Part Two- What I Will Be Seeing
By Meredith Brody
May 4, 2022
I learned my lesson early with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival: GO TO EVERYTHING.
The first year I attended, I cherry-picked only the movies I hadn’t seen before. The ones I went to were such a revelation – both in the presentation and the group experience – that my heart hurt as I walked away. What a MAROON I was. Even a movie I thought I knew well would be a fresh experience, featuring as it did not only live music, but one of the world’s great audiences. There’s a kind of euphoria that sets in when you commit to seeing everything on offer.I haven’t missed a screening since. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival just does it RIGHT: I enjoy every aspect of it, from the spirited introductions to each film, the beautifully-produced slide shows that entertain and educate in between screenings, the informative program booklets, the apposite book signings, the mezzanine gatherings with tasty tidbits for passport holders.
I’ve always loved silent films, though I was introduced to them in perhaps the worst way possible: it pains me to say anything negative about Henri Langlois and his Cinémathèque Française, but while I was living in Paris I was a faithful attendee at his daily 3 p.m. silent film screenings, and he projected everything SILENT. The stated reason was something sophist about “the purity of the image,” but the truth was that there was no budget for either live music or even a tinny recording supervised by the projectionist. Being something of a movie-going virgin at the time – although I quickly became very promiscuous in my attendance! – I was also innocent of just how tattered and worn some of the prints were.
The weekly schedule, printed on limp paper, was available only a few days before each commenced, and all it offered was the name of the film and its director. Many of the silent films I saw there had no translation, neither French nor English, for their subtitles. (And not just the silent films: early on I remember seeing Victor Sjostrom’s Phantom Chariot (1921) with only its Swedish intertitles at the Cinémathèque in the Palais de Chaillot at the Trocadero. After the almost-two-hour-long silent, I jumped on the metro and crossed town to see Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) at the branch of the Cinémathèque in the basement of a building in the Rue d’Ulm, near the Pantheon: over three hours of a very talky story of a Japanese doctor who occasionally, VERY occasionally, practices martial arts. And, yes, without subtitles of any kind. I told myself that I was experiencing pure cinema. But in later years I thought of that day as “A Supposedly Fun Thing That I’ll Never Do Again.”)
I quickly grew more sophisticated about print quality – I still have friends who refuse to see anything in any format other than projected 35 mm prints, which I imagine today frees up a lot of time for them – but continued to attend those 3 p.m. screenings. If it was on a day when I lunched on the food I’d been preparing all morning at the cooking school I was attending, sometimes the loudest thing in the theater was the rumbling of my stomach. (Which also rumbled on the days I didn’t eat a big lunch, since outside the confines of school I was largely subsisting on yogurt.)
In a word, and true to my initial discovery, all those years ago, everything. One of the strengths of the Silent’s programming is its clever structuring of each day’s schedule, alternating genres, music, countries, carefully leading you by the hand through a Magical Mystery Tour so seductive that you are caught in its World Wide Web.
This year’s edition is especially lavish. For years I would describe its wonders to people I would encounter at other festivals all over the world by saying “And it takes place over ONE LONG WEEKEND!” (Five days.) But after initially rescheduling the May 2020 fest for November 2020, then canceling those dates, and again canceling the May 2021 edition, San Francisco Silent Film Festival is offering a supersized edition: spanning a week, from Thursday night, May 5th, to Wednesday night, May 11th.
I always enjoy the traditional “Amazing Tales from the Archive”, a chance to hear stories about film preservation and glimpse rare clips from the people actually and actively doing God’s work in the trenches. This year there are two programs. First thing Thursday to prepare you for Opening Night, “Amazing Tales at the Roxie” (at 3pm and it’s actually at the Roxie, not the Castro) features Robert Byrne (SFSFF) and Dave Kehr (MoMA) giving an illustrated talk about the restoration of Foolish Wives.
