The San Francisco Silent Film Festival starts Thursday night and runs through Sunday night at the Castro Theater.
Far from the ragged, blurry images of the popular imagination, the silent era of filmmaking was an age of discovery, innovation, and supreme achievement by pioneers working in a new medium. Motion pictures, at first treated as a mere novelty, came of age as an art form between 1910 and 1920, growing from brief, flickering diversions into full-scale narratives. And in the 1920s, the silent era's final decade, cinema truly blossomed as it gained in sophistication and artistry. In those early years, film—despite the tiredness of the cliché—was a new and universal language, relying almost exclusively on image and motion to convey plot and meaning.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival showcases the breadth and depth of this first golden age of cinema, presenting the full range of film treasures—from slapstick comedy to noir, from documentary to the avant garde—as it was meant to be seen: on the big screen, in a beautiful 1920s movie palace, and with live musical accompaniment. This year’s program begins Thursday night, May 29, at the Castro Theater with Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which not only features the famous tango that made Rudolph Valentino one of the biggest stars of the era, but honors the hundredth anniversary of the world war that provides the film's backdrop.
The festival continues all day Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, closing with a 9 p.m. Sunday screening of Buster Keaton's classic 1924 comedy, The Navigator. In between you'll find a wide range of films accompanied by an array of superb musicians that includes the British Film Institute's Stephen Horne, playing his unique blend of piano, flute, and accordion; the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra of Colorado, which replicates the sound of the small orchestras that performed for mid-size silent-era theaters; and the Matti Bye Ensemble of Sweden, which brings a more modern, experimental approach to the art of silent film accompaniment.
For more information or to order tickets, go to silentfilm.org. Tickets are $15-$20 per show, or $225 for a festival pass. The complete program is below.
Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
THURSDAY, MAY 29 • 7:00 PM
USA, 1921 • Appoximately 132 minutes
Director Rex Ingram
Cast Rudolph Valentino, Alice Terry, Pomeroy Cannon, Josef Swickard, Alan
Musical Accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
The film that made Rudolph Valentino a star and brought director Rex Ingram to prominence, Four Horsemen is one of the greatest of the Great War chronicles. Valentino brought a new kind of leading man to the screen in the role of Julio Desnoyers: the Latin lover. Desnoyers is the favorite grandson of a wealthy Argentinean rancher, who teaches young Julio to tango and takes him to seedy bars in Buenos Aires’s Boca district. After his grandfather’s death, Julio moves to France and continues his dissolute lifestyle. He falls in love with a married woman (Alice Terry) and is finally shamed into joining the army. The original press book hailed it as “an epic tale of surging passion sweeping from the wide plains of the Argentine through the fascinating frivolities of pre-war Paris into the blazing turmoil of the German invasion.” Based on the best-selling novel by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez and adapted for screen by June Mathis, Four Horsemen was among the biggest box office hits of the silent era, premiering in March 1921 to great critical acclaim. The film was re-released in a shortened version in 1926, the year Valentino died, and was seen in that truncated form until Kevin Brownlow and David Gill undertook a restoration in the early 1990s. Brownlow and Gill returned the film to its original length with its original color tints, as well as restoring the famous tango to its scintillating splendor. Their fully restored version reveals director Rex Ingram as a masterly painter in light as well as a sensitive storyteller. This presentation commemorates the 100th anniversary of World War I, as well as the 25th anniversary of the accompanying ensemble—who started life as the Mont Alto Ragtime and Tango Orchestra.
