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From Murnau to Capra, SF Silent Film Festival Astounds and Delights Its Capacity Crowds

From Murnau to Capra, SF Silent Film Festival Astounds and Delights Its Capacity Crowds

Audiences still had Monday to look forward to, with a somewhat lighter schedule: four programs rather than the five or six available Friday through Sunday, after a from-all-accounts rousing and sold-out opening night performance on Thursday of the rarely-seen silent version of Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Normally I sit down on Thursday night and for all intents and purposes do not leave the venerable 1922-vintage Castro Theatre until the curtain comes down on Sunday night. The festival, with the extra day, brought masterpiece after masterpiece, re-viewings as well as films new to me, in every case accompanied with witty and apposite live music, ranging from the solo performers Stephen Horne and Guenter Buchwald to the initial appearance of the more-than-a-dozen member Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, with its student-composed-and-conducted score for Murnau’s “The Last Laugh,” introduced by professor Sheldon Mirowitz of Berklee College of Music’s Film Scoring Department.

One of the strengths of Artistic Director Anita Monga’s programming is how deftly she assembles an interesting and compelling day, varying films by genre, country, length, and musical accompaniment. The initial full day of screenings began at 10 a.m. with a traditional SFSFF offering, Amazing Tales from the Archives, wherein notables from the international film preservation scene tease the audience with stories about their projects and screen tantalizing snippets from them. I was surprised at how full the 1400-seat Castro was, that early on a work day. The ensuing schedule wove through “Cave of the Spider Women,” a 1927 Chinese fantasy film; “When the Earth Trembled,” a 1913 American disaster “epic” (48 minutes long), featuring a re-creation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; “The Last Laugh”; and then “The Ghost Train,” a 1927 UK/German co-production, a classic murder mystery set in a haunted train station, whose surviving-print French intertitles were supplemented by a live reading of their English translation by actor Paul McGann.

As San Francisco Film Society’s Executive Director Noah Cowan said to me, explaining his absence from the screening: “I’ve seen ‘The Last Laugh’ in every decade of my film-going life.” I, too, thought I knew it by heart. But the amazing, heartfelt score by the young film-scoring students, who each conducted the reel of the score that they’d composed (based on themes created by Professor Mirowitz), literally “handing off the baton” every ten or so minutes, grabbed me. It made the film seem as fresh and astonishing as it was the first time I saw it. At the climax the audience leapt to its feet and gave the first standing ovation of the festival, lusty and long indeed.

The highlights of the ensuing three days were so numerous that it would be easier to mention my only disappointment, a re-discovered lost film so sought-after over the years that its image graced the catalogue, the printed schedule, and was the subject of a special limited-edition poster commissioned from artist Wayne Shellabarger. Something of a holy grail was the 1916 “Sherlock Holmes,” starring actor-writer William Gillette, who toured in his stage adaptation for almost two decades before re-imagining his play for the screen. It was re-discovered only last year in the vaults of the Cinematheque Francaise. Sherlockians, many costumed in homage to their hero, turned out in force, including members of the Baker Street Circle and other arcane societies. Despite finding the story dullish and the characters not exactly compelling, I still was happy to see Gillette onscreen.

But that paled in comparison to such extraordinary events as seeing the “accidental silent,” “The Donovan Affair,” a talking picture directed by Frank Capra in the momentous year, 1929, when sound arrived in Hollywood. The picture survives, but the sound discs are lost. Former San Francisco Silent Film Festival Award-winner Bruce Goldstein, famed programmer of New York’s Film Forum, assembled a group of actors (the Gower Gulch Players) to lip-synch the dialogue, and also added live music and sound effects. The result proved not only hilarious but showed that the loss of the sound discs was the proverbial happy accident. If the film had been shown with its actual soundtrack, the walkouts would have been numerous, as “The Donovan Affair” was surely the worst film Capra ever made. 

Another unique offering was the screening of unedited, hundred-year old rushes from a uncompleted film with an all-black cast: “Lime Kiln Club Field Day,” starring the legendary entertainer Bert Williams, and stored since 1938 in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Associate Curator Ron Magliozzi gave an illustrated lecture, contextualizing the unfinished film and its creators, and revealing the extensive research surrounding the project, rendering its footage considerably more fascinating and touching than it otherwise would have been.

In addition, I was surprised by how thrilled and touched I was to see several movies again, including the peppy, perky “Why Be Good?,” starring the irresistible flapper Colleen Moore as a good girl who pretends to be bad to keep the men in her life interested, and the remarkably modern “Norrtullsligan,” about a group of young Swedish office-workers and their lives in and out of the office, both of which I’d seen at last year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. I liked them even more projected on the Castro’s big screen, with dazzling musical accompaniment.

Another highlight was seeing “The Swallow and the Titmouse,” a poetic and tense French barge film directed by Andre Antoine, re-assembled and restored by the Cinematheque Francaise in 1984, which I’d seen many years ago and yearned to see again ever since. I happily convinced a number of friends to stick around and see it, as it was the last program of a long six-program day, and they were uniformly happy that they had.

Over the years a solid and interesting festival has become, well, essential to my filmgoing life and easily my favorite San Francisco festival. (And I overheard more than one person saying the same.) I spend the entire festival in a state of bliss. It has become a destination festival and I met attendees from Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, and Australia, as well as the regulars from New York and Los Angeles. I look forward to the SFSFF all year long, and now that it’s just ended, I am already looking forward to the 21st year.

Happily, there’s an all-day SF Silent Film Festival event scheduled for December 15. When further details emerge, we’ll keep you posted.

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