After the rather gentle – but is anything from Von Stroheim truly gentle? – introduction on opening night of Foolish Wives (1922), a typically lavish, almost two-and-a-half hour decadent epic starring the master himself, with Mae Busch, Maud George, and the coyly-named Miss Dupont, set in Monte Carlo, with musical accompaniment from Timothy Brock conducting the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra, we dive headfirst and headlong into Friday’s five-session, twelve-hour orgy.
Friday morning starts at 11:00am with “Amazing Tales from the Archive” at the Castro. And it is FREE!! Historian Brad Rosenstein will add details about local connections and locations. We’ll hear from Senior Film Restorer Kathy Rose O’Regan on SFSFF’s current restoration project, the Gault Collection from 1925 Ireland (and somebody named Kathy Rose O’Regan seems like the right person for the job!). And Julia Wallmüller (Graduate Restorer) and Martin Koerber (retired Head of Audiovisual Heritage) at Deutsche Kinemathek will discuss their new restoration of Lupu Pick’s Sylvester, a movie I saw and adored in Bologna at Il Cinema Ritrovato a few years ago and ecstatically recommended to SFSFF Artistic Director Anita Monga, who was already on the case. Heather Linville, Motion Picture Laboratory Supervisor at the Library of Congress, will talk about the beautiful two-color Technicolor restoration of The Fire Brigade. And all will be accompanied by the music of Guenter F. Buchwald, who has accompanied silent films for 38 years and has an impressive international CV. He confided on Facebook that traveling to SF would be his first flight since 2019.
At 2:30 pm is Below the Surface (1920), restored by the SFSFF, by Irvin Willat, starring Hubert Bosworth, a follow-up to the same director and star’s Behind the Door shown in the 2016 edition of the festival. New to me, and described as an “action-packed melodrama headlined by the silent era’s most flinty-eyed no-nonsense protagonist, Hobart Bosworth,” and accompanied by Philip Carli, staff accompanist for the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY, who started playing for silent films when he was 13.
At 4:45 pm we go from flinty-eyed no-nonsense Hobert Bosworth to sparkly saucer-eyed cutie Clara Bow – an actress I can never get enough of. The Primrose Path (1925), runs only 63 minutes and was one of 14 (!) features the peppy Bow made in 1925, only three years into her career. It’s another new one on me, and my heart lifts in anticipation. Again restored by the SFSFF. Directed by Harry O. Hoyt, whose The Lost World, on a completely different tip, with dinosaurs animated by Oakland’s Willis O’Brien, was shown in the SFSFF’s 2017 edition. It’ll be introduced by David Stenn, author of the indispensable Clara Blow: “Runnin’ Wild.” Accompaniment will be by the ebullient Wayne Barker, Tony-nominated for his score of Peter and the Starcatcher, whose dream of accompanying silent films was realized in his debut at the December 1st 2019 SFSFF Day of Silents, when we were all much more innocent, playing for Exit Smiling (1926), a Sam Taylor comedy starring Beatrice Lillie.
At 7 p.m. comes a second film by and with Erich von Stroheim, the earlier (1919) and shorter (101 minutes) Blind Husbands. Indeed, it’s his first film as director and writer, although he’d been acting in films since 1915. Von Stroheim plays the wicked seducer of a young wife at a spa in the Austrian alps. Gibson Gowland, who’ll star in Von Stroheim’s film maudit, Greed, six years later, is 4th billed. The accompaniment will be by the delightful Colorado-based Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
We travel only from Austria to Germany for the 9:20 p.m. showing of Waxworks (1924), but to an entirely different spooky realm. Director Paul Leni’s painterly sets are cited in the same breath as those of Robert Wiene’s earlier The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) as both the flowering of and an influence on global Expressionist cinema. Both movies boast appearances by Conrad Veidt, whose elegant lines seem designed for Expressionist art, and Caligari’s title character, Werner Krauss. Indispensable German star Emil Jannings and future director William Dieterle also appear. Guenter Buchwald will again play, accompanied by percussionist Frank Bockius.
I already anticipate myself staggering towards BART after this 12-hour day. But I also anticipate returning on Saturday, some 12 hours later, with glee!
