San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2016–The Recap

Hello all, I’m back!! And I’ve had a chance to rest a bit and get back into the swing of “normal” life. And of course, for me “normal” life includes blogging, so I’ve been gathering my thoughts and am pleased to present the first in several posts about my time in Frisco and Tinseltown. Today, let’s go blow-by-blow through the entire prestigious experience of the highly recommended San Francisco Silent Film Festival–hang on, folks, because it’s going to be a long one!

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SFSFFest Day 1

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I arrived in the Bay area a day early in order to pack in some sight seeing before the opening night on June 2nd. Hear ye, hear ye fellow film history fanatics: there’s one hidden gem in Frisco that shouldn’t be missed and it’s the Musée Mécanique on Fisherman’s Wharf. Okay, it’s not really “hidden,” but it’s easy to miss. It has a collection of around 200 antique penny arcade machines, some over 100 years old, and yes, you can take your quarters and play every single one of ’em! (A few even take dimes or nickels.) Oh, and did I mention that there’s a bunch of kinetoscopes? And mutoscopes! Mutoscopes!

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So on that sunny, mild Thursday, after an afternoon of peeping in kinetographs and cable car joyriding, I took the streetcar from Powell (a couple blocks over from where I was staying) down to the beautiful 1922 Castro theater. At last, at last I was here, ready to take in all four days of the festival for the very first time alongside many historians, archivists, and fellow silent fans!

Opening Night Showing: Beggars of Life (1928), starring Louise Brooks & Richard Arlen – A classic of the late silent era where Louise Brooks gets to discard her usual flapper gowns and have her character disguise herself as a boy so she can flee from a life of abuse and “ride the rails” with fellow drifter Arlen.
     My Verdict: Totally A Classic – This is one of those masterfully directed, slightly gritty silents that captures a time gone by, but remains timeless. Richard Arlen is wonderful as the honorable young vagrant and Wallace Beery does his usual scene-stealing. Brooks I’m a bit on the fence on, since I’m not bowled over by what she brings to the role. Interestingly, the way she walks and gestures while being disguised as a boy almost reminds me a little of Keaton. Hmm.

SFSFFest Day 2

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Hold onto your hats, folks–this was the first full day of showings, starting at 10 a.m. and going all the way to 9:30 p.m.! Yes, I packed a sandwich and figured out where to have dinner.

Showing #2: The Amazing Tales From the Archives presentation – The BFI showed several short films from their archives: a short showing studio employees getting off a train and walking across a muddy field to the building; Starlings of the Screen, featuring young wannabe-actresses showing off (or trying to show off) their charms in hopes of winning a film role; and Meet Jackie Coogan, an adorable newsreel featuring the child star visiting Cricklewood Studio and smiling for the cameras. This was followed by a Powerpoint presentation on Universal Studio’s restoration of Paul Leni’s The Last Warning, and a talk by Georges Mourier on the immensely difficult restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon. 
     My Verdict: One of the Festival Gems – This was just fascinating, particularly the detailed information on just how ridiculously, insanely, head-poundingly difficult it is to put together a complete version of Napoleon. Did you know there’s about 22 versions of Napoleon out there? And that even Kevin Brownlow (*genuflects*) didn’t know that two separate, practically identical negatives of the film had survived originally? A clip from the work-in-progress was played with magnificent results, confirming my suspicion that the French national anthem is the coolest of the national anthems.

Showing #3: A Woman of the World (1925), starring Pola Negri – Pola is a wealthy countess who, after discovering her man with another woman, decides to get away from it all by…going to stay with her cousin in Maple Valley, Iowa.
     My Verdict: Crowd Pleaser – This is a film that’s just plain fun. It’s one of those goofy stories the Jazz Age specialized in, but it’s handled reasonably well, and Pola is delicious as the worldly countess. She can twitch her eyebrow and you know exactly what she’s thinking. Chester Conklin provides some welcome comedic touches. Herbert Holmes seems more like a tax attorney than a love interest, but ah well. The ending is a bit over the top, but you won’t forget it.

