Tag Archives: San Francisco silent film festival

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival: GET YOUR MAN (1927) and the Importance of Film Preservation

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The Castro district of San Francisco filled with silent film fans from around the world June 1-4, as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival kicked off for the 22nd year in a row. As loyal readers of this blog know, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is a particular favorite of mine. The atmosphere is cozy and laid back, staffed by nearly all volunteers, and most of the sponsors are local small businesses.

While the festival’s operations reflect its San Francisco locale, the programming has a decidedly global feel. Every year, the program features silent films from such disparate places as Sweden, Germany, China, Bali, and Russia, in addition to the standard Hollywood fare that we’ve come to expect. To elevate what’s on the screen, world-class musicians play music live alongside the screen. One year, when they showed the Balinese silent film Legong: Dance of the Virgins, the festival brought in a full Balinese gamelan ensemble to provide the accompaniment. It was one of the most thrilling moments in the entirety of my filmgoing life.

The festival also makes it a habit to show new restorations, ones that either they collaborated on, or that are significant in some way. One of the featured restorations this year was Get Your Man (1927), directed by Dorothy Arzner and introduced by Cari Beauchamp. It was a delightful film, starring the always joyous Clara Bow, who remains one of the stars for whom I have a perpetual fascination. Out of all the grim childhoods that seem to precede Hollywood stardom, Clara Bow’s childhood was the most nightmarish I’ve ever read about. And yet she exudes such warmth, exuberance, and boundless positive energy onscreen, one would never guess the neglect, poverty, and abuse that had defined her life pre-Hollywood.

(In fact, if you’re looking for a great biography to read, David Stenn’s Runnin’ Wild about Clara Bow’s life is among the best biographies I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it.)

Get Your Man is pure Clara Bow. Telling the story of a young woman who devises a scheme to get her crush out of an arranged marriage, she smiles, charms, and finagles her way into his heart–and ours.

Several scenes were severely damaged by nitrate deterioration, and when the Library of Congress restored the film, the preservationists were unable to save them. In the place of those scenes, they inserted photos taken on set during those scenes, to give the audience some idea of what was going on.

When I saw this technique, it immediately brought to mind the cuts that were made to A Star is Born (1954) when Jack Warner cut 30 minutes from the finished film, and the footage was promptly lost. During the restoration of the print in 1983, several cut scenes were found in the Warner Bros vault, but much of the missing footage had to be reconstructed using production photos.

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One of the stills used to replace lost footage in A Star is Born (1954)

Recognition of the importance of film preservation is relatively new. Before we had VCRs, DVDs, and other means of viewing films outside a theater, distributors and production companies had little reason to think that saving film stock had much benefit–it was expensive to preserve and took up valuable space. It is estimated that close to 75% of all silent films have been lost, due to the fragility of the stock and little interest in preserving the films. They were thrown out, burned, or buried in makeshift dumps to free space for things people deemed more important.

But technology has galloped along, giving us the ability to view these movies not only in our homes, but on our computers, phones, and tablets. Preservation equipment has also been perfected, with state-of-the-art restoration labs located in places like the Library of Congress, Lobster Films in Paris, and the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY (a lab that also houses the Selznick School of Film Preservation). With this increased potential for visibility, interest in finding and saving these films grows, as does the urgency to preserve them.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s work to support preservation and preservationists is among the most active of any festival in the world. Since 2013, the festival has contributed to restorations undertaken by the BFI, MoMA, Cinémathèque Française, EYE Filmmuseum, Library of Congress, the Film Preservation Society, and Gosfilmofond, and has made it a priority to showcase films previously thought lost, to advance the cause of film preservation and increase awareness of the need to get these films preserved.

In the case of Get Your Man, preservation came too late to save the complete print. In the case of A Star is Born, no one cared enough to save it. But it is heartening that organizations like the San Francisco Silent Film Festival are working tirelessly to make sure that we’re aware of how much these films mean to history, so we can save as much as we can.

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Clara Bow and Buddy Rogers in Get Your Man (1927).

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival DAY OF SILENTS

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Yesterday afternoon at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival hosted its annual Day of Silents, featuring a magnificent lineup of silent films from around the world that whet the festivalgoer’s appetite for the larger festival taking place in June. This year’s Day of Silents included a diverse offering of films that seemed to have something for everybody.

