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2014 SF Silent Film Festival
2014 SFSFF The lovely, historic Castro Theater in San Francisco was the site of the 19th Annual SF Silent Film Festival from May 29th-Jun 1st. It was my 11th year at the event, and there's a reason that I travel across the country every summer to attend: It's easily the best venue to see silent films in the country, and one of the best festivals of its type in the world. Artistic director Anita Monga and executive director Stacey Wisnia scour the film archives all around the world to present new restorations, previously lost films, and some outstanding classics to the screen. They don't stop there however. They also arrange to have all of the films accompanied by live music performed by top-tier musicians. This year talent flew in from as far away as England, Germany, and Sweden, as well as some fantastic domestic groups.

Here's a run down of this year's presentations.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

The festival started with a screening of the Rex Ingram classic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This is the movie that turned Rudolph Valentino into an international superstar overnight. The print was a restored copy from the Warner Brothers vaults, and it looked very good. The famous Tango scene, which started a fad here in the US and elsewhere around the world, was much longer than other prints that I have seen. Warner's had allowed that dance sequence to be used in documentaries and retrospectives over the years, and most of the dance is actually missing from the WB negative, hence the reason for the abbreviated version that most of us are used to seeing. But for this restoration, various prints from around the world were used to piece together the full sequence.

It is easy to see why Valentino was considered a sex symbol after this film. He simply exudes charm and charisma when he is on the screen. I found the parts without Valentino to drag a little, but when he was present the movie seemed to flow effortlessly. The movie was accompanied by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and they did a wonderful job, as always.



Amazing Tales from the Archives


This program is free to the public, and one event that I really look forward to every year. Archivists from around the world discuss the work that they've been doing and show examples of the films they've discovered or restored. This time around there were three presentations, all of them incredibly interesting. It started off with Bryony Dixon, the Senior Curator of Silent Film for the British Film Institute, who presented some rare and wonderful nature films that were made in Britain in the early days of the last century.

Next up was a 45-minute talk about a film that only runs two seconds long. Fred Ott's Sneeze, a famous film that most film fans have seen at one time or another, was discussed by Dan Streible from the Orphan Film Institute. This iconic short of a man sneezing was made by Edison in 1894, but it wasn't until recently that people realized that the version has been shown for decades was truncated and about half of it was missing. Through some interesting detective work, Mr. Streible managed to piece together the entire film and presented the new Library of Congress 35mm print. He also screened an absolutely hilarious short that David Shepard (Blackhawk Films) created several years ago that imagines what it would be like if the infamous Raymond Rohauer had acquired the early Edison films. Check it out below.



The program was concluded with two Academy Award winning film makers. Visual-effects supervisor Craig Barron (Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.) and sound designer Ben Burtt (Star Wars, Wall-E) discussed Charlie Chaplin's use of technology. While Chaplin famously did not want to make sound films once they were possible, he wasn't a Luddite and was more than willing to use new technology if it would make his films better. He just thought that sound was a step in the wrong direction. They presentation was enlightening, funny, and very enjoyable.


The Song of the Fishermen

This 1934 film from China was the first social-realist movie that the country produced. It tells the story of twins, brother and sister, who are born to a fisherman and his wife. They live in a small village that is extremely poor, and things go from bad to worse when the local buyer lowers the price that he's willing to pay for fish. Living in extreme poverty and having to support their blind mother (the father having died long ago) the two young adults try everything to keep body and soul together.

This was a very good film, but it was marred by the fact that it was censored, presumably by the Chinese government at some point. There were gaps in the narrative that made it hard to follow the plot. For example, the father bemoans that he'll have to take his boat 'out to sea' in order to feed the two children that his wife has just had, and then he's never seen again. It's assumed that he died, but some mention of that would have been much more dramatic that just never seeing him again. One can only imagine what was censored over the years.



Midnight Madness


This light comedy was just the sort of thing that kept people coming to the movies in the 1920's. It isn't a classic, but it is a fun and entertaining film. Norma is a secretary in New York who in love with her boss, John, a partner in a diamond brokerage firm. She's truly love to marry him and when he offers her a diamond ring she's speechless. He wasn't proposing however, but offering her a bribe to go out with Michael so she can use her feminine charms to discover the location of his South African diamond claim.

Going along with the scheme, Norma is surprised when the handsome Michael proposes on their first date. He's going back of South Africa and wants her to come with him. He gives her a large diamond ring, and Norma accepts. Being married to a rich man she doesn't love is better than living in a small room behind a shooting gallery at an amusement park. When she tells John of her plan however, Michael overhears that she's just marrying him for his money and comes up with a scheme of his own: he pretends that he's dirt poor too see what his young wife is really like.

