By Gary Meyer
I have attended dozens of film festivals from the biggies like Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Venice, SXSW and Sundance to more intimate gatherings of movies and their makers from Telluride high in the Colorado Mountains, Morelia in Mexico’s Michoacán to Devour! In tiny Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
Most screen new movies with occasional restorations while others focus exclusively on the classics. I like many of them though have burned out on the monster events. The San Francisco Bay Area hosts nearly one hundred film festivals a year including some of the best and most unique.
It is easy for me to claim that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is my favorite. Some might say, “But they only show old movies.” It is true that most of the films were made before 1930 and the only sound is that of the live music and enthusiastic audience reactions.
If I have never seen the movie it is “new” to me.
And what better place to enjoy these cinematic wonders than San Francisco with its treasure chest of theaters, houses and other buildings that have survived from the same first 30 years of the last century when the art of cinema blossomed without a word being heard from the screen? The area is rich in movie history and one can create a tour of film locations, historic neighborhoods and visit a variety of museums with exhibits that evoke the era as our companion article explores.
The 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival showcases a predictably eclectic collection of movies ranging from works by master directors Buster Keaton, Yasujirô Ozu, Carl Th. Dreyer, E.A. Dupont, Ernest Lubitsch featuring popular stars Mary Pickford, Tom Mix, Constance Talmadge and Great Garbo, to previously lost and long unseen discoveries from across the globe.
This year offers a non-stop feast with the world premiere of the restored German Sherlock Holmes classic DER HUND VON BASKERVILLE (THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES) and Mauritz Stiller’s THE SAGA OF GÖSTA BERLING starring a young Greta Garbo.
Historian/author/restoration hero Kevin Brownlow shares the rarely seen MARE NOSTRUM on his birthday. I have never seen it but the photo makes me want to be there. And Kevin always has interesting and witty stories to tell.
The Mahabharata-inspired Indian epic A THROW OF THE DICE should be a highlight on the big screen. Loved it a few years ago on DVD but this is a rare opportunity.
Plus the return of Serge Bromberg with a program of short film surprises (including 3D Georges Méliès). If you’ve seen Serge you won’t miss this. If not it is time to join the fan club. You will see things you never imagined existed. This is the stuff dreams were made from as this moment from THE MERRY FROLICS OF SATAN (1906) teases.
Most people with a casual awareness of silent cinema might tell you about the comedies of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy. They probably know of the swashbuckling adventures starring Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino; dramas and epics directed D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, a mixture of drama, romance and family comedy movies starring Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish and her sister Dorothy; or maybe the tales of horror and the bizarre starring Lon Chaney. But they also have probably only seen clips on a TV documentary. The silent film lover will be outraged at the limitations of these suggestions. Of course there were dozens of other big stars from the era and many other popular genres.
New crime capers, westerns, serials, romantic comedies and war films were being released every week. Often they were second features lasting about one hour. In the 21st century it is estimated that at least 80% of all silent films have been lost. I’d guess an even higher percentage of those B titles are gone. The studios could not imagine there was a life after theatrical. There was a small ancillary market where some people owned home projectors and could rent or buy short films and heavily edited versions of popular features long before anyone imagined television or home video. Why should the distributors pay to store thousands of 35mm prints? They took up a lot of room and the nitrate film stock was highly flammable. They reasoned there would never be a need for them again as Bill Morrison discovered in his great recent film DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME.
A few of the most successful filmmakers, either because they were visionaries and/or had big egos, wrote into their contracts that they would get prints for their private collection. Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were wise enough to retain the rights to most of their feature-length hits.
I would guess there were more westerns made than any other genre with dozens of cowboy stars such at William S. Hart, Hoot Gibson, Art Accord, Buck Jones, Ken Maynard, Al Hoxie, Jack Holt and even a few women on horseback: Ruth Roland, Pearl White and Texas Guinan. Tom Mix and his Wonder Horse Tony made over 300 features but they have never appeared at the Festival. In fact very few westerns have screened. I contend that part of the problem is the lack of existing prints (it doesn’t help that most followed a simple formula and were incredibly low-budget affairs). Unlike the traditional westerns, most Mix pictures were set in the contemporary West, often centered around rodeos with automobiles likely to appear. He was 46 years old when he made this film and has a rugged look. I am anxious to see how the fast-paced NO MAN’S GOLD plays for today’s audiences who rarely even go see recently made westerns.
