Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Festival Honors the Beauty of the Silents

By Justin DeFreitas
Tuesday July 11, 2006

No one quite knew what to make of the new invention at first. The ability to capture motion on film, while a scientific breakthrough, didn’t seem to portend much for the future. Most deemed it a novelty, a toy which would quickly lose its appeal. 

Few could have imagined in 1894 that these flickering images, first seen through an eyepiece at five cents a pop and later projected on a sheet tacked to a wall, would not only become a new art form, but the art form of the new century. 

The next few decades saw the nascent medium grow at a rapid rate, in length, in maturity and in significance, expanding from 20-second clips to three-hour epics; from brief celluloid documents of real world events—called “actualities”—to feature-length documentaries; from amateurish filmed stage productions to feature-length narrative movies, rich in character and emotion; from sophomoric roughhouse comedy to the full-fledged visual humor of the great comedians, sophisticated in their use of the new cinematic language. 

By 1927, the language of film as a visual medium was nearly complete and was just reaching its peak. The moving camera had been perfected; the potential of montage had been deeply explored; the power and emotion of the close-up had been exploited; acting techniques had evolved to suit the medium. A vast array of genres had been firmly established: the western, horror, drama, comedy, slapstick and farce, melodrama and satire, adaptations and original works, special effects, documentaries, instructional films, political films, avante garde experiments and mainstream entertainments. The breadth and depth of what was arguably the most universal of art forms was staggering. 

But just as technology had made it all possible, so technology would tear it all down. With the advent of reliable sound technology and the dawn of the talking picture in 1927, 30 years worth of the medium’s range and diversity was almost instantly demoted to the status of a genre. No longer were they called “moving pictures”—now they were “silent.” From the lowest and crudest pieces of hackwork to the towering artistic masterpieces of the era, all were now thrown together in a single category, the name of which took on a pejorative quality. Films that had entertained, inspired and enriched viewers for three decades were now considered outdated, quaint, laughable, behind the times.  

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is an attempt to remedy that situation, to clear away the myths and misconceptions with quality prints presented at proper projection speeds and accompanied by live music. In other words, silent films as they were meant to be seen. Now in its 11th year, the festival runs Friday, July 14 through Sunday, July 16 at the Castro Theater. 

Some of the those misconceptions stem from the moniker itself, for silent films were never silent; they were always shown with live musical accompaniment. The largest theaters featured full orchestras, mid-sized theaters featured Wurlitzer organs, and the smallest theaters employed a piano player. The musicians either improvised on the spot or performed a written score, often of their own composition or sometimes provided by the film’s producers. 

Another misconception is that silent films were of poor visual quality, with high-contrast images of muddled blacks and grays, and always featured ham-fisted, overly dramatic acting and silly figures running about at abnormal speeds. The speed problem is simple: Silent films were shot at roughly 16 frames per second, as opposed to sound films, which are shot at 24 frames per second. Since the advent of sound, silent films have too often been mistakenly projected at sound speed, leading viewers to believe that they were manic and absurd. And most of the prints available over the years have been low-quality 16-millimeter transfers from the original 35-millimeter format, causing a loss of visual detail that was compounded by the deterioration of old nitrate prints. 

If you’ve never seen a big-screen presentation of silent film, there is no better place to start than the Silent Film Festival. While there are several venues in the Bay Area which provide excellent presentations of silent films throughout the year, with excellent prints and live music, the festival goes a step further, providing historical context with informative on-stage interviews and panel discussions, trailers and outtakes and historical short subjects. Many of this year’s programs feature archival footage of the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, and even a “neo-silent” newsreel of this year’s centennial commemoration of the quake at Lotta’s Fountain, shot with an authentic hand-cranked silent-era camera.  

This year’s festival could be rightly called the Year of the Woman, for most of its marquee evening presentations are starring vehicles for some of the silent era’s finest actresses. The festival kicks off with Seventh Heaven, starring Janet Gaynor in a performance which earned her the Best Actress Oscar at the first Academy Awards. Gaynor plays a street waife who falls in love with a sewer worker, played by Charles Farrell, only to see World War I intervene. The film was directed by Frank Borzage. (Borzage and Gaynor will each be the subject of retrospectives at Pacific Film Archive starting July 21.) 

Saturday’s lineup features Mary Pickford in Sparrows. Pickford was the most successful and powerful woman in Hollywood in her time, one of the few stars with enough clout to eventually assume creative control of her films, selecting her material as well as her directors. Her films are not often seen these days, rarely showing up on television or at revival theaters. Sparrows represents a darker side of the Pickford cannon, depicting an orphanage where the kids are used as slave labor. 

