Romance, Danger, Preservation and more at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Flesh and the Devil (1926)  Directed by Clarence Brown Shown: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert

Flesh and the Devil (1926)
Directed by Clarence Brown
Shown: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert

There’s something for everyone, from the silent film novice to the die-hard fan, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, celebrating its 20th Anniversary May 28 through Monday, June 1, 2015 at the historic Castro Theatre. As usual, the festival provides an impressive range of programming. Well known Hollywood fare is on offer, such as the silent version of Lewis Milestone’s critically acclaimed All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and Clarence Brown’s steamy Flesh and the Devil (1926), starring on and off screen lovers John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. But there are lesser known selections too, including Norrtullsligan, a 1923 Swedish comedy depicting four female office workers sharing an apartment as they make their way in the world. A format Hollywood would use repeatedly in the future, however, usually more darkly (most memorably in The Best of Everything).

This year, the festival has added another day of programming as well as a couple of new events. The New York’s Film Forum’s director of rep programming, Bruce Goldstein will host a trivia quiz called So You Think You Know Silents. Goldstein’s trivia quiz at the Turner Classic Movie film festival can only be described as fiendish, so expect gnashing of teeth from the contestants. The versatile Goldstein, along with the Gower Gluch Players, will provide musical accompaniment for Frank Capra’s The Donovan Affair (1929) later in the festival. For the first time, the SFSFF will present a live recreation of a lost soundtrack for a talkie. Besides providing music and sound effects, actors will dub dialog on the spot.

Beyond the careful programming and outstanding selection of accompanists, what makes the festival special is its focus on film preservation and restoration. Friday morning’s programming opens with a free event that provides a unique insight to that world, Amazing Tales of the Archives. Tales serves as a marvelous jumping off point for the festival. It’s a chance to learn of the effort and hard work behind preserving the world’s cinematic history and to sample the diversity of that history. The always entertaining Serge Bromberg is first on the bill. The preservationist, and founder of Lobster Films, will present Jacques Tourneur’s 1914 short Figures de cire (House of Wax) and share the 15 year saga of finding the film.

The following afternoon, Bromberg will receive the 2015 SFSFF Award after a screening of Visages de enfants (1925). The award is given to “organizations and individuals for to honor distinguished contributions to the preservation and restoration of silent-era movies.” Bromberg will also appear on stage in conversation with the legendary silent film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow prior to a screening of the newly restored Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925, Dir. Fred Niblo) which closes the festival. Previous SFSFF Award recipient Photoplay (Brownlow is one of its directors) and TCM restored the film. The film will be presented with a soundtrack scored by Carl Davis, probably the highest regarded silent film composer working today.

Playbill from William Gillette's stage production.

Playbill from William Gillette’s stage production of Sherlock Holmes.

Film restorer Robert Byrne will also take the stage during Tales to describe the technical, historical, and curatorial aspects of reconstructing and restoring Sherlock Holmes (1916), starring William Gillette. The SFSFF and the Cinémathèque Française joined forces to restore the film, presumed lost until a complete dupe negative was identified in the vaults of the Cinémathèque last year. The restored film will play on Sunday night. Gillette originated the role of Sherlock Holmes on stage and many of the traits we associate with Holmes today were created by the actor and not by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For example, Gillette originated the deer-stalker hat as Holmes’ preferred chapeau, so iconic that even Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern day Sherlock still feels compelled to wear at press conferences. Holmes fans should be ecstatic at the prospect of seeing what has been considered the definitive performance of the role for the first time in 100 years. The closest they’ve been able to come to it before, was Orson Welles’ recreation of Gillette’s play and performance on his anthology radio drama, The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

The British Film Institute’s senior curator of silent film, Bryony Dixon will also present at Tales. He will screen the BFI’s collection of footage documenting the 1915 torpedoing of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat. The sinking of the passenger ship immediately caused an international outcry and the incident was invoked repeatedly in ongoing effort to enlist the United Sates in the alliance against Germany during World War I. Cecil B. De Mille exploited the incident two years later, for both commercial and propaganda purposes, in his film The Little American (1917) starring Mary Pickford.

The festival recently announced an addition to the Tales line-up, “2015 marks 100 years since the birth of the Technicolor Corporation. In recognition of this centennial, Movette Film Transfer’s Jennifer Miko will offer a rare glimpse of a unique home movie shot on the grounds of La Cuesta Encantada, more commonly known as Hearst Castle. We will feast our eyes on a stunning tour–filmed in two-strip Tech–with the architect, Julia Morgan, and the Chief himself, W.R. Hearst.” Donald Sosin will provide the accompaniment for the entire program. Actor Paul McGann, best known for either Dr. Who or Withnail and I depending on the audience, will provide narration for the Lusitania footage. The program is co-presented by Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive and the National Film Preservation Foundation

Attending the SFSFF is like traveling back in time.  Attendees see silent film the way they were meant to be seen, on the big screen of a movie palace with live accompaniment and a companionable audience. Some of the festival goers even wear clothes from the 20s which adds to the period feeling. Learn more about this year’s festival and buy tickets at


TCM Classic Film Festival: Build Your Own Festival

March 26-29, Hollywood CA


The TCM Classic Film Festival had an amazingly intimate quality, despite screening over 80 films and presenting multiple special events in ten different venues. A number of factors contributed to this feeling. The event’s well-tuned organization and the helpful staff created a relaxed atmosphere. The audience’s mutual love of classic film brought a true sense of camaraderie to what can feel like wasted time, waiting in line or in the auditorium for a movie to start. Granted, the drunken woman next to me providing her own running commentary during The Invisible Man (1933) was a bit of a drag. Although the film’s director James Whale would probably have found her amusing and cast Una O’Connor to play her in a bit part in one of his droll pictures.

