Monday, June 1, 2009

Silent Film Festivals

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has revealed its full program lineup for the 14th annual edition of its summer celebration of a glorious age of filmmaking. The festival runs July 10-12 at the Castro Theatre. For the third year in a row, I've been a member of the festival's research and writing group, each of us charged with writing an essay and/or compiling a slide show to accompany one of the films selected by the festival programmers. My film this time around has been the Gaucho, the penultimate silent film produced and starred by Douglas Fairbanks, the original cinematic swashbuckler. For the past few months I've dug deeply into "Doug" (as his fans nicknamed him), reading biographies, articles and essays, and watching seventeen of his thirty-eight silent films (six of which are presumed lost), including all the films contained on the recent Flicker Alley DVD release (now available at the SF Public Library). The Gaucho is not on that set, though it is available on DVD through Kino. Still, it's one of the least-seen of his costume adventure films, even though it was a hit at the time of its original release, and showcases a terrific feature debut performance by Lupe Vélez, the so-called "Mexican Firecracker".

The Gaucho is the festival's opening-night film, and it should be a delightful way to open a weekend of beautiful restored prints from around the world, live performances by silent-film music specialists, and general merriment. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will be appearing, for the third time at the festival, premiering a brand-new in-period score to the film. The screening is co-presented by the Mexican Museum, quite appropriately since though the film is set in a picture-book version of the Argentine Andes, many of the film's actors and extras in addition to Vélez were in fact of Mexican descent.

My essay will be available as part of a complimentary program guide presented to everyone who attends the festival. It may also appear online at some future date; the festival has recently begun making essays from certain previous programs available on its website. My essays for the festival's screenings of Teinosuke Kinugasa's Jujiro in 2008 and William C. de Mille's Miss Lulu Bett in 2007 are among those currently viewable, though I highly recommend browsing the archive and reading essays by all the writers in the group; they are intended to be equally useful for people who have seen the films in question, and for those who haven't.

In addition to the Gaucho, this year's festival includes nine feature films, two presentations of shorts and rare fragments (a set of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons, and the annual free Amazing Tales From the Archives presentation), and almost every feature will also be preceded by a short film featuring a silent film star celebrating her centennial year in the cinema in 2009: Mary Pickford. I can particularly recommend two films I've seen at the Pacific Film Archive, but which should be particularly stunning on the Castro's towering screen: Josef Von Sternberg's prototypical gangster film Underworld, and Victor Sjostrom's most famous film the Wind, starring Lillian Gish.

I have not yet seen the other features, but I am extremely excited to see the version of Fall of the House of Usher directed by French critic-turned-filmmaker Jean Epstein, and the Chinese film Wild Rose, directed by Shanghai's perhaps most notable auteur of the era, Sun Yu. Wild Rose stars Jin Yan, the Korean-born matinee idol who played opposite tragic Ruan Ling-yu in the 2000 SFSFF film the Peach Girl. His widow Qin Yi will be in attendance at the screening.

Terry Zwigoff, maker of Crumb, Ghost World and Bad Santa has been invited to provide the "director's pick" this year, following up on Guy Maddin's selection the Unknown last summer. Zwigoff will present W.C. Fields in what is generally regarded as the comedian's finest silent film, So's Your Old Man. The festival will bring its first-ever film from the Czechoslovakian silent film industry, Erotikon by Gustav Machaty, who would later make Hedy Lamarr famous worldwide when directing her nude scene in Ecstasy. Also from Eastern Europe is the late-night pick co-presented by MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS, Aelita, Queen of Mars, a big-budget science fiction film made in the Soviet Union.

Douglas Fairbanks is not the only swashbuckler in the lineup, as John Gilbert plays one in Bardleys the Magnificent, a King Vidor film that had been considered a "lost film" until a short while ago when it was rediscovered and transfered to a digital presentation format; this will be the festival's first time showing one of its programs on anything other than celluloid, as there is no projectable film print available anywhere in the world. Finally, the weekend closes as it opened, with a Lupe Vélez starring role, only this time she plays the title character: Lady of the Pavements, one of D.W. Griffith's last and least-known features today, and said to be reminiscent of German Street Films of the 1920s.

Loyal attendees of the Silent Film Festival will recognize the names of the musicians coming to perform at the festival: Dennis James at the Mighty Wurlitzer, aided by Mark Goldstein providing electronic effects for Aelita (it seems the Wind will also include special sound effects as well; this is no gentle breeze). Pianists Philip Carli (So's Your Old Man), Stephen Horne (Fall of the House of Usher, Underworld and the archive presentation program), and Donald Sosin. Sosin will play for Wild Rose, for the Oswald program (and those who remember how he encouraged a delightful form of audience participation during last year's animation matinee Adventures of Prince Achmed will know that this should be a good match up), and for Lady of the Pavements. For the latter, Sosin's wife Joanna Seaton will provide a vocal performance in the spirit of the film's original 1929 presentation in a part-talkie form. And in addition to the Gaucho, the Mont Alto orchestra will provide scores to Bardleys the Magnificent and Erotikon. Then, two days after the festival ends, in San Rafael, they will perform to Buster Keaton's the Cameraman at an event put on by a wholly different organization, the California Film Institute, who introduced this quintet to Frisco Bay audiences several years before they began playing at the SFSFF.

Yes, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is not the only game in town for fans of watching silent films in a cinema setting with live musical accompaniment; in Fremont, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum has weekly screenings every Saturday of the year except for the weekend of the SFSFF. This weekend is Charlie Chaplin Days in Niles, an excuse for a screening of the Kid as well as a slew of Chaplin shorts at the museum theatre. And on June 26-28 the museum hosts its own three-day film festival, the 12th Annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival named for the cowboy star who made Niles the base of operations for his filmmaking nearly 100 years ago. This year the Broncho Billy festival follows last year's centennial commemoration of the Edison Trust with a focus on independent studios that defied the at-the-time majors. Some of these independents became major studios themselves; a program devoted to the beginnings of Paramount opens the festival, and another showcasing early Universal (including a screening of Erich von Stroheim's Foolish Wives) closes it. In between, there are programs devoted to less-remembered companies such as Thanhauser, Ince, and the American Film Company, as well as a program of comedies introduced by "Baby Peggy" herself, and a selection of Frisco Bay-made silents.

And to get everyone involved in the celebration of "independent" filmmaking, not just fans of silent-era film, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is bringing (gasp!) talkies to its screen on other June evenings; specifically, independently-produced films by modern-day Frisco Bay filmmakers. I have never heard of the Weekend King, shot in Niles and playing this Friday June 5th, and I don't believe I'd ever seen a Scary Cow production before learning the production company would be featured with a screening on June 21st. But I'm very glad that Frisco Bay residents will on Friday June 12th have another shot at seeing the terrific debut feature Around the Bay from Alejandro Adams, who I interviewed on the occasion of its last local cinema screening at last year's Cinequest festival in San Jose. And I'm excited for the opportunity to hear Frisco Bay indie filmmaking legends John Korty and Les Blank present films and clips in a homey, intimate space. Blank's Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, surely the definitive documentary about Nosferatu's least favorite garnish, is planned to play with the director in person on Friday, June 19th. The screening is not advertised as being in "Smellaround" but neither was the screening held four years ago at the Castro where I swear my nose was sensing delicious aromas before the film was half over. Will we one day talk about "scentless" films like we now talk about "silents"?


  1. i love les blank my favorite: Gap-Toothed Women

  2. That one has eluded me as yet. I want to see it though! My favorite of is films is Always For Pleasure, his film on New Orleans Mardi Gras.