Saturday, February 14, 2009

Happy Valentine's Day

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival's special Valentine's Day event runs all day at the Castro Theatre today. Jonathan Kiefer has a fine article at sf360, but let me run down the schedule here as well. Eight films: Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality preceded by Alice Guy's short the Detective and His Dog at noon (doors open at 11:30 AM). A Kiss From Mary Pickford, which shows "America's Sweetheart" to be an understatement, preceded by Guy's Matrimony's Speed Limit at 2:40 PM. Both programs accompanied by Philip Carli at the piano.

Then, after a dinner break, F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, accompanied by Dennis James at the Wurlitzer organ, preceded by Alice Guy's Falling Leaves at 6:30. And finally at 9:30, early Universal Horror film the Cat and the Canary with Dennis James behind the organ and local foley artist Mark Goldstein providing live sound effects, preceded by a fourth Guy short the Pit and the Pendulum (the first known film version of Poe's classic tale).

Each attendee of the festival gets a program guide that includes five substantial essays on the selected films (one covering each of the features, and a fifth on Alice Guy.) I wrote the essay on Sunrise that appears in the program, and I also prepared a slide show on the origin of the Academy Awards and the first awardees, a group that included Janet Gaynor (Best Actress) and Charles Rosher & Karl Struss (Best Cinematography) of Sunrise. The film also won the Academy's first and only "Unique and Artistic Picture" award- for more detail on that particular award, you can read my contribution to the 1927 Blog-a-Thon.

Not everything I researched and wrote about Sunrise made it into the final version of the essay. In fact, a lot had to be left out for space reasons. I began my research focusing on the director Murnau, a fascinating figure who is making his first appearance at the SFSFF with this program (not literally, of course- he died just as the silent era was coming to a close.) Some of the first and best sources I consulted were Lotte Eisner's still-unsurpassed biography and the articles and DVD extras of UCLA scholar Janet Bergstrom.

But as I delved deeper into the project, I found myself becoming particularly fascinated by the studio mogul who made the uniqueness of Sunrise possible, William Fox. Upton Sinclair's biography of the man became a fascinating starting point for a totally new direction of research that culminated in a viewing of the new Murnau, Borzage and Fox documentary upon its DVD release, that played as confirmation and review of information and perspectives I had already become familiar with (at least when it came to the Murnau and Fox material.) I felt like I really began to understand how Fox's nickelodeon operation in Brooklyn transformed into a successful if generally unambitious movie factory in the late teens and early twenties, and then into one of the most, if not the most prestigious and powerful motion picture studio by the late 1920s. And what a spectacular fall from grace for Fox himself! Hopefully some of that comes across in the essay.

Anyway, I better get my rest for the big day now. If you go to the festival (or if you watch Sunrise or another festival selection at home) and have a free moment to leave a comment here, please do so!


  1. I'm killing time at orphan andy's, having gone to 'a kiss from mary pickford' and waiting for 'sunrise.' i haven't read the program yet but kudos in the article!

  2. Thanks, Kaifu! I hope you enjoyed the festival as much as I did. It's funny that the Winter event is now considered the "small" event- it's grown just as big as the July festival was the first year I attended in 2001.

  3. oops, i fat-fingered a bit in that comment at the diner. you also had a 'slideshow by brian' credit before Sunrise! yes, I had a blast. i felt the choices were really well-thought, and I wished i had gone to all four screenings, but i had to save some sanity for sunday's 'the human condition' marathon -- which i survived!

  4. I'm impressed. I had been very excited about the Human Condition but realized I'd have no stamina for it. I rather wish the PFA had opted to schedule it on three separate nights rather than as an all-day marathon. Its three parts were released in different years.

  5. Hey Brian - Thanks for sharing some of your research journey with us. I'm especially anxious to see that Murnau-Borzage-Fox documentary now. Any chance you'll post your essay or a link to it from the blog?

  6. I was also impressed -- the theatre was more than half-full the whole time! According to the introduction, the marathon was a late addition after the winter calendar was already set: "... sunday before Presidents Day, so why not!" That part surprised me a bit because the new prints from Janus debuted at Film Forum's Nakadai retrospective last August and were supposed to be touring around the country.

  7. Kaifu, I'm glad to hear the Human Condition was, all things considered, well-attended. Hopefully the PFA or someone else (the Red Vic?) will deign to bring it back in more manageable nightly or weekly installments.

    I'm a bit surprised to hear it was a late addition to the calendar, since the booking was announced on the Janus site as early as mid-October. But that could well be a late booking for the PFA- I bet it takes a lot of advance planning to juggle the intricate programming of a venue like that.

    Thom: the Silent Film Festival writers group has talked about making the educational materials we produce available on-line, but nothing has been done yet. I'll certainly let Hell on Frisco Bay readers know as soon as something like that happens.