The day started with a screening of The Black Pirate (1926), a Douglas Fairbanks mainstay and one of the first films to be shot in two-strip Technicolor. We were lucky enough to have Tracey Goessel, the author of the new Douglas Fairbanks biography The First King of Hollywood (a very solid and informative read, expect a review on the blog very soon) on hand to introduce the film, and Tracey related a few interesting anecdotes about the filming. Fairbanks’ beard made photography with primitive two-strip Technicolor a bit difficult, and they often had to stop and apply more makeup so that his face wouldn’t turn green in the Technicolor process. But sometimes they couldn’t get to his beard before the Technicolor affected his coloring, so every now and then in the film, Fairbanks’ face turns a slight shade of green.

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Doug looking a bit green.

The movie stars a remarkably beautiful Billie Dove as Fairbanks’ love interest, at the height of her fame and beauty. The plot involves Doug trying to rescue her from a terrible fate, and, of course, he succeeds in the end. The final kiss between Fairbanks and Billie Dove is not between Fairbanks and Billie Dove at all–in fact, for the kissing scene, Mary Pickford was brought in and what we see is a kiss between the biggest Hollywood power couple of the 1920s.

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Doug and Mary at the end of The Black Pirate.

The Black Pirate is a typical Douglas Fairbanks movie, which is to say that it thrills, delights, and incites countless moments of awe at Fairbanks’ swashbuckling acrobatics. Watching a Douglas Fairbanks movie is one of life’s particular cinematic joys, as his brand of daring stunts, achieved without a double, combined with his million-dollar smile and exuberant personality, have scarcely been matched by anyone else in all of film history. He created the prototype, and though many have tried to replicate what he does, few have succeeded. As far as I can think, the person who came closest to replicating what Douglas Fairbanks did was Errol Flynn, with his damsel-in-distress, swordfighting onscreen persona. But even he, with his slight build and boyish face, lacks the unique charisma of the suavely charming, almost sassy Fairbanks.

If you haven’t seen The Black Pirate, the complete film is available to watch on youtube. I highly recommend it.

Some other highlights of the festival included a beautiful series of home movies filmed in China between 1900 and 1948, and a showing of Houdini’s 1919 film The Grim Game. The Grim Game feels almost like a filmed magic show, as the entire plot of the film didn’t matter so much–it was a show piece for Houdini’s talents. The audience laughed with delight when Houdini’s character was in jail and locked up in chains–replicating the famous photo of the magician.

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There was also a subplot that led up to the inevitable famous trick of Houdini escaping from a straitjacket while hanging upside down from a building. Again, the audience knew exactly what was coming, and muttered among themselves knowingly when Houdini had his straitjacket put on.

The Grim Game was recently restored and shown at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, and since then has been making the rounds at several festivals around the country. It is a must-see for Houdini fans and anyone interested in magic, as there are some truly remarkable feats accomplished by Houdini in the film.

The home movies around China were simply breathtaking. Shot by a wide variety of amateur filmmakers, they showed the different provinces of China over a nearly 50-year span, marking the significant historical and social changes that the country went through. In the movies filmed around 1900, we saw nearly everyone in traditional Chinese dress, surrounded by wooden buildings and shops bearing names written only in Chinese characters. By 1915, we were beginning to see evidence of American and European trade and influence, with European men and women riding bicycles through the streets and shop signs transliterated into Latin lettering. By 1930, people had begun to adopt western-style clothing in the cities, and you see the roots of industrialization that were beginning to take shape. It was a beautiful and enlightening history lesson, through the most informative lens we have–the home movie.

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Beijing, 1910.

As always, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival delivers the highest quality silent film experience I have ever had the pleasure to have. I am so fortunate to be able to take part in it every year, and I hope that, if you have never been, you will be able to make it out to the larger festival in late May/early June. Stay tuned for details as it gets closer.

See you next time!

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!

SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL DAY 1: All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is taking place the week of Memorial Day this year, and a fitting film opened the festival this evening. A packed crowd filled the Castro Theatre at the corner of Market and Castro to see All Quiet on the Western Front, a beautiful adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic World War I novel and a powerful anti-war epic. The movie stars Lew Ayres and a cast of  dozens of character actors, and is set in a bleak and devastatingly real German World War I trench.

