Thursday, July 28, 2011

2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (Part 1 of 2)

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival ran from July 14 to 17 at the Castro Theater. They screened 18 programs; I saw 12.

The biggest news of the festival is that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is presenting (in association with American Zoetrope, The Film Preserve, Photoplay Productions, and the British Film Institute) four performances of Napoléon, Abel Gance's 1927 masterpiece. The performances will be on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1 at the Paramount Theater in Oakland.

Many people can recount the controversy surrounding this film better than I can. The gist of the problem is that Francis Ford Coppola owns the rights to the film.

Noted film historian Kevin Brownlow has spent most of his life restoring the once lost epic. In 1980, Brownlow presented the 4+ hour restoration at the Telluride Film Festival which is currently run by the Balboa's Gary Meyer. Later in 1980, Francis Ford Coppola released a re-edited version of Napoléon with a Carmine Coppola (his father) score. In the ensuing years, Brownlow has continued assembling previously lost footage. At present, Brownlow has reconstructed 5½ hours of the film. Legal disputes with Copolla have prevented this version from screening except for a December 2004 engagement in London. That version with musical score arranged by Carl Davis will be performed in Oakland next year with Carl Davis conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

I have purchased my tickets. As befitting an epic film like Napoléon, the ticket prices are in a range I am more accustomed to seeing at the opera. If I recall correctly, prices ranged from $35 to $120. Silent Film Festival members receive a discount on up to two tickets. The tickets are sold through Ticket Master which tacked on the most exorbitant service and handling charges (yes plural) for any event I've ever paid for. It was hard to swallow but I eventually pried open my wallet.


The 12 programs I watched were:

Upstream starring Nancy Nash; directed by John Ford; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Donald Sosin Ensemble; (1927)
Huckleberry Finn starring Lewis Sargent; directed by William Desmond Taylor; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Donald Sosin; (1920)
I Was Born, But...; directed by Yasujirô Ozu; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Stephen Horne; (1932)
The Great White Silence; documentary; directed by Herbert G. Ponting; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Mattie Bye Ensemble; (1924)
Il Fuoco starring Pina Menichelli; directed by Giovanni Pastrone; silent with Italian intertitles and reader (Frank Buxton); accompanied by Stephen Horne; (1916)
The Blizzard; directed by Mauritz Stiller; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Mattie Bye Ensemble; (1923)
The Goose Woman starring Louise Dresser; with Jack Pickford and Constance Bennett; directed by Clarence Brown; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Stephen Horne; (1925)
Mr. Fix-It starring Douglas Fairbanks; directed by Allan Dwan; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Dennis James; (1918)
The Woman Men Yearn For starring Marlene Dietrich; directed by Curtis Bernhardt; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; (1929)
The Nail in the Boot directed by Mikheil Kalatozoz; silent with intertitles; accompanied by Stephen Horne; (1932)
He Who Gets Slapped starring Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer and John Gilbert; directed by Victor Sjöström; silent with intertitles; accompanied by the Mattie Bye Ensemble; (1924)

The 12th program was Wild and Weird, a collection of short films accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra.

Wild and Weird
Dream of a Rarebit Fiend; (1906)
Le Spectre Rouge; (1907)
The Acrobatic Fly; (1908)
The Thieving Hand; (1908)
Princess Nicotine, or the Smoke Fairy; (1909)
Arthème Swallows His Clarinet; (1912)
The Cameraman's Revenge; (1912)
Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend: The Pet; (1921)
Filmstudie; (1925)
Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra; (1928)

Before several of the feature films, the festival screened silent "orphan" short films. What are orphan films? According to the Orphan Film Symposium, "It's a motion picture abandoned by its owner or caretaker."

The orphan films I saw were

Mrs. Harding, "Cameraman"?; (1922)
Coolidge Trapshooting; (1928)
St. Louis to Chicago Airmail; (1926)
Origin of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata"; (1909)
The Tribal Law; (1912)
Chumming with Chipmunks; (1921)
Madison News Reel; (1932)

Non-orphan films that were paired with features include

Why Men Flirt; (1918) paired with Upstream
Chess Fever; (1932) paired with The Nail in the Boot

At 18 minutes, Chess Fever was over ⅓ of the length of The Nail in the Boot and the two were listed as co-features in the festival program guide.


