Arts & Events

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Justin DeFreitas
Friday May 22, 2015 - 02:04:00 PM

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary at the Castro Theater in San Francisco May 28–June 1 with an expanded program that adds an additional full day to the event. 


Twenty years ago, who would have thought that a small event with a shoestring budget celebrating a so-called dead medium would grow into one of the great cinema treasures in the Bay Area, which is already blessed with more than its share. Yet grow it did, from one film to two, from one day to four (plus an additional night). The festival, which starts Thursday night, May 28, and runs through Monday, June 1, draws audiences from across the country and around the world, along with some of the best practitioners of silent film accompaniment — musicians from Colorado, New York, England, Sweden, and Germany.
Here are a few highlights. The complete schedule is at
Marking the 100th anniversary of the United States' entry into World War I, the festival opens with Lewis Milestone's adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). It's a powerful anti-war film that follows young German soldiers through the trenches and travails of the Great War. Originally made as a talkie, the studio cut an alternate silent version to facilitate its exhibition in non-English-speaking countries. Silent films were on the brink of obsolescence at that point, yet it's the silent version that endures; without spoken dialogue there is nothing to detract from Milestone's most stirring images, especially the film's closing scenes.
Just a few years after that war, Germany's film industry was in full swing, producing some of cinema's greatest works. At the head of the list of Germany's outstanding directors was F.W. Murnau, who made Nosferatu, the unauthorized 1922 adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, as well as half a dozen other masterworks in both his homeland and America. On Friday night, the festival will screen one if his finest films, The Last Laugh (1924), a humanistic tale of a hotel doorman who is robbed of his pride and self-worth when he is stripped of his doorman's uniform and reduced to a washroom attendant. Among the film's noteworthy achievements are Emil Jannings' lead performance and Murnau's probing "unchained" camera and Expressionist imagery.
Saturday evening's program shifts to glamor and romance with Greta Garbo and Jon Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil (1926), the film that ignited their legendary on- and off-screen romance. Director Clarence Brown believed Garbo was one of just two silent screen actors whose fame and reputation would endure. "Garbo had something behind the eyes that you couldn't see until you photographed it in close-up," he told silent film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow in the 1960s. "You could see thought....Nobody else has been able to do that on the screen."
Sunday showcases one of this year's great discoveries. A print of Sherlock Holmes, lost since its initial run in 1916, was discovered recently at the Cinémathèque Française. The film stars William Gillette, the foremost stage interpreter of Holmes at the time, in his only screen appearance.
Monday's program consists of two highlights. "100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History" presents assembled footage of an unfinished 1913 film featuring an all African-American cast led Bert Williams. The project was abandoned by its white producers after an hour of footage was shot and was forgotten until it was recently discovered in the Museum of Modern Art's Biograph Studio collection.
The festival concludes with the 1925 Ben Hur. Remembered less for its content than the trials and tribulations of its production, which was fraught with delays and near-tragedies on location in Mussolini's Italy, it may not be one of cinema's loftiest achievements, but it is nevertheless superior to the overstuffed and soporific 1959 remake starring Charlton Heston.
These are just the prime-time presentations. The festivals boasts an array of genres, from comedy to curiosities, from mainstream to avant-garde. For a complete schedule, see
Other notable screenings include:
Speedy (1928), Harold Lloyd's final silent film, which features the great comedian as the savior of his father's horse-drawn streetcar line in 1920s New York City. Cameo by Babe Ruth.
When the Earth Trembled (1913), a three-reeler set amid the San Francisco earthquake and fire.
Cave of the Spider Woman (1927), a long-lost Chinese magic-spirit movie.
Visages D'enfants (1925), the story of an 11-year-old boy's grief after the death of his mother.
Why Be Good? (1929), starring perky comedienne Colleen Moore 




San Francisco Silent Film Festival
May 28–June 1
Castro Theater
429 Castro Street, San Francisco