Saturday night will see a screening of Pandora’s Box, a German film directed by G.W. Pabst and starring the iconic American actress Louise Brooks. Brooks was not a great success in American films and she eventually made her way to Germany where she made three films in an effort to resuscitate her career. It is those films upon which her reputation rests today. Returning to America, she found herself blacklisted and never again had much success. 

But later her talent for self-promotion, including at least one romantic relationship with a film historian, led to rekindled interest in her career and helped to retroactively establish Brooks as a great and important figure of the silent era. Her credentials as a great actress may be debatable, but her charisma, beauty and sexual appeal are undeniable, and Pandora’s Box presents her in her signature role as a seductive and dangerous woman who brings ruin to those she encounters. 

The final show on Sunday night will put the spotlight on another great, if underappreciated, actress of the 1920s, the gifted comedienne Marion Davies. Davies, the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, was quite successful and well loved by movie audiences. Hearst, however, wanted to see her play more dignified roles, roles more suitable for the mistress of a great newspaper baron. He poured money into countless lavish costume dramas—clumsy, bloated productions that did nothing for her career—and relentlessly promoted them in his newspapers. Much of this was later satirized in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which helped to unjustly tar Davies’ reputation, rendering her as a mere pawn of Hearst, a no-talent chorus girl riding the great man’s coattails. 

The Silent Film Festival will right this wrong with a screening of director King Vidor’s Show People, a light comedy that clearly demonstrates Davies’ charm and talents and features a number of silent-era stars in cameo roles as themselves.  

There’s far more on display at the festival, however, and often it is the lesser known films that provide the event’s most fascinating moments.  

• Bucking Broadway (1917) is one of only two surviving silent westerns directed by John Ford and stars the great western star Harey Carey. The film will be preceded by an onstage interview with Harey Carey, Jr. 

• Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930) is an adaptation of an Emile Zola novel, about a young girl who takes a job in a vast Paris department store.  

• “Amazing Tales From the Archives” is a free presentation detailing the hard work, passion and luck that goes into the discovery, preservation and presentation of cinema’s early works. 

• Three of Laurel and Hardy’s silent two reelers will be screened Sunday. Few of the duo’s silent films survive, but the few that do show the pitch-perfect timing of their comic pantomime at its peak.  

• The Girl With the Hatbox (1927) is a slapstick comedy from Russia that was deemed subversive by Soviet censors.  

• The Unholy Three (1925), by Freaks director Tod Browning, is the story of a ventriloquist, played by Lon Chaney, who heads up a madcap scam to rob the rich in a wild, strange pulp story which gave Chaney an opportunity to poke fun at his horror film persona. 




Festival box office: 833 Market Street, San Francisco, Suite 812. (925) 866-9530. 


8 p.m. Friday, July 14. $17. 

Seventh Heaven (1927) 

Music by Clark Wilson (Wurlitzer organ) 

A Trip Down Market Street (April 14, 1906) 

Narrated by Rick Laubscher  

Music by Michael Mortilla (piano) 


11 a.m. Saturday, July 15. $13. 

Bucking Broadway (1917)  

San Francisco Earthquake and Fire  

(April 18, 1906) 

Music by Michael Mortilla (piano) 


1:40 p.m. Saturday, July 15. $13. 

Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930 

Music by the Hot Club of San Francisco 


4:20 p.m. Saturday, July 15. $13. 

Sparrows (1926) 

Music by Michael Mortilla (piano) 


8:20 p.m. Saturday, July 15. $15. 

Pandora’s Box (1929) 

Music by Clark Wilson (Wurlitzer organ) 


11 a.m. Sunday, July 16. Free. 

“Amazing Tales From the Archives,” a demonstration of film restoration processes 

Music by Michael Mortilla (piano) 


12:30 p.m. Sunday, July 16. $13. 

Laurel and Hardy (three short films:  

The Finishing Touch (1928), Liberty (1929), Wrong Again (1929) 

Scenes in San Francisco (May 9, 1906) 

Music by Michael Mortilla (piano) 


2:40 p.m. Sunday, July 16. $13. 

The Girl With the Hatbox (1927) 

Music by the Balka Ensemble 


5 p.m. Sunday, July 16. $13. 

The Unholy Three (1925) 

Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair  

at San Francisco (1915) 

Music by Jon Mirsalis (piano) 


8 p.m. Sunday, July 16. $15. 

Show People (1928) 

Triumph Over Disaster (a 2006 “neo-silent”newsreel of the 1906 Earthquake Centennial 

Commemoration at Lotta’s Fountain) 

Music by Dennis James (Wurlitzer organ) 



Photograph: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents a wide array of arresting imagery, including the seductive charm of Louise Brooks.