Amazing Tales From the Archives
FRIDAY, MAY 30 • 10:00 AM
Approximately 100 minutes
Musical Accompaniment by Stephen Horne
A behind-the-curtain look at the international preservation scene. Bryony Dixon, Curator of Silent Film, BFI National Archive, presents some astonishing early nature films, which were among the very first films preserved by the BFI National Archive. Dixon’s presentation explores the innovative work of Britain’s nature-loving film pioneers who invented their own equipment and methodology, developed techniques and braved the elements to launch the genre that eventually led to such pinnacles of achievement as Sir David Attenborough’s Planet Earth (BBC, 2006). The familiar snippet of film commonly known as Fred Ott’s Sneeze became an icon of the earliest cinema. Dan Streible, Founder and Director Orphan Film Symposium, takes a New Look at an Old Sneeze as he shares his discoveries about the film we thought we knew well, which had been missing almost half of the frames shot in 1894! Streible’s presentation includes the new Library of Congress 35mm print of the complete kinetoscopic record. Craig Barron (Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor) and Ben Burtt (Academy Award-winning sound designer) share fascinating insights into Charlie Chaplin’s significant use of technical effects such as matte shots, process shots, miniatures, and rear projection to complement real-life settings, as well as Chaplin’s selective use of sound effects and peripheral dialogue as the sound age developed. Barron and Burtt’s presentation explores how Chaplin worked and adapted new technology and developments to his process—with behind-the-scenes stills, film clips, and animations.
Song of the Fisherman
FRIDAY, MAY 30 • 1:00 PM
China, 1934 Approximately 60 minutes
Director Cai Chusheng
Cast Wang Renmei, Luo Peng, Yuan Congmei, Han Langen
Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin
Cai Chusheng’s Song of the Fishermen is not only the first social-realist film in Chinese cinema history, but also the first Chinese film to win a prize in an international festival (Moscow Film Festival, 1935). Depicting the struggle of the poor in Shanghai, the film is a moving story of social injustice told with eloquence and passion. Starring the beautiful Wang Renmei (Wild Rose), the film was a breakaway success—playing in Shanghai for a record 84 days to an audience of nearly a million. Wang Renmei became known as the “Wildcat of Shanghai” for her intense performance as “Little Cat” in the film. While shooting Song, Wang announced her marriage to Jin Yang—her Wild Rose costar, considered the Rudolph Valentino of Shanghai—and consequently Linhua Film Company dropped her contract in the belief that a married actress wouldn’t attract male audiences. The film’s title song (composed by Ren Guang) was a huge contemporary hit in Shanghai, and later (in the 1970s) it became a hit in the U.S.
FRIDAY, MAY 30 • 3:00 PM
USA, 1928 Approximately 61 minutes
Director F. Harmon Weight
Cast Jacqueline Logan, Clive Brook, Walter McGrail, James Bradbury, Oscar
Musical Accompaniment by Stephen Horne
A silent melodrama loosely inspired by The Taming of the Shrew and directed by F. Harmon Weight. Secretary Norma Forbes (Jacqueline Logan) accepts the marriage proposal of Michael Bream (Clive Brook), wealthy diamond miner. Norma reveals to her boss and actual love interest (Walter McGrail) that she’s only marrying for the money. Having eavesdropped through a conveniently open door, Michael, despite his genuine affections, schemes to teach his gold-digging fiancée a lesson. From New York, the newlyweds sail second class to South Africa, where Michael leads his wife to believe that he is down-and-out. They settle in a bleak shack near a mine, where Norma discovers the hardships of life in the African jungle. She sends a cable to her former employer, divulging her whereabouts. A fight ensues, which leaves Michael bound up and prey to a lion. At last realizing her affection for her husband, Mrs. Bream returns with a shotgun—setting up a suspenseful climax that can only result in no lady or no lion. —Jennifer Rhee
The Parson's Widow
FRIDAY, MAY 30 • 5:00 PM
Sweden, 1920 Approximately 88 minutes
Director Carl Th. Dreyer
Cast Hildur Carlberg, Einar Rød, Greta Almroth, Olav Aukrust, Kurt Welin,
Mathilde Nielsen, Lorentz Thyholt
Musical Accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble A very early film by one of cinema’s masters, and one that will surprise those familiar only with Dreyer’s most famous work—the darkly moving The Passion of Joan of Arc. The Parson’s Widow is as beautifully composed as the later work, but replete with deft comic touches as well. Based on a story by Norwegian poet Kristofer Janson, The Parson’s Widow tells the story of a young seminary graduate (Einar Rød) who travels with his sweetheart (Greta Almroth) to a small village to audition for the job of pastor of the local church. It seems the seminarian can’t marry his beautiful sweetheart before he has a secure job and he’s perfect for the parsonage. The only catch: His deceased predecessor’s elderly widow (Hildur Carlberg) has first dibs on marrying the young man. She charms him through enchantment (hexed herring, perhaps?) and soon the old woman and young man are married. A simple plot filled with opportunity for hilarity, but this is also a Dreyer film and it is tinged throughout with humanity and generosity for all of its characters.
