Tag Archives: San Francisco

San Francisco Silent Film Festival: DAY OF SILENTS, 2016


Readers, many apologies for my extended absence. I don’t like to go too long without a post, but having been busy with my Marion Davies work and other outside issues, I find myself having gone for over a month without writing here.

Naturally, it is the glorious San Francisco Silent Film Festival that brings me back. After the main festival event in June, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has a day of silent movies at the Castro theatre in the winter, to whet our appetites for what’s to come in the summer. The annual Day of Silents this year was held last Saturday, and I am happy to be able to tell you about the day…at least part of it. My day at the Castro was cut short due to the tragic fire in my hometown of Oakland, CA the previous evening. Elaboration on that point will come in a later installment, because it deserves its own post. For now, however, I would like to focus on the movies. It’s been a dark year, and I think we could all use a bit of movie talk.

I managed to see two movies on Saturday afternoon and both were stellar examples of different types of silent filmmaking. The first was a wonderful 1926 Ernst Lubitsch comedy called So This is Paris, a lighthearted tale of rekindled romance between a woman practicing a revealing dance with her performance partner…and the man who comes over to tell her to cover up.

Even this early in his career, Lubitsch was already developing a signature style. The beginning scene with the revealing dance is a beautiful moment of early Hollywood self-awareness, something in which Lubitsch later excelled. The dance the two partners do is very “sheik”-esque, calling to mind the serious acting of Rudolph Valentino–but it is done in a very halfhearted and parodied way, inciting laughter in the Castro audience and undoubtedly in the audiences of 1926. Self-awareness at that level is great fun to see, as only a few far-between silent movies show that the movie industry had a sense of humor about itself. The beginning of So This is Paris and the entirety of Show People are prime examples of Hollywood’s self-awareness, a trope that wouldn’t become frequently employed until much later.


Parodying Valentino.

The second movie that I was able to see was Strike, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 debut film about a pre-Revolution worker strike. Though it was his first movie, it was already typical Eisenstein. Filled with symbolic and often shocking imagery, it clearly influenced his later Battleship Potemkin, and was quite difficult to watch. Watching Strike and already being familiar with Battleship Potemkin, I came to the realization that one of Eisenstein’s go-to methods of shocking his audience was in showing graphic scenes having to do with children. The famous scene in Battleship Potemkin in which a baby carriage rolls down the Odessa steps is reflected here in similar frightening scenes involving young children, and these serve to set the audience against the villains of the story.

On a related note, I always appreciate the frequent Russian programming at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I have a strong connection to Russia, having lived and studied there, but opportunities to speak and read it here in the United States are few and far between, so the movies at the silent film festival offer my brain a much-needed Russian treat.

Sadly, I had to leave after Strike. But I very much look forward to the larger silent film festival in June. Stay tuned, and thank you Day of Silents!


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, 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!


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.


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!

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:


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!


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.


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!

Live From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Day 4: SEVEN YEARS BAD LUCK (1921), DRAGNET GIRL (1933), THE GIRL IN TAILS (1926), THE SIGN OF FOUR (1923), HARBOR DRIFT (1929), THE NAVIGATOR (1924)


The San Francisco Silent Film Festival came to a close yesterday, and what a day it was. This was perhaps the strongest day of the festival, with some wonderful comedic fare to lighten the rather serious tone of the festival overall this year.

First up was Max Linder’s comedy Seven Years Bad Luck, in which Linder is destined for seven years of bad luck after breaking a mirror. It is quite a funny movie, and is considered to be one of Linder’s best. It was preceded by another very funny short called Max Wants a Divorce, in which the main character hatches an elaborate scheme to collect his inheritance money (to be given to him only on the condition that he remain a bachelor) after his marriage. Linder was a very skilled filmmaker, and these two shorts show his talent impeccably.