Showing #4: That Night’s Wife (Sono yo no tsuma, 1930), starring Tokihiko Okada and Emiko Yagumo – Shuji lives in a humble apartment with his wife and sick child. Knowing his child is in critical condition, in desperation he decides to rob an office. A detective tracks him back to the apartment, but since the child is near death he agrees to let Shuji stay the night before hauling him to jail. A long, tense night follows.
    My Verdict: Poetic Brilliance – I feel like constructing a giant “OZU” in letters five stories tall. This is such a quiet, subtle, delicate film, yet the characters are so fresh and vivid. The most dramatic moment (involving the mother) is as subtle and quiet as anything else in the film, yet it packs a punch. One of my favorites from this weekend.

Showing #5: Mothers of Men (1917), starring Dorothy Davenport – Several years before women had the right to vote, this drama imagines what might happen if a woman was elected to public office. Davenport’s character deals with yellow journalism and a moral quandary involving her husband being falsely accused.
     My Verdict: Meh – The hype made it sound like some sort of hyper-feminist masterpiece that Femen would yell is the best film ever made, but it seemed more like your standard Edwardian melodrama. In my opinion, it seems to be using that “women in public office” angle more as a gimmick to get to the enticing dramatic scenario of “what would a female judge do if her own husband was wrongly convicted for murder?” Methinks the interest in this film is mainly historical.

Showing #6: Varieté (1925), starring Emil Jannings and Lya de Putti – A former trapeze artist and his wife own a cheap circus sideshow, and he longs for the glory of his old career. When he meets a hot young thing he leaves his wife and child for her, and they start a new trapeze act. Sadly, his happiness will be short-lived.
     My Verdict: HOLY SWEET CHAPLIN’S MUSTACHE – Not only was this a grand, tragic drama with all the bold cinematography and expressionist Jannings acting you could ask for, but it was accompanied by the magnificent Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (made up of students from Boston), who played the biggest, most stunningly dramatic score you can imagine. By the end, I was shaking. This was my favorite showing of the festival. 

Showing #7: Behind the Door (1919) starring Hobart Bosworth, Jane Novak and Wallace Beery – Oscar Klug, a former taxidermist, becomes a captain on a ship during the Great War. His love, Alice, sneaks aboard the ship so they can stay together. But when the ship is sunk by a German U-boat, the Germans end up capturing Alice and letting the crew have their way with her. Oscar vows a deeply macabre revenge.
     My Verdict: Well That Escalated Quickly – As the presenter explained, silent fans have either never heard of this film, or have and the mere mention of the title makes their eyes widen involuntarily. It’s all standard drama at first…but the last ten or so minutes take a dark, dark twist that would make Poe jealous. You never “see” anything, but you know exactly what’s happening. Ugh. (And no, I don’t want to give it away!)

SFSFFest Day 3

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Starting Off The Morning With Showing #8: The Battle of the Century and Other Comedy Restorations – Comedy fans rejoiced when the missing minutes of Laurel and Hardy film The Battle of the Century was found, now shown in its entirety. Keaton’s classics Cops and The Balloonatic followed, and as a chaser we were exposed to that horrific cavorting pig in Le Cochon Danseur (1907).
     My Verdict: Now This Is How You Start A Morning – ‘Nuff said! Except for the hell-pig.

Showing #9: The Strongest (1929) starring Bengt Djurberg and Anders Henrikson – A sailor goes to work for a skipper who’s the father of the girl he loves. He must prove himself a real man during a hunting expedition to the Arctic, where rival ships are seldom far behind.
     My Verdict: Stays With You – You can’t have a film fest without a ponderous Swedish drama, it may be contractually obligated. This one really took its time, and the meditative score was dangerously soothing. But the vast Arctic landscapes (showcasing real seal and polar bear hunting) have lingered in my mind ever since. I’m glad I saw it.

Before the next showing, the 2016 SFSFF award was presented to the great historian David Robinson! Much applause!

Showing #10: Shooting Stars (1929) starring Annette Benson and Brian Aherne – A husband and wife are an acting team in the movies. When the wife discovers that her husband is having an affair, she arranges to have a real bullet put in a prop gun that’s going to be fired at him in a dramatic scene.
     My Verdict: Shades Of Film Noir – Also shades of Varieté, which was still pretty fresh in my mind! The bits of comedy in the beginning, poking fun at moviemaking tropes like heroines cuddling with birds and Sennet-style slapstick, also reminded me of Show People. The story built the tension practically to the breaking point, leaving us to breathe during that final, evocative shot. A winner.

