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The 16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival
The 16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival
coverage by John Sinnott

The 16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival was held July 14-17 and once again they presented a collection of silent films, both familiar and obscure, that were astounding.  Every feature and short was accompanied by live music performed by some of the best silent film musicians from all over the world including the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the amazing British pianist Steven Horne, the Swedish Matti Bye Ensemble, organist Dennis James, and many more.  It was a fantastic weekend for the film fans that attended.

The big news to come out of the festival this year is that, at long last, Kevin Brownlow's 5 ½ hour long restoration of Able Gance's masterpiece Napoleon will be shown in the United States for the very first time this coming March.  There will be four shows only, accompanied by the Oakland East Bay Symphony who will be accompanied by Carl Davis and playing his score.  This is big news.  There is only one print of this restoration in the world, and it hasn't been screened in seven years due to legal difficulties.  These same legal problems are going to keep the film off of DVD and Blu-ray for the foreseeable future, so this is your only chance to view this famous but little-seen film.  If that's not enough to get you interested, this screening will also have the 'Polyvision' finale where three synchronized projectors will project three images simultaneously across a triple-width screen.  (That's something you won't be able to reproduce on home video!)  Tickets are on sale now, and by all accounts they're going fast.  You can get them through the Film Festival's web site. 
The festival started off with a 'lost' film, an early John Ford feature Upstream.  Recently discovered in a film archive in New Zealand (previous to that it was housed in the garden shed of a projectionist for decades) and preserved there rather than risk damaging the only known print by transporting it to the US. 
This light romantic comedy is set at a boarding house for vaudeville performers and centers around a three-piece act that includes a talented knife thrower, an attractive assistant, and the black sheep of a prestigious stage family (obviously a parody of the Barrymores.)  While the love triangle that emerges drives the film, the charm is in the supporting characters, a group of mostly down-on-their-luck actors and actresses who dance, tumble, and ham it up for each other.  A funny and entertaining film, the conclusion is satisfying but not the type of thing that would ever get made today.  A surprising and very satisfying film.
The festival screened another film that was long thought to no longer exist: the 1918 Douglas Fairbanks comedy Mr. Fix-it.  Directed by Allan Dwan before Fairbanks took to swashbuckling action pictures, this delightful comedy has Fairbanks impersonating his Oxford roommate Reginald.  Being schooled in Europe, Reginald hasn't seen his family for 15 years, but when they send for him after his wedding has been arranged.  Reginald has fallen in love with the daughter of a professor, but his stuffy family would never consent to him marrying a commoner so it's up to Remington (Fairbanks) to go back to the states and bring some life Reginald's to the stuffy household.  He does that by inviting a large family of orphans to live in the stately mansion, much to the chagrin, and eventual delight, of Reginald's family.  It's a delightful film that is funny, charming, and has some of Fairbanks famous stunts and gags.
One brilliant discovery at the festival this year was an Italian Diva film, Il Fuoco.  I had never encountered a 'Diva' film before and found it wonderfully entrancing.  When a poor artist meets an intriguing poet (Menichelli) while painting a sunset, he becomes entranced with the woman.  Going to the same location the next day in the hopes of meeting her again, he discovers a note from the lady announcing that she'll come for him some evening, and seduce him unless he's strong enough to resist.  She gives him fair warning that she plans to grasp him in her "talons" but he ignores the danger and leaps head-first into an intense and fiery romance.
Playing the femme fatal perfectly, Menichelli stalks her prey like the predatory birds she admires full of menace and a sexual attraction. It is a stylized film that's a bit different from any other type of film I've seen.  While the story is interesting and strong, the female lead (Pina Menichelli) is dressed in outlandish costumes (including a hat made out of feathers that is supposed to make her look like an owl) and stands in unusual poses.  She also oozes sexuality and somehow these disparate elements come together to create a fascinating film.
Other highlights include a program of early Disney Laugh-O-Grams, animated shorts he made before moving to LA and creating a mouse that is famous the world over.  Made in Kansas City for a small chain of three theaters, this early animation was fascinating to see, especially the two minute reel he created to pitch the series.  There was a Lois Weber social commentary film, Shoes, about a young girl who has to work to support her family and can't afford a new pair of shoes when hers start to fall about due to overuse.  A man who frequents the store where she works is more than willing to buy her some new footwear, but there's a price.
Speaking of footwear, the 1932 feature, The Nail in the Boot, was a Soviet-made propaganda film where the message really sneaks up on the viewer.  It has a surprising amount of action and suspense, and a n unexpected twist at the end that really enhances the film.
I could go on and on.  There was a wonderful silent Ozu film, a great Maurtiz Stiller film from Sweden that was ambitious and riveting, and a rare film staring Jack Pickford, Mary's younger brother.  On top of all that they screened some well known classics too including F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (one of the best silent films ever) and the Lon Chaney/Norma Shearer/John Gilbert film He Who Gets Slapped. 
This was my 7th year attending the festival and it was one of the best ones yet.  Anyone who has even a slight interest in early cinema should make a point of trying to attend next year's event.  There hasn't been a bad year yet.


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