The programming’s depth and breadth, spanning both decades and a multitude of genres, allowed attendees to essentially program their own unique festival within the festival. Again this made the event an intensely personal experience; my two favorite films from the TCMFF reflected the diversity of the programming (and my own tastes in film). Friday morning, after attending the opening night screening of Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933) with the pleasant surprise of my heroine Cari Beauchamp introducing the classic Garbo picture, I settled down for a Universal Western, The Proud Rebel (1958). Presenter Eddie Muller, founder and president of the Film Noir Foundation, warned us, “You’re heartstrings are going to get a workout today.” Boy, did they ever.

proud rebel still

The father and son relationship isn’t always easy in The Proud Rebel.

In Michael Curtiz’s sensitively wrought film, a Confederate vet (Alan Ladd) wanders in the post-Civil War North, searching for a doctor who can cure his son (Ladd’s real life son David) of his trauma induced muteness. They are accompanied by a contender for the best dog to ever grace the big screen, their border collie Lance. The pair forms an unlikely alliance with a spinsterish farm owner (Olivia De Havilland) against a sheep farmer (Dean Jagger) and his two sons who are trying to force her off her land. They also begin to form a new family, beautifully expressed by cinematographer Ted D. McCord when he frames the three of them siting together at the dinner table with a single light source cozily enveloping them.

While gorgeously shot, the film had a patina of realism common to Universal’s Westerns illustrated in De Havilland’s remarkably plain look in the film, the depiction of the endless hard work involved in farming, and the barren trappings of the farmhouse.  The characterizations of the film, in both writing and acting, are subtle and complex which also contributes to the film’s veracity. These three work for their happiness, and when it is in endangered, reluctantly fight for it, allowing the audience some exciting action and suspense. In the pre-screening interview with the younger Ladd, he credited his truthful performance in part to the senior Ladd, “When you work with your father, he will keep you honest.”

The father and son relationship is also explored in another one of my festival favorites, John Power’s The Picture Show Man (1977).  The film is based on E. Lyle Penn’s memoir of his traveling days with his father. Outfitted in a horse-drawn wagon (with another border collie contending for the best dog in cinema award), Mr. Pym (John Meillon) and his son Freddie (Harold Hopkins) screen hand cranked films for the denizens of small towns scattered across an impressively vast, varied and beautiful Australian landscape. The pair’s picaresque adventures portray the familiar family drama of a son breaking out from his father’s shadow and the ups and down of the performers’ life on the road, as well as expressing a deep love of the cinema’s magic spell.

The film effectively captures the leisurely pace of travel in the late ‘20s by letting its own story unwind with the same pace. Each little adventure adds to the understanding of the characters and the changing times: The running battle with the old man’s protégé turned rival (Rod Taylor), romantic encounters, some joyous, some bittersweet, and the inevitable adaptations of the show for the audience’s changing tastes.  As the film progresses, so do the modes of travel and the motion picture business. By the end of the film, the wagon has been traded in for a motorized van. Their accompanist (John Ewart), accepting his job will be redundant with the “talkies”, invests his savings in a sound projector for the troupe. The son decides to marry and settle down away from the traveling life. He also wants to actualize his father’s much talked about dream of owning an independent cinema. The movies and the son have grown up together. The father still retains his affections for both as well as for his life as a traveling entertainer.

hand cranked film

The magic of the hand cranked projector.

TCM astutely presented Return of the Dream Machine: Hand-Cranked Films From 1902-1913 later the same day. It was exciting to experience films the way the audiences did in Picture Show Man. In a similarly smart piece of programming, the restored Harry Houdini silent film The Grim Game screened after a showing of the not strictly factual Hollywood biopic Houdini.  Both screenings were presented by two magicians, “the female Houdini” escape artist Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz who founded the Houdini Museum. During the former screening Dietrich performed an impressive straitjacket escape in less than four minutes. Impressive and fun.  While Michael Mortilla’s accompaniment was excellent for Return, conductor and composer Brane Živkovic’s score for Grim was a disappointment, full of repetitions and awkward silences.

The TCMFF delivered, on the whole, a faultless experience. A wide choice of classic films along with a plethora of interesting moderators and guests ensured that there truly was something for everyone. Best of all, it was the chance to see excellent films up on the big screen with an enthusiastic crowd—the way movies are meant to be seen. Films, while bigger than life, at their best reflect the human experience and allow audience members to connect with each other through them.