Now that I’m home from California, here is my recap of this year’s fabulous festival! Fun fact: portions of this post were written while sitting at the bar of the Pig ‘N’ Whistle restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, next door to Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre…not an office I get to use every day!
Opening Night Presentation: Wednesday, May 30
I arrived in San Francisco in the mid-afternoon of May 30th, and after doing a bit of sight-seeing among those windy hills (but no cable car-riding–drat those eternal lines!) I took one of those historic streetcars down to the Castro theater. Ah, beautiful Castro theater, how I’ve missed thee. After missing the 2017 fest, it felt “right” to finally be back.
The 23rd San Francisco Silent Film Festival began with a tribute to the late Frank Buxton, who had a lengthy and busy career in TV, movies, and radio (he was a writer on Happy Days and directed episodes of Mork and Mindy, to name a few things). He had been an indispensable member of the festival board, and it was clear how much he was already missed.
Then the lights went down, the great curtains parted to reveal the screen–I do love that quiet, magical moment of anticipation–and the 5-day festival of beautiful restorations and the world’s finest live accompaniment had begun!
Showing #1: The Man Who Laughs (1928) starring Conrad Veidt, USA, 111 minutes — Based on a Victor Hugo novel set in the 18th century, this quasi-Expressionist melodrama centers around the tragic Gwynplaine, whose face was mutilated when he was a child so it would be permanently frozen in a wide grin. He works as a clown and is in love with a blind girl, Dea, but their future becomes uncertain when it’s discovered that Gwynplaine has royal blood.
My Verdict: This is one of the great melodramas of the silent era, and it was lovely seeing it given such a magnificent presentation. It was accompanied by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, whose work accompanying Variety (1925) had just floored me in the past and who did not disappoint. Oh, and everyone got a big kick out of the dog.
DAY 2: Thursday, May 31
Showing #2: Amazing Tales from the Archives presentation — It’s great to be updated on what’s going on in the film preservation world, so I’m always grateful for this (free!) morning program. This year, we had presentations by Martin Koerber from the Deutsche Kinemathek and Professor Cynthia Walk on the restoration of The Ancient Law (1923), a look at early Kinemacolor films presented by Davide Pozzi of L’Immagine Ritrovata, and then a presentation on the restoration of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1929) by Professor Russell Merritt, Elzbieta Wysocka of Filmoteka Narodowa, the SFSFF president Robert Byrne. Note to future silent film festival presenters–if you experience any technical difficulties with your slideshows or video clips, fear not–it happened several times at the 2018 festival, and it always turned out alright in the end!
Showing #3: Soft Shoes (1925), starring Harry Carey, USA, 62 minutes. Shown with short Detained (1921) — A sheriff of a small western town heads to San Francisco, where a female burglar attempts to rob him in his hotel room. He challenges her to give up crime, and she in turn challenges him to return an expensive broach to another room without being detected.
My Verdict: For a “minor” picture, it was delightful from start to finish–and everyone I talked to afterwards agreed. I hadn’t seen much of Harry Carey before, but if this is a typical example of a Carey flick then I’m all in. Donald Sosin accompanied the film, doing his usual fine work (he’s one of my favorite silent film accompanists).
Soft Shoes was preceded by the short Detained (1921), an early Stan Laurel short complete with recently rediscovered footage. It’s a typical silly short revolving around Stan being accidentally sent to jail, and it contains one gag that is just so plain stupid, and so ridiculously fake-looking (as in “the property guy was drunk” fake-looking), that I think I’m in love with it.
Showing #4: Master of the House (1925), directed by Carl Dreyer, Denmark, 107 minutes — A hardworking housewife meekly endures her grouchy husband’s constant put downs and complaints. An elderly neighbor decides it’s high time the husband learns a lesson.
My Verdict: This was one of my favorites of the entire festival, subtle and gently paced but also entertaining and compelling. I can think of few people who wouldn’t enjoy it. And it’s always interesting to see a non-Passion of Joan of Arc Dreyer film (as a major Passion fan, I like trying to spot any Passion -ish camera flourishes). Stephen Horne’s score was a perfect fit–have I mentioned what a treat it is to have all these talented musicians at one festival?
Showing #5: An Inn in Tokyo (1935), directed by Yasujirô Ozu, Japan, 80 minutes — An out-of-work father and his two young sons wander the industrial district of Tokyo, looking for ways they can continue to scrape by.