FRIDAY, MAY 30 • 7:30 PM
USA, 1928 Approximately 80 minutes
Director Edwin Carewe
Cast Dolores del Rio, Warner Baxter, Roland Drew, Vera Lewis, Michael
Musical Accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Edwin Carewe directed the 1928 version of what had by then proven a durable story, filmed twice previously (and at least once subsequently). Adapted from Helen Hunt Jackson’s hugely popular 1884 novel, the Ramona narrative tells of a mixed-race (Scots-Native American) woman, sympathetically detailing her persecution for reasons of race. Carewe, himself of Chickasaw descent (a very rare thing in Hollywood), represented a felicitous match for the material and a sensitive interpreter of the action. Also inspired was the choice of Dolores del Rio as the star of the 1928 version, being herself a proud Mexican actress who famously declined to be identified as “Spanish” during her career. Wearing a theme of cultural diversity on its sleeve, the Ramona story has become a touchstone to generations of Californians, and an indispensable part of the state’s imaginative cultural heritage. In early California, powerful rancher Señora Moreno (Vera Lewis) is raising the mixed-race orphan Ramona along with her own son Felipe. Ramona (Dolores del Rio) falls in love with Alessandro (Warner Baxter), a Temecula Indian who works at the ranch. Defying Señora Moreno, Ramona elopes with Alessandro, and starts a new life embracing her Indian heritage. But her new family endures tragedy and persecution in an age that held little tolerance for Native Americans.
FRIDAY, MAY 30 • 10:00 PM
USSR, 1936 Approximately 70 minutes
Director Vasili Zhuravlyov
Cast Sergei Komarov, Vasili Kovrigin, Nikolai Feoktistov, Viktor
Gaponenko, Kseniya Moskalenko
Musical Accompaniment by the Silent Movie Music Company (Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius)
The Soviet Union was serious about its science fiction, bringing in rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky as a technical consultant on Cosmic Voyage. Tsiolkovsky designed miniatures for this big budget project that enjoyed the full backing of the Communist Youth League. A trip to the moon, what better way to inspire the youth of a nation! Set in 1946 (a mere 10 years away!), Cosmic Voyage portrays the Soviet space program fractured by warring factions—those who want to play it safe and those who are eager to go to the moon. Professor Sedikh (of the pro-moon-trip faction) is considered too old to lead the first manned moon flight, but he and his assistant Marina elude the naysayers and blast off on their mission, aided by a boy scout (Andryusha) and a fluffy Cat. Cosmic Voyage is a wonderful adventure with hilarious subplots and remarkably sound science. In fact, the film is visionary in its relevance to real-life developments in space exploration. Cosmic Voyage had a brief release in early 1936 before Soviet censors took it out of release. Scenes of cosmonauts hopping across the low-gravity lunar surface didn’t fit with their ideal of socialist realism.
The Good Bad Man
SATURDAY, MAY 31 • 10:00 AM
USA, 1916 Approximately 80 minutes
Director Allan Dwan
Cast Douglas Fairbanks, Sam De Grasse, Doc Cannon, Joseph Singleton,
Bessie Love, Mary Alden
Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin
Douglas Fairbanks produced, wrote and starred (as the character “Passin’ Through”) in this western directed by Allan Dwan and photographed by Victor Fleming. Passin’ Through is an orphan who becomes a Robin Hood-like bandit, robbing from the rich to aid unwanted children. Sam De Grasse is The Wolf who killed Passin’ Through’s father, and silent stars Bessie Love and Pomeroy Cannon have roles. Join us for the world premiere of this new restoration, completed by way of a three-way partnership between SFSFF, Cinémathèque française, and the Film Preservation Society.
