San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Norma Talmadge in The Woman Disputed (1928), from http://www.silentfilm.org

This year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes place 15-18 July at the Castro Theatre, and what is quite frankly a sensational programme has just been announced. The biggest draw is going to be the new version of Metropolis, but the programme is choc-a-bloc with classics everyone should see, rediscoveries, surprises, and some of the funniest comedy short films ever made. Here are the details:

Thursday, July 15th

The Iron Horse (USA, 1924, 150 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: John Ford
Cast: George O’Brien, Madge Bellamy
Accompanied By: Dennis James
Set in mid-19th century America, The Iron Horse is the silent era’s version of How the West Was Won, weaving its themes of romance and history around the story of the building of the first transcontinental railway. This glorious print is the only surviving 35mm print of the American version.

Friday, July 16th

Amazing Tales from the Archives 1 (60 mins)
Lost Films from the Silent Era: Presentations by Joe Lindner of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Peña of Museo del Cine, Buenos Aires (the archivists responsible for finding the lost Metropolis footage).
Accompanied By: Donald Sosin

A Spray of Plum Blossoms (China, 1931, 100 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Bu Wancang
Cast: Ruan-Lingyu, Jin Yan
Accompanied By: Donald Sosin
One of the most prolific Chinese directors of the silent era, Bu Wancang based this film on William Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” setting the action in China, circa 1930 and casting China’s favorite on-screen couple, Ruan Ling-yu and Jin Yan. Like any Shakespeare comedy, Plum Blossoms is replete with star-crossed lovers, mistaken identity, and a satisfying happy ending. By situating the play in the ’30s-era Chinese army, the “gentlemen” of the Shakespeare’s title are the film’s officers, the duke is a warlord, and his daughter’s ladies-in-waiting are military police!
Presented with both Mandarin and English intertitles.

Rotaie (Italy, 1929, 74 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Mario Camerini
Cast: Käthe von Nagy, Maurizio D’Ancora
Accompanied By: Stephen Horne
One of the most important Italian movies of the late silent period, Rotaie is the story is of two young lovers, very poor and on the brink of suicide, who come into a bit of temporary good luck. Finding a lost wallet in a train station, the lovers hop a train to two thrilling weeks of high living. The film’s exquisite style is influenced by the expressionism of German master F.W. Murnau. Presented with Italian intertitles accompanied by a live English translation.

Metropolis (Germany, 1927, 148 mins, Digital)
Directed By: Fritz Lang
Cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Brigitte Helm
Accompanied By: Alloy Orchestra
When Fritz Lang’s masterpiece debuted in Berlin in January, 1927, the sci-fi epic ran an estimated 153 minutes, but in order to maximize box office potential the German and American distributors cut the film to 90 minutes for its commercial release. For decades crucial scenes from the film were considered lost. In 2001, the Munich Film Foundation assembled a more complete version with additional footage from four contributing archives, and Metropolis had a premiere revival at 124 minutes (widely believed to be the most complete version that contemporary audiences could ever hope to see). But, in 2008 archivists from the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires made a spectacular discovery—a 16mm dupe negative of Metropolis that was considerably longer than any existing print! That discovery led to this remarkable restoration and Metropolis can now be shown in Fritz Lang’s original—25 minute longer—complete version. Digital print from Kino International. Special Guests: Paula Félix-Didier and Fernando Peña of the Museo del Cine, the pair who found the lost footage!

Saturday, July 17th

The Big Business of Short, Funny Films (62 min)
The Cook (USA, 1918, 22 min), Pass the Gravy (USA, 1928, 22 min), and Big Business (USA, 1929, 18 min)

Variations on a Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Film (70 mins)
This special moderated program will shine a light the process of composing scores for silent films. Pianists Donald Sosin and Stephen Horne will take part, along with organist Dennis James, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Alloy Orchestra, and Swedish musician and composer Matti Bye. Chloe Veltman, Bay Area culture correspondent for The New York Times and producer and host of public radio’s VoiceBox, will moderate.

