Guest Post: TCM Party Takes the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

TCMParty‘s Trevor Jost has written a few guest posts for the site in the past, so I was very excited when he asked if he could write about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Since moving to LA last year I’ve missed like four events with that festival and it breaks my heart. I hope you enjoy reading Trevor’s take on the festival as much as I did!

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The 19th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival marked my third trip to the festival. I love silent films and after being talked into going to the festival three years ago, I don’t plan on missing it ever again. And even though I live in Kansas, it is very much worth the trip. I made this trip especially memorable by making a stop in Colorado on my way to San Francisco. There I was able to run my first 10K, The Bolder Boulder, and climb Grays Peak, bagging my very first 14er! However that was not without difficulty, as I arrived in San Francisco the morning of the first day of the festival, I was partially snow blind. But a trip to the eye doctor, a local pharmacy, a pair of sunglasses and days rest made a big difference. Lesson learned, always wear sunglasses when climbing a snowy mountain.

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The festival kicked off with one of my favorite films, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921). Luckily I have seen it before, because I was not able to keep my eyes open during the film due to how much they hurt. But the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra played a wonderful score which I enjoyed very much! Four Horsemen is probably one of the greatest films about World War I, but when you think of it you are probably likely to imagine Rudolph Valentino doing the tango. In reality this is a relatively short scene in a very powerful antiwar movie. After the screening I made my way to the after party with some old and new friends. And even still being partially blind, it was a pretty good time.

The second day of the festival started off very uniquely. First off was, A New Look at an Old Sneeze. It was an incredibly insightful presentation on Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894). New York University’s Dan Streible taught us that Fred Ott’s Sneeze was originally just a series of photographs in Harpers weekly. It was only started being viewed as a motion picture some 60 years after its creation, but at only half its original frame length. Only last year did the Library of Congress make an extended 35mm print using all the available frames, thereby almost doubling the films length.

Next we learned about filmmakers who I had never heard of, Oliver Pike, Percy Smith, J.C. Bee-Mason and F. Martin Duncan. Together they launched the natural history film genre in a silent film era. Bryony Dixion, curator of silent film for the British film Institute National Archive, brought many examples from all of the filmmakers.

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There were gorgeous color animal films, funny fly films, and perhaps my personal favorite, time-lapse photography of flowers blooming. Next up was a presentation by visual effects supervisor Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt. They gave us an in-depth look on how Charlie Chaplin used the latest in film technology, even though he did not embrace sound. At several points during the presentation I could not believe my eyes, once again proving to me that Chaplin was an absolute genius. These three presentations made up the mornings, Amazing Tales from the Archives.

The first feature of the day was, Song of the Fisherman (1934). The film star was Wang Renmei, who I had trouble keeping my eyes off of. And as it turns out has a lovely singing voice. While this is a silent film, every time she sang, the song of the fisherman during the film, they were able to play an actual recording of her singing the song. Something for which she became famous for. It was a very sad film, but a very good one. I’m just glad it wasn’t very first in the morning.

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Midnight Madness (1928) was up next. The only word that comes to mind when I think of this film is, strange. Starring Jacqueline Logan and Clive Brook, the festival program says this about it, an interesting if somewhat far-fetched melodrama, which I agree with 100%. I enjoyed this film immensely. Clive Brook, one of my personal favorite actors, was very good. And so was Jacqueline Logan. She was a very good actress and certainly easy on the eyes.

Next was the Swedish film, The Parson’s Widow (1920). This turned out to be a far darker and yet funnier film than I had imagined. Shot in Norway, and directed by Carl-Theodor Dreyer, this film tells the story of a young man who becomes a town’s parson but has to marry the old parson’s widow. The thing is he’s already in love, and spends most of the film waiting for the parson’s widow to die. 76-year-old Hildur Carlberg plays the title role of the film. And I will say that I don’t believe I have ever seen a finer bit of acting than she delivers. Sadly she died shortly after shooting the film and never saw the completed project.

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The evening  feature was, Ramona (1928). If you can forgive Warner Baxter playing an Indian, you will probably enjoy this film. Apparently there are four film versions of Ramona, I had only seen the D.W.Griffith/Mary Pickford 1910 short. Which is not as good as the 1928 feature. Dolores del Río never looked lovelier as she did in Ramona. Ramona was frustrating and tragic, but a good film overall.

The last film of the day was the Soviet, Cosmic Voyage (1936). Which I can only some up with one of its title cards. “You collect the atmosphere, I’ll rescue the cat.” Cosmic Voyage is an incredibly exciting and yet strange film featuring some fantastic claymation. It’s the story of a bearded scientist, a hot blonde, and a young stowaway boy traveling to the moon. Even though it is most completely Soviet propaganda, it was pulled from theaters and banned after being deemed to escapist. The reason it was released as a silent film, was to reach more viewers. Not all theaters in the USSR had sound equipment in 1936. It is interesting to note that it was released the same year as the British science fiction epic, Things To Come.

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Saturday morning brought Douglas Fairbanks leaping across the screen in The Good Bad Man (1916). I am relatively certain I saw this film last year at Cinecon, however this was a brand-new restoration and was longer and much cleaner than the previous version I had watched. It’s a very good film and an interesting glimpse of Douglas Fairbanks very near the beginning of his film career. And even in scenes where he is not leaping across the screen, he proves to be a very fine actor.