Saturday, May 7th, is even more jam-packed and fun-filled: six programs unspooling every two hours, another almost-twelve-hour day. At 11 a.m., King of the Circus (1924), an hour-long comedy starring Max Linder, France’s elegant slapstick king, their equivalent of Chaplin and Keaton, as a lion tamer in love. It’ll be introduced by the ebullient showman Serge Bromberg, whose Lobster Films supervised the restoration with the aid of 11 international film archives. Live musical accompaniment, again, by Philip Carli. And entry for children under 12 is free.
At 1 p.m., something unique and special: “The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show” narrated by one of the great show people and characters of the archival film world, the dryly amusing Bryony Dixon of the British Film Institute. She’ll be narrating a selection of short films made between 1897 and 1901 from the BFI’s collection, with music from festival favorite Stephen Horne, who can play two instruments at once in addition to the piano, accompanied by percussionist Frank Bockius. Again, admission for children under 12 is free.
Followed by one of the gems of the festival, the masterpiece that is Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), the last movie that the beautiful Buster Keaton made as an independent. Introduced by Dana Stevens, Slate’s movie critic, and author of the recently published “Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century,” (read an excerpt) and accompanied by the five-member Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
Another new book is James Curtis’ definitive and impressively researched biography, “Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life” with an extensive look at how the effects for the filmed in Sacramento Steamboat Bill Jr. were created.
At 5 p.m., an extremely rare silent from the gifted Mikio Naruse, lesser-known but in my opinion as great as the masters Ozu and Mizoguchi (the other famed Japanese gifted chroniclers of women). His movies are not easy to see on the big screen, especially the silents. Apart from You (1933) is about an aging geisha, her troubled son, and two other young women who might have to enter the geisha life. Guenter Buchwald accompanies.
At 7 p.m., a unique event: a re-imagining and re-contextualizing of the politically problematic and charged Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film which uncomfortably both glorified the Ku Klux Klan and demonized Blacks. In Rebirth of a Nation, Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky re-cuts and re-shapes the film, and will mix music onstage, accompanied by Guenter Buchwald and the chamber music group Classical Revolution.
Afterwards Miller will be joined onstage by NY Times cultural critic Wesley Morris for a conversation.
Still with me? Then join me at 9:20 p.m. for the gorgeous Art Nouveau palate-cleanser, Alla Nazimova’s star turn as Oscar Wilde’s wicked Salome (1922), with sets (patterned after Aubrey Beardsley) and costumes by Natacha Rambova, soon to be Mrs. Rudolph Valentino. I wonder if introducer and frequent Castro performer Peaches Christ will attempt to replicate Nazimova’s iconic wig, whose nimbus of pearls trembles as she moves? Music by SF Silent Film Festival favorite the jazzy, witty Matti Bye Ensemble, all the way from Sweden.
Sunday, May 8th, also offers free entrance for those under 12 for its 11 a.m. screening, the charming Penrod and Sam (1923), based on Booth Tarkington’s series about neighborhood kids. Penrod is played by Ben Alexander, only 12 but recognizable as the actor who will partner up with detective Jack Webb in Dragnet, almost thirty years later. Accompanied by The Kid Reporter (1923), starring the four-year-old Baby Peggy aka Diana Serra Cary, who died in 2020 at the age of 101. Music by the dynamic Donald Sosin, accompanied by Frank Bockius. Sosin’s young protégé William Lewis will debut at the festival, performing his own score for The Kid Reporter. (C.J. Hirschfield profiles the 18-year-old Lewis.)
From small-town pre-WWI America to India in the fifth century BC: Prem Sanyas (1926), at 1:30 p.m., tells the origin story of how Prince Siddhartha Gautama created what we now know as Buddhism, eventually to be known as Buddha. An unknown quantity for me, but alluringly described as “made by the filmmakers who laid the foundation for Bollywood,” with music by Club Foot Hindustani featuring Pandit Krishna Batt.