The Flying Ace (USA, 1926, 65 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Richard E. Norman
Cast: Lawrence Criner, Kathryn Boyd
Accompanied By: Donald Sosin
Richard E. Norman was among the first to produce films starring African-American actors in positive roles. Between 1920 and 1928, the Norman Film Manufacturing Co. produced six feature-length films as part of a movement to establish an independent black cinema at a time when blacks were demeaned in mainstream movies. The Flying Ace is the only Norman film that survives and its story of a crime-fighting ace pilot is still a crowd-pleaser! 35mm print from Library of Congress.

The Strong Man (USA, 1926, 75 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Frank Capra
Cast: Harry Langdon, Priscilla Bonner
Accompanied By: Stephen Horne
This Harry Langdon comedy will be shown in a pristine print from Photoplay Productions in England. Frank Capra’s second feature, this effervescent slapstick has Langdon as Paul Bergot, a mild-mannered Belgian soldier who goes on the road with German strongman Zandow the Great after World War I. When they get to the States, Paul searches for (and finds) his American sweetheart pen pal.

Diary of a Lost Girl (Germany, 1929, 116 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Georg Wilhelm Pabst
Cast: Louise Brooks, Kurt Gerron
Accompanied By: Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Diary of a Lost Girl represents the second and final work of one of the cinema’s most compelling collaborations: G.W. Pabst and Louise Brooks. Together with Pandora’s Box, Diary confirmed Pabst’s artistry as one of the great directors of the silent period and established Brooks as an “actress of brilliance, a luminescent personality and a beauty unparalleled in screen history.” (Kevin Brownlow) This version has been mastered from a restoration of the film made by the Cineteca di Bologna with approximately seven minutes of previously censored footage. 35mm print of Kino International.

Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden , Denmark, 1922, 90 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Benjamin Christensen
Cast: Maren Pedersen, Clara Pontoppidan, Elith Pio, Oscar Stribolt
Accompanied By: Matti Bye Ensemble
Benjamin Christensen’s legendary film uses a series of dramatic vignettes to explore the scientific hypothesis that the witches of the Middle Ages suffered the same hysteria as turn-of-the-century psychiatric patients. But the film itself is far from serious—instead it’s a witches’ brew of the scary and darkly humorous. 35mm restored, tinted print from the Swedish Film Institute.

Sunday, July 18th

Amazing Tales from the Archives 2 (60 mins)
Presentations by Annette Melville (National Film Preservation Board) and Mike Mashon (Library of Congress, Moving Image Section)
Accompanied By: Stephen Horne
Presentations by Annette Melville (National Film Preservation Board) and Mike Mashon (Library of Congress, Moving Image Section)

The Shakedown (USA, 1929, 70 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: William Wyler
Cast: James Murray, Barbara Kent, Jack Hanlon
Accompanied By: Donald Sosin
Restored to 35mm by George Eastman house, The Shakedown is a superb action-drama about a boxer whose life changes when he meets up with an orphan boy. Director William Wyler is most celebrated for his talkies (The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben Hur, Funny Girl) and this uplifting tale is a splendid introduction to the master’s early career. Beautiful camerawork, fast-paced editing, and remarkable effects make this a riveting feature. Leonard Maltin will interview the children of director William Wyler onstage.

Man with a Movie Camera (USSR, 1929, 70 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Dziga Vertov
Accompanied By: Alloy Orchestra
Considered one of the most innovative and influential films of the silent era. Startlingly modern, this film demonstrates a groundbreaking style of rapid editing and incorporates innumerable other cinematic effects to create a work of amazing power and energy. This dawn-to-dusk view of the Soviet Union offers a montage of urban Russian life, showing the people of the city at work and at play, and the machines that endlessly whirl to keep the metropolis alive. Vertov’s masterpiece employs all the cinematic techniques at the director’s disposal — dissolves, split-screens, slow motion, and freeze-frames — to produce a work that is exhilarating and intellectually brilliant.