The movie was introduced by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films in Paris, and he provided a bit of a tragic backstory to the film. Max Linder was beset by severe emotional problems as a result of his service in World War I, and in 1925 Linder and his wife were found dead in Paris , the result of a suicide pact they had made several years before. In addition, Linder’s co-star in Max Wants a Divorce was a woman by the name of Martha Mansfield, who also suffered a tragic death when her costume caught fire while she was on the set of a film. These horrible tragedies are ironic given how funny the movies are, and knowing the fates of the leading actors gave a bittersweet quality to the comedies.

Next up was a very interesting film by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, one of the pre-eminent names in Japanese cinema. Ozu’s films are normally marked by thoughtful examinations of the human condition, with calm, tranquil camerawork and character-driven narratives. This film was completely different. Introduced by Eddie Muller, Dragnet Girl was an American-style proto-noir gangster film, that Muller noted “could easily have featured James Cagney and Joan Blondell as the leads.” It was so American in tone that all the signs were in English, and newspaper articles about Jack Dempsey, who had never been to Japan, decorated the walls. A very unusual film from Ozu, and a reminder of just how much American films influenced foreign markets. It was quite enjoyable, a suspenseful thriller that brought out the best of Japanese filmmaking paired with the most popular American genre of the era.


The Girl in Tails was something quite unusual. Made in Sweden in 1926, it is one of the most distinctly feminist movies I have seen from that era, and even pushes the boundaries for what is accepted today. The story deals with a young girl who wants to go to a ball, but has nothing to wear. Her father has just bought her brother a new coat and tails, but refuses to buy his daughter a new dress, saying she has enough and if she had been a boy, she would have gotten a new tuxedo, too. Deeming this unfair, she gets back at her father by showing up at the ball dressed in a tuxedo–much to the horror of those around her. She is chastised by everyone except for her former schoolteacher, who tells her that she is correct for reacting when she is treated unfairly simply because she is a girl. The movie deals with the aftershocks to her act in the small, conservative town where she lives–with the ending message being that acceptance is important. Its tone was rather shocking, as a movie from 1926 is not expected to be thinking in terms of women’s rights. But this one was, and it was an absolute delight. Artistic director Anita Monga said that this was one of her favorites that was shown at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Pordenone, Italy last year, and just had to bring it to San Francisco. I’m glad she did.


The Sign of Four was the only movie in the festival this year that I did not particularly care for. It was a Sherlock Holmes story, and to me not a very thrilling one. I was distracted during the movie, and it did not grab me as it did others. A gentleman I talked to after the movie described it to me as a “guy movie,” a term I generally don’t like because of the gender role reinforcement that it carries. But I see what he means, and indeed, nobody in the group of women I was sitting with liked the movie–while the group of men sitting below us felt it was one of the best films of the festival. If I could live yesterday over again, I would have left before Sign of Four and come back for Harbor Drift, the next film on the program. But alas, I left for a dinner break during Harbor Drift, and did not get to experience what was by all accounts the best event of the festival. It was another German melodrama, but everyone I talked to said it was an immensely well-made film, and counted it as one of, if not their number 1, favorite. A mistake on my part, and I will know for next year that dinner should be had between films, lest a gem be missed.

The final film of the night, and of the festival, was the Buster Keaton classic The Navigator. As is standard for Keaton films, the theater was filled to the brim with enthusiastic fans and silent film novices. There was nary an empty seat to be seen, and with good reason. The film is incredibly funny. It deals with a young man and his fiancee (he hopes) on a boat off the coast of an island inhabited by cannibals, and they have to do what they can to avoid them. One of the funniest moments of the movie is when Buster’s fiancee-to-be throws a painting of the boat’s former captain (the painting is clearly Donald Crisp, the co-director of the movie) out the window, but it latches onto Buster’s porthole and Donald Crisp’s face peers in at Buster. It is a brilliant film, and Keaton described it as one of his two favorites, alongside The General.

And that’s a wrap for this year, folks! Thank you so much for reading, and I’ll be back at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival next year for more coverage!

