The San Francisco Silent Film Festival ticks all of my boxes when it comes to enjoyable filmgoing experiences: it’s brilliantly programmed, takes place in a dazzling and comfortable setting, unspools over a compact and encompassable time span, and has a respectful and joyous audience that enriches the experience. And (bonus) it’s located in a neighborhood full of enticing and affordable eateries.
It’s also value for money: for $210, you get a pass to the entire festival, which includes 16 different programs, each featuring live music, ranging from the celebrated English pianist Stephen Horne (a Pordenone regular) to the Matti Bye Ensemble from Sweden, with appearances by the famed Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, as well as other musicians suited for the occasion. I learned a long time ago to attend every program, because even if I’d seen the movie in question before, the live music made it a unique, and uniquely appealing, experience, especially in the 1922-vintage, well-kept Castro Theatre.
The program for this summer’s extravaganza, the 18th edition (July 18 — 21) is a thoughtful blend of rarities and more familiar movies. It opens on Thursday, July 18th, with the Cineteca di Bolgna’s newly-restored silent version of Louise Brook’s last starring role in G.W. Pabst’s “Prix de Beaute” (in the less-successful sound version, Brooks’ voice was dubbed).
On Friday, the 19th, there’s a free program entitled “Amazing Tales from the Archive,” in which Celine Ruivo of the Cinematheque Francaise will discuss the restoration (in partnership with SFSFF) of a Douglas Fairbanks film,”The Half-Breed,” previously considered lost, which will premiere on Saturday. Friday’s four eclectic programs include the British directorial debut of Miles Mander, “The First Born,” starring Madeleine Carroll and John Loder; “Tokyo Chorus,” an affecting comedy/drama by Yasujiro Ozu; King Vidor’s “Cinderella fable for the Jazz Age” “The Patsy,” starring Marion Davies; and “The Golden Clown,” “considered one of the great masterpieces of Danish silent cinema,” according to the program book, but almost entirely new to me — I’ve only seen its star, Gosta Eckman, thanks to his appearance in Murnau’s “Faust,” which coincidentally the SFSFF showed at its winter event this past February, and this may very well be the first of director A.W. Sandberg’s titles I’ve ever seen.
Saturday, the 20th begins with a kid-friendly program dedicated to Winsor McCay, including an illustrated presentation by McCay biographer John Canemaker and screenings of four of McCay’s films, including “Little Nemo” and “Gertie the Dinosaur.” Douglas Fairbanks in “The Half-Breed,” directed by Allan Dwan, premieres next. “Legong: Dance of the Virgins,” an ethnographic love-and-sex-story oddity shot in Bali in two-strip Technicolor by the Marquis Henri de la Falaise (better known as husband to Gloria Swanson and Constance Bennett) will be accompanied by Balinese gamelan ensemble Gamelan Sekar Jaya, as well as the Club Foot Orchestra.
Jacques Feyder’s “Gribiche,” about a child torn between his lower-class Parisian roots and the rich American widow who wants to adopt and educate him, plays in a tinted print recently restored by the Cinematheque Francaise, which will be given the 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award at the screening.
“The House on Trubnaya Square,” by Russian director Boris Barnet, is touted as “Best Soviet Silent Comedy ever” by the Festival. A reconstructed print (“as close as possible to Pabst’s intention”) of G.W. Pabt’s oft-censored German film “The Joyless Street,” starring Asta Nielsen and a twenty-year-old Greta Garbo, finishes the day.
Another kid-friendly program opens the Sunday the 21st schedule: “Kings of (Silent) Comedy,” short films featuring Chaplin, Keaton, Charley Chase, and Felix the Cat. The picturesque “The Outlaw and His Wife,” starring and directed by Victor Sjostrom (familiar from his late starring role in Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries”), plays in a new restoration by the Swedish Film Institute. Another “lost” film, “The Last Edition,” an American film discovered in the Dutch national archive in 2011, has local interest, as it was shot in and around the building of the San Francisco Chronicle. “The Weavers,” a German film about an labor disturbance during the 1840s, features intertitles drawn by the corrosive George Grosz. And the festival wraps with the beloved, light-heated “Safety Last,” starring bespectacled Harold Lloyd, famously dangling off a skyscraper’s clock face, accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
And this year you can get in shape for the festival by attending a special event put on by the Silent Film Festival organization: the Hitchcock 9, nine silents by Alfred Hitchcock, newly restored by the BFI, all with live musical accompaniment, also at the Castro Theatre, a gluttonous weekend from June 14 through 16th. I can hardly wait.