Serge Bromberg's Treasure Trove
SATURDAY, MAY 31 • 12:00 NOON
Approximately 80 minutes
Presentation and Musical Accompaniment by Serge Bromberg
World-famous preservationist and entertainer Serge Bromberg has long been a collector of celluloid images and has regularly organized cine-shows he calls Retour de Flamme where he presents rare and often unique footage. Recently film historian and collector Fernando Peña of Buenos Aires (the man who discovered the complete version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis) made a magnificent discovery—a lost version of Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith. Peña reached out to Bromberg about restoring the title and when Bromberg went looking for a 35mm copy that would match the discovered version, he found additional footage! Bromberg will introduce each treasure and accompany the film on piano. Fernando Peña will join Bromberg to introduce The Blacksmith.
The Epic of Everest
SATURDAY, MAY 31 • 2:00 PM
UK, 1924 Approximately 87 minutes
Director John Noel
Musical Accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius The Epic of Everest (1924) is the official film record, shot by Captain John Noel, of the third British expedition to attempt to reach the summit of the world’s highest peak. We begin with the large contingent of men, animals and equipment gathered to journey across the Tibetan Plateau towards Everest. En route the film records some of the earliest images of the Tibetan people and their culture, including scenes at the village of Phari (Pagri), Shekar Dzong (Xegar) and the Rongbuk Monastery. On the slopes of Everest we follow each stage of the climb as the mountaineers and Sherpas progress, enduring incredibly harsh conditions. When the camera can go no further, a specially designed telephoto lens, filming at a distance of over two miles, records the final attempts of climbers Mallory and Irvine to reach the summit. The film exemplifies the age of heroic adventure. Man had already reached the North and South Poles; now the new challenge was to climb the world’s highest peak—‘the Third Pole’. The Mount Everest Committee was formed in 1920 by the Alpine Club of Great Britain and the Royal Geographical Society. Special permission to enter Tibet was granted by the 13th Dalai Lama, negotiated by the remarkable diplomat and Tibetologist, Sir Charles Bell. In 1921 Lieutenant Colonel Charles Howard-Bury led a reconnaissance expedition to establish a route for future climbs. In 1922 the second expedition, led by Brigadier General Charles Bruce, recruited Captain John Noel as official cameraman. In 1924 Noel returned as official cameraman, having bought the photographic rights in advance. A version of his film became The Epic of Everest. Like The Great White Silence, Herbert Ponting’s filmed record of Captain Scott’s 1910-13 expedition to the South Pole, Noel’s film served both as an absorbing documentary of an extraordinary journey into the interior of Tibet and as a memorial to a tragedy. The loss of Mallory and Irvine turned the failed expedition into one of the 20th century’s most compelling mysteries. In 1999 Mallory’s body was found on the slopes of Everest. A vestpocket Kodak camera carried by Mallory is still missing. Fierce speculation continues—would any film it contains solve the mystery of who first conquered Everest? —
SATURDAY, MAY 31 • 4:30 PM
UK, 1928, Approximately 77 minutes
Director Anthony Asquith
Cast Brian Aherne, Elissa Landi, Cyril McLaglen, Norah Baring
Musical Accompaniment by Stephen Horne The second feature from aristocratic British director Anthony Asquith (A Cottage on Dartmoor, Pygmalion), Underground is a working-class love story and thriller set in and around London’s subway system. The romantic triangle pits nice-guy Brian Aherne against sinister Cyril McLaglen for the affections of beautiful shopgirl Elissa Landi. The film’s climax is a chase scene at a power station that rivals Hitchcock’s chase scene at the British Museum in Blackmail. Asquith’s fondness for German Expressionism is evident in the lighting, by German Karl Fischer, and the influence of Soviet filmmakers in the use of montage. The British Film Institute restored Underground in 2013, to mark the 150th anniversary of the London subway.
