My Recap Of The 2019 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (And A Giveaway!)

It was almost too good to be true–a whole year flew by, and the festival was here again! After a busy day of travelling I made it to the Castro neighborhood on May 1 with time to spare (I highly recommend a kebab place just down the street from the theater. It gave me new life). Walking into the theater was like revisiting an old (and grand-looking) friend. And I couldn’t have been more ready for:

Opening Night Showing, Wednesday, May 1

Showing #1: The Cameraman (1928) starring Buster Keaton and Marceline Day, USA, 72 minutes. Accompanied by students of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music conducted by Timothy Brock — A shy tintype photographer falls for a secretary working at MGM’s newsreel department, and decides to become a newsreel cameraman himself to try and impress her.
My Verdict: What more can I add about this delightful, laugh-packed classic than to say that enjoying a pristine print of it with an appreciative audience and a perfect (PERFECT) score is an experience I’ll always treasure?

DAY 2: Thursday, May 2 (Which Was Also My Birthday!)

Wolf Song (1929)

Showing #2: Amazing Tales from the Archives presentation — Restorer Robert Byrne and researcher Thierry Lecointe discussed the secret treasures to be found in some of the most obscure cinema memorabilia ever: 1890s novelty flipbooks. These tiny treasures (I dream of finding something like that at an antique shop!) are sometimes the only record of frames from films that are lost–including some Melies films. Following this, head of Filmmuseum München Stefan Drössler discussed the career of troubled German director Robert Reinert, an important figure in Weimar cinema. Hisashi Okajima, director of the National Film Archive of Japan, talked about the miniscule survival rate of Japanese silents and early methods for making Japanese talkies. And lastly, Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum and founder of Rialto Pictures, gave a vividly-illustrated look at how “Silents Got No Respect” once talkies took off (my favorite presentation of the whole interesting lineup).

Showing #3: Wolf Song (1929) starring Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez, USA, 65 minutes. Accompanied by Philip Carli — Set during the 1840s, the film follows the adventurous Sam Lash who heads west and becomes a fur trapper. In Taos, he falls for the beautiful Lola, a girl from a wealthy Mexican family. They marry, but Sam grows conflicted with his love for Lola and his longing for more “travelin’.”|
My Verdict: With enough long closeups of lovemaking scenes to make Gilbert and Garbo say “Hey, that’s our racket,” Wolf Song is basically an excuse to gawk at two very beautiful people. And at this, I say “Huzzah!” This film is also famed for its bathing scene involving the splendid Mr. Cooper (subtle, Hollywoodland). Did I mention it was my birthday today?!

Showing #4: The Oyster Princess (1919) starring Ossi Oswalda, Germany, 60 minutes. Accompanied by Wayne Barker — An over-the-top comedy in four acts about the high-spirited daughter of a millionaire whose arranged marriage to a prince (of sorts) doesn’t go as planned.
My Verdict: This one I’d seen before–it sure looked nice on the big screen (silent era Lubitsch sure adored his contrasts–there’s rich blacks and crisp whites in every frame). Being somehow a broad satire and subtle and sophisticated at the same time, it “went over” really well with the audience. Spirited Ossi Oswalda is a lot of fun, too.

Showing #5: Earth (1930) directed by Aleksandr Dovzhenko, USSR, 79 minutes. Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble — Meant to portray the collectivization of Ukrainian farms as positively as possible, this propaganda film shows hardworking peasants clashing with the stubborn kulaks who distrust collectivization. The peasants’ lives are transformed after receiving a modern tractor.
My Verdict: I’ve always found Earth (and other Soviet propaganda films) quite fascinating, although it gives me the same kind of unease I get from Triumph of the Will. This one’s more complex than most, with lingering shots of ripe apples and fields of wheat that can lull us into complacent admiration. It would take a whole review to describe why I feel like Earth is still very much strong propaganda, however, for now I’ll just say it was a thought-provoking experience and worth studying on the big screen (the meditative score was lovely, although it could’ve used some bombast in places).

Showing #6: The Signal Tower (1924) starring Virginia Valli and Rockliffe Fellowes, USA, 84 minutes. Accompanied by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius — A signal towerman and his small family make a humble living along the Fort Bragg railroad line. Their idyllic life is interrupted when a fellow railroad worker decides to try and seduce the wife.
My Verdict: Kevin Brownlow introduced this film, and Kevin of course has impeccable taste. The film climaxes with a sequence involving a runaway train, with a couple stunt shots The General would be proud of.

