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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive

The 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival
After a long absence, Silent DVD is back!  For much of the year the early cinema releases have been pretty slim, but this summer the flood gates have opened once again.  It's amazing how it's either feast or famine when it comes to early cinema releases on DVD. 
This time there is coverage on the 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which was once again a great, great, event.  Check it out below.
There have also been a lot of silent movie sets released recently.  Here are reviews of some of the most notable:
Becoming Charley Chase:  All Day Entertainment in association with VCI releases a long awaited set of Chase shorts along with several films that Chase directed under his real name, Charles Parrot.
The John Barrymore Collection:  Kino has put out a set of four films staring the famous star of stage and screen.  While only one is newly released, Sherlock Holmes, the set is worth picking up.  Also included are The Magnificent Rogue, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and The Tempest.

Bardelys the Magnificent and Monte Cristo - Lost Films of John Gilbert:  Flicker Alley has done it again with another brilliant release.  These two John Gilbert films were thought lost for years, and the former film was only discovered in 2007.   Both of them are excellent and illustrate why Gilbert was one of the biggest stars of the silent era.
In the next column, hopefully before too long, I'll have a review of Kino's upcoming release Gaumont Treasures: 1897-1913.  This three disc set takes a look at a trio of French directors:  Alice Guy, the first female director, she went to the US and set up her own film studio in 1910, Louis Feuillade, most well known for his silent serials Les Vampires and Fantomas, and Leonce Perret almost unknown in the US, he was a major force in the French film industry.  It should be very interesting.

The 14th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival
July 10-12, 2008 saw the 14th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival return to the Castro Theater, a restored old style theatre in downtown San Francisco.  I made my yearly pilgrimage to the city by the bay again for the festival, my sixth year in a row, and had a great time. 
The festival kicked off with a Douglas Fairbanks flick, The Gaucho.  While this isn't as famous as his other action films like Robin Hood, The Three Musketteers and The Mark of Zorro, it had all the excitement and fun of those more well-remembered films.   Fairbanks plays a Godless South American outlaw who comes to the rescue of a small city that has grown rich because of a miraculous shrine.  The corrupt army invades, steals all of the shrine's gold, and occupies the city.  It's up to Fairbanks and his band of ruffians to liberate the town.


The film featured Lupe Velez, the Mexican Spitfire, in her first staring role.  The movie certainly shows how she got her nickname.  As the Gaucho's girlfriend, Lupez is jealous of any woman the bandit turns his eye to, and that is many.  She doesn't just sit there and sulk however, she attacks her lover with gusto, making sure he realized just who he should be admiring. 
Velez nearly stole the film from Fairbanks; she had that much charisma and screen presence.  When she was on the screen it was hard not to look at her, she was so attractive, sensual, and forceful.  It was great to see a lady stand up for herself too, and not just be someone who the hero saves. 
Velez also stared in the final program of this year's festival, Lady of the Pavements.  This was D. W. Griffith's last silent film, and I had always heard that it wasn't very good.  Having lost his independence as a filmmaker, Griffith was working for Joseph Schenck and his Art Cinema Corporation (whose films were distributed by United Artists, a studio that Griffith helped start.)  He was given a script, assigned actors and actresses and had little control over the production.  These are often listed, along with the statement that film making had passed him by at this time, to explain why the film failed.
My expectations were low, and I was quite surprised to find that this is a well made and very entertaining film.  As much credit goes to Lupe Velez as it does to Griffith.  Once again Velez steals the show, this time as a cabaret singer/ prostitute.

The plot is reminiscent of My Fair Lady.  When a noble woman is spurred by her lover, Count Karl von Arnim (William Boyd) for being unfaithful, she decides to get back at him.  She hires a lowly, though attractive woman, Nanon (Velez,) and trains her to pass as a lady.  She then pays the woman to woo von Arnim and make the Count fall in love with her.  The plan is then to expose Nanon's origins to both embarrass and break the Count's heart.
The film works very well.  Velez, like her previous picture The Gaucho, is forceful and magnetic and really makes the picture.  The direction and camera work was very current with the times it was filmed and did not come across as staid at all.  The camera moves frequently and the direction allows the story to unfold in a natural fashion.  Overall this was a surprising film, one that was much better than recent critics would have you belive.
Other highlights from this year's festival included Bardelys the Magnificent, a John Gilbert film that was lost until a print was discovered two years ago.  The King Vidor film is a fun adventure.  Read my review of the DVD here.
Aelita, Queen of Mars is an unusual offering, a science fiction silent film from the Soviet Union.  This 1924 production is interesting to say the least.  It not only features a look at what life was like in the early days after the revolution, but there's a strong dose of propaganda too, with humans traveling to Mars and starting a worker's revolution there. 

The musical accompaniment was by Dennis James and Mark Goldstein who crafted a magnificent score.  Not only was the Castro's Wurlitzer organ used, but James also played a Theremin while his partner used another electronic instrument, a Buchla Lightning Wands.  The electronic instruments were used primarily for the scenes that take place on Mars, giving those sections an other-worldly feel.  It was quite effective, and the most impressive musical score of the festival, which is really saying something.
The highlight of the festival was the silent W. C. Fields movie So's Your Old Man.  Fields never made a huge splash in silent movies, so it was nice to discover that this movie was actually incredibly funny.  Remade in 1934 as You're Telling Me, also staring Fields, the plot revolves around glassmaker Sam Bisbee, a miserable old coot who has invented unbreakable glass.  He wants to sell the idea to a group of auto executives so that he'll be rich and respected in town, and then his daughter will be able to marry the high class man of her dreams.  After his glass pitch fails spectacularly, Sam helps a girl on the train who happens to be a European Princess traveling in disguise.  She repay the favor by coming to visit Bisbee at his home, which turns out to be the most exciting society event the have occurred in years. 

Often outrageously hilarious, this film shows just how funny Fields could be.  Often remembered for his verbal comedy in the movies and on radio, Fields was also a master at slapstick, with impeccable comedic timing honed from years in vaudeville and on Broadway.  This film shows off that skill and had the audience in stitches. 
The live music, which accompanied every film and short, was once again top notch.  The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, one of my favorite groups that work with silent movies, accompanied three films and did a magnificent job with each one.  Stephen Horne returned once again and his piano accompaniment to the early gangster picture Underworld and the 1928 French version of Fall of the House of Usher were both excellent.  Other musicians that performed over the weekend included Donald Sosin on piano (wonderful as always,) Dennis James on the Castro's Mighty Wurlitzer Organ (amazing performances... how he can play that instrument for as long as he does, as well as he does is a mystery to me) and also Philip Carli who added so much to the W.C. Fields film.
If it seems like I'm just heaping praise on the musicians uncritically, I'm not.  I'd gladly skewer their performances if there was anything to complain about, but there isn't.  These are all top professionals in their field and their live performances really make this Festival something special.
In this day of DVDs, surround sound, and home theaters, it's hard to remember that these silent films were made to be seen on a huge screen, in the dark, with an appreciative audience and live music.  Sitting at home with a few friends just doesn't have the same effect as seeing one of these movies in a quality theater.  It's an amazing difference, and that's why I travel from Florida to SF each year for the festival (on my own dime I might add.)  It's well worth it, and I encourage all silent film fans to visit the festival's web site and make plans to attend next year's festival.  


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