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Thomas Gladysz


What and Who (as in Doctor) Not to Miss at This Year's Silent Film Fest

Posted: 07/05/2012 6:25 pm

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has more going for it than you might realize. Sure, they're showing 15 features and a whole bunch of short films, but this festival is more than just celluloid. There are the special guests, and the attendees, and the musicians, and the unusual programs. Where else, for instance, might you see a rare Russian silent, The Overcoat (1926), which is based on a story by Gogol -- or for that matter, an even more rare Chinese silent, Little Toys (1933), starring Ruan Lingyu, an actress considered that country's Garbo?

This year, as many as 10,000 people are expected to attend the Silent Film Festival, which is now in its 17th year. It's grown to become the largest silent film festival in North America -- and one of the largest in the world. Festival regular Leonard Maltin, who will be introducing a couple of programs, says, "The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is in a class by itself." And it's true. Here are 10 things not to miss at this year's event, which is set to start in in a little more than a week.

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  • Wings -- the first Oscar winner

    Let's start at the beginning: The first thing not to miss is the Festival's opening night film, which is also the first film to win an Oscar, <em>Wings</em> (1927). Director William A. Wellman's newly restored WWI spectacle is the story of two men who go off to battle and the woman they leave behind. <em>Wings</em> is also a rousing action film, whose truly spectacular aerial photography and scenes of air combat are the stuff of cinematic legend. Some say they have never been equaled. Also breathtaking is Clara Bow's brief nudity, which caused a bit of a furor at the time. However, that's not what got the film its recent <a href="" target="_hplink">PG-13 rating</a> more than 80 years after its record setting premiere. <em>Wings</em>, now meticulously restored, will be introduced by William Wellman Jr. (the director's son), and will be accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, with live sound effects provided by multiple Academy Award winner Ben Burtt. (His credits include the <em>Indiana Jones</em> and <em>Star Wars</em> series, and notably such iconic sound effects as the hum of a light saber, the "voice" of R2-D2, the heavy-breathing of Darth Vader, etc.) What Burtt does with the roar of airplane engines and the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns should be just as memorable.

  • Doctor Who

    That's right, Doctor Who is attending this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival. But more than that, he is also participating. The celebrated English actor Paul McGann, who played the eighth incarnation of the Doctor, is teaming up with pianist Stephen Horne to present <em>South</em> (1919), Frank Hurley's moving documentary of Ernest Shackleton's failed/heroic 1914-1917 expedition to Antarctica. Now restored by the British Film Institute with original tints and toning, the film is a visually stunning record of one of the great adventures in the annals of exploration. McGann will narrate, reading Shackleton's somber letters to Horne's elegiac score. <a href="" target="_hplink">Paul McGann</a>'s many credits go beyond <em>Doctor Who</em> and include a bunch of BBC television (like the controversial <em><a href="" target="_hplink">Monocled Mutineer</a></em>) as well as feature films <em>Withnail & I</em>, <em>Empire of the Sun</em>, <em>Alien 3</em>, <em>Queen of the Damned</em>, etc. This unique presentation promises to be powerful and moving.

  • Sunshine and shadow

    Silent films were both sunshine and shadow. This year's Festival includes a handful of films which explore the dark, conflicted and sometimes seedy side of life. Notable among them is <em>The Docks of New York</em> (1928), Josef von Sternberg's atmospheric silent which anticipates film noir in its depiction of hapless souls straight out of a police blotter. Also, don't miss these three stories of unhappy love across class and social divides, <