Showing #7: Opium (1919) starring Eduard von Winterstein and Conrad Veidt, Germany, 91 minutes. Accompanied by Guenter Buchwald — A professor studying the hallucinatory effects of opium finds himself being dangerously drawn to the drug himself.
My Verdict: This is one of those early silents that make you kind of get why Fractured Flickers existed. It’s hamfisted, a little preachy, and poor Conrad Veidt is clearly giving far too much of his all. There’s also a demon with a huge silly grin meant to symbolize “opium,” who frolics around some unfortunate nymphs who are just trying to dance. Oh, dash it all, how can I not recommend it?!

DAY 3: Friday, May 3

Rapsodia Satanica (1917)

Showing #8: You Never Know Women (1926) starring Florence Vidor and Lowell Sherman, USA, 72 minutes. Accompanied by Philip Carli — An uneasy love triangle disrupts a close knit Russian circus troupe that’s performing in the U.S. Drama ensues.
My Verdict: Wow!! This was one of my favorites of the festival, one of those strong character-driven dramas with fluid camerawork that calls to mind thegreats like Laugh Clown, Laugh. It also features Lowell Sherman at his slimiest, always a memorable sight. It’s well worth adding to your collections. It’s a pity the Oscars weren’t around yet, because El Brendel deserved a Supporting Actor award for sure.

Showing #9: Tonka of the Gallows (1930) starring Ita Rina, Czechoslovakia, 83 minutes. Accompanied by Stephen Horne — A country girl becomes a prostitute in Prague. Feeling compassion for a condemned man, she spends a (chaste) night with him before he’s hanged, an act which turns her into a pariah.
My Verdict: I wasn’t really looking forward to this at first, because it was supposed to be a very depressing film. And, well, it was a very depressing film. But how tragically beautiful and haunting it was, too, in the way that only the finest silent films can be–horrified gasps and all. Highly recommended, but don’t forget your tissue box (I forgot mine).

Showing #10: Husbands and Lovers (1924) starring Lewis Stone and Florence Vidor, USA, 93 minutes. Accompanied by Philip Carli — After being reproached by her husband for being too frumpy, Grace Livingston decides to give herself a flapper makeover. The new look catches the eye of the husband’s friend Rex.
My Verdict: This was one of those “husbands vs. wives” dramas where the guy keeps getting after his poor, picked-on wife. It was a decent flick, although a little run-of-the-mill. It was interesting to see Lewis Stone in a non-Andy Hardy movie role–especially the inebriated scene, since after all, I’d never seen Judge Hardy get drunk before!

Showing #11: Rapsodia Satanica (1917) starring Lyda Borelli, Italy, 70 minutes. Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra — An aging countess makes a deal with the devil to have her youthful beauty restored–but at the price of never being able to fall in love.
My Verdict: Another favorite of mine from the festival. The “Italian diva” acting was as over the top as you’ve always dreamed, but in a delightfully theatrical way, helped by the Faust-like story and hand-tinting (yes, a 1910s feature with hand-tinting!). It looked simply beautiful, definitely the sort of rare film I hope to see at this kind of festival.

Showing #12: The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927) starring Édith Jéhanne and Uno Henning, Germany, 105 minutes. Accompanied by the Geunter Buchwald Ensemble — In post-revolutionary Russia, Jeanne Ney’s father is killed after he receives a list of Bolshevik agents. She decides to flee to Paris, especially after seeing the list includes the name of her lover.
My Verdict: If you like tales of secret agents, financial paperwork drama and stolen jewels, you’ll–well, enjoy this film a bit more than I did. Films with those kinds of themes don’t quite “send” me, but I’m sure other festival attendees would disagree. It was a solid artistic drama, but not a fave of mine.

Showing #13: West of Zanzibar (1928) starring Lon Chaney, USA, 65 minutes. Accompanied by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius — When Phroso the Magician’s wife Anna leaves him for ivory merchant Crane, he has a violent confrontation with Crane and ends up paralyzed from the waist down. After Anna dies, Phroso kidnaps the baby she had with his rival and raises her in remote Africa, where he concocts a horrific revenge plan.
My Verdict: Tod Browning + Lon Chaney + bizarre exploitation + bizarre plot + horror = One Memorable Evening.