This film was just fun. There weren't any classic gags or terribly memorable lines, but it had a lot of charm and was very enjoyable. It was also one of the previously lost films discovered in New Zealand a couple of years ago and nicely restored.

The Parson's Widow

This was only the third film that Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc) directed, and while his technique and narrative form would evolve and grow in future films, the seeds of his greatness are clearly evident in this wonderful light comedy.

Set in the seventeenth century, young Sofren has returned home to his love Mari after several years away at seminary school. She has waited faithfully for him, but her father won't allow her to marry Sofren until he is earning a living and has a position as a parson.

Fortunately for Sofren, an opening comes up in a nearby village when their parson passes away. The eager young man beats out two other candidates for the position and thinks he has it made; until he finds out about the catch. The local tradition has it that the previous parson's wife can insist that the new pastor marry her. The parson's widow, Dame Margarete, is a very old and stern woman and she does indeed want to marry Sofren, so that she won't be kicked out of her home and ensure that she is still supported. Upset at this turn of events, but they decide to introduce Mari as Sofren's sister, and after Dame Margarete's and Sofren's marriage, she moves in with the couple. (Who are married in name only of course.) The rest of the film is taken up with Sofren's attempts to catch a few moments alone with Mari, and how he gets frustrated at every turn.

I was a little worried about how Dreyer would handle a comedy. His other movies have very little humorous content at all, and I wasn't sure if he would be able to create a light mood, but he did an admirable job. While the film isn't a laugh-fest like a Chaplin or Keaton film, there were many amusing moments and the movie did have a light tone to it. The scene where Sofren dressed up as Satan to frighten Dame Margarete was very funny.

This movie, like many of Dreyer's other works, deals with moral integrity and personal obligations. The major difference is that this work places them up in a comical setting. The meaning of the film is still very apparent though, and it can be argued that the films message was enhanced because of the humor. Dreyer does a skillful job weaving the amusing sections of the film in and around the more serious parts, creating a film that is light in tone, but still has the emotional impact that he's famous for.

This was a very enjoyable film. I laughed at the comic touches, but still felt the young couple's pain at not being able to be together. The way Dreyer transforms the viewer's impressions of Dame Margarete in the film is masterful.

Ramona

This vehicle for actress Dolores Del Rio was based on a very popular book of the same name. Del Rio plays the title character, a young woman who was adopted by one of the largest land owners in the area, Senora Morena. She's grown up with the Senora's son, Felipe, but the matriarch has never treated the lovely young girl kindly. When a handsome Indian, Alessandro (Warner Baxter), starts to woo Ramona, she falls for him hard the two run away to get married.

Things are quite different for Romona after she leaves the Morena estate. Married to an Indian she's a lower class citizen, but the pair are happy for a while. Then things start to go bad and her life quickly starts to fall apart.

A standard American melodrama of the time, this film ended on a somewhat upbeat note, that didn't really seem to fit with what had gone on earlier, and that hurt the movie somewhat. Dolores Del Rio was great however, and she had a lot of screen presence. It's easy to see why she was an international star.


Cosmic Voyage

Friday closed out with this Soviet made film, and it was my favorite of the day. Made in 1936, this SF extravaganza aimed at children tells the story of Russia's first mission to the moon. An eccentric scientist has built a rocket that will travel to the moon, but his superiors want to stop him from going. They want more tests and trials with animals before they risk human lives, the cowards. The scientist doesn't want any of that... he want to go boldly into the unknown, the risks be damned. In order to gain access to his ship, the scientist enlists the aid of a group of children that serve as a distraction and then, along with his secretary and a young boy who is quite the space enthusiast, they blast off to the moon!

This was a lot of fun. It reminded me of SF serials or a 50's kid's show, except with a humongous budget. They really poured a lot of money into the special effects and the look pretty good, even today. There is an intricate model of the spaceship, complete with worker moving around it, that is quite impressive as well as some good stop motion animation that is used when the cosmonauts are leaping around in the moon's light gravity. They also had the crew really enjoy being in zero G. They jumped around (on strings) and played and really ate it up. They weren't the serious scientist types that inhabit US spacecraft going to the moon. A really enjoyable film.


