSFF, and B) believe it or not, obsessive-early-film-watching me had never been to a silent film festival before. The closest I ever got were my occasional late night Keystone binges accompanied by cheesy popcorn. (Oh…and my numerous Comique binges. Also accompanied by cheesy popcorn.) I had feverishly sought out any elusive silents that played in theaters near me, but bona fide festivals always seemed to be held on the other side of the country.

Since me and my friends were going to be sight-seeing and creating lasting memories together and all that jazz, I decided to spend only a limited time at the festival. But that would be more than satisfactory.

So I thought long and hard, considered all the showings, considered what me and my friends’ plans were, and chose four showings that were “musts.” Here’s what they were, and here’s how they went:

Showing #1: “The Amazing Charley Bowers”–Musical accompaniment by Serge Bromberg, founder of Lobster Films! Choosing this one was a no brainer.

So on May 31st, Sunday, I got up bright and early, went to Mass at the Mission Dolores (I’m a good little girl), and hurried down the sidewalks of the Castro neighborhood to the theater. I arrived a good 40 minutes before my first film festival showing ever, on a Sunday morning no less, only to be greeted by this:

SFSFF line for bowers

I thought 40 minutes was early…

But, no matter–I was surrounded by kindred spirits! A few people were even wearing ’20s hats. I appreciated it, deeply. The wait to enter the theater didn’t seem long at all, and I scored a nice seat in the middle near the front. After weeks of anticipation I was there to watch…Charley Bowers shorts!

I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to see Bowers on the big screen. He’s so obscure that even many silent fans will say, “Who?” (If you are one of them, Bowers had a comedy series in the mid to late Twenties that featured incredible stop-motion animation and Rube Goldberg-esque inventions. Bowers usually played an eccentric inventor. His work is surreal, zany, and completely charming.) So of course I snapped up my ticket almost as soon as I saw him on the festival website. In fact, if I were forced to choose just one showing the Bowers films might’ve been it!

The shorts were A WILD ROOMER (1926), NOW YOU TELL ONE (1925), MANY A SLIP (1927) and the bizarre THERE IT IS (1928). MANY A SLIP had an added bonus–the first half of the film, which had formerly been lost, had been found and restored! Such a treat, my friends. Such a treat.

I wanted to find Serge Bromberg after the showing and give him my regards for the entire MANY A SLIP, but by then I was stuck in the vortex that was the women’s restroom line. Mr. Bromberg, if you ever happen to read this, THANK YOU for the complete MANY A SLIP!!

Showing #2: Avant-garde Paris: Emak-Bakia (1927) and Ménilmontant (1926) – Musical accompaniment by Earplay and Stephen Horne, respectively.

This one followed the Bowers showing, and I chose it mainly because it featured one of my very favorite silent films: Ménilmontant.

The short Emak-Bakia, directed by Man Ray, played first. Now, if you’re looking for a quintessential 1920s avant-garde cinépoème that features lots of those blurry kaleidoscopic images and no plot or logic of any kind, and will cause people to mildly tell each other “I liked it,” afterwards, Emak-Bakia is your destiny. Man Ray himself stated that “my film was purely optical, made to appeal only to the eyes…” If that all weren’t film festival-y enough, glory of glories, it was presented with one of those modern scores that sounds like a great shrieking mishmash of sound (my complements to the talented Earplay musicians, since practicing that score must’ve been a challenge). I’d say Emak-Bakia is worth watching just for the audience’s reaction to that startling final shot.

Then, the 40-minute Ménilmontant. Yes, Pauline Kael famously called it her favorite film. No, I don’t regard it as one of mine just to be all pretentious.

Ménilmontant is a thing of beauty. It draws upon the familiar melodrama of a young woman seduced and then cast aside, but its modern camerawork and moving acting turns it into a poem. The main actress, Nadia Sbirskaïa, delivers a delicate and vivid performance that stays with you. There was no way I could pass up seeing it on the big screen. It’s a film I will be turning to again and again.

Emak-Bakia I will most likely see again, but only if I go on one of my late night 1920s avant-garde film binges (and you think I’m kidding!).

Showing #3: Why Be Good? (1929) – Accompanied by none other than the marvelous Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

My third showing in a row! My wonderful friends joined me for this one, partly for the experience and partly to get a little insight on my obsession (they’ve liked everything I’ve shown them so far and cheer me on in said obsession.).

Why Be Good? is a jazzy flapper comedy starring Colleen Moore, one of the Twenties’s most awesome people. Her character, Pert Kelly (adorable) is a spunky young woman who loves to flirt and dance into the wee hours of the morning…all while still being a “good girl” at heart. I thought this would be a fun one for my “newbie” friends, and I was right–they enjoyed the film, enjoyed the live music, and had an all-around great time. Thank you, Colleen!

Showing #4: Ben-Hur – With a recorded soundtrack by Carl Davis, and preceded by conversation between Kevin Brownlow Himself and Serge Bromberg!

