Arts & Events
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival returns this week with an eclectic and compelling program of movies from the medium's first golden era. From blockbusters to romance, from comedy to melodrama, from cartoons to documentaries, the festival, as it does every year, showcases the breadth and depth of film's first few decades.
Below are just a few of the festival’s highlights, followed by the complete schedule.
The 17th annual festival opens Thursday night with Wings, the first film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Directed by William Wellman, the plot concerns a love triangle set against the backdrop of the Great War. For the most part, the film hews to the standard romance-and-drama plotline, but it also features some astonishing scenes of World War I dogfights. No blue screens here: Wellman puts his camera in the planes and sends them hurdling, tumbling and diving through the skies to breathtaking effect. Wings features the “It” girl, Clara Bow, along with Gary Cooper and Charles “Buddy” Rogers. William Wellman, Jr. will introduce the film.
The festival reconvenes Friday morning for its annual Amazing Tales From the Archives program, a free-admission event that spotlights the important work of film preservation. The day continues with a program of foreign films and one rarely seen gem: Mantrap is another Clara Bow vehicle, this one based on a book by one of the decade's foremost American novelists, Sinclair Lewis.
Saturday morning cartoons start at 10 a.m. with a program of Felix the Cat cartoons. Later in the day the festival presents two of its best attractions: South is the story of Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Antarctic expedition. His ship, the Endurance, was crushed in the ice pack, leaving Shackleton and his crew stranded a thousand miles from civilization. Shackleton and a skeleton crew crossed hundreds of miles of raging sea in small open boats and traversed towering glaciers in order to find someone to help him rescue his men. Frank Hurley was the expedition's photographer, and he created South from his photographs and motion-picture images of the voyage.
Saturday night features an encore showing of Pandora's Box, which anchored the festival a few years back. Louise Brooks is at her most alluring in G.W. Pabst's German classic.
Sunday begins with The Mark of Zorro, the first of Douglas Fairbanks' series of swashbucklers. To this point, Fairbanks had played a dapper young man bounding with the can-do spirit of the era in a series of light comedies. With Zorro, he shifted to period dramedy, forging adventurous drama-comedy hybrids that showcased his irrepressible energy and athleticism. Fairbanks served as the model for last year's hit film The Artist. In fact, in the scene where that film's main character sits alone and watches his own movies, he was actually watching footage from The Mark of Zorro.
Next comes one of the true masterpieces of silent cinema, Josef von Sternberg's shadowy tale of love and violence, The Docks of New York. Sternbreg’s trademark photographic brilliance is on display from the opening shots: Take a look at the expressionist lighting as men shovel coal into a ship's furnace, the bright fire rendering the surrounding darkness all the darker and starkly illuminating the men’s faces, lending the distinct impression that they are serving penance in hell.
The program concludes Sunday night with festival favorite Buster Keaton in the final great comedy of his career. The Cameraman was Buster's first film after his producer sold his contract to MGM. Keaton went from the casual, comfortable confines of his own independent studio to the biggest and most factory-like of Hollywood studios. MGM was an assembly line — writers wrote the films, directors made them, and actors performed in them. The studio was only interested in Keaton as an actor, not as an actor-writer-director-stuntman.
They saddled Keaton with a subplot- and dialogue-laden film, but when the project ran into difficulty, Keaton seized the opportunity to prove himself to his new employers. He stripped the film of its extraneous subplots and added his own brand of humor and sight gags, as well his trademark athleticism and stunt work. The result was another in a decade-long string of classic Keaton comedies. In fact, MGM used The Cameraman as a training film for its comedians for years afterward, even wearing the print out from so much usage — indeed, several minutes of footage are still missing from the film for this reason. But MGM conveniently overlooked Keaton's contribution to the film, choosing instead to believe that the result proved that Keaton needed a tight leash, needed to be handed his material and ordered to stick to the script. This was effectively the end of Buster Keaton; having lost his career autonomy, his wife, and his children, he slipped further into alcoholism and indifference, sleepwalking his way through a series of inane MGM comedies before ultimately getting fired by the studio.
The complete schedule is below. For more information and to order tickets, see silentfilm.org.