Paul Baumer (Ayres) is a young boy in school in Germany, who is taught the glories of war by his teacher and decides to go into the German army to fight in World War I. Along with his schoolmates, he joins a battalion and is immediately sent to the western front to fight the Allied forces who are quickly advancing. There are gruesome scenes of war, death, and blood, showing the audiences the horrors of war in no uncertain terms. But at the same time, this is a story about brotherhood, friendship, and caring in the most hellacious place on earth.

By 1930, silent film production in the United States had essentially ceased. 1929 saw sound becoming industry standard, and the public began to accept and expect sound film as normal instead of a novelty. For the theaters that could not yet afford the expensive sound equipment that sound film required, many films through 1929 were filmed twice, once as a silent and once as a sound film. This was the case with All Quiet on the Western Front. By 1930 sound was a universal standard and it was unusual to film a movie twice, but the starkness, the power, and the gravity of All Quiet on the Western Front renders it ideal for the silent screen. Words are often superfluous in describing the horrors of war, and are unable to capture the pure terror and trauma experienced by soldiers in active combat. A simple glance, a look in the eyes or a wrinkle of an eyebrow can express more than a whole page of dialogue, and that is exactly what Lew Ayres accomplishes in this movie. There is no unimportant scene, nothing goes to waste in this beautiful, tightly woven, heartwrenching drama.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is one of the greatest festivals around in terms of programming. Festivalgoers can always count on the San Francisco Silent Film Festival to deliver the best that silent film has to offer, and I very much look forward to the entire schedule this year.

See you tomorrow!

San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2015!

Hello dear readers, my goodness, it has been a long time since I’ve posted. I’ve been so busy with various projects that I feel that Backlots has been relegated to the back burner. I still owe you the post about my final day at the TCMFF, but I’m here to announce another festival–the San Francisco Silent Film Festival that Backlots has attended for the past several years will return at the end of this month, and I will be there covering all the action!

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This year’s lineup is spectacular. Featuring such films as Flesh and the Devil, All Quiet on the Western Front, Speedy, and their signature smorgasbord of silent films from around the globe, the 2015 festival promises to be one to remember. Join me the last weekend in May as we go to the historic Castro Theater in San Francisco to celebrate the silents once more.

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Greta Garbo and John Gilbert smolder in Flesh and the Devil.

If you are in the San Francisco area, you may get the details about this year’s festival by visiting the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website and downloading the full schedule. This festival remains one of my favorites due to its perfect combination of quality films, world-class speakers, and cozy local atmosphere. If you’ve never been before, it’s a true experience.

I will get that final TCM post up shortly, but be sure to check back between May 28 and June 1 for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival!

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!

Upcoming at Backlots

Hello, dear readers! I have returned from my East Coast trip and boy, is it going to be a busy month here on the site! Here are a few things to expect this September:

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On September 20, Backlots will be attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s Silent Autumn event. It promises to be a great day, filled with Laurel and Hardy, Valentino, Chaplin, and Keaton, good company, and world-class speakers. If you’re in the area, it is not to be missed. As my regular readers know, I have huge respect for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and attendance at their small events is a great introduction to the larger festival in May. For more information, click here. I hope to see you there!

TCM FRIDAY NIGHT SPOTLIGHT: CLASSIC PRE-CODE

Throughout the month of September, TCM will be highlighting classic pre-codes during their Friday Night Spotlight block. Every Friday this month, viewers will be treated to some of the greatest and most influential films made before the dawn of the restrictive Hays Code, a unique and fascinating period in film history. From Baby Face and The Divorcee to Three on a Match and Design for Living, this is some of the raciest programming you will see on TCM and is not to be missed. For my analysis of the pre-code era, check out a post I wrote a few months ago on the topic.

THE CIMBA AWARDS

Once again, I am in charge of managing the annual CiMBA Awards given out by the Classic Movie Blog Association. The awards will be given out in late September, and I will be announcing the winners here. Stay tuned at the end of the month for the best posts that classic movie blogs had to offer this year. Good luck to all nominees!

Have a wonderful weekend, readers, and see you next time!