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The 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival

by John Sinnott
The best place for cinema fans to be last weekend was in San Francisco.  That's because the 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival was taking place at the historic Castro Theater.  It's an event that I look forward to every year, and so far they haven't disappointed.  This year they had screenings of some restored classics including Wings and Pandora's Box, as well as some excellent rarely seen movies such as The Spanish Dancer staring Pola Negri and Henry King's Stella Dallas.  They even presented a restored and tinted print of Georges Melies' A Trip to the Moon with live narration (using Melies' script) by Doctor Who (Paul McGann)!  How cool is that??

The festival started off on a high note by showing an impeccably restored print of William Wellman's Wings staring Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers (who would later go on to wed Marry Pickford.)  It's a great film, the first winner of an Academy Award for Best Picture, that really comes to life on the big screen.  The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provided the music and a group of talented Foley artists provided sound effects which included Ben Burtt, the four-time Academy Award winning sound man (Star Wars, Wall-E).  I was a bit unsure about the Foley effects before the show, but it turned out that they added a lot to the presentation.  The bass drum that was used for howitzer shells exploding (impeccably timed by the way, which is terribly hard to do since there usually isn't any visual cues that the explosion is coming) and the sound of the WWI plane's engines really made the film more enjoyable, and it was historically accurate.  Many theaters did add sound effects when playing that incredibly popular film.
This year the line-up was tilted in favor of more popular and easily accessible features, probably due to a couple of recent, widely seen, movies that popularized silent films.  The Mark of Zorro, parts of which were used in the Academy Award-winning The Artist, was shown on the final day of the festival, as was A Trip to the Moon, the most famous film by Georges Melies, a character in Martin Scorsese's film Hugo.  It was fun to see those great movies on the big screen with live accompaniment, but the thing I always look forward to are the films that I've never seen.  Artistic Director for the festival Anita Monga does a amazing job searching out rare and little-seen features to present and she did another great job this year.

There were a few pictures that really left an impression.  William Beaudine's The Canadian was a movie that I wouldn't have sought out on my own, but it turned out to be a very good movie.  Based on a story by Somerset Maugham, the plot sounds a lot like The Wind (which was made after this movie!) A recently orphaned (adult) woman, Nora, arrives in a small farming community in Canada to live with her brother.  When tension between Nora and her sister in-law escalate, she marries a poor local farmer to escape the oppressive household.  Lacking the skills needed to run farm or the ability to cook or sew, the marriage gets off to a rough start and tensions rise when an approaching storm threatens to ruin the year's wheat crop.  This intimate and touching film unfolds at a leisurely pace, but never seems to drag.  The relation between Nora and her surroundings makes for some great drama and is an excellent story.

One film that was presented had a pretty bad reputation:  The Spanish Dancer.  This Pola Negri vehicle was only available in a severely edited version for years and was widely regarded as a misfire.  The recent restoration by EYE Film Institute brings the film back to nearly its original state and illustrates just how much damage censors and ham-fisted editors can do to a film.  As it is now, the movie is a great comedy/adventure in the same vein as Douglas Fairbanks' adventure romps.  In 17th Century Spain a gypsy dancer, Maritana (Pola Negri) helps a penniless noble escape for debt collectors and falls in love with him.  After he leaves, she manages to save the crowned prince and earns the Queen's favor, which comes in handy when she learns that her love has been condemned to death.  With a lot of swash-buckling action, a good helping of comedy, some court intrigue and a terrific cast (including Wallace Beery as the King) this was one of the most fun and enjoyable films screened at this year's festival.

The highlight of the undiscovered films this year was a German film from 1929, The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrowna.  Not only does it have an intriguing title, but the script is subtle and nuanced and the acting is impeccable.  The film stars Brigitte Helm who most people would know from Metropolis where she played Maria.  While she's very good in Fritz Lang's wonderful film, she absolutely shines as Nina Petrowna.  Sensuous, intelligent, and restrained, her performance is magnificent.  In one segment only her arm is showing and yet she steals the scene.  The film centers around a kept woman, Nina Petrowna, who is put up in an elegant apartment by a rich general in the Russian Army.  When a military parade passes under her window, Nina catches the eye of an attractive officer.  When she spies him later at a club she starts to stare at the young man and when the general asks her who she is looking at, she lies and says that the officer is a childhood friend.  Knowing that she's not telling the truth, her keeper invites the object of Nina's affection to their table in order to see her squirm.  It's great fun for him, and he eggs them on until he realizes that his mistress has fallen for the man.  But will Nina give up the jewels, furs, and exclusive address for love?  And if she does, will the price be even higher than she imagines?  This is a fantastic film and I hope it's soon released to home video.   

There were other programs that were immensely enjoyable too.  The collection of Felix the Cat shorts was fun and Donald Sosin did a great job on the shorts he accompanied.  The art-music group Toychestra, several women who create music using children's toys, provided the score for half of that program and it didn't work at all.  Other highlights include Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York, the Chinese film Little Toys, and of course, Buster Keaton's The Cameraman.

This year's festival presented another amazing set of movies.  There are very few venues still left where silent movies can be seen the way they were intended, and fans of the genre owe it to themselves to make the trip at least once.  Start making plans to attend next year's festival today. 


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