Live From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Day 3: THE GOOD BAD MAN (1916), Serge Bromberg’s Treasure Trove, THE EPIC OF EVEREST (1924), UNDERGROUND (1928), UNDER THE LANTERN (1928), THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF MR. WEST IN THE LAND OF THE BOLSHEVIKS (1924)


Owing to a long day of movies yesterday plus a 2 AM blog post, followed by a 4 AM wake up call by my yowling cat and my actual alarm at 7, suffice it to say that I went into today’s movies feeling massively sleep-deprived. Fueled only by my enthusiasm (and several cups of coffee from the press lounge), I managed to watch all the movies on tap for today and am here, as promised, to report back on them for you.

Today was heavy on the dramatic titles, and indeed the festival this year is tending toward drama on the whole. The first film we watched is one I had seen before–Cinecon screened it this past year and I was sure to attend, as I adore Douglas Fairbanks in any role. This movie was The Good Bad Man, starring Fairbanks and the underappreciated Bessie Love who, in addition to her acting talent and good looks, has some of the most unusual and beautiful hair on the silent screen.

Bessie Love.


The Good Bad Man focuses on the experience of a Robin Hood-esque thief known only as “Passin’ Through,” who steals items and gives them to orphaned children. We soon learn that Passin’ Through grew up without a father, and over the course of the movie we learn who his father was, how he died, and how Passin’ Through ultimately avenges his father’s death and is able to marry the woman he loves. It is an interesting take on the Old West, and one that balances the film’s narrative and action beautifully. Fairbanks had a penchant for stories about ancestry and bloodlines, and Fairbanks himself supervised the script for this movie. It is a new restoration, and a lovely one. I hope it will be out on DVD soon so that the public can enjoy it as much as I have.

Next up was a program called Serge Bromberg’s Treasure Trove, in which the legendary film preservationist Serge Bromberg from Lobster Films chats with the audience about new discoveries from the archive. Today we had a special treat because not only did Bromberg show the piece de resistance of his presentation, the newly discovered footage from Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith (originally found in Argentina by Fernando Pena and consisting of some uproariously funny new moments), but we also got a practical demonstration of the differences between modern film technology and nitrate…when Bromberg lit them both on fire, right there on the stage in front of the audience. The modern film stock remained intact, while the nitrate went up in large flames, soon becoming completely useless. Bromberg used this demonstration to relate the importance of film preservation and proper storage of films, if you have them at home. Very important information.

Nitrate deterioration. This is a huge issue in film preservation.

By this time my first cup of coffee was starting to wear off, and I was beginning to get exhausted again. My exhaustion was so great that I missed several minutes of the next two films. The Epic of Everest, which was a breathtakingly beautiful documentary look at the first attempt to climb Mount Everest, is quite a monumental film. The photography was stunning, the title cards were well written, and the film as a whole was very informative. I greatly enjoyed it and I look forward to being able to  see it again. This print and that of Underground, the next film on the program, came from the British Film Institute and specifically Bryony Dixon, the archive curator. Underground, the story of a shop girl with two suitors, is also an extremely advanced film for its day in terms of its storyline and effects. Its camerawork reminded me greatly of Hitchcock, complete with trick photography and psychological manipulation of the audience. It might also be classified as a bit of a proto-noir, having many of the dark thematic elements that became synonymous with the genre of film noir several years later. There were several moments in this film that made me gasp in suspense, which I think is the sign of a great film.

Under the Lantern,  with a plot centering on a young girl whose life keeps handing her one degradation after another, is a classic example of how German cinema looked when it came out of Weimar Berlin between 1921 and 1933. Intensely serious, often existential or philosophical plots emerge in this period, and it is some of the most influential filmmaking to come out of world cinema. Under the Lantern is long, consisting of 8 acts each focusing on a chapter of the girl’s difficult life, and it is tough on the soul. Though the film itself is very good and is standard German filmmaking for the time, it is dark and depressing, making it one for sensitive souls to try to avoid.


Lastly, another goofy Russian movie, this time about a young American who forms an “incorrect” opinion about the Bolsheviks and ultimately ends up advocating for them. It is a quirky, oddball movie, and perfect for a 10:00 showing. Unlike the movie from last night, this one had no one reading the subtitles aloud, so I was left to read the subtitles in Russian for myself, which was wonderful for me to be able to do. This was the only relatively light fare for the day, and I think if they had shown it earlier in the day, it wouldn’t have been very popular. There is something to be said for watching a strange movie when you are exhausted and too tired to think, and this was definitely a strange movie. One line, referencing the American putting a picture of Lenin up on his wall in the United States, made me laugh out loud. See this movie if you have previous knowledge of the Bolsheviks. You will get the joke.

