Arts & Events

San Francisco Silent Film Festival Is Next Weekend

Justin DeFreitas
Thursday May 26, 2016 - 02:16:00 PM
Laurel and Hardy’s Battle of the Century (1927)
Laurel and Hardy’s Battle of the Century (1927)

Take a break from the Bernie vs. Hillary battle and step back in time 100 years to an era when the idea of a woman governor, much less a woman president, was the subject of futuristic fiction.  

Just in time for California’s presidential primary, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, running Thursday, June 2, through Sunday, June 5, at the Castro Theatre, presents a timely and topical century-old melodrama called Mothers of Men (1917), which depicts a future in which a woman holds high political office. Shot in the Bay Area and Santa Cruz, the film was released six years after California women won the right to vote and two years before passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. Showing at 4:30 p.m. Friday, the film depicts a determined heroine ascending to governor while fending off threats to her integrity.  

It’s just one of nineteen programs of silent-era treasures showing over four days, each presented with live musical accompaniment by some of the world’s best practitioners of the art. The festival opens and closes with two icons of the era: Louise Brooks kicks things off at 7 p.m. Thursday as a freight-hopping vagabond in Beggars of Life (1928) and Douglas Fairbanks calls it a wrap on Sunday with one of his pre-swashbuckling comedies, the kinetic and surreal When the Clouds Roll By (1919), at 8:30 p.m. In between those surefire crowd-pleasers is a diverse program — everything from Arctic adventure to Broadway murder mystery, from Japanese family drama to French farce.  

One of the festival’s centerpieces this year is Within Our Gates (1920), the earliest surviving film directed by an African American. Oscar Micheaux’s film depicts the early days of Jim Crow, the resurgence of the KKK, and the Great Migration in the story of a young woman who ventures to the North to raise money for a school in the South. The film will be accompanied by Michael Morgan conducting the East Bay Symphony and Chorus in a score composed by Adolphus Hailstork. 

A trio of expressionistic films starts at 7:15 p.m. Friday with Varieté (1925), one of the many great German films shot by über-cinematographer Karl Freund, whose “unchained camera” follows acrobats and trapeze artists in this melodrama of love and lust. Another German classic, Destiny (1921), heralded a series of landmark films by Fritz Lang, the Austrian-born director of M, Metropolis, and Dr. Mabuse. Destiny (Sunday, 3:45) tells the story of a bereaved young bride whom the figure of Death deters from suicide. The film features Lang’s usual predilection for spectacle, this time in a fantasy-adventure whose magic-carpet special effects and depiction of Death inspired everyone from Fairbanks to Ingmar Bergman. The debt owed to these and other German silent classics is on display at 3 p.m. Saturday in Shooting Stars (1928), the debut feature by Anthony Asquith, the British director of A Cottage on Dartmoor.  

The festival comes back down to earth for Laurel and Hardy’s Battle of the Century (1927), one of the legendary lost films of the silent era now restored to its full glory. The second reel, missing for more than sixty years, contains an epic pie fight that required an entire day’s output by the L.A. Pie Company to both satirize and elevate to its highest expression the most clichéd of comedy tropes. The missing reel was discovered last year by Jon Mirsalis, an East Bay film collector and musician who will accompany Battle of the Century on piano. 

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Thursday, June 2 through Sunday, June 5, at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, 415-621-6350.