Tuesday, July 15, 2008

2008 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The 2008 San Francisco Silent Film Festival ran July 11 to 13 at the Castro Theater. I bought a festival pass and saw 8 of the 12 programs. The crowds were impressive, film critic Leonard Maltin was there for the weekend, and I saw some very entertaining films. I notice that comedy ages well and action sequences are exciting because you realize the actors/stuntmen were risking their lives. Drama or melodrama does not age so well. The actors overacted in the dramas; they hammed it up by modern standards.

The 8 programs I saw were:

The Kid Brother with Harold Lloyd; (1927)
Les Deux Timides; (1928)
Mikaël directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer; (1924)
The Man Who Laughs; (1928)
The Unknown with Lon Chaney & Joan Crawford; (1927)
Her Wild Oat with Colleen Moore; (1927)
Jujiro directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa; (1928)
The Patsy with Marion Davies and Marie Dressler; directed by King Vidor; (1928)

Silent films with their intertitles bridge languages with less trouble than talkies. Les Deux Timides was filmed in France with French intertitles. Jujiro was filmed in Japan but had English subtitles. Her Wild Oat was filmed in Southern California but an English print couldn't be found. Instead, a print was located in the Czech Republic with Czech intertitles. New intertitle cards in English were inserted into the film. I can't remember all intertitle language permutations. For the foreign intertitled films, a reader was used. I think I would have preferred to have subtitled intertitles; I really mean that, I didn't just say it to make a bad pun.

The use of film readers for Japanese silent films was common and the profession (Benshi) was popular. If the use of a reader was warranted for any film at the festival, it would have been Jujiro because a benshi probably read the original film when it was released. Alas, a benshi was not used. This could be justified because the version shown was the American version with English intertitles. Quick aside - two years ago, I saw Picture Bride (1994) at the SF Asian American Film Festival. Tamlyn Tomita was in the audience that evening. That film was set in Hawaii during the 1920's. The legendary Toshirô Mifune appeared in the film (it was his penultimate film appearance). His character is simply credited as The Benshi. When I saw the film, I didn't know what a benshi was and couldn't understand why his character was narrating the action of the silent film within the film but his performance stood out. When I read the program notes, pre-film slide show, and blog of Brian Darr, I realized what a Benshi was and how Mifune's character was quite authentic.

The festival was filled with great films. I particularly enjoyed Her Wild Oat and The Patsy. Other enjoyable films include Mikaël, The Man Who Laughs, and The Unknown. I hope to write a follow-up entry in the next few days.

The above list is the feature films I saw. Each program started with a short film. The short films were, respectively:

Bronco Billy's Adventure; (1911)
Les Fromages Automobiles
L'Historie D'Une Rose
The Voice Invisible/Making A Record
The Last Call; (1922)
Mary Pickford's Technicolor Screen Test for The Black Pirate
Lost-A Yodel

I don't have years for all the short films.

Gilbert M. Anderson (a.k.a. Broncho Billy) was perhaps the first serial Western movie star. He has over 300 listings in IMDB and I'll guess ~100 has Broncho Billy in the title. Bronco Billy's Adventure was likely filmed near Fremont, CA (technically, the town is Niles). Anderson and his business partner George Spoor started Essanay Studios (pronounced S and A as in Spoor and Anderson) in Chicago. Due to the frigid winters, they opened a California studio in Niles. The site currently houses the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum and shows silent films most Saturday nights. They have an annual Broncho Billy Film Festival that I keep meaning to see.

The Last Call was a Nick Carter detective film. I wasn't familiar with the character but some research reveals that Carter first shows up in dime store novels from the 1880's. Edmund Lowe starred in at least four Nick Carter films in 1922.

Mary Pickford's screen test was incredible for its color images. She had the greenest eyes. The Black Pirate was released in 1926. I had no idea that Technicolor was available then. The first film I am aware of that used Technicolor is The Wizard of Oz in 1939.

Kaleidoscope was a color film too but it was like looking at a kaleidoscope. In fact, I thought to myself while watching it that this same technique would be repeated 40 years later during the psychedelic 60's.

The Voice Invisible/Making A Record uses the same premise as the current Discovery Channel television show How It's Made. It showed how vinyl records were made which is kind of a strange topic for a silent era film.

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