Highlights From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Another marvelous festival has come to a close, and these five days were certainly ones to remember. With world-class guests such as Kevin Brownlow and Serge Bromberg and some of the greatest silent film accompanists in the business, festival attendees experienced the very best that silent film has to offer.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is one of my favorite festivals to cover. The films are carefully chosen to provide a beautifully diverse program, with silent films from international markets, newly-restored gems, and hits from other silent film festivals such as Pordenone and Bologna. A survey of the schedule reveals 7 different countries represented in a program of 21 features, and several newly discovered movies that have been buried deep in the archives for decades.

Highlights included a beautiful showing of the Greta Garbo and John Gilbert classic Flesh and the Devil, one of the most stunningly photographed and erotic movies of the silent era. Introduced by Kevin Brownlow and accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble, a Swedish silent film orchestra that makes an appearance at the festival every year, I felt extraordinarily fortunate to be able to witness it on the big screen. This has long been one of my favorite movies to watch, both for the exquisite cinematography and the alluring character of Felicitas, who lives her life her way.

Serge Bromberg presented an uproariously funny selection of Charley Bowers shorts, showcasing the absurd and surreal filmmaking that swept the underground cinematic landscape in the early 1920s. Following World War I, the surrealist movement known as Dadaism began to grow in Europe and extended to the United States, and though Charley Bowers was not Dadaist in the true sense of the word, aspects of the genre can be seen in some of his best work.

Here is one of the funniest movies we saw. Ignore the video’s soundtrack if you can.

And here is some classic Dadaism:

Serge Bromberg presented the movie, and also played the score on the piano. It was a truly impressive program!

One of the most highly anticipated events of the festival was a newly found film that continues to be a work-in-progress in terms of editing. The movie is called Lime Kiln Field Day, a 1913 all-black comedy starring Bert Williams. Williams is often compared to Charlie Chaplin in his physicality and comedic style, and the similarity was evident in the movie. We heard a fascinating presentation beforehand that detailed the painstaking research that went into identifying the actors and directors, and gave the audience a sense of how the movie was made, and how it was found and restored. We saw a movie that was about 90 minutes long, which included multiple takes and outtakes. It will be exciting to see how the project progresses in the coming years, and it was a real treat to see an all-black movie from so early in the history of film.

Perhaps my favorite screening of the festival was another presentation by Serge Bromberg, of a beautiful family drama called Visages d’enfants. It tells the story of a young boy in rural France who experiences the death of his doting mother, and tries to come to terms with his father’s remarriage. Visages d’enfants is a startlingly modern tale, and feels as though it could have been made in the modern day instead of 90 years ago. Jean Forest, whom we also saw a few years ago at the festival in Gribiche, gave an immensely emotive and tender performance as the troubled boy, cementing my inclination to say that he was one of the most talented child actors to come out of the silent era. I would love to see Visages d’enfants released widely on DVD, as I think it has the potential to become a beloved classic.

Visages d’enfants.

The festival went out with a beautiful screening of the 1925 Ben-Hur, presented again by Kevin Brownlow and featuring Carl Davis’ magnificent score. This is a movie that is meant to be seen on the big screen, and anything less doesn’t do it justice.  I have seen this movie several times, but when I saw it at the Castro on Monday evening, I felt like I had never seen it before. The Technicolor sequences shone, and the score elevated the chariot race to thrilling heights unable to be reached on the small screen. It is moments like watching Ben-Hur at the Castro Theatre when I swell with pride as a Bay Area native, being mere steps away from some of the best festivals and screenings in the world of classic film. Thank you to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for another great year, and I can’t wait for next time!

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One response to “Highlights From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

  1. I love this round-up. It really gave me a good sense of what the festival had to offer. I’m dying to go! You’re right, the music with that Charlie Bowers clip is horrid. There’s no accounting for taste!

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