At 4:30 pm, another unknown quantity, a 1926 film made in the then-Soviet Ukraine, Arrest Warrant, by a director also previously unknown to me, Heorhii Tasin, known as Georgi Tasin on IMDb. It’s set during the post-Bolshevik revolution Civil War. A woman, whose Red husband fled as the White Army approached their city, has been left behind to guard secret documents. The screening is a benefit for World Central Kitchen and the Ukrainian film archive The Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre. Music by the Sascha Jacobsen Quintet.
I’ve wanted to see Sylvester again since I saw it on a foggy, chilly night at 10:15, outdoors in the small Piazzetta Pier Paolo Pasolini in Bologna at Il Cinema Ritrovato, in the relative carefree innocence of June of 2019. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another film by its director, Lupu Pick, prolific as an actor, director, screenwriter, and producer of some 50 films, despite his early death at 45. But I was charmed by this one, also known as New Year’s Eve, the night the story, told without intertitles, unfolds, in a bar run by a married couple (the woman played by Pick’s wife Edith Posca, who died only a few months after he did, aged only 38). The exterior set for the streets of the city is extraordinary. Music by Timothy Brock conducting the San Francisco Silent Movie Orchestra. I am ecstatic at the thought of seeing it again.
Afterwards, another totally unknown quantity for me: a very early (1918) film set in space, the Danish A Trip to Mars, by Holger-Madsen, another prolific director, of more than 40 films, as well as 22 as an actor, none of which I think I’ve ever seen. We’re promised “impressive production design” of the Mars sets, inhabited by “peace-loving vegans” — as well as a score played by Wayne Barker.
After the 12-hour days of the weekend, the next three weekdays will whiz by with only four movies per day, and a leisurely start at noon – out before ten p.m. every night.
Monday, May 9th, begins at noon with Skinner’s Dress Suit (1926), described as “a giddy comedy of domestic mores” with “the charming goofiness” of stars Reginald Denny and Laura La Plante (as well as farceurs Arthur Lake and Hedda Hopper). I have been charmed by the giddy goofiness of Mike Mashon, head of the Moving Image section at the Library of Congress, at previous Festivals, so I look forward to his introduction. Music by Philip Carli.
A brand-new restoration of The Fire Brigade (1926), emphasizing its color tinting, follows at 2 p.m. Somehow William Nigh made 121 films as a director and I think I’ve only seen Allotment Wives (1945) (and that merely because I’m a Kay Francis completist). I am almost as innocent of May McAvoy’s work, having only seen her in Ben-Hur (1925) and Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), the closing night film of this festival. I’m more aware of Charles Ray’s sad story (early stardom, then bankruptcy after investing in his own failed productions, never again reaching the heights, dead at 52) than his 175-film career. A melodrama featuring firefighters, corrupt real estate interests threatening a neighborhood orphanage, plus a love story, described as “rip-roaring?” OK by me. Music by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.
Limite (1931) may be the only Brazilian silent film I’ve ever seen. It’s the only film by its director, Mario Peixoto, whose fascination with an André Kertész photo inspired this poetic tale, set in a rowboat with two women and a man lost at sea, with mysterious flashbacks to their previous lives. I saw it more than a decade ago, and my memories are pleasantly vague, encouraged somewhat by this also poetic piece on the Criterion site.
And Monday ends at 7 p.m. with a movie hotly anticipated by me, Dans La Nuit (1929), starring Charles Vanel, who acted in 180 movies over the course of seven decades – perhaps most famously The Wages of Fear – but only directed two: this one, in which he also starred, and a short film, in which he didn’t. Co-presented by the Film Noir Foundation, and introduced by Eddie Muller, which gives me hope that its gritty mining-town setting, as well as its newlywed protagonists, are harbingers of early French noir. Music by Stephen Horne.