My Verdict: In my opinion it’s hard not to be impressed by the poetic Ozu, and this film was no exception. It was melancholic, but still had touches of humor, as well as many of those tiny details that Ozu’s so excellent at capturing. I loved how he filmed the industrial setting in a way that seemed bleakly beautiful. A+, and also A+ for Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius’s score.
#6: People on Sunday (1930), Germany, 73 minutes — A quasi-documentary following two young couples out on a lazy Sunday date in Weimar-era Berlin. For added realism, this was cast with non-actors.
My Verdict: This is one of the freshest and most intimate films you will see from pre-WWII Germany, no less fascinating because its story is so ordinary–and so relatable. The wonderful Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra played–some of my very favorite accompanists!
Showing #7: The Lighthouse Keepers (1929), directed by Jean Grémillon, 83 minutes — A father and his adult son become the caretakers of an isolated lighthouse by the coast of Brittany for a month. The son had suffered a bite from a rabid dog not long before, and tragically, he begins showing symptoms of the disease.
My Verdict: Since it was said to show the influence of German Expressionism, I was expecting Lighthouse Keepers to be a bit stylized but it turned out to have a high level of realism–dramatic realism, that is. The story takes a dark turn I won’t soon forget, heightened by disturbingly convincing acting by the actor who portrays the son. Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius heightened the eeriness with their moody score.
DAY 3: Friday, June 1
Showing #8: Good References (1920), starring Constance Talmadge, USA, 60 minutes — When the young, struggling Mary Wayne tries to seek work, she’s told that she can’t get a job without having good references. A loophole comes in the form of a sick friend who asks to Mary fill in for her new job as a wealthy woman’s secretary.
My Verdict: This was more of a minor film for Connie, decent but not as sassy as her other flicks. It was my favorite kind of silent film print, however–gratifyingly crisp and clear, with a nice sepia tone. And I did love all those period details! Donald Sosin was back with another fine piano score.
Showing #9: The Other Woman’s Story (1925), directed by B.F. Stanley, USA, 65 minutes — Colman Colby is arrested for a murder and taken to court. The “other woman” in the case is convinced he’s innocent and takes it upon herself to prove it.
My Verdict: This was a rather run-of-the-mill courtroom drama in my opinion, and the least memorable of today’s showings. The lead actress, Helen Lee Worthing, does have a fascinating backstory that’s worth looking up. Happily Stephen Horne returned to play a second time.
Showing #10: Silent Avant-garde presentation — For this early afternoon program we were shown a collection of the following shorts: Duchamp’s Anémic Cinéma (1924-26), Pas de deux (1924), a Slavko Vorkapich montage of four shorts (Skyline Dance, 1928; The Money Machine, 1929; Prohibition, 1929; and The Furies, 1934), the city symphony-esque A Bronx Morning (1931), comic piece The Life and Death of 9413, A Hollywood Extra (1927); Hände (1928); and 1931 footage taken by Sergei Eisenstein in Mexico. All were accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble.
My Verdict: While I’m very much the practical, easygoing Midwesterner, I do enjoy occasional doses of avant-garde films. I thought this was a well-curated selection, standouts being The Furies (with goth-looking female spirits rising from scenes of violence), the elegant Hände (where romance and conflict are acted out using only graceful male and female hands) and my favorite, A Bronx Morning (which called to mind city symphonies). The Matti Bye Ensemble matched each film with a fitting score, which were often meditative.
Showing #11: Rosita (1923), starring Mary Pickford and directed by Ernest Lubitsch, USA, 90 minutes — Mary plays a lively street singer whose performances on the streets of Seville help feed her poverty-stricken family. She comes up with a song mocking the king of Spain, and he decides to pay her a visit in disguise. Becoming captivated by the young woman, he decides to try and make her his mistress.
My Verdict: Rosita! We finally got to see Rosita!! And we all enjoyed it approximately 110 times more than Mary did herself. Honestly, I’m not sure why Mary thought this was such an awful film–maybe memories of clashing with Lubitsch soured the entire thing for her. At any rate, it was delightful, certainly one of her best “grown-up” roles and with beautiful costumes to boot. Sorry Mary, but we’re awfully glad Rosita survived. And we were also glad to hear the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra again–this was their second accompaniment of the festival.
Showing #12: Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness (1929), directed by Piel Jutzi, Germany, 133 minutes — Mother Krause lives in a poor Berlin tenement with her daughter, son, and a couple with one child. When her son starts using her meager earnings to fuel his alcoholism, she begins to succumb to despair.
