Saturday, April 13, 2013

Old San Francisco (1927)

WHO: Alan Crosland was the director of this film; in 1961 William K. Everson called him "sadly underrated by historians" and I don't think his stock has been rated much higher in the decades since then.

WHAT: By no means an example of silent-era movie-making at it's highest artistic level, Old San Francisco is nonetheless a fascinating curiosity, especially for anyone interested in how San Francisco's Chinatown and the 1906 earthquake were depicted in the silent era.

Beyond some stock photography of city views, the production was made entirely on Hollywood sets.  Old San Francisco was the last of a string of films including Don Juan and When a Man Loves, each made by Crosland as silents and then released with Vitaphone disc musical scores in theatres wired for sound. His next film was his, and Hollywood's, first feature to include sequences with synchronized dialogue: The Jazz Singer. It's notable that this used San Francisco (in particular, the famed speakeasy Coffee Dan's) as the setting for the first appearance of star Al Jolson's voice in the film. According to the Warner DVD commentary recorded by Ron Hutchinson and Vince Giordano, this scene was actually shot in Los Angeles, meaning that again San Francisco is only actually seen on screen thanks to stock photography.

WHERE/WHEN: Screens on a program beginning at 7:30 tonight only at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

WHY: For those more interested in films shot on Frisco Bay than in those merely set on Frisco Bay, tonight's screening is still noteworthy, as Old San Francisco is accompanied by two brief documentaries made in 1906 (A Trip Down Market Street and The Destruction of San Francisco) which together depict the vast changes to the cityscape in April of that year. Yes, this is the Niles Film Museum's annual earthquake-themed show, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the most cataclysmic minute in the city's history. The actual anniversary is this Thursday, but the Museum doesn't traditionally hold screenings on Thursdays. 

There are likely to be more Frisco Bay films screening at Niles soon, including some surely shot in Niles itself, as the annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival has announced its dates (June 28-30) and even provided a teaser of a few titles. King Vidor's top-drawer Hollywood satire Show People, Lotte Reiniger's beautifully animated The Adventures of Price Achmed and the Gregory La Cava-directed Colleen Moore picture His Nibs are among those being dangled in front of us before the full program is announced. None of these are, to my knowledge, set or shot in the Bay Area, but Broncho Billy always screens a number of films produced by the Niles Essanay studio which the museum is named for and primarily devoted to.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has also announced, if only through a fundraising letter to members and friends of the festival, that a shot-in-San Francisco silent film called The Last Edition is expected to screen at it's annual Castro Theatre event in July. Another film, Allan Dwan's 1916 vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks called The Half-Breed, will also have its world premiere in a new restoration at that festival; according to Geoffrey Bell's The Golden Gate and the Silver Screen it was filmed at least partially near Boulder Creek in Santa Cruz County. A third title mentioned in the mailing, The Joyless Street, was filmed in Germany, of course, by G.W. Pabst in his pre-Pandora's Box days. The full program is expected to be announced May 23.

If you can't make it to Niles tonight, there are quite a few Frisco Bay-shot films screening tonight at the Victoria in the San Francisco Underground Short Film Festival. These are not silent-era films, but some of them are hilarious. I got quite a kick out of the dark comedy in Robb Grimes's two entries, Come To The Bridge and So Long And Thanks For All The Popcorn, both filmed at the sadly-shuttered Bridge Theatre. In fact, I believe the marquee there still has the letters of the latter title emblazoned for everyone traveling down Geary Street to see.

HOW: Old San Francisco and The Destruction of San Francisco will screen from 16mm prints, while A Trip Down Market Street will screen from a 35mm print. All will be accompanied by Greg Pane at the piano.

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