This was the night of Monday the 1st, and was the last showing of the SFSFF. It was on my “don’t miss” list partly because, hey, it was the epic spectacle Ben-Hur, and partly because Kevin Brownlow would be speaking before the film. Yes, Kevin would be speaking. 

He and Serge chatted about silent films and his experiences in gathering interviews with people like Colleen Moore, and gave a few thoughts on the film vs. digital debate. He was every bit as well-spoken and friendly as you’ve always imagined.

SFSFF kevin speaking

If you haven’t seen Ben-Hur in a theater, you’ve been missing out. The chariot race is exciting enough on the small screen, but on the big screen you’re swept away by the action, the very real sense of danger, and even that shaky cam which absolutely heightens the sense of danger.

The whole theater cheered when Ben-Hur won. That’s one of the best things about festivals, I’ve discovered–everyone cheers at the good parts, and all the main actors get applause when you first see them. Ramon Navarro got a warm welcome. Fewer applauded for the lesser known Francis X. Bushman, but I was one of them. Frankie X needs a little love too, people!

And that was my experience at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I hope–no, I cannot wait–to go back again.

So! If you, too, have always dreamed of going to this festival I’m now proud to have this a handy list of tips for you:

Silent-ology’s Handy SFSFF Tips:

  • Have a full festival pass? Sweet, you get to enter the theater first, as well as sit in reserved seats smack dab in the middle of the theater.
  • If you aren’t a pass holder, never fear! There’s still plenty of seats to go around. You can even sit pretty close to the front if you don’t mind craning your neck a little bit.
  • If you aren’t a pass holder, get in the line about 45 minutes before the film starts so you can choose a good seat and let the anticipation mount.
  • If you’re hungry while standing in line, there’s a great hot dog place next door to the Castro. Just ask your friendly fellow theatergoers to hold your place in line.
  • The left side of the theater is nice since you can see the musicians better (I recognized a couple film historians there, in fact. They totally know where it’s at.).
  • If you’re sitting for two or more showings in a row, you can leave a sweater or something to save your seat.
  • The line to the ladies’ restroom is, of course, goofily long.
  • Yup, the concession stand has coffee.
  • The cupholders on the chairs do not, in fact, have bottoms, only holes wide enough to hold a large cup, so do not try and set your little water bottle in one because it will fall through and attempt to roll all the way down to the front of the theater.

Attending the Festival was totally a worthwhile experience, so start saving your pennies and start planning for next year! I hope to see you there!

20 thoughts on “My Time At The San Francisco Silent Film Festival

  1. There’s nothing better than a great communal experience at the theater, when you know you’re with enthusiastic kindred spirits. That’s why I would so love to go to one of these, and cheer with the others when a favorite actor appears! It’s electric, the excitement. I am so glad you got to have such a grand time.

    • Those communal experiences are one of the best parts of life, I dare say! Start planning and saving now, and you just might find yourself at next year’s festival. 😉

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience, Lea! I’ve enjoyed seeing your pictures on Facebook, and now that I know there’s a Silent Film Festival in San Francisco, it’s definitely on my list of things to do before I need a walker. I look forward to your blog on your trip to Hollywood. 🙂

    • I’m so glad you’re enjoying everything! It’s just wonderful to be able to share all these things with like minded people. Yes, definitely plan on attending the festival, hopefully much sooner rather than later. And you could always work in a trip to Hollywood afterwards, too. 😉

    • You’re kidding! Was it just before the Bowers showing? That’s when it happened. For a minute there I thought it would roll all the way to the front. To add further insult to injury, I then realized I was also in one of the reserved pass holder seats and had to move forward a few aisles. 😀

  3. Sounds great! San Francisco is (along with Chicago) one of the American cities I’d love to visit. Also lovely to hear that your friends got involved – most of mine seem to regard my babbling about silent as either affectation or at best some kind of charming eccentricity. Would be nice to prove to them that there are many like minded people out there!

    One little detail that jumped out at me was applauding the actors. I believe that’s a small cultural difference in the theatre – the done thing in the States, not so much over here. Interesting that it applies to cinema too.

    Anyway, fascinating piece and looking forward to hearing more!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article! Oh yeah, we Americans aren’t shy about expressing our enjoyment. It’s all part of the fun!

      Once you’re done seeing San Francisco and Chicago one day, come visit Minnesota. The Twin Cities are awesome, we have beautiful countryside, tons of lakes to have fun in, accents that are nothing like the ones in “Fargo,” PLUS the Mall of America. 😉

      • Oh well, another illusion shattered (as an aside, Miller’s Crossing is the Coen’s best effort in any case)! Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised given Hollywood’s many crimes against British accents (any attempt at ‘Northern’ seems to be particularly problematic).

        Anyway, I’m in no way put off from giving Minnesota a try. I’ve only really messed around on the East Coast to date, I’m guessing that’s not representative of the country as a whole.

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  6. I so want to go to a silent film festival! It would be amazing to feel that energy of people cheering for the hero and when they applaud when the main character comes on the screen. I think no, I KNOW, I would cry just being there! Heck, I teared up at your beautiful description! Hahaha

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