Silent films shouldn’t be seen alone. Watching movies from
the silent era is a participatory experience, a fact driven home this past
weekend at the 19th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Unspooling in the seductive environment of the historic Castro Theatre, the
three-day event presented a wide variety of films from many countries,
including a handful of exciting restorations and discoveries.
It was Argentinian film collector Fernando Peña who
discovered that an alternate version of Buster Keaton’s 1921 short subject The Blacksmith existed in home-movie
form—with four minutes of hilarious, never-before-seen footage—and French
archivist Serge Bromberg who unearthed the source material in 35mm, in a print
he’d acquired but never screened some twenty years ago. Bromberg also unveiled
a recent eBay acquisition: a complete print of Emile Cohl’s second animated
short, a mesmerizing (and startlingly modern) display of metamorphosis unseen
in its entirety since 1908!
An engaging showman and pianist, Bromberg also treated us to
a new print of Charlie Chaplin’s A Night
in the Show (1915) struck from the original camera negative, held at the
Museum of Modern Art, and a recent restoration of Fatty Arbuckle’s The Waiter’s Ball (1917) from footage
assembled by archivist David Shepard that renders it complete for the first
time in many decades.
One of my favorite films all weekend was another
breathtaking rescue project, Douglas Fairbanks’ The Good Bad Man (1916), a frame-by-frame restoration undertaken by
Rob Byrne on behalf of the Film Preservation Society (which you can learn more
recently founded by Fairbanks scholar Tracey Goessel. If you’ve ever retouched
a picture using Photoshop or similar software, you know how labor-intensive the
process can be: imagine doing that kind of work on an entire silent feature in
order to remove dirt, scratches, and glue stains from splices. Byrne also
managed to stabilize the image and eliminate flicker. Having seen the original source
material, silent film scholar Kevin Brownlow wrote Byrne, “I still cannot work
out how you did it…this is practically prefect! To resurrect a Fairbanks film nearly
a century after it was made should be front page news.”
Even better, the film is terrific, a character piece set in
the wild West (and filmed in Mojave, California) with Fairbanks giving a
surprisingly nuanced performance as an eccentric outlaw, opposite a fresh and
appealing young Bessie Love. The actor receives story credit for this early
feature, which draws on his own lifelong interest in identity, having been
abandoned by his father—like the character he plays. The photography, by future
director Victor Fleming, is quite impressive, with Griffith-like panoramic
shots of distant action that filled the giant Castro screen.
It would take pages of copy to properly assess this
first-class festival, which offered 19 programs from Thursday to Sunday night,
including rarely-seen features from England, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Japan,
and China, along with such bona fide classics as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Buster Keaton’s The Navigator. A wide variety of
musical accompanists made the event all the more enjoyable. I’m a longtime fan
of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, led by Rodney Sauer and now
celebrating its 25th year: listening to their scores for The Four Horsemen and the Dolores Del
Rio feature Ramona was a particular
treat. Versatile pianists Donald Sosin, Stephen Horne, and Guenter Buchwald
brought their own unique approaches to the art form; Sosin played solo and in
ensemble (with percussionist Frank Bockius, among others), while Horne dazzled
us by using a variety of instruments along with his keyboard.
Yes, one can now obtain The
Max Linder Collection from Kino Lorber on Blu-ray or DVD—which is great
news—but it can’t compare with watching the comedian at the beautiful Castro movie
palace with a simpatico audience and live music. Listening to archivists and
scholars like the BFI’s Bryony Dixon, NYU’s Dan Streible, and filmmakers/film
buffs extraordinaire Craig Barron and Ben Burtt showing and describing rare
footage is icing on the cake.
All hail to Stacey Wisnia, Anita Monga, and the many people
who collaborate to make this annual event such a success. You can read more HERE, and if you
can possibly travel to San Francisco next year for the 20th
festival, I promise you’ll be glad you did.