My Verdict: I’m assuming the title was sarcastic, because this was quite the depressing movie. Skillfully filmed, though, with the type of mobile camerawork that reminded me of People on Sunday. Actress Ilse Trautschold was a standout, having a face that would look at home even in 2010s films. I admit that when the film was introduced and the word “masterpiece” was used no less than four times, I felt a bit leery. Having viewed it, I can agree that it was excellently made, but man it was long. Shorten it up, Piel Jutzi, and then maybe we’ll talk. (A shoutout to the showing’s talented musicians, Sascha Jacobsen and the Musical Art Quintet.)
Showing #13: Policeman (1933), directed by Tomu Uchida, Japan, 121 minutes — A cop reunites with a childhood friend who now gives off a shady vibe. When the cop’s mentor is killed not long after the meeting, he begins to put the puzzle pieces together.
My Verdict: Alright, I’ll admit it–this is the only showing I missed, since it started late, ran pretty long, and I was leery about travelling back to my hotel that late at night by myself. Looks like missing one showing may be my SFSFF tradition, folk! Apparently, Policeman was a very film noir-ish film. and Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius were the accompanists.
DAY 4: Saturday, June 2
Showing #14: No Man’s Gold (1926), starring Tom Mix, USA, 65 minutes — A man with a map to a hidden gold mine is attacked and mortally wounded. Courageous cowboy Mix promises to find the mine and give the gold to the man’s young son. Adventure ensues.
My Verdict: This was my first time seeing Mix on the big screen, and despite a rather flickery print it was good clean western fun–a refreshing way to start the day. Donald Sosin started us out with a singalong of his song “No Man’s Gold” that he composed just for the occasion–I have a feeling I’ll be humming it over the following days!
Showing #15: Mare Nostrum (1926), starring Alice Terry and Antonio Moreno, USA, 111 minutes. Introduced by Kevin Brownlow — Set during WWI, this drama involves the freighter the Mare Nostrum, references to the sea goddess Amphitrite, and a love affair with a Mata Hari-esque spy.
My Verdict: This was Kevin’s personal pick in honor of his 80th birthday–which was indeed on this date! The whole theater sang Happy Birthday to him before he introduced the screening, and I got choked up. The film itself, while rather shaky, does offer some interesting location shooting as well as artistic shots under the sea. The dramatic execution scene is excellently done. Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius were no doubt honored to provide their accompaniment to Kevin’s birthday movie.
Showing #16: Trappola (1922), starring Leda Gys, Italy, 52 minutes. Shown with short San Francisco, 1906 — The mischievous Leda lives in a convent boarding school where she likes to poke fun at her superiors; she eventually becomes a film star, where she’s very amused at the behavior of screen divas.
My Verdict: While the print was pretty choppy in the first quarter or so, this comedy was light and fastpaced, and the audience thought it was a hoot. We were again treated to the work of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. The San Francisco short that preceded it was fascinating, showing post-earthquake footage of Market Street taken just a few days after the disaster struck.
Showing #17: The Hound of the Baskervilles (1929), directed by Richard Oswald, Germany, 65 minutes — The last silent Sherlock Holmes film, this German work takes on the classic “Hound of the Baskervilles” story.
My Verdict: While it had its moments–especially the lighting and shots of the spooky moor–I found this version to be a bit of a letdown. Not only do we see much more of Watson than Sherlock, but this Sherlock wasn’t even particularly Sherlockian–he was more like the average, upbeat lead you’d see in a light comedy. And I can’t recall actually seeing him sleuth. Sherlock’s gotta sleuth, guys. He also got stuck underground at one point. I’ll stick with William Gillette, thanks.
Showing #18: The Saga of Gösta Berling (1924), starring Greta Garbo and Lars Hansen, Sweden, 200 minutes — The minister Gösta Berling is defrocked after his alcoholism is discovered. Trying to adjust to his new life, he goes through a series of love affairs.
My Verdict: So I’d seen Gösta Berling one previous time–and kind of fell asleep halfway through it. I may have considered it dull. But! I was open to having my mind changed by a fine showing on a big screen with a high-quality score. And you know what? It worked! I thoroughly enjoyed it, and might even add it to my DVD collection. Man, little did I know when I fell asleep that first time that I’d missed Lars Hanson runng through a real burning set and outracing a pack of wolves with Garbo in tow. (And by the way–can that Lars make a gesture!) The evocative score by the Matti Bye Ensemble played a big part in my conversion, I do declare.