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At noon everyone’s favorite Frenchman, Serge Bromberg, proved himself yet again, to be an extraordinary showman! I have been witness to a couple of his presentations and I can say that the man is absolutely fantastic. He started out his treasure trove presentation by lighting a small bit of nitrate film stock on fire, which actually created a very large fireball. he then showed us the newly discovered version of Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith, a world premiere of Roscoe Arbuckle’s two real comedy The Waiter’s Ball, and an unfinished restoration of Charlie Chaplin’s A Night in the Show.

The afternoon program was kicked off with, The Epic of Everest (1924). Which was epic in every way. This film documents the ill-fated 1924 British Mount Everest expedition. There are no words to describe the beauty of this film and the mountain. This film is beyond powerful. We literally watch George Mallory and Andrew Irving climb out of view of the camera never to be seen again, until Mallory’s body was discovered in 1999. I choose to believe that George Mallory made it to the top of Everest that fateful day.

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Underground (1929) followed next. A fantastic dark shadowy British film. It can be described as a smooth blend of German expressionistic shots and Soviet cinema rapid cutting. This was one of my favorite films of the festival. The story of four working-class people caught up in love and hate. For me this film served as a reminder that I need to see more silent British film.

Speaking of German expressionism, Under The Lantern (1928) hit hard next. This is not a happy film, this is a story of degradation. This is the story of a nice young woman and her fall into prostitution. I had never heard of this film before, but I won’t soon forget it. I’m a huge fan of German silent films, and this one certainly does not disappoint.

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The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924). I don’t even know where to start when describing this film. After watching it, you’ll most likely have a strong urge to rush out and buy a giant portrait of Lenin. That was my reaction at least. This is a fantastic thrill picture full of great chase sequences. The title character, Mr. West, seems to be modeled after a dimwitted Harold Lloyd. This is a lighthearted film and it interesting and note that it was released shortly after the devastation of the Russia’s civil war. So it must have been a perfect escapist film.

The last day of the festival checked off with a little bit of Max Linder. The short, Max Wants a Divorce (1917) preceded Seven Years Bad Luck (1921). Both films were hysterically funny! And they were introduced by the enormously charming Serge Bromberg, who told us some very unfunny things about Max Linder’s life. As well as Max’s costar in Max Wants a Divorce, Martha Mansfield. Who was burned to death on a movie set in 1924. Max Linder and his wife committed suicide on October 31, 1925. See, not funny.

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Eddie Muller then introduced Dragnet Girl (1932). This is a very American feeling film. It could very easily be imagined as a Warner Bros. pre-code gangster film starring James Cagney and John Blondell. And I couldn’t agree more with what he said about the film. The jewel in this film is leading actress, Kinuyo Tanaka. She is a knock out. This is without a doubt my favorite Yasujiro Ozu film.

The surprisingly feminist and fresh Swedish film, The Girl in Tails (1926) was next. This is a fantastic satire directed by Karin Swanström. It’s full of physical comedy at the same time really thought-provoking. I often found myself shaking my head at the town’s residents. This is a great film I highly recommend seeing it. Be on the lookout for the town schoolteacher, he was one of my favorite characters.

Sherlock Holmes graced the screen for the afternoon’s second feature in, The Sign of Four (1923). Sherlock Holmes was played by Eille Norwood, who interestingly enough holds the record for having played Sherlock Holmes in film the most. He’s not exactly handsome, and not exactly fit, but you can’t seem to take your eyes off of him. He literally steals every scene. The climax of the film features an amazing boat chase down the Thames River. If you’re a Sherlock Holmes fan, this is film is not to be missed.

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Next came Harbor Drift (1929). This was without a doubt my favorite film of the festival. I’m sure my mouth was hanging open the entire film. This is a prime example of 1920s German cinema, featuring one of my favorite German actors, Siegfried Arno. Who pretty much was in every depressing 1920s German silent film. Harbor Drift is a narrative circle. And It starts dark and only gets darker. Never did I feel like any of the characters had a chance. In my opinion, this was the best film of the festival.

The festival wrapped up and ended on a positive note with Buster Keaton’s, The Navigator (1924). I’ve this several times before, but I will never pass up an opportunity to see it again! Buster Keaton said that The Navigator and The General were his two favorite films, that’s enough reason for me to continue to watch it. But it really is full of laughs. Buster Keaton’s costar was Kathryn McGuire who he had just worked with and Sherlock Jr. She was only 20 years old when The Navigator was released. Preceding The Navigator was the very strange short animated Soviet film, Pochta (1929). It’s the story of a letter that travels around the world, and the dedicated mailman who carry it.

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Even though I was partially snow blind for the first bit of the festival I immensely enjoyed my trip. I do plan on going to the 20th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, if they’ll have me. And hopefully catch up with old friends and make some new ones!

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About cinemafanatic

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on July 9, 2014, in Film Festivals, Guest Post and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Wonderful play-by-play! Thank you so much for an exciting, in-depth report.

  2. Great report! If you liked Underground, I recommend another Anthony Asquith silent, A Cottage on Dartmoor.

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