DAY 4: Saturday, May 4

Lights of Old Broadway (1925)

Showing #14: Lights of Old Broadway (1925) starring Marion Davies, USA, 73 minutes. Accompanied by Philip Carli — Marion Davies plays twins who were separated at birth; one is raised in a fancy New York neighborhood, the other in an Irish slum in the Lower East Side. They witness all the excitement and drama around the herald of Broadway’s first electric lights.
My Verdict: It might seem like a strange choice for a period film, but the installation of electric lights was a gamechanger for New York back in the mid-19th century. With a little creativity, it made for an engaging film. Much care was clearly taken with the historic costumes and setting, which I appreciated. Radiant Marion Davies was a treat to watch, as usual, and there’s enough Irish references to please even my very Irish relatives.

Showing #15: Hell Bent (1918) starring Harry Carey, USA, 75 minutes. Accompanied by Philip Carli — A “good bad man” sort of cowboy goes to rescue a woman from an outlaw gang, and is then faced with journeying across a desert without any hope of finding water.
My Verdict: Usually when I watch silent westerns, it’s a Tom Mix or Bill Hart flick, so I liked seeing Harry Carey in a “tough guy” role (and it was nice to see him again after last year’s Soft Shoes). While Hell Bent is a pretty standard western it did have the memorable sequence of the journey across the desert, where all I could think was how unbearably hot long shirts, pants, and tall leather boots would be! This film was preceded by the adorable short Brownie’s Little Venus (1921), starring Baby Peggy and the amazingly well-trained Brownie the Wonder Dog.

Showing #16: Goona Goona (1932) directed by André Roosevelt and Armand Denis, Bali, 65 minutes. Accompanied by the Club Foot Orchestra and Gamelan Sekar Jaya— Set in Bali and acted by locals, the film retells a Balinese legend of a prince who returns home from abroad and falls for a girl who’s already engaged to another man.
My Verdict: Part tragic drama and part travelogue, this film definitely piqued my interest about visiting Bali. The strong story kept it from seeming exploitative in my opinion (since the women’s traditional garb tended to be topless) and the music was incredible–as Balinese musicians played on screen, the Balinese orchestra in the theater was playing the same traditional instruments. A grand experience.

Showing #17: L’Homme du Large (1920) directed by Marcel L’Herbier, France, 75 minutes. Accompanied by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius, with title card narration by Paul McGann — A father with a deep devotion to both God and the sea hopes his son will inherit that same passion. Unfortunately, his son turns out to be lazy and vice-ridden. After a tragic event, the father decides to take a vow of silence.
My Verdict: I still haven’t forgiven Marcel L’Herbier for his cool-looking but atrocious L’Inhumaine, but this poetic film was a whole different ballgame. Infused with symbolism and a number of beautiful title cards and creatively-shaped iris shots, it was a piece of art that kept me thinking long after it ended. It was also great to see the youthful Charles Boyer in his debut role.

Showing #18: The Wedding March (1928) starring Erich von Stroheim and Fay Wray, USA, 116 minutes. Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra — In Vienna, a young, bourgeois woman falls for an aristocratic military officer. When his family insists that he marry an heiress instead, she tries to resign herself to marrying the ill-mannered butcher who keeps pursuing her.
My Verdict: All those apple blossoms sure looked beautiful on the big screen, as did the two-strip Technicolor sequence! The film was introduced by Fay Wray’s daughter, who told a touching story about her mother’s appearance at the festival in 2000. There was a big laugh and applause at the film’s opening credits, which proclaimed: “In its entirety an ERICH VON STROHEIM Creation.” (Because of course it did!) I must say, it was good to get another “major silent classic in the theater” experience under my belt.

Showing #19: L’Inferno (1911) directed by Francesco Bertolini, Adolf Padovan, and Guiseppe de Liguoro, Italy, 66 minutes. Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble, with title card narration by Paul McGann — A very early feature length version of Dante’s famous poem, complete with tinting and special effects.
My Verdict: While Dante’s Inferno isn’t exactly cinematic the way, say, a Dickens story is (to put it mildly), Italy gave it its best shot. I never thought I’d see that bizarre imagery in a theater, with a contemplative live score no less! The audience didn’t seem to mind the slow pace (after all, it’s over a century old!) and there were surprised gasps during the most ambitious special effects scene, involving souls swirling through the sky.

DAY 5: Sunday, May 5

Our Hospitality (1923)

Showing #20: Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933) directed by Hiroshi Shimizu, Japan, 77 minutes. Accompanied by Guenter Buchwald and Sascha Jacobsen — In the port town on Yokohama, Jealous Sunako commits a crime which leads to her parting ways with her close friend Dora and eventually working as a prostitute.
My Verdict:  An atmospheric and graceful film by the little-known Shimizu, who might remind you a bit of the venerable Ozu. Recurring images of opening and closing doors intrigued me–they were like subtle bookends to each scene. A clean, stylish work I wouldn’t mind revisiting.