Under the Lantern
SATURDAY, MAY 31 • 7:00 PM
Germany, 1928, Approximately 129 minutes
Director Gerhard Lamprecht,
Cast Lissy Arna, Gerhard Dammann, Mathias Wieman, Paul Heidemann, Hubert
Musical Accompaniment by the Donald Sosin Ensemble
The story of a good girl’s descent to a life on the street has been told many times in cinema, but Lamprecht’s telling is filled with such humanity and feel for the denizens of the demimonde that it approaches masterpiece. Especially accompanied by Donald Sosin (composer/piano), Günter Buchwald (violin), Frank Bockius (percussion), and Sascha Jacobsen (bass), whose score with its evocation of Berlin in the ’20s masterfully complements Karl Hasselmann’s expressive camera.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks
SATURDAY, MAY 31 • 10:00 PM
USSR. 1924 Approximately 74 minutes
Director Lev Kuleshov
Cast Porfiriy Podobed, Boris Barnet, Aleksandra Kho, Vsevolod Pudovikin
Musical Accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble
It may seem unlikely that a manic satire of American ignorance about the Soviet Union was one of the first projects to emerge from the workshop of Russian film theoretician Lev Kuleshov. But The Extraordinary Aventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks proves Kuleshov’s ideas about the power of editing and montage, with its fast-paced, slapstick American-style comedy. Mr. West (Porfiri Podobed), a goofy YMCA executive in Harold Lloyd glasses and fur coat travels to Moscow with his cowboy sidekick/bodyguard Jeddy (Boris Barnet). Immediately Mr. West is separated from Jeddy and falls into the clutches of a motley group of thieves posing as Bolsheviks (including Vsevolod Pudovkin!). He is eventually rescued by real Bolsheviks and reunited with Jeddy—who in the meantime has fallen in love—and they take a sightseeing tour of Moscow (Moscow in the '20s!) where American Mr. West finds that Soviets are not the barbarians he expected.
Seven Years Bad Luck
SUNDAY, JUNE 1 • 10:00 AM
USA, 1921 Approximately 62 minutes
Director Max Linder
Cast Max Linder, Alta Allen, Ralph McCullough, Betty Peterson
Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius
Before there was Chaplin and Keaton, there was Max Linder. A handsome and dapper Parisian, Linder began appearing in film shorts for Pathé in 1905, becoming the cinema’s first comic star. Chaplin and others have cited him as an inspiration. After World War I, Linder moved to Chicago to make films for Essanay, which had recently lost Chaplin. But Linder’s films were not successful in the U.S., and he returned to France. Suffering from depression, he committed suicide in 1925, and his films have been difficult to see. Now, in one of his wonderful American comedies, Seven Years Bad Luck (restored by Lobster films), festival audiences have a rare opportunity to experience Linder’s artistry, including the famous mirror gag that Linder originated. Presented with MAX WANTS A DIVORCE (USA, d. Max Linder, 22 minutes)
SUNDAY, JUNE 1 • 12:00 NOON
Japan, 1933 Approximately 100 minutes
Director Yasujiro Ozu
Cast Kinuyo Tanaka, Joji Oka, Sumiko Mizukubo
Musical Accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald
Best known for his gentle family comedies and dramas, Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu also made three silent gangster films. Dragnet Girl, the last and best of them, stars future Mizoguchi muse Kinuyo Tanaka as a typist by day, and gun-toting gangster’s moll by night. As her ex-boxer lover, Joji Oka matches her tough bravado. Ozu, a fan of American films, pays stylish homage to the genre, filling the frame with Hollywood-style décor and costumes, moody lighting and noir shadows. The sets and cinematography were reportedly influenced by the work of Joseph von Sternberg. Not typical Ozu, but a surprising, delightful anomaly.
