By Gary Meyer
3000 cream pies, scandalous behavior, Japanese gangsters, a love triangle on the trapeze, courtroom hilarity, a barbarous crew of submariners, a behind-the-scenes look at moviemaking with comedy and suspense, an unexpected drama of race relations in the early 20th Century with Michael Morgan conducting members of the Oakland Symphony and Chorus, amazing color experiments, cross-dressing comedies, Inuit survival tales, Death robbing a young woman of her bridegroom, and Douglas Fairbanks before swashbuckling!
Can one weekend fit in all this and more? Absolutely, when it is being presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival with its passionate staff led by Stacey Wisnia, Anita Monga and Lucy Laird at the helm.
For the Festival’s 21st year film lovers from around the world will gather to experience “silent movies” as they were intended. At the risk of sounding like a broken Vitaphone disc I urge those of you who have never seen a “silent” movie with live musical accompaniment to plan to be at the Castro Theatre for at least one performance. You will no doubt want to return to this movie palace and bring family and friends as it can be addictive. The Festival brings in an international collection of some of the world’s most creative musicians.
Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation estimates that over 90% of films made before 1929 are lost forever. But each year films thought to be forever gone are found and restored. This year’s Festival is rich with such rediscoveries.
One of last year’s surprise hits was the rediscovered Sherlock Holmes. The Festival sponsored Rob Byrne doing the restoration from materials found by the Cinémathèque Française and commissioned Donald Sosin to create a score. The sold out show was a smash success. As a result Sosin has been commissioned by the Odessa International Film Festival to expand that 4-musician score for a 45-piece orchestra. The premiere is July 16, 2016 on the famous Potemkin Stairs in Odessa, the “Black Sea Pearl,” in Ukraine. (To learn more and help with funding visit here.)
While I have seen several of the films in this year’s event, rarely have they been properly projected and with such varied and wonderful music. Which of this year’s many unknowns will be 2016’s surprise hits? Many I suspect and I hope you will join me to make these discoveries together.
One that already has generated considerable publicity is Laurel and Hardy’s hilarious Battle of the Century. This is the one where the boys are in the midst of the largest pie fight ever staged. Seven minutes of the 20-minute short had been missing for nearly 60 years. That is until Bay Area scientist, musician and film collector Jon Mirsalis found the missing footage in a collection he acquired. Working with Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films in Paris, the film is now ready to create waves of laughter. I saw it at the Turner Classic Movies Festival in April and can attest to the power of an audience watching this comedy.
EatDrinkFilms is co-presenting the program featuring Battle of the Century with three other Lobster restorations: Buster Keaton in Cops and The Balloonatic, plus one of the strangest comedies you have ever seen, The Dancing Pig.
Be prepared to start off your Saturday with laughter at 10am. And bring the kids. Jon Mirsalis will introduce and accompany the films. More info.
(Dates, times, film descriptions and advance purchase information will be linked to film titles below. Our comments are in chronological order of each program’s screening during the festival.)
Friday, June 3
Hear stories and see clips from film detectives who are unearthing these finds to share with the world at “Amazing Tales From the Archives” and get a peek behind-the-curtain of the unexpected discoveries they make. Free Admission on Friday morning at 10am.
The silent star Pola Negri loved spoofing her star image in the saucy A Woman of the World. She plays a European countess who scandalizes her Midwestern American relatives with her drinking, flirting, and…her tattoo. Donald Sosin is back in San Francisco to accompany on the piano with is always playful style.
The great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu offers a noirish crime film that becomes a family drama with That Night’s Wife as a man commits a shocking robbery out of desperation to provide for his family. Dutch composer and pianist Maud Nelissen makes her San Francisco debut. I have heard her superb piano playing in Telluride, Berlin and Los Angeles. It is sensitive, subtle and full of emotion.
The versatile Mont Alto Picture Orchestra returns to accompany Mothers of Men or Every Woman’s Problem made two years before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote. This melodrama predicts a future when a judge becomes the first female governor and must make a difficult stay-of-execution decision as her husband is accused of a murder even though he claims to be innocent.
Filmed Santa Cruz and the Bay Area this film was restored by a partnership of the British Film Institute and the Festival under the guidance of Coppola’s American Zoetrope archivist James Mockoski for whom it has been a 20-year project. Santa Cruz was his hometown and the film offers a rare opportunity to see what the city looked like in 1917 while offering a timely story for this election season.
Varieté (aka Variety) may be the most famous drama in the Festival but E.A. Dupont’s sexually charged triangle among trapeze artists has not been seen with such stunning clarity plus expressive color tints and tones in the United States. Starring Emil Jannings and Lya de Putti, the once popular repertory cinema staple is rarely revived but this showing could change all of that. Cinematographer Karl Freund takes us high in the big tent with dizzying camera work that provides a sense of swinging on the bars, accomplished by actually strapping a camera to them.