The Good Bad Man

The SFSFF helped fund the restoration of this Alan Dwan film, and it was a great project to undertake. It stars (and was written and produced by) Douglas Fairbanks in one of his lighter roles before he became a swashbuckling adventure hero. Fairbanks plays "Passin' Through" an outlaw in the old west who steals rather odd items (he robs a train carrying a payroll and only takes the conductors ticket punch), and often gives whatever valuable loot he ends up with to 'fatherless' children. His wandering days become numbered when he meets Bessie Love, a beautiful young woman who has also captured the interest of the local gang leader, The Wolf. Of course Bessie isn't interested in the crude and cruel Wolf, she only has eyes for Passin', which leads to a showdown.

This light drama was a pleasure to watch and it aptly shows how Fairbanks quickly climbed up the ranks to become Hollywood's most elite actor. He's charming, funny, and sensitive, while also being surprisingly subtle in his acting. If you've only seen him in his over-the-top adventure pics like Robin Hood or Zorro, you need to see him in a more restrained role like this one.


Serge Bromberg's Treasure Trove

Serge Bromberg is a film collector, preservationist, and outgoing entertainer who is also behind France's Lobster Films. This year he brought some of his recent discoveries and restorations to the festival, the most important of which is an alternate version of Buster Keaton's The Blacksmith. Discovered by Fernando Pena (the same man who discovered lost footage from Metropolis a couple of years ago) in Argentina, and restored from a negative that Bromberg was able to track down (which was an amusing story in and of itself) this "B" version of the short is significantly different and arguably better than the version that we all know and love. It's not just a couple of different camera angles, but entire new scenes and gags are included that make it a tighter film. He also presented a fun, very early animated short which he purchased the only surviving copy... on e-Bay for $7.


The Epic of Everest

In 1924 a British expedition lead by George Mallory attempted to climb Mt. Everest. They took along J.B.L. Noel who chronicled the trip and created this film. It's amazing to see the huge amount of supplies and equipment that was brought along for the attempt, with men and pack animals caring thousands of crates filled with necessities. Obviously inspired by Great White Silence, Herbert Ponting's film of Falcon Scott's tragic attempt to be the first man to reach the South Pole, this movie is an important document, even if Noel didn't have Ponting's flair for cinematography. (It's also interesting, and sad, to note that both expeditions had tragic conclusions.) The BFI's recent restoration of this film was screened, which looked very good and included the original tinting scheme.


Underground

One of the best experiences I've had in my 11 years of attending the SFSFF was seeing director Anthony Asquith's A Cottage at Dartmoor with an accompaniment performed by Stephen Horne. It was a wonderful film with an incredibly impressive score, and so I was excited to learn that Asquith's second film, Underground, was going to be shown this year and that Stephen Horne was also going to provide the music. I was not disappointed.

The film revolves around the lives of three people who use and work in the London Undergound. The simple story of a ticket taker, a worker at the local power plant, and the department store salesgirl that both men love seems straightforward enough. It is anything but clear-cut in Asquith's hands. Filling the film with impressive shots and some very tense suspense, the seemingly uncomplicated tale grows dark and dangerous building up to a taut conclusion.

Stephen Horne's accompaniment really added a lot to the film too. Playing the piano, flute, and accordion (and frequently playing two instruments at once) he creates a mood that matches the film's emotions and makes the experience unforgettable.


Under the Lantern

As one fellow attendee described this film, it's another depressing German film to be gloriously excited about. The film centers around Else, a young, hard working girl from a respectable family. She likes to step out with her boyfriend and go dancing, but when her stringent father forbids her, so sneaks out. Being discovered, she's locked out of the house for an evening and so begins her long, slow decent to the lowest run of society. Else's sad story is told with skill by director Gerhard Lamprecht who pulls viewers along with Else as she spirals down. Somewhat reminiscent of G. W. Pabst's Pandora's Box, this film was a great discovery.

The accompaniment by the Donald Sosin Ensemble was also excellent. Mr. Sosin is a top-rate pianist by himself, but when he's joined by drummer Frank Bockius and Guenter Buckwald on the violin, the results are extraordinary.


The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks

This early Russian comedy is cute and has a very interesting view on Americans (naturally). When Mr. West, the head of the YMCA in America, he ends up with more adventure than he was hoping for. To be safe he decides to bring along a body guard (decked out in chaps with a pair of six-shooters on his waist) but that doesn't stop him from having his briefcase stolen. When the thief realizes he's taken something from an American, the one-time nobleman (he lost his position during the revolution, of course) shows his true colors and decides to swindle the man out of everything he has.

Director Lev Kuleshov was criticized in Russia when this film was released because the film was too experimental and didn't have a proper ideological foundation based on Marxism. Viewed today, it's a bit surprising on both counts he makes the Americans look shallow and slow while the main crooks are the old royalty. The film is filled with montage sequences, but while the technique was bold and innovative back then, you have to be concentrating to even notice them today, they're so ubiquitous.