Tuesday, May 10th, starts with A Sister of Six at noon. Another almost completely unknown quantity. Director Ragnar Hylten-Cavallius does share a screenwriting credit on the famed The Saga of Gosta Berling, starring Lars Hanson and Greta Garbo and directed by Mauritz Stiller. That’s all I know of his work. The photograph on the Festival’s website, of two pearl-bedizened, over-made-up babes, intrigued me. I presume they’re the Gyurkovics sisters, whose romantic intrigues are the basis of this “madcap concoction of romance and mistaken identity.” Music by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius.
At 2:30 p.m., The Street of Forgotten Men (1925), from Herbert Brenon, another prolific director (124 credits), of which the best-known is possibly the delightful Peter Pan (1924) starring Betty Bronson. Other well-known titles include Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), with Lon Chaney and Loretta Young, and Beau Geste (1926) starring Ronald Colman. The milieu of the Bowery and the fake-crippled-beggar with a heart of gold, Easy Money Charlie, who raises an abandoned young girl to be pure of heart, sounds Damon Runyonesque, Of special interest is the brief, uncredited appearance of Louise Brooks playing a “moll” – her screen debut. Music by Donald Sosin.
Dziga Vertov, director of 4:30 p.m.’s The History of The Civil War (1921), directed one of my favorite films of all time, silent or otherwise, The Man with the Movie Camera (1929). I’ve seen as many of his movies over the years as I could, but I’ve never even heard of this one. It turns out that’s because, after a single screening in 1921, its documentary footage of the Red Army vs. the White was broken up and stored as newsreels. This brand-new restoration makes it whole again after a hundred years. Music by the Anvil Orchestra.
After three completely unknown movies, I might be ready for a more familiar one at 7 p.m.: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), starring Lon Chaney, directed by Wallace Worsley, with extraordinary sets of medieval France. I’m surprised that this is another children-under-12-get-in-for-free offering; I think it’s the stuff of nightmares. (There are of course many subsequent Hunchback movies, including not only an animated one from Disney, but a subsequent Disney franchise. That lovable lug with the huggable mug!) Music by the Mont Alto orchestra.
Wednesday, May 11, the last day of the Festival – which will have been a marathon, and not a sprint – begins at noon with Smouldering Fires (1925), which sounds Sirkian to me (maybe because I just saw his Imitation of Life again, with Sandra Dee hopelessly infatuated with her mother Lana Turner’s boyfriend, John Gavin). In Smouldering Fires it seems that the Vale sisters (Pauline Frederick and, again, Laura La Plante) are both in love with the same man. Director Clarence Brown, a company man who spent almost all his career at MGM, was capable of both clunkers and pleasant entertainments. Music by Stephen Horne.
At 2:15 p.m., Salt for Svanetia (1930), a documentary/propaganda film about the medieval conditions of an isolated village in the Georgian mountains. Director Mikhail Kalatozov, himself a Georgian, is famed for The Cranes are Flying (1957), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1958, and to my mind the more astonishing I Am Cuba, (1964), which also features the “breathtaking editing and camerawork” we’re promised in Salt for Svanetia. There’s also a 1930 short called Ten Minutes in the Morning, directed by Aleqsandre Jalishvili, which actually runs 30 minutes. Music by the Matti Bye Ensemble.
Another hotly-anticipated-by-me title will show at 4:30: The Divine Voyage (1929), by one of my favorite directors, Julien Duvivier. Famed for the original Pépé le Moko (1937), starring Jean Gabin, he made 70 films across all genres, starting in 1919, and worked in the United States during WWII: Lydia (1941), Tales of Manhattan (1942). After his return to France, he made masterpieces including the film noirs Panique (1946) and Voici les temps des assassins (1956). There would have been more had he not died in a car accident at 71. Jean Renoir called him “a great technician, a rigorist, a poet.”I’ve seen very few silents by Duvivier; one of my favorites, Au Bonheur des dames (1930), based on the Zola novel, I saw at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2006. (An earlier version, Zum Paradies der Damen, was directed in 1922 by Lupu Pick, starring himself and his wife Edith Posca.)