After last year’s stunning success with The Last Laugh, The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra of Boston makes their second Bay Area appearance. Sheldon Mirowitz discusses working with the student orchestra to create their scores.
Ending the evening is the rousing suspense tale Behind the Door. During World War I Oscar Klug becomes captain of a ship, and his wife Alice stows away with him. They are brutally attacked by a German submarine. Its Captain (played by Wallace Beery) kidnaps Alice, and Oscar seeks his revenge in a reportedly shocking ending. Stephen Horne, resident accompanist at the British Film Institute often augments his piano scores with other instruments he plays simultaneously.
Saturday, June 4
When an itinerant sailor meets Ingeborg he is offered a job with her father, the skipper of the Arctic ship “Viking.” He and a mate compete for the affections of the beautiful girl while battling the elements in a stunningly filmed hunt for seals and polar bears. Appropriately, The Matti Bye Ensemble from Sweden accompanies the film. Bye is the Swedish Film Institute’s resident silent-movie pianist whose ensemble often incorporates the glockenspiel, violin, musical saw and other percussion instruments.
The mood lightens when comedy and suspense mix in Shooting Stars, a behind-the-scenes look at moviemaking with plot twists and an expressionist visual style. The first film directed by Anthony Asquith (A Cottage on Dartmoor, Pygmalion, The Importance of Being Earnest).
For the recent world premiere of this restoration, The British Film Institute offered an intriguing synopsis.
“Annette Benson and Brian Aherne play two mismatched, married stars, with Donald Calthrop (Andy Wilkes) as a Chaplin-esque star at the same studio, with whom Mae becomes romantically involved. Chili Bouchier, Britain’s first sex symbol of the silent era, plays a key role as an actress/bathing beauty, an attractive foil to the comic antics of the comedian. The film manages to operate as both a modern morality tale and a critique of the film industry and a celebration of its possibilities.”
Stephen Horne accompanies.
This week Slate posted a valuable survey of “The 50 Greatest Films by Black Directors” that includes the Oscar Micheaux drama Within Our Gates. Slate writes “If we lived in a truly just world, Within Our Gates would have snuffed out the racist influence of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation early on, saving us from years of harmful stereotypes (and the revival of the KKK). We don’t, and it didn’t—but Oscar Micheaux’s cinematic challenge to the celebrated white filmmaker has earned its own place in history as agitprop at its most necessary. Through its mixed-race protagonist Sylvia (Evelyn Preer), the film starkly portrays lynching and the attempted rape of a black woman by a white man at a time when such crimes were everyday fears for black people. It is daring, dangerous filmmaking, and a must-see for anyone attempting to unpack the history of racial conflict in America.”
This rare opportunity to see it becomes essential with the premiere of a new score for strings and voice by acclaimed composer Adolphus Hailstork, performed by Oakland Symphony musicians and members of the Oakland Symphony Chorus, conducted by Michael Morgan.
Another well-known but rarely screened classic is René Clair’s The Italian Straw Hat. A SFSFF restoration project, I expect the audience to have a rousing good time. Dave Kehr wrote in The New York Times, “Made in 1927, as the silent era was drawing to a close, the film is a highly kinetic farce that contains some residual surrealist elements, including a fantasy sequence with sinister men in silk hats, a bed that scoots around by itself, and a general delight in that favorite surrealist trope, furniture being flung out of windows. But this is an audience-friendly film, not meant to scandalize and provoke but to comfort and amuse while evoking a warm nostalgia for a recent past.” With live musical accompaniment by the Guenter Buchwald Ensemble. The group’s leader has been acclaimed as a virtuoso improviser but also has a repertoire of more than three thousand scores that he has played at major festivals around the globe.
The jam-packed day concludes with a murder mystery set in an off-Broadway theater. The Last Warning was the final film of a series of thrillers (The Cat and the Canary, Waxworks, The Man Who Laughs) directed by German Expressionist director Paul Leni, who died in Hollywood shortly after finishing this movie starring Laura LaPlante. His films set the course for Universal’s classic horror film of the 1930s. This restoration is the start of a major initiative by the studio to bring back some of the riches in their vaults. The Last Warning will be accompanied by festival favorite Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius, a versatile percussionist who performs for dance and theater companies, with his own jazz bands and for silent films.
Sunday, June 5
I love short films–the more surprising the more satisfying. Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema is certain to offer plenty of satisfaction. Last year a stunning book was published, inspiring this program of early color films, long before Technicolor. Hand painting, dyeing and stencil coloring brought these magical mini masterpieces to life.
