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Silents Soar In San Francisco

Silents Soar In San Francisco

How many times can I learn the same lesson? I was going to skip a Sunday morning showing of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival. After all, I know the movie by heart; I owned an 8mm print of it when I was a kid. But my wife and I arrived at the Castro Theatre in time to catch the last half-hour and decided to go inside the darkened auditorium. There, Doug was leaping about, undoing the bad guys as Dennis James roared away on the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. The 35mm print was stunning, and it didn’t take long for us to get caught up in the fun. I’m so glad we didn’t miss out.

That feeling was driven home at the next show on the bill, Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York, which we screened when Criterion released its indispensable boxed DVD set of Sternberg silents a couple of years ago. But as this is a mood piece, seeing a 35mm copy in a theater with Donald Sosin providing pitch-perfect accompaniment, gave us a completely different experience. We were also knocked out by Eddie Muller’s eloquent introduction, which was also printed in the program book. “The Docks of New York is an elegant and elegiac love story about battered souls at the bottom of the barrel,” he said. “It’s also the most emotionally affecting film of the director’s exhilarating if erratic career… There are just enough twists in the 76-miute running time to comprise a narrative; the film plays much more like poetry, granting von Sternberg the breathing room to create and explore his own waterfront world, one with no connection to reality, except in the quick and volatile fragments of life he vividly captures. Freed from the dictates of plot, von Sternberg turned his attention to conjuring moments. Many of them are as beautiful as anything in cinema…” All true.

Watching a silent film at home simply can’t compare with being in the beautiful Castro, surrounded by more than a thousand like-minded people, gazing at a great print on an enormous screen and being enveloped in the presentation—a wondrous combination of images and music. And the music at this year’s festival was superb, as usual: the creative piano scores by Donald Sosin and Stephen Horne, the authentic period sounds of Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the rousing organ music by Dennis James, and the unique approaches of the Alloy Orchestra and the Matti Bye Ensemble. A local group called Toychestra contributed their distinctive sounds to the Felix the Cat animation show.

There were bona fide classics at this year’s festival, like The Mark of Zorro, Pandora’s Box, and the celebratory opening night showing of Wings, in Paramount’s beautifully restored version with music by Mont Alto and live sound effects by Oscar-winning sound wizard Ben Burtt and Rodney Sauer. (The next morning, Paramount Pictures’ VP of Archives Andrea Kalas and Sony’s Grover Crisp offered an interesting show-and-tell demonstration of digital restoration at the annual show called Amazing Tales from the Archives.) There were recent archival treasures like The Loves of Pharaoh, which I wrote about when it debuted in Los Angeles, Clara Bow in Mantrap, introduced by director Victor Fleming’s biographer Michael Sragow, The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna, films from Sweden and China, and Henry King’s peerless soap opera Stella Dallas, adapted by the great Frances Marion.

But my favorite films of the weekend were a pair of discoveries. Until now, The Spanish Dancer (1923) has survived only in truncated prints of dubious quality. The folks at Eye Film Institute Netherlands and Rob Byrne, president of the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Silent Film Society, have laboriously pieced the movie back together from a variety of 35mm and 16mm sources to reveal a delightful—and unexpectedly opulent—picture that shows off its attractive stars, Pola Negri and Antonio Moreno, at their very best. They were fortunate to find an original continuity script at the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to aid their efforts. Here is a costume picture that is rich in character and story, pictorial beauty, wit and joie de vivre. What a delight!

It was followed by The Canadian (1926), which was rediscovered decades ago but escaped my notice until now. William Beaudine directed this low-key story from a play by W. Somerset Maugham; whatever dialogue may have been spoken on stage was trimmed to the bone for this adaptation. It is a “pure” silent movie in which actions, body language, and the actors’ faces reveal much more than the sparse title cards. The little-known Mona Palma plays a privileged woman, raised in England, who finds herself in Alberta’s desolate farm country. Rather than be shunned by her hard-working sister-in-law (Dale Fuller, subtler than we usually see her in Erich von Stroheim pictures) she agrees to become the wife—in reality, the chattel—of a taciturn farmer (Thomas Meighan) who lives nearby. By living together the two slowly, gradually form a bond, but neither one is able to openly express his or her feelings. What a mature and subtle film this is, even by today’s standards.

Another hit was a Saturday morning showing of Felix the Cat cartoons, which presented rarely-screened prints from the Library of Congress and UCLA Film and Television Archive. I wasn’t familiar with these particular 1920s shorts and had never seen any of the long-running series projected in 35mm. Neither had my animation-buff friends in the audience, including John Canemaker, who wrote the definitive book on Felix. What a treat to watch these endlessly imaginative cartoons with a simpatico audience (including a number of kids, who seemed to be having a great time). These wonderful films deserve to be in wider circulation, properly curated and presented. I’m hoping next year the Festival will consider doing a similar show of Max Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell shorts.

It would be difficult to cite every highlight of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival; suffice it to say that between Thursday night and Sunday evening, there was magic in the air. Kudos go to artistic director Anita Monga, executive director Stacey Wisnia, operations manager Lucia Pier, and all the staff and volunteers who make the experience so enjoyable, year after year. Even an unfortunate series of technical glitches couldn’t derail the event or the feeling of good cheer that permeates the Castro.

Felix the Cat, as he appeared on screen in Jungle Bungles. 

Informative illustrated slide shows prepare the audience for each upcoming program, in this case SOUTH, the story of the Shackleton expedition to Antarctica.

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