DAY 5 (Final Day): Sunday, June 3
Showing #19: Serge Bromberg presentation — A selection of early silent shorts from Lobster Films–in freakin’ 3D! Yes, somewhere along the way someone discovered that if you had both the domestic and the international prints of a single Méliès film–which were recorded with two cameras simultaneously–that you could combine the images and turn them into 3D films. I don’t know who that someone was, but he deserves a medal of some sort. Included were Georges Méliès’s Robinson Crusoe (1902), The Oracle of Delphi (1903), The Infernal Cauldron, The Mysterious Retort (1906) and my favorite Méliès film, The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906). We also got to see a 3D Lumière Brothers remake of their famous train arrival film, and several stereoscopic films from the 1900s. Donald Sosin provided his inimitable piano music throughout.
My Verdict: Not only did I get to see the Infernal Carriage from my favorite Méliès short on that glorious big Castro screen, but I got to see it IN 3D (I kept the glasses). This, my friends, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Thank you so much, Serge!!
Showing #20: A Throw of Dice (1929), directed by Franz Osten, India, 74 minutes — Two kings are both in love with the same woman, and one also schemes to have both kingdoms all to himself.
My Verdict: This is a film I need on DVD–it’s simply one of the most gorgeous things I’ve ever seen. Silks, jewels, exotic animals, jungles, palaces, pageantry, romance, passion–every frame of this film was a Romanticist painting of a dream of old India. It was all so gorgeous that after awhile, I honestly forgot to pay attention to the story.
Showing #21: The Ancient Law (1923), directed by E.A. Dupont, Germany, 128 minutes — The son of a strict rabbi leaves home to become an actor. He becomes successful, but must make difficult choices between his career and his observance of his Jewish faith.
My Verdict: A touching story, and more than a little reminiscent of The Jazz Singer (probable inspiration?). Being a religious soul myself (albeit Catholic), I could empathize with Baruch’s emotional dilemma when he’s faced with having to choose between practicing his faith, or putting his career in jeopardy.
Showing #22: Fragment of an Empire (1929), directed by Fridrikh Ermler, USSR, 109 minutes — A shell-shocked former soldier of the Russian Army finally recovers enough to travel to Leningrad, and is confused by the changes that have taken place since the war’s end (such as modernist buildings and the obligatory massive statue of Lenin). He begins to slowly integrate into the new Soviet communist life.
My Verdict: Being a 1920s-era Soviet film, this was naturally a dose of blatant pro-communist propaganda (surprise, surprise). And naturally it was filmed magnificently, in that rapid, in-your-face Soviet style. There was one shot, a flashback scene showing a beam of light jutting across a black background lighting up the figure of a crawling solder, that was so stunning that I felt like time had stopped. Amazing cinematography–but I applauded for the musicians (Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius, whose score sounded like it was performed by ten people–magnificent!).
Showing #23: Battling Butler (1926), directed by and starring Buster Keaton, USA, 74 minutes — A milquetoast son from a wealthy family falls for a spunky “mountain girl.” After her manly father and brothers sneer at him, they’re told he’s actually Battling Butler, an aggressive prizefighter.
My Verdict: Now this is how you end a great film festival! Not only was it nice to see a lesser-known Keaton on the big screen, but it was also warmly introduced by the great Leonard Maltin. The theater was packed, and everyone had an absolute blast. No joke, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better audience at a silent comedy screening. It was enough to bring a tear to your eye.
Thus ended the 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival–how I’ll pine for it until next year! So what was my favorite showing, besides the Buster feature? (I mean, he’s always my favorite, obviously.) Hmm, probably Master of the House, with other favorites being Soft Shoes, Rosita, A Throw of Dice, The Saga of Gösta Berling (never thought I’d say that) and the Serge Bromberg presentation. 3D Méliès! 3D!!!
As you might guess, the festival was yet another beautiful experience, and all in the company of my good “film friends” and a few new ones. The finale was getting to say hi to Melissa Talmadge Cox and her mother Barbara (Buster Keaton’s granddaughter and daughter-in-law, respectively) who remembered me from the Keaton convention last fall. And as for the grand finale…well…
…I finally got to meet Kevin!!
WHO NEEDS THE REST OF THE BUCKET LIST.
Until next year, SFSFF!