Another western star, the easy-going Harry Carey, almost steps out of his boots as a small town sheriff who must go to San Francisco to collect an inheritance and becomes involved in the crime-ridden action of the big city in SOFT SHOES. As with many films set in the City, it was actually shot in Los Angeles as John Bengston demonstrates in his tour of the film’s shooting locations.
Each year the Festival challenges us by bringing the rarely seen and often unknown from faraway places. After American silent films few people probably think that they were made elsewhere. If one has taken a film history class German cinema was surely shown. Many of the directors immigrated to the American film scene and became well known here. In addition to Ernst Lubitsch and Paul Leni (mentioned above) there were Joseph von Sternberg, William Wyler, Fritz Lang, G. W. Pabst and F.W. Murnau.
Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer, Fred Zinneman and Billy Wilder were in movie production in Germany before launching successful Hollywood careers. They worked together on the delightful PEOPLE ON SUNDAY, a hybrid of fiction and documentary that is a must-see. It will be interesting to compare it with MOTHER KRAUSE’S JOURNEY TO HAPPINESS, also set in Weimar Berlin but in a tenement with documentary footage setting the scene for the downbeat fiction story but said to be an undiscovered gem remade by R.W. Fassbinder in 1975.
Two very different films from Japan, still making silents into the 1930s, are highly promising. Any work directed by Yasujiro Ozu is worth seeing and AN INN IN TOKYO comes with many advocates for its pre-neo realism story of an out-of-work man and his son.
Tomu Uchida is barely known in the U.S. When POLICEMAN was rediscovered at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival it became a sensation and we are lucky that his only surviving silent will play here. Billed as a noir in Eddie Muller’s catalog essay, the film follows a rookie cop who is recognized by the passenger during a random car check. They were chums in high school and they reconnect. But something seems increasingly of concern to the policeman following a violent robbery. The film is said to be fast-paced with a visual look and unusual editing that remind some of Expressionist films of Germany.
And those are only a few of the highlights. Each film will be accompanied by some of the finest international musicians with the original scores or newly composed ones.
Donald Sosin at the piano Alicia Svigals on violin
Opening Night (updated May 31, 2018)
The Festival opened on Wednesday, May 30 with THE MAN WHO LAUGHS (1928) by Victor Hugo.
I grew up seeing the image of Conrad Veidt with gruesome makeup of his permanently inflicted evil smile staring out from monster magazines. It was the unmistakable inspiration for both Batman’s Joker and William Castle’s MR. SARDONICUS.
But somehow I had never seen the original. Universal was thrilled with the success of their previous Hugo adaptation about a man with a deformity and the beautiful woman he feared would not love him, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME starring Lon Chaney. The similarly themed THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA had also a hit so starring its lead, Mary Philbin made sense to star. But Lon Chaney had gone to work exclusively for Metro-Goldwyn Mayer so they needed a male lead who was a good enough actor to gain the audience’s sympathy and who didn’t mind being hidden behind a grotesque-looking character. Conrad Veidt has starred in the German horror successes THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, THE HANDS OF ORLAC, THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE and WAXWORKS. Having recently moved to Hollywood he was a perfect choice. Fellow German émigré director Paul Leni had created a success with his prototype haunted house THE CAT AND THE CANARY for Universal and was signed to direct the big budget spectacle. THE MAN WHO LAUGHS was met with mediocre critical reaction in 1928 but has gained respect in recent years. I very much enjoyed it despite other complaining of an overlong chase climax. But the hit of the evening was the new musical score composed by the students of the Berklee School of Music and performed beautifully by their large orchestra. They swept the audience into that magic of the movies with a lush and exciting sound. This is their fourth appearance at the Festival and they never fail to astonish audiences. The long-standing ovation was well deserved and all in attendance look forward to next year’s appearance. Bravo.