Showing #11: Within Our Gates (1920) – The Only Showing I Missed (Sorry, Oscar Micheaux) BUT, I had a good reason–dinner with some wonderful film historians! Tracey GoesselTracey Goessel, Donna Hill, Mary Mallory, Lara Gabrielle Fowler, Jack Fields and Beth Ann Gallagher. (Pardon my shameless name-dropping. Shameless!) How fun is that?!

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Post-dinner group photo!

Showing #12: The Italian Straw Hat (1927) starring Albert Préjean and Olga Chekhova – It’s the day of Fadinard’s wedding, and his horse eats a straw hat it found by the roadside. Unfortunately, it belonged to a married lady who was trysting with her secret lover behind some bushes. They demand that he replace the hat so her husband won’t suspect anything’s amiss, and he frantically tries to do so.
     My Verdict: Fresh – Film festivals love them some Ernest Lubitsch and Rene Clair, because their comedy is just so suffistikated, and while my first choice would be something more in the vein of Lloyd or Langdon I can definitely see the appeal. This was a smart, quick-moving comedy, and the audience had a ball. If you get a chance to see it, take it!

(Alarmingly Late 10 p.m.) Showing #13: The Last Warning (1929) starring Laura La Plante – A theater, closed for five years after the mysterious death of an actor during a play, reopens and the producer decides to stage the exact same play. Spooky events inevitably ensue.
     My Verdict: Give It a Try – If you like The Cat and the Canary you’ll probably enjoy this one. I’ll be dead honest, after all the showings and film-historian-dinner-related excitement during the day my eyes simply did not want to stay open during this one–which annoyed me exceedingly. I do remember some wonderful sets and some scene-stealing by an elderly gal, as well as vowing to drink lots of coffee the next day.

SFSFFest Day 4 – The Final Day

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Sunday Morning Showing, #14: Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema – A selection of charming 1900s hand-colored films, including works by Segundo de Chomon.
     My Verdict: Awww Yeeaaahhh– This was also a favorite showing of mine–who can resist those vivid colors and whimsical subjects? The absolute best film was a joke short where a boy gets revenge on a mean fisherman by disguising his little dog as an goofy-looking alligator and siccing him on the man. Seriously, cutest. Gag. Ever.

Showing #15: Girls Will Be Boys – I Don’t Want To Be a Man (1918) and What’s the World Coming to? (1926) – This showing had the theme of “girls dressing like boys,” with a Lubitsch (see? Lubitsch!) comedy where a tomboyish girl decides to disguise herself as a man and enjoy a day on the town, and a Hal Roach short set in “2026,” where men are more like women, and vice versa.
     My Verdict: Good Times – The Lubitsch comedy was excellent and had the spirited Ossi Oswalda to boot. The Roach short was basically a long gimmick, but it was a little refreshing to see some goofy slapstick after so many big doses of subtlety this weekend.

Showing #16: Nanook of the North (1922) –  One of the most famous documentaries of all time, following the Inuit family of the hunter “Nanook.”
     My Verdict: A Classic– What a treat it was to see this on the big screen! Nowadays we know that much of it was staged (e.g., the Inuits were hunting with guns and using other up-to-date methods at the time), but there’s still power in the straightforwardness of the directing and the closeness of the little family.

Showing #17: Destiny (1921) starring Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke –  The mighty Fritz Lang tells an Intolerance-inspired tale of a woman given three chances in three different historic eras to save her lover from Death.
     My Verdict: Stolidly Thought-Provoking – This is an ambitious, fable-like tale connected by the bony, unmovable face of Goetzke’s Death. While this won’t be replacing my ultimate favorite Lang (Metropolis) anytime soon, fellow fans of the big-thinking director should give this a watch.

Showing #18: Les Deux Timides (1928) starring Pierre Batcheff –  A timid young lawyer tries to defend a man charged with abusing his wife. He fails miserably, and the man is sent to jail. The lawyer then falls in love with Cecile. When the abusive man, now widowed, is released from jail, he vies for Cecile’s hand.
     My Verdict: Absolutely Delightful – This was another of my favorites from the festival, I was absorbed and amused by every minute of it. It’s cheerful, playful, and the lead actor has an endearingly Keatonesque performance. Bravo, René Clair!!