Thursday, July 12
7 p.m.: Wings (USA, 1927, 141 minutes)
Cast: Clara Bow, Richard Arlen, Buddy Rogers, Gary Cooper. Directed by William Wellman.
Accompanied by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra with Foley sound effects by Ben Burtt. Introduced by William Wellman, Jr.
Friday, July 13
10:30 a.m.: Amazing Tales from the Archives: Into the Digital Frontier
Presentations by Andrea Kalas, Vice President of Archives at Paramount Pictures and Grover Crisp, Senior Vice President of Film Restoration and Digital Mastering at Sony Pictures. Accompanied by Stephen Horne on the grand piano. Free admission.
1 p.m.: Little Toys (China, 1933, 110 minutes)
Cast: Ruan Lingyu, Li Lili. Directed by Sun Yu.
Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the grand piano. $15.
4 p.m.: The Loves of Pharaoh (Germany, 1922, 100 minutes)
Cast: Emil Jannings, Dagny Servaes, Paul Biensfeldt, Friedrich Kühne. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Accompanied by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer. $15.
7 p.m.: Mantrap (USA, 1926, 71 minutes)
Cast: Clara Bow, Ernest Torrence, Percy Marmont, Eugene Pallette. Directed by Victor Fleming.
Accompanied by Stephen Horne on the grand piano.
9:15 p.m.: The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna (Germany, 1929, 115 minutes) Cast: Brigitte Helm, Francis Lederer, Warwick Ward, Lya Jan. Directed by Hanns Schwarz.
Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Live English translation read by Frank Buxton.
Saturday, July 14
10 a.m.: Felix the Cat cartoons (USA, 1925–1929, 70 minutes)
Created by Otto Mesmer and Pat Sullivan. Accompanied by Donald Sosin and Toychestra.
12 p.m.: The Spanish Dancer (USA, 1923, 105 minutes)
Cast: Pola Negri, Antonio Moreno, Wallace Beery, Kathlyn Williams, Adolphe Menjou. Directed by Herbert Brenon.
Accompanied by Donald Sosin, keyboard, with Jim Washburn and Greg Smith, guitar.
2:30 p.m.: The Canadian (USA, 1926, 88 minutes)
Cast: Thomas Meighan, Mona Palma, Wyndham Standing, Dale Fuller. Directed by William Beaudine. Accompanied by Stephen Horne on the grand piano.
5 p.m.: South (United Kingdom, 1919, 72 minutes)
Directed by Frank Hurley.
Accompanied by Stephen Horne on the grand piano, with live narration by Paul McGann.
7 p.m.: Pandora's Box (Germany, 1929, 143 minutes)
Cast: Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Franz Lederer, Carl Gotz. Directed by G.W. Pabst.
Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble.
10 p.m.: The Overcoat (USSR 1926, 71 minutes)
Cast: Andrei Kostrichkin, Antonina Yeremeyeva, Sergei Gerasimov. Directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg.
Accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra.
Sunday, July 15
10 a.m.: The Mark of Zorro (USA, 1920, 90 minutes)
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Marguerite De La Motte, Noah Beery. Directed by Fred Niblo.
Accompanied by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer.
12 p.m.: The Docks of New York (USA, 1928, 76 minutes)
Cast: George Bancroft, Betty Compson, Olga Baclanova, Clyde Cook. Directed by Josef von Sternberg.
Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the grand piano.
2 p.m.: Erotikon (Sweden, 1920, 106 minutes)
Cast: Anders de Wahl, Tora Teje, Lars Hanson, Karin Molande. Directed by Mauritz Stiller.
Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble.
4:30 p.m.: Stella Dallas (USA, 1925, 120 minutes)
Cast: Ronald Colman, Belle Bennett, Alice Joyce, Jean Hersholt. Directed by Henry King.
Accompanied by Stephen Horne on the grand piano.
7:30 p.m.: The Cameraman (USA, 1928, 76 minutes)
Cast: Buster Keaton, Marceline Day, Harold Goodwin. Directed by Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton.
Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
Preceded by A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès, with live narration by Paul McGann.