The Woman Disputed (USA, 1928, 110 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Henry King, Sam Taylor
Cast: Norma Talmadge, Gilbert Roland
Accompanied By: Stephen Horne
This splendid romance is a true discovery, starring the extraordinary Norma Talmadge as a goodhearted streetwalker who is coveted by Austrian and Russian rivals. “I have just seen The Woman Disputed and it’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking. The plot takes Maupaussant’s Boule de Suif to extremes, but it succeeds so well as a brilliant piece of film craft that it MUST be brought back to life.” (Kevin Brownlow).

L’Heureuse mort (France, 1924, 83 mins, 35mm)
Directed By: Serge Nadejdine
Cast: Nicolas Rimsky, Lucie Larue
Accompanied By: Matti Bye Ensemble
This remarkable comedy stars Nicolas Rimsky as Parisian dramatist Théodore Larue whose latest premiere is a disaster. His reputation gone, Larue takes a sea voyage, during which he is swept overboard in a storm and lost. The press and the literary world react with an abrupt revaluation of his work, elevating him to the stature of France’s greatest dramatist. His widow finds herself in possession of a hugely valuable literary property… At which point, Larue — inopportunely — returns home. But, dramatist above all, he decides to masquerade as his colonialist brother Anselme, while industriously turning out posthumous works by Théodore. But then the real Anselme turns up with his Senegalese wife… Beautiful 35mm print from the Cinémathèque Française. Presented with French intertitles accompanied by a live English translation.

The festival website is choc-a-bloc itself with things to explore, quite apart from standard stuff like ticketing details. Every film is illustrated, well described, and comes with links to the IMDB, biography of the musician, recommendations for other film like it in the festival (if you like L’Heureuse mort they suggest you try out The Cook), and chances to mark your favourites through Twitter, Digg and such like. You can view the programme by date, title or musician, follow the very active festival blog, catch up on news from the festival, read articles from past festival programmes, and more.

All in all it looks like quite some four days. The Bioscope particularly recommends The Shakedown, Pass the Gravy and (because it has a particular fondness for silent Shakespeare) A Spray of Plum Blossoms – a pleasant surprise to see that rather delightful curio included in the programme. Lucky all you who can get there.

3 responses

  1. Thank you for the great write-up. Along with a full schedule of films, a number of special guests are attending this year’s Festival.

    They range from internationally known film historians to first time authors. Scheduled to meet the public and sign books are Sarah Baker (“Lucky Stars: Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell”); Samuel Bernstein (“Lulu: A Novel”); Kevin Brownlow (“The Parade’s Gone By”); Robert Dix (“Out of Hollywood”); Thomas Gladysz (“The Diary of a Lost Girl”); Donna Hill (“Rudolph Valentino – The Silent Idol: His Life in Photographs”); David Kiehn (“Broncho Billy and the Essanay Film Company”); Leonard Maltin (“Leonard Maltin’s 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen”); David Menefee (“George O’Brien: A Man’s Man in Hollywood”); Scott O’Brien (“Ann Harding – Cinema’s Gallant Lady”); Ira Resnick (“Starstruck: Vintage Movie Posters from Classic Hollywood”); Anthony Slide (“Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers”); Jeffrey Vance (“Douglas Fairbanks”); Gregory Paul Williams (“The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History”); Lucy Autry Wilson (“George Lucas’s Blockbusting: A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success”) and others. Also attending the Festival are musicians and film-makers, some of whom will be also signing their respective CDs and DVDs.

  2. My goodness – I hope you leave room enough for the audience.

    By the way, the above is the 1000th post published on the Bioscope. I’m always impressed by round numbers.

  3. Congratulations to the Bioscope on it’s 1000th post. That is a helluva accomplishment.

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