See our companion article reprinting the book’s foreword by Martin Scorsese plus photos and video. Donald Sosin with a musical sense of humor that assures us the musician will have fun playing multiple instruments for this show. And it is a very family friendly show.
Thomas Gladysz writes that Hal Roach’s What’s the World Coming To? (1926) “takes place in a future ‘one hundred years from now—when men have become more like women and women more like men.’ The film opens with the ‘blushing groom’ approaching the altar where his tuxedoed bride awaits.”
Gladysz describes the basic plot of Lubitsch’s 1918 German comedy: “a high-spirited teenage tomboy (played by German film star Ossi Oswalda) longs for the freedom to smoke and drink and carouse just like a man. As a result, she has herself fitted for a tuxedo. Trouble ensues.”
In an article for Senses of Cinema Michael Keller writes: “I Don’t Want to be a Man! is a fable of sexual inequality, sexual representation and sexuality itself. Ossi is aware of the limitations of being a young woman, but it is only as a male that she realises the strictures society also places on men. Social convention forces her to not express pain, and stand up for women on public transport. She also discovers that male attire is as complicated as that worn by women.”
When I was a young teenager my parents gave me the hayloft of our barn in rural Napa. I turned it into The Above-The-Ground Theater and showed nearly 100 silent films (using the family record collection to prepare music to accompany each movie). The very first feature was Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. Ostensibly a documentary, later research revealed that much of it was staged, creating a mixture of ethnographic and fictional story following an Inuit family’s survival in the Canadian Arctic.
Roger Ebert wrote a beautiful essay concluding, “Nanook of the North stands alone in its stark regard for the courage and ingenuity of its heroes. Nanook is one of the most vital and unforgettable human beings ever recorded on film.”
The Matti Bye Ensemble will accompany.
Another early discovery for me was Fritz Lang; I showed his Metropolis that first year. Spies, Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler and both parts of Die Nibelungen followed. Since then I have been able to see most of his films from both prewar Germany and Hollywood careers and even met Lang. I finally saw Destiny on video some years ago. I was impressed but knew this was another movie that demanded to be seen on the big screen. This past February my dream came true when the Berlin Film Festival screened a stunning restoration that involved many archives cooperating to make it a reality worth the wait. The visual and narrative storytelling will leave you breathless.
The Berlin program note: “Death robs a newly-married woman of her bridegroom. Having decided to kill herself, she, too, comes under his spell. But Death cannot fulfill her wish to save her beloved’s life unless she succeeds in saving the lives of three other people. That quest leads the young woman to a Persian court, the Venetian carnival and to China… Fritz Lang smelts Wilhelm Hauff with Karl May in this romantic fairy tale and adventure story in one, a film aimed at overwhelming audiences with its visuals. The restored version illuminates the elaborate crowd scenes, special effects and exotic backdrops on the screen in contemporary colours, so that the “Golden Unicorn” pub, for example, is a cozy gold-orange, and the “burning heat of jealousy” blazes red.”
Musical accompaniment by the Stephen Horne Ensemble.
The only director with two films in this year’s Festival is René Clair.
Les Deux Timides was his last silent and possibly his least known comedy. I look forward to seeing this classic farce. A wife-beating bully wants to date a young woman and her father is afraid to keep him away while a young lawyer is too timid to ask for the daughter’s hand. Courtroom and drawing room humor make this look promising. Musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Picture Orchestra.
The Festival ends with another comedy, When the Clouds Roll By starring a young Douglas Fairbanks in 1918 (long before the action adventure movies that made him a superstar). Directed by Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind) Fairbanks is playboy Daniel Boone Brown carousing and on the prowl in New York City. He has no worries until he finds himself unexpectedly subjected to a sadistic psychiatrist’s experiments. Using hypnosis the madman makes Daniel believes he has lost his mind —until he meets the beautiful Lucette.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival offers a website rich in information about the films, musicians and their projects.
They publish a 120-page book offering fascinating articles. Throughout the year that I find myself returning to it often. It is included with your admission and has a handy Festival schedule on page two.
The Mezzanine lobby features books, posters, gifts and videos begging to be taken home and they are hard to resist. Many items are hard-to-find elsewhere. A parade of authors will be doing book-signings. See the schedule.
The complete Festival schedule and how to buy tickets can be found here. Be adventurous and you will be rewarded with many cinematic riches.
Last year food and film writer Meredith Brody provided our readers with several dining options near the Castro. She reports that they are still favorites here.
Links in our articles generally take you to in-depth articles and/or images not included in our article. After reading stories like the one above, we urge you to go back and go deeper.