Duvivier wrote as well as directed The Divine Voyage, a seafaring tale putting sailors at risk for their lives due to a greedy shipping tycoon. Introduced by Serge Bromberg, whose Lobster Films restored it with help from the Centre National du Cinema et de l’Image Animee (CNC). Music by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius.
The last screening of the 29 over seven days is, oddly, the only movie of the Festival I’ve seen multiple times: at 7 p.m., Ernst Lubitsch’s version of Oscar Wilde’s bittersweet familial comedy of errors Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), starring Ronald Colman, May McAvoy, and Irene Rich. But I anticipate with pleasure this newly restored version by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
Less than two weeks before the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was due to start, I was still in the Not Feeling Festive state of mind. Not unlike how I approached the Noir City festival – I was trying to think of reasons not to attend, except I was aware that there were many more new-to-me movies on the schedule at the Silent fest than at Noir City. And even the films I’d already seen more than once – Foolish Wives, Blind Husbands, Waxworks, Steamboat Bill, Jr., Salome, Lady Windermere’s Fan – would be shown in beautiful new prints with, of course, wonderful live music. Penrod and Sam and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Limite I’d only seen once; and I’d been longing to see Sylvester again – even as I was watching it on a magical night, outdoors in Bologna, I knew I had to; it was going by too fast for me!
The tipping point was going over the schedule with a dear friend who at that moment didn’t have access to a computer. I read each movie in the schedule and its description to him. As we discussed them I could feel my excitement growing.
He’d seen more movies in the Festival than I have, and his enthusiasm for them inspired me. By the end of the hour, I was not only thrilled to be able to go, but chastened at the thought that I might have let the possibility slip away – or, almost as inexplicably, cherry-picked a movie here and there.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is world-class. People come here from all over the world to attend it. I’m reminded of the end of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944, but set in 1904 — and I WISH they’d had a scene set in a nickelodeon!), when the family visits the World Fair: “We don’t have to come here on a train or stay in a hotel. It’s right in our home town.” “I can’t believe it. Right here where we live.” Right here in San Francisco.
For many years I’ve been telling people at all the festivals I’ve attended (including Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone and Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna) that they should come, that it’s my favorite Bay Area festival. So I’m choosing to follow my own advice.
There are a couple of flies in the ointment: I’m chary, after two years of successfully dodging it, of (it has to be said) getting exposed to Covid. I hope that the SFSFF audience is more amenable to mask-wearing than the Noir City audience was.
And, of course, there is the very real possibility that this is the last time that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will be held in the glamorous and appropriate confines of the beloved, iconic, 1922-vintage Castro Theatre. I’m not going to speculate more here – lots has been written, and it’s easy to find – but if I missed this chance?
Well, there was a movie that came out in 1922 whose title is appropriate: A Fool There Was.
All who attend get the complimentary collectable 164 page Program Book with essays by an all-star collection of writers plus photos.
About all the musicians at this year’s festival.
Festival poster by Keiko Kimura.
Explore articles, essays, images and program notes from 25 years of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
And the films restored by the SFSFF Preservation.
Become a member and enjoy benefits while supporting the festival year around.
Follow on Twitter @sfsilentfilm
John Bengston’s Silent Locations offers more about the locations where Steamboat Bill Jr. and Penrod and Sam were filmed.
David Hudson’s overview has links to various writers on the Festival on Criterion’s “The Daily.”
Meredith Brody, a graduate of both the Paris Cordon Bleu cooking school and USC film school, has been the restaurant critic for, among others, the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and SF Weekly, and has written for countless film magazines and websites including Cahiers du Cinema, Film Comment, and Indiewire. Her writings on books, theater, television, and travel have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Interview. She also contributes to EatDrinkFilms including her“Meals with Meredith,” where she talks about food and film with filmmakers at restaurants in northern California, writes about vintage cocktails and where she eats during film festivals at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Some of her EDF pieces are found here.
One could describe Meredith as “hooked on cinema” as she attends four-five films a day at many bay area and international festivals each year. Somebody has to do it. Read about her journey back to festivals after two years in pandemic mode.