Showing #21: The Home Maker (1925) starring Alice Joyce, Clive Brook, and Billy Kent Schaefer, USA, 85 minutes. Accompanied by Stephen Horne — A family of five is struggling to get by; the mother is unhappy doing the repetitive housework, and the father is denied a much-needed promotion at his middling job. The father makes a tragic decision, which in the end turns out to have unexpected blessings.
My Verdict: Kevin introduced this film as well, and man, he has great taste. This was my favorite of the festival, hands down. I adore those silents with intimate stories of “regular folks,” and The Home Maker is a perfect example. It was heart-tugging, full of endearing little details, showcased charming acting (especially by little Billy), and had a genuinely absorbing story with some surprising twists. It was also nice to see a positive, complex portrayal of a father, and the tender scenes between him and his son. A+ all around, even if it ran a bit long. I don’t care.

Showing #22: Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928) directed by Franz Osten, India, 106 minutes. Accompanied by Utsav Lal — A dramatized version of the tale behind the building of the Taj Mahal, filmed on location with an all-Indian cast.
My Verdict: Having loved A Throw of Dice from last year’s festival, I was happy to see another entry in Osten’s trilogy of India-set films. This one was also a feast for the eyes (although really, little could top the former movie), and ended with grand shots of the Taj Mahal filling the screen. (I dream of gazing at that building with my own eyes, one day!) The accompanist was a young pianist making his festival debut–he was incredible, you’d think he’d been accompanying silents for decades!

Showing #23: Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919) directed by Mauritz Stiller, Sweden, 106 minutes. Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble — This Swedish drama follows three mercenaries who escape from prison. Travelling through the harsh winter landscape, they end up at Sir Arne’s mansion where they loot his treasure, murder most of the family and burn the house. One of the mercenaries, Sir Archie, becomes romantically involved with Arne’s surviving daughter Elsalill.
My Verdict: Now that’s not a romantic plot you see every day. The print was excellent–at times I found myself drifting away from the story, admiring all the rustic details and period-accurate costumes, as well as the shots of real winter blizzards. The set/costume designers sure knew their stuff.

Showing #24: Our Hospitality (1923) starring Buster Keaton and Natalie Talmadge, USA, 65 minutes. Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra — Set in the 1840s, a young man heading to the South to claim an inheritance meets a lovely young woman on the train. Little does he know that her family is involved with a Hatfields-and-McCoy-style drama with his own.
My Verdict: Obviously I love this classic already, and so did the enthusiastic audience. A crisp new restoration, a magnificent orchestra, a packed theater, a happy crowd–could there be a better way to end this event?

And with that, the magnificent festival came to a close. I’m proud to announce that for the very first time, I saw every. Single. Showing. ALL OF THEM. I’ll have to design a medal of some sort! My favorites (aside from the Buster films–come now, you know those are always my favorite!) were first and foremost The Home Maker, followed by Rapsodia Satanica, Wolf Song, Tonka of the Gallows, and You Never Know Women. All would sure look nice in my silent film collection.

Image result for the home maker 1925

Thank you for the recommendation, Kevin!

And now I have another treat for you guys, thanks to a great idea by my friend Beth Ann over at Spellbound by Movies. I have an extra SFSFF 2019 program book to give away to one lucky reader! This keepsake is full of informative essays on each film by many of our best film writers, as well as beautiful photos. Just leave me a comment below and I’ll put your name in the drawing, to be held next week!

SFSFF 2019 book

My own copy–yours will be a little more pristine, by the way.

Good luck! I’m going to start figuring out what to do with myself until year’s festival. 😉

31 thoughts on “My Recap Of The 2019 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (And A Giveaway!)

  1. OMG! How did you not let us know it was your birthday? I feel bad. I think you did mention it in your fest preview but somehow this escaped me. Hard to believe but the whole fest can be overwhelming. I had a bLAsT hanging with you. At least we ended the fest at Orphan Andy’s with several of the Balcony Club in attendance…I have a cute pic of you & Isabella with your milkshakes. How could you forget to mention that Nicola Lubitsch (80 yrs old) was in the audience for the screening of her Dad’s film Die Austernprinzessin (1919)? That was such a beautiful surprise! I still have an unforgettable image from Earth in my mind. The solitary figure descending down a path & then breaking into dance. The Matti Bye Ensemble score was hypnotic. This screening totally surprised me in being one of the highlights of the fest for me~propaganda & all… I was so emotionally invested. You Never Know Women (1926) was introduced by famed director William A.”Wild Bill” Wellman’s son ~another luminary treat! Rapsodia Satanica (1917) with Lyda Borelli was simply divine. I am obsessed with these divas. I was fascinated with lead actress Édith Jéhanne in Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney. I thought there was some beautiful images, especially the ones set in Paris.There were so many silent film highlights to mention. The films were all new to me. This is such a unique festival, making the cross-country journey to attend, as you know, so worthwhile. We will have to come up with some kind of medal to honour our 100 % attendance at all of the film screenings. I managed to not fall asleep during any of them too! This can be easy to do with the lulling scores & womb-like comfort of The Castro Theatre!
    So long until next year if not sooner. Best regards.