That’s all for today, folks! Thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow for the final day!

Live From the San Francisco Silent Film Festival Day 2: AMAZING TALES FROM THE ARCHIVES, SONG OF THE FISHERMEN (1934), MIDNIGHT MADNESS (1928), THE PARSON’S WIDOW (1920), RAMONA (1928), COSMIC VOYAGE (1936)


Today’s lineup featured an eclectic mix of American and foreign films, 20s films and 30s films, dramas, comedies, and science fiction fantasies. Today’s lineup truly embodies what I mean when I say that the festival takes a holistic approach to silent cinema–at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, anything goes and everything is celebrated.

First up today was a beautiful and informative presentation that the festival calls “Amazing Tales From the Archives.” A yearly program at the festival, it is always one of my favorite events, as the audience learns fascinating facts about our favorite films, and perhaps some that we may never have heard of. Today’s presentation was threefold–first, we heard from Bryony Dixon, the silent film curator at the BFI National Archive, who showed us some breathtaking nature documentaries from some of Britain’s most celebrated early film pioneers. We saw films from Oliver Pike, whose capturing of wildlife provided the inspiration for the current work of David Attenborough, and footage of bees from John Charles Bee-Mason, whose fascination with bees provided the first name in his hyphenated surname. We also saw astonishingly beautiful time-lapse photography of flowers in bloom, photographed by F. Percy Smith. Lovely to watch and a unique experience.

Following Dixon’s presentation was one on Edison’s famed Fred Ott’s Sneeze. Film fans and historians know this piece of footage well–but it turns out there is more to the footage than we knew about. After an extensive history of the 2-second film, we were given an extra few seconds that have just been restored to make a complete film. The extra few seconds are not online, so I will give you the original 2 seconds  of Fred Ott’s sneeze. It was very interesting to see the extra few seconds, and hopefully they will be online to share soon!

Finally, we were treated to a talk about Chaplin and the technology he used in his movies, given by Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Craig Barron and equally legendary Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt. Though Chaplin was initially opposed to sound film, that did not mean, Burtt and Barron tell us, that he did not use the latest technology. Focusing on his last two appearances as The Little Tramp in City Lights and Modern Times, the presentation showed us how Chaplin worked some of his movie magic. I was completely blown away when Burtt and Barron revealed how Chaplin achieved the iconic stunt of roller skating on a ledge in Modern Times. As it turns out, Chaplin used an innovative technique to create the illusion of this dangerous feat. Spoiler alert: Chaplin was not skating on a ledge at all. He painted a transparent ledge onto a piece of glass, and put that glass over the appropriate part of the camera, so that the audience would be privy to the optical illusion while he was on solid ground, in no danger at all. It worked. Take a look at the scene.

Absolutely fascinating.

Next up was a film from the China Film Archive called Song of the Fishermen. It dealt with the difficulties of a family in a poor fishing village in China, and was made long after sound films had become industry standard in Hollywood. As the presenter pointed out beforehand, silent films in China continued on for quite a long time due to the fact that the Chinese people were used to the silent films coming to them from Hollywood, and when sound films started to arrive, they couldn’t understand them. Subtitle technology had not been invented, and due to the Chinese people’s preference for silent films from abroad, Chinese studios also catered to this public demand domestically for much of the 1930s.


Song of the Fishermen is quite a depressing movie, but a beautiful one. The leading lady, Wang Renmei, is a pleasure to look at and apparently was quite multi-talented. She trained at several elite voice and dance academies in China, and during this screening the festival dubbed her singing voice in whenever her character was to sing the “song of the fishermen.” Her voice is indeed elegantly trained, and the song catchy. It was a well made movie, though the audience definitely leaves feeling quite badly about life.