The main character slightly resembles Harold Lloyd, and the guard does some impressive stunts (though not nearly as sophisticated or nerve-wracking as Lloyd's). It's easy to see the influence from western films in this movie that tries to make fun of America.


Seven Years Bad Luck

Though he is not very well known today, Max Linder made a big impression in the early days of film. He started making films in 1905 at Pathe in France, and was one of the first comedians to become a movie star. Charlie Chaplin listed him as a big influence, and Essanay Films hired him to replace Chaplin after the Little Tramp left their employ.

This feature-length Linder film shows just what a comic talent the man was. He crams an impressive amount of gags into the movie and just about all of them work. The film includes a very early appearance of the mirror routine, where one person apes the movement of another to make them think they're looking in a mirror. The most famous example is from The Marx Brother's masterpiece Duck Soup (1933), but it's also appeared in The Pink Panther (1963) and most recently in Muppet's Most Wanted (2014). The version presented in this 1921 film is the best I've seen. It's truly hilarious and well worth seeking out.


Dragnet Girl

This was another 'discovery' from the festival. This Japanese gangster film from 1933 could have been made in the US with James Cagney playing the male lead. The story involves a one-time boxer who turns to a life of crime, and his girlfriend who joyfully follows him along. The astounding thing is that it was directed by Yasujiro Ozu. I wouldn't have picked that director to helm a gangster flick, but he did and did a wonderful job. Needless to say, the movie is beautiful to look at, but it's also exciting and touching. The very end is incredibly subtle too (a couple of people I talked to didn't catch it) with a seemingly simple action in one of the last scenes casting a new light on the actions of a character. Another excellent film.


The Girl in Tails

This light comedy from Sweden could be described as the opposite side of Under the Lantern. Like the German film, this movie involves a girl who goes against her father's wishes to attend a dance, but this girl has a significantly different fate.

When Katja wants to attend the end-of-the-year dance for her graduating class, but when her father announces that he'll buy her brother a new tux but Katja doesn't need a new dress, she ends up wearing one of her brother's old suits and attending the ball. A scandal ensues, with the prim and proper members of the community totally aghast that a woman would dress (and act) like a man. Her father locks her out of the house (just like Under the Lantern) but Katja ends up at a local estate run by "wild, learned women," none of whom are too feminine in their dress, and wooed by a local Count. The film has a strong feminist message when seen today, and I can only imagine how it must have played nearly 90 years ago.


The Sign of Four

This Sherlock Holmes film stars Eille Norwood as the master sleuth. While Norwood is unknown today, he appeared in more Holmes movies than anyone else, portraying the detective in almost all of the canon stories. While he isn't thin, and doesn't really 'look' like Sherlock Holmes, Norwood was excellent in the role. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was pleased with his performances and after seeing this film it's easy to see why. Norwood brings intensity to the role as well as an air of intelligence and competence.

 The plot, involving a orphan who receives a large pearl every year on the anniversary of her father's murder, is familiar to fans of the consulting detective and it plays out well in this adaptation. The movie ends with a fun chase seen on the Thames that caps it off well.


Harbor Drift

Another German film that looks at the poverty the country experienced between the two world wars, this was another excellent, depressing movie. An old man who sits on the street playing a music box for handouts takes in a young homeless man who can't find work. One evening the septuagenarian sees a pearl necklace fall from a rich woman as she exits a cab. He tries to give it back to her, but she turns away from the beggar in disgust. Pocketing the jewelry, he returns to his run down houseboat to show his companion.

Unfortunately, a prostitute saw what happened and followed the man to his home. She realizes the necklace would be worth enough to free her from a life of whoring, and she's determined to get it at any cost, even if she has to seduce the man's young friend. Needless to say, things don't work out well.


The Navigator

The silent era is best known today for the comedies that were produced, and the SFSFF ends each year with a humorous flick. This year it's Buster Keaton's turn in the spotlight and they selected one of his best: The Navigator. In this picture Buster is an incredibly wealthy man who wakes up one morning and decides that he's going to get married. When his girl turns him down he decides to take a long voyage by sea and ends up, accidently, and a ship that's set adrift, unmanned, by saboteurs. As luck would have it, the object of his affections is also on the ship, although Buster doesn't realize it. The result is some very clever comedy and some impressively choreographed gags. The underwater scene always has me in stitches, and this time is no exception.

Once again, this year's festival was fantastic. It exposed the attendees to some excellent new films as well as some old favorites with great prints. Every fan of early cinema should attend at least once. Next year is the 20th anniversary, so start planning now.

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