The Very Final Showing, #19: When the Clouds Roll By (1919) starring Douglas Fairbanks Doug is an incredibly superstitious man who, unbeknownst to himself, is being slowly driven mad by a soulless scientist.
     My Verdict: Solid Gold – This is Doug at his coat-and-tie best (pre-his costume films, remember). Some of the images are priceless, especially the dream sequence where Doug is chased by the foods that are causing him nightmares–how many kids had those images embedded in their imaginations? What a great way to end the SFSFFestival!

Whew! So that was the festival, my friends! It was a splendid event with some of the best musical accompaniment you can hear, and to the surprise of none of you I’m already wondering if returning next year is an option. We’ll see if this becomes an annual event, folks! Stay tuned.

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34 thoughts on “San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2016–The Recap

  1. I was already considering going next year, but your write-up has pretty much convinced me. Sounds like something not to be missed.

    • That’s good to hear, you won’t regret it!! The theater’s beautiful too, and it’s nice that all the showings are in one place. Maybe I’ll see you there!

  2. I sure wish Behind the Door (1919) will come to video some day. A truely bizarre film. I saw it back in the 80s or 90s at the Saginaw Cinesation and remember the ending to this day!!!

  3. I have nothing to add here, because your reactions mirrored mine (except I missed the two Saturday night presentations). When people asked me what was the overall standout of this year’s festival, I couldn’t point to one film (but maybe Variete) but when they asked me if I had a good weekend the answer was an immediate “yes” because the overall quality of all the presentations was so good.

    • It really was! I’m not going to lie, when I first saw the complete schedule I thought “WHAT FANCY-SCHMANCY OBSCURITYFEST IS THIS,” but it really was a beautifully-curated selection, everything was worth seeing (even Mothers of Men…kind of 😉 ).

  4. Great write-up! 🙂

    Glad you enjoyed Shooting Stars. I recently reviewed it on my site as it got its first UK Blu-ray release. It’s a stunning British silent film and needs wider exposure among film fans.

  5. So enjoyed this, and wish I could have been there! I’m from Boston and recently wrote a couple of posts about the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra and their process. We are fortunate to have them premiere their scores for us and it’s so great to see the success they are having. They help bring new viewers to silent film!
    http://classicfilmobsessions.blogspot.com/2016/04/variete-berklee-silent-film-orchestra.html
    http://classicfilmobsessions.blogspot.com/2016/05/one-week-two-coasts-two-extraordinary.html

    • Hi Jocelyn, thanks for sharing! Long may the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra reign, was not kidding when I said I was shaking by the end of Variete! It took a little while to calm down. 😀

  6. Fantastic, Lea! I always look forward to hearing about your SFSFF adventures. You’ve given me some more film titles to investigate as well. Hopefully someday I can make a trip out there myself. Many thanks!

  7. Sounds like a blast. It’s ridiculous that I’ve never made it, living so close to SF (well, closer than you, at least), but somehow they always schedule it during Finals Week. Maybe next year I’ll work out a way to do my grading remotely!

    • Time to try out the challenge of seeing every single showing! 😀 It was really not as tough as I thought it would be, there’s those breaks in between and it’s nice that you can save your seat.

  8. Oh! You got to see Shooting Stars! That was the highlight of last year’s Cinevent for me. That last scene is absolutely devastating. You didn’t happen to see a DVD or Blu-ray copy lying around did you? I’ve been looking for it for a year.

  9. I have the recent German bluray of Variete, but have avoided watching it due to the absolutely dreadful music. But I so want to see it, so I might just play something else while it runs. You are so lucky to have seen it with some proper music!

    • It was just STUNNING, especially since it was live. Hopefully someday you will experience it–or any film, really–with the Berklee Orchestra. 🙂

  10. Lea!!!! This was amazing to read!!!!! i am so amazed you were able to watch all those movies, and only one did you have trouble keeping your eyes open! I am blown away you got to have dinner with Tracey Goessell and the other historians, I’m so envious, I am DEFINITELY making plans to go next year!

    Wow. All of your reviews were great! Gosh, I love this blog!!!!!! Thank you for sharing all this with us!

  11. Pingback: Obscure Films: “Behind The Door” (1919) | Silent-ology

  12. Pingback: Silent-ology Is Three Years Old Today! | Silent-ology

  13. Pingback: Lost Films: “In The Year 2014” (1914) | Silent-ology

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