    • The Balcony Club–the most exclusive and coolest club at the festival! 😉

      Next I might have to bring my tablet into the theater just so I don’t forget anything. 😀 20+ showings = a ton to remember, that’s for sure.

      Here’s to next year! Fingers crossed I’ll run into you on the balcony again!

  2. I really wanted to attend this festival! This year! Especially since I love Lon Chaney and wanted to see that film “West of Zanzibar” on the big screen. Also, ‘The Wedding March’ would have been nice to see on a big screen. I am going to do my best to go next year. Thanks for the great reviews of the films. Sounds like a wonderful time!

    • Congrats, Jim! You won the drawing for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival program. 🙂 If you’d like to contact me through the form on my “About Silent-ology” page above, you can send me your address and I’ll get it in the mail in the next couple days.

  3. Each photo you used for each of these films is breathtakingly beautiful. I really do think that aside from the eye boggling Technicolor films of the 1950s, NOTHING compares to the visual beauty of black and white images.
    It is bittersweet to realize that Buster Keaton will never ever be overlooked again; his films dominate so many silent festivals, and rightly so. Still, I treasure the feelings that I had when I “discovered” him for myself in the early 1980s and felt that he belonged to only me!! 😂😂😂 But that is the magic that happens when you see your first silent film in a little town that never had a theatre to call its own. It was a phenomenal experience, not at a film festival, but with my eyes inches away from a living room tv watching Elwy Yost (the host with the most) on “Saturday Night at the Movies” introduce a film by “one of the world’s truly great silent comedians”. Thank you for sharing the magic.

    • You’re welcome– thanks for sharing your memories!

      Aren’t they lovely stills? They’re all courtesy of the SFSFF–it was hard to choose which ones to use.

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience. I would think all of that cinematic art at once could be rather overwhelming!! Just to see a silent on the big screen is such a treat! Enjoyed your reviews since a lot of these films are new to me. And Happy Belated Birthday!

  5. My goodness, what a feast! So many fascinating things…

    Getting to experience all those films in a theater with live scores must really be something. And Philip Carli…wow. I’ve admired his scores for so long. He’s really top notch. And Kevin Brownlow in person…

    There are so many of the films here I would really like to see. The Oyster Princess, Opium, The Home Maker would be at the top of the list, I believe.

    I’m quite interested in those flipbooks. I didn’t know of their existence. Are any of them accessible anywhere, I wonder? And Goldstein lecture also sounds quite interesting.

    Thanks for a *most* interesting roundup for those of us who couldn’t be there. When they do a silent film festival, they do it right, don’t they?

    • And how! It was a magical experience, about as escapist as you can get. I’m not sure if digital versions of this flip books are available anywhere, they seemed to be quite rare. But that could change!

  6. Would have loved to have been there, seeing these great films on the big screen – a copy of the program would be a great consolation.

  7. Oh my gosh, this sounds AMAZING…..I loved this review as much as I did last years!!!! WOW.

    You have amazing stamina!!! No eye strain?!! I’m extremely impressed at the sheer volume of movies you were able to take in!

    Your reviews are invaluable and exquisitely, succinctly rendered, thank you SO MUCH!

    PS: God bless Kevin Brownlow! I never even heard of those films!

    • Yup, eyestrain has never been a problem, although it helps to be able to leave the theater between films (with the pass). Keeps the muscles from getting stiff. 😀

      Oh, Kevin– when I see him my eyes get misty! Such a great man.

  8. I’m fascinated by the thought of a film with a 21 year old Charles Boyer in it. Would love to see that sometime. When I was a youngster, he lived just a few miles away from me in Scottsdale. AZ. We used to see him occasionally in local restaurants. I knew he was a celebrity (we had a lot of them in those days), but at that point, I hadn’t seen any of his films.

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