The Girl in Tails
SUNDAY, JUNE 1 • 2:30 PM
Sweden, 1926 Approximately 110 minutes
Director Karin Swanström
Cast Einar Axelsson, Magda Holm, Nils Arehn, Georg Blomstedt, Karin
Swanström, Erik Zetterström
Musical Accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra A fizzy comedy that makes some serious feminist points, The Girl in Tails was directed by forgotten multi-hyphenate Swedish director Karin Swanström. The film is based on one of a series of novels satirizing small-town life by one of Sweden’s leading early 20th writers. Katja (Magda Holm) wants a new dress for her graduation dance, but her father won’t buy her one. So Katja dresses up in her brother’s tuxedo and attends the dance, smoking cigars, drinking brandy, and shocking the locals. Director Swanström gives herself a juicy role as a formidable dowager who is the town’s leading citizen. Today, Swanström is a footnote in film history, a studio talent scout who is sometimes credited with discovering Ingrid Bergman. But during the 1920s and ’30s, Swanström—a character actress, director and studio executive—was one of the most powerful people in the Swedish film industry.
The Sign of Four
SUNDAY, JUNE 1 • 5:00 PM
UK, 1923 Approximately 83 minutes
Director Maurice Elvey
Cast Eille Norwood, Arthur M. Cullin, Isobel Elsom, Fed Raynham, Norman Page
Musical Accompaniment Donald Sosin on piano with Guenter Buchwald on violin
One of the best of the surviving silent Sherlock Holmes features, The Sign of Four stars Eille Norwood as the great detective. Arthur Conan Doyle said of Norwood, “He has that rare quality that can only be described as glamour, which compels you to watch an actor eagerly even when he is doing nothing. He has the brooding eye which excites expectation and has also a quite unrivalled power of disguise.” England’s Stoll Film Company was known for producing high-budget dramas with visual flair and director Elvey adapted Conan Doyle’s novel for the screen with wit and energy. The film was shot on the streets of London and includes a thrilling chase on the Thames.
SUNDAY, JUNE 1 • 7:00 PM
Germany, 1929 Approximately 93 minutes
Director Leo Mittler
Cast Lissi Arna, Paul Rehkopf, Fritz Genschow, Siegfried Arno, Friedrich
Gnass, Margarete Kupfer
Musical Accompaniment Stephen Horne on piano with Frank Bockius on percussion At Harbor Drift’s center is a beautiful pearl necklace that could change the lives of three impoverished people, but instead leads to more misery. Exquisite camerawork by Friedl Behn-Grund takes in the harbor, bridges, canals and alleyways of Hamburg as the eloquent story prefigures film noir in its depiction of fated souls. The German title Jenseits der Strasse’s subtitle: Eine Tragödie des Alltags—a tragedy of everyday life—is an apt description of Weimar Germany’s unemployment and destitution as personified in the film by an old beggar (Paul Rehkopf), a jobless young man (Fritz Genschow), and a prostitute (Lissy Arna). Little known in the U.S., Harbor Drift is a masterpiece of the late silent era, worthy of standing with giants such as Asphalt and Joyless Street.
SUNDAY, JUNE 1 • 9:00 PM
USA, 1924 Approximately 60 minutes
Director Buster Keaton, Donald Crisp
Cast Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Frederick Vroom, Clarence Burton,
Musical Accompaniment by the Matti Bye Ensemble In his fourth feature film, The Navigator, Buster Keaton plays a rich man who goes to great lengths to woo his ladylove (Kathryn McGuire), and in typical Keaton fashion, ends up adrift at sea. To film the shipboard scenes, Keaton chartered a 370-foot steamship capable of holding hundreds of passengers and crew, anchored it first at Catalina Island and later at Lake Tahoe, and spent ten weeks filming some of his most elaborate and famous stunts, including an underwater sequence. The results were worth it: The Navigator was one of his most successful films, and critics at the time praised it as his best. Keaton also counted it as one of his personal favorites. With: POCHTA (USSR, 1929, d. Mikhail Tsekhanovskiy, 18 minutes) The closing night program will start with an absolute masterpiece of Soviet animation, Pochta. This brilliant short animation uses a variety of techniques to tell the story of a letter that travels around the world. Guenter Buchwald will accompany on piano.