Tag Archives: rudolph valentino

SILENT AUTUMN 2014

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Every year between their regular annual festivals, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents a smaller, single day event at which patrons are treated to all the vibrancy and excitement of the regular festival, on a smaller scale. In the past, the event has taken place in the winter, but as this year’s large festival took place 2 months earlier than years past, what was previously Silent Winter became Silent Autumn in 2014. As usual, Backlots was there for the action.

The day began with Laurel and Hardy shorts, and though Saturday public transportation schedules impeded my ability to see all of them, I arrived in time to catch the final short. What I saw was choice. I have seen a good deal of Laurel and Hardy, and as a friend of mine put it, “It says a lot about Laurel and Hardy that when you just think about them, you smile.” Though I much prefer their silent comedies to their sound work, I must agree that seeing them in any situation puts a smile on the film fan’s face. I regret not seeing all the shorts, but I’m very lucky that I got there in time for the next showing…a rare treat.

Next up was Son of the Sheik, Rudolph Valentino’s final film and featuring a new score by the Alloy Orchestra. Introducing the movie was noted Valentino author (and friend of Backlots’) Donna Hill, who discussed in detail the intricacies of filming and Valentino’s life at the time. It was a glorious movie with a magnificent score, and Donna’s introduction was a perfect segue into the experience. Valentino has been well-represented at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year. The opening night movie of the main 2014 festival was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a real crowd-pleaser and a Valentino staple, and Son of the Sheik seems to be the ideal way to round out a very Valentino-centric year.

On the lineup after Son of the Sheik was a program from the BFI called A Night at the Cinema in 1914, showcasing several clips and shorts from that year recreating what a night at the cinema might have looked like. An eclectic program, featuring footage of the Austro-Hungarian royal family shortly after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a clip of a representative from the Shackleton Antarctica expedition inspecting the dogs that were to go on the trip, and an early Charlie Chaplin short set in, of all things, a movie theater. My favorite of the program was an uproariously low-budget short film called “Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine.” Decades before Plan 9 From Outer Space, this short made the best of its low budget, complete with painted sea creatures and deliciously bad special effects. I have no doubt that if it were released today, it would become an instant cult classic.

“Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine” (1914)

Following a lengthy dinner break came what was arguably the cornerstone of the festival, a showing of Buster Keaton’s comedy masterpiece The General. Though this film is shown often at silent film events and festivals, it never fails to draw a crowd and at 7:00, the Castro Theater was filled with devoted Buster Keaton fans waiting to see his most famed work. My mother, who became a budding silent film fan after I brought her to see Wings at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival several years ago, accompanied me to this screening and, I am proud to say, has now seen her first Buster Keaton film.

The General, Buster Keaton’s most famous feature-length film, tells the story of a train engineer in Georgia who is rejected from the army but ends up making quite an impact on the war anyway, in a way that only Buster Keaton can. Accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra, we saw Keaton and his co-star Marion Mack perform clever gags and alarmingly advanced stunts, as well as what is considered to be the most expensive stunt performed in the history of silent film (a train toppling over a burning bridge). One of the things that strikes me most about The General is the characterization of Keaton’s female lead. She is a truly feminist character, often the brains behind solving the film’s complications, unafraid to get herself dirty or scale the side of the train. It is a refreshing look at the “damsel in distress,” as this damsel could clearly take care of herself.

Buster Keaton and Marion Mack in THE GENERAL (1926)

The next film was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but my mom needed to get home and like a good daughter, I went with her. But yet again, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival met and exceeded my expectations, living up to my oft-repeated assertion that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the best festival of its kind on the West Coast.

The main festival is in late May of 2015, and Backlots will be there as always. Stay tuned!

Live From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Day 1: THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE and Opening Night Party

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This evening’s kickoff for the 19th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival was an event of epic proportions. In honor of the anniversary of World War I, the festival opened with the monumental Rex Ingram/Rudolph Valentino collaboration The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), a movie that features “quite literally, a cast of thousands,” in the words of festival president Rob Byrne. The movie is so long that it requires an intermission, and packs a punch with its grim imagery and deep metaphors. This is all aside from the fact that for the majority of the movie, the timeless suave beauty of Rudolph Valentino lights up the screen, creating an impression on the mind that is difficult to forget.

The plot is quite vague, but when Valentino is on the screen, a plot is rendered unnecessary. The crux of the movie is that Valentino plays the grandson of a wealthy Argentinian who finds himself fighting in World War I on the side of the French, opposite his half-German cousins. The movie takes a staunch anti-war attitude, and the title relates the biblical description of the four horsemen of the apocalypse to the ravages of war. It is a complex and highly philosophical movie, with symbolism interweaving and juxtaposing war and religion.

In addition, if the audience member is familiar with the history of World War I, it is fascinating to look at the realities of what World War I wrought on the world and the biblical description of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Watching the part of the movie seen above, I was reminded of just how much the concepts of conquest, war, famine and death drove World War I from its beginning to its end. The idea to tie those two things together in a movie is sheer brilliance.

I was immensely impressed with this movie. It was a film ahead of its time, complete with advanced special effects and hand-painted color on the film in addition to its complex inferences. A raw and touching tribute to those who have experienced the pain of war.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was accompanied by the wonderful Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Mont Alto is a mainstay at this festival, and as one of the few motion picture orchestras in existence, does very well traveling to film festivals around the country. It is a truly remarkable group, and this evening they played their own original score to The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, receiving a standing ovation at the end.

After the movie, we headed down to the Opening Night Party at the McRoskey Mattress Company, where we were treated to wonderful live music and great food. It was a chance to mingle with other festival attendees, who often have similar niche interests, and I had a wonderful time chatting with several people who share mine. We finally headed home around midnight, exhausted from a very full and rewarding evening.

Tomorrow’s schedule starts at 10:00 AM, so be sure to tune in on the live tweets!

Backlots at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Earlier this evening, I received confirmation that Backlots will be at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival as an official member of the press. This will be my third year at the festival, and it stands as one of my favorite festivals to cover. Held at San Francisco’s beautiful Castro Theatre, I find the ambiance to be perfect, and the programming and festival speakers to be of the highest quality of any film festival I have attended. I feel immensely privileged to be able to have this experience year after year.

THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE (1921).

This year’s lineup features some real treasures, including a presentation of the Rudolph Valentino classic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as the opening night movie. Painstakingly restored by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, the print comes directly from Brownlow’s Photoplay Productions and the screening promises to be quite an event. It is followed by an opening night party at the McRoskey Mattress Company down the street, which is an opportunity to mingle with other like-minded silent film fans in the glamorous upstairs room of McRoskey’s overlooking Market Street.

One of the things I love about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is its attention to world cinema–it gives the audience a true smorgasbord of movies, a holistic and full approach to what the tradition of silent film means on a grand scale. Throughout the festival there will be movies from Sweden, the former U.S.S.R., China, and the UK, as well as ample opportunity to see American favorites and crowd-pleasers. The festival is presenting a newly found print of Ramona, and we will see the world premiere of a new restoration of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Good Bad Man, made possible by a collaboration between the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Cinematheque Francaise, and the Film Preservation Society.

Douglas Fairbanks in THE GOOD BAD MAN (1916).

If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area, this festival is not to be missed. Please visit their website at http://www.silentfilm.org for tickets and more information. On my end, I will be live-tweeting during the festival and blogging every night, so be sure to tune in for live updates as they happen, beginning on May 29.

See you there!