A few festival observations: the Silent Film Festival is notorious for starting their programs late and they did it again this year. I started Saturday and Sunday with the 2 PM screenings and they were already running behind schedule. Despite the hard work of the sound techs, they have an extremely difficult time finishing the sound checks between shows.

The festival pass was approximately $20 higher than last year. The festival lasted the same number of days as last year so I don't know the cause of the increase. I don't begrudge the increase as much as I wish they could get the shows started on time. I'd pay another $20 if they can improve their on-time performance by 50%.

This year, Poesia was not selling sandwiches in between shows. Those were great sandwiches and they aren't on their restaurant menu. Perhaps the Castro did not like the competition for concessions.

The attendance seemed off slightly from last year. The festival also seems to give out more press passes and guest passes than any other I attend.

Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons sat in front of me for a four or five films throughout the festival. Stephen is sporting a beard with a little more pepper than salt. He looked a little like the Most Interesting Man in the World. He was also carrying what looked suspiciously like a man purse. They looked quite content in their roles as audience members.

Throughout the FIFA Women's World Cup Tournament, I had become enamored with the Japanese team; also known as the Nadeshiko. It was my intent to watch the World Cup Final between Japan and the US on Sunday, July 17. I watched through the 70something minute when the US were up 1-0. The US had dominated the match up until that point and should have been up 3-0 or 4-0. I admit that I gave up on the Nadeshiko and left to make it in time to the 2 PM screening of Wild and Weird. Imagine my surprise and disappointment when I found out Japan won the match on penalty kicks. I deserve what I got for not keeping the faith. So although I saw 12 programs this year, I sadly wish it would have only been 11. Does anyone know where I can get an Homare Sawa jersey?


In conjunction with the SFSFF, the San Francisco Public Library has an exhibit on the 4th and 6th floors of the Main Branch at 100 Larkin Street. The exhibition is called Shhhhh! Silents in the Library. I viewed the exhibits yesterday. To quote from the library's website,

Explore the silent film era through displays of rare books, ephemera and photographs. The Silent Screen in the City looks at the Bay Area’s role in silent film production, while Downtown Movie Palaces of the 1920s evokes a visit to San Francisco's lost theater landmarks. Reading the Stars showcases vintage books about the movies published during the era. Included is a nod to The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, one of the world’s largest silent film festivals, now in its sixteenth year.

All except one of the exhibits were on the 4th floor. I counted five wall-mounted display cases and a rack of SFSFF posters dating back to Year 1 on the 4th floor and one display case on the 6th floor. It was interesting for me to see some of the early SFSFF posters. When I first started attending the festival, it had expanded to three days but in the early days, the festival was a one day event and then expanded to two. I believe this is the second year the festival has run four days.

The exhibit was nice but a little disappointing to a cinephile like me. It was interesting to see the cue sheets and display on musical accompaniment. I would have like to have seen more on the Downtown Movie Palaces of the 1920s. I didn't know there was a Pantages Theater in SF. It was located on a presently boarded up block of 900 Market (odd number side of the street). The St. Francis Theater (where I saw the remake of Shaft) was on that same block.

Shhhhh! Silents in the Library will be on display until August 28. On August 7 at 2 PM, Diana Serra Cary better known by her stage name "Baby Peggy" will talk about her life as a child star in the 1920s. Her talk will be in the Koret Auditorium in the basement of the Main Library. At 1 PM on the same day, the curators of Shhhhh! Silents in the Library will give a special guided tour of their exhibit. If you are interested, meet in Steve Silver Room on the 4th floor of the Main Library.


This post has grown to unwieldy proportions and I have yet to discuss any of the films so I'll split the post in two. I'll share my thoughts on several of the films in my next post.

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