The Festival plays at the 1922 Timothy L. Pflueger designed Castro Theatre movie palace with up to six programs a day. You can join an audience that knows how to have a great time by becoming part of a very special community of film lovers ready for an adventure.
Between shows there is book, DVD and gift shopping on the mezzanine courtesy of Dog Eared Books and the Niles Silent Movie Museum with a full schedule of book signings.
Closing the Festival on Sunday, June 3, laughter is guaranteed with Buster Keaton in BATTLING BUTLER featuring the much-loved Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and an introduction by Leonard Maltin. And if you have a trip to Los Angeles planned, you might enjoy a location tour for Keaton’s film courtesy of John Bengston.
Co-Directors Anita Monga and Stacy Wisnia lead a small staff and a large crew of enthusiastic volunteers to really put on a great show. Be sure to thank them all.
A complete schedule and how to purchase tickets are on the SF Silent Film Festival website (also rich with many interesting articles and a searchable archive of all films that have played the Festival).
Find your seat at least ten minutes before show time to catch the always informative and visually exciting pre-show slides.
They are important for offering context, especially for the numerous complex restorations the Festival has been funding, led by Board President Rob Byrne working in the world’s archives to find the best and often missing footage.
At the start and end of each performance The Voice of the Festival, Ron Lynch, welcomes audiences, reminding us to please tun off any items that did not exist when the film was made and to make introductions (his comforting and friendly “radio” voice will return as each film’s conclusion). Another unique (if ironic touch) is the use of wonderfully expressive signers allowing deaf audiences to “hear” the introductions.
And do pick up the free 126 page catalog at the Castro. My suggestion is to save most of the fine essays and background articles until after you have seen the film. I like to go in knowing a minimum amount of information letting the surprises come from the big screen. Excellent writers providing a lot of intriguing stories we didn’t know.
If you can break away from the movies or for future exploration we suggest you look at our article on A TRIP DOWN MARKET STREET, San Francisco Movie Locations and current exhibits worth seeing. Read it here.
Read what others have to say about this year’s Festival:
Festival Artistic Director Anita Monga discusses the festival.
Is Kevin Brownlow the “Indiana Jones” of the cinema world as he celebrates his newest discovery?
San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick la Salle selects “Five Safest Bets”
Restoring silent films on KQED FM Forum (Radio)
Thomas Gladysz declares this year’s Festival “A Transformative Cinematic Experience” on Pop Matters
Peter Wong explores the schedule with insights about several of the rarest movies at Beyond Chron
Charles Epting ranks the festival films at Silent Film Quarterly
A Conversation with Rob Byrne on why he is “a sucker for films shot in San Francisco” and this year’s restorations.
Victoria Haggblom spoke with Matti Bye on his love of film and music for EatDrinkFilms.
You Gotta Eat
A Vegetarian’s Survival Guide to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is proposed by Lincoln Spector of Bayflicks.
Food and film writer Meredith Brody shared with EatDrinkFilms what she eats during the Festival.
Gary Meyer started his first theater in the family barn when he was twelve-years-old. He directed a monster movie there and wanted to show it on the set. It became The Above-the-Ground Theatre screening dozens of silent films with music arranged from his parents’ record collection. Over 250 films were screened along with live productions, workshops and the publication of a literary/arts/satire zine, “Nort!” and a film newsletter, “Ciné.” After film school at SFSU he calls his first job as a booker for United Artists Theatres “grad school” that prepared him to co-found Landmark Theatres in 1975. It was the first national arthouse chain in the U.S. focused on creative marketing strategies to build loyal audiences for non-Hollywood fare. After selling Landmark, he consulted on many projects including Sundance Cinemas and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas, created the Dockers Classically Independent Film Festival and Tube Film Festival for the X Games, and resurrected the 1926 Balboa Theatre in San Francisco. Meyer joined the Telluride Film Festival in 1998, becoming a Festival Co-Director in 2007-2014. He founded the online magazine, EatDrinkFilms.com in April 2014.