Next up was a bit of an odd movie–part light comedy, and part dark drama. Directed by Cecil B. De Mille, Midnight Madness is a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew set in an African diamond mine, with several twists from comedy to drama and back again. It was quite unusual, and at times the leading lady, Jacqueline Logan, reminds the viewer of Clara Bow, and at other times she is reminiscent of a Hitchcock victim. I enjoyed the movie for the novelty of it more than anything, as I haven’t really seen anything else like it. Perhaps a second viewing would help me warm up to it a bit more, but as of right now, it was simply an amusing novelty.

The festival’s love for Scandinavian cinema continued next, with a screening of the Swedish drama (with some very funny bits!) The Parson’s Widow, about a new, young parson in a Norwegian village who has to marry the deceased parson’s elderly widow. He hatches a scheme to pass his fiancee off as his sister so she may live in the house with them until the old woman dies. But after a while, he begins to truly care for the widow. It is ultimately a sweet story of love and acceptance, and the plot is quite advanced for 1920. The woman who played the elderly widow was apparently quite sick during filming, and passed away shortly after the movie was completed. Nonetheless, she gave a remarkable performance. I really enjoyed this movie. It was tight and nearly flawless in its execution. Beautiful direction by Carl Dreyer and great performances all around.

After The Parson’s Widow came Ramona, a newly found print of the 1928 film starring Dolores Del Rio and Warner Baxter. There have been several versions of the Ramona story, including one with Mary Pickford made in 1910, but this one may be the best. It tells the story of a young girl who, after discovering she is half Native American, is free to marry the Native American man she loves despite her cruel adoptive mother’s reservations. It then turns into a story about the hardships they face as a couple, with love turning to tragedy. It is a very interesting story, and a wonderful movie. This particular print was found in the Czech Film Archive and restored beautifully. The original score played by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra was also perfect for the film, and added a great deal.

Finally, a children’s science fiction movie out of the USSR in 1936 called Cosmic Voyage. Like China, Russia continued making silent films long after Hollywood stopped, and had a great silent film tradition that lasted through the 1930s. This film was a great choice with which to end the night, as the lighthearted nature of the plot about an experimental trip to the moon kept the audience engaged and excited at a very late hour. The Russian title cards (some quite ridiculous–my favorite was “You collect the atmosphere, and I’ll rescue the cat!”) were read aloud very enthusiastically, and at first I found it distracting as I wanted to read the title cards myself (I speak Russian), but after a while I realized how funny this man’s delivery was. I got really into it and by the end I had completely eschewed reading the title cards at all, in favor of listening to him. Great movie for 10:00 at night.

Thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow for day 3!



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


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!

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival Starts Tonight!



It’s here, readers! Backlots’ annual coverage of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival starts tonight. As usual, I will be enabling live tweets on the blog, and posting every evening about the day’s adventures.

For more information about what is going on this weekend, please visit the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website at http://www.silentfilm.org. There, you can buy tickets, find the full schedule, and get the lowdown on what the Silent Film Festival does year-round. It is a wonderful organization dedicated to the preservation of our silent film heritage, and it partners in many restorations and rare screenings of silent classics. Check them out!

In 2012, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened Kevin Brownlow's masterpiece restoration of Abel Gance's NAPOLEON at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. Over the course of 4 days, 10,000 people packed the theater.

In 2012, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened Kevin Brownlow’s masterpiece restoration of Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. Over the course of 4 days, 10,000 people packed the theater.

If you are in the Bay Area, I encourage you come to at least one screening. You won’t regret it. My mother, who previously knew little to nothing about silent film, came with me several years ago to the festival’s screening of Wings with live foley accompaniment. She was blown away, and couldn’t stop talking about it. Since then, she has come with me to multiple screenings at the festival every year, and has become a bona fide silent film fan. This is what the Silent Film Festival strives to do–to create new interest in silent film and delight longtime devotees–and it succeeds beautifully.

So if you’re in the Bay Area, I hope to see you there. If you are not, follow along on the blog and on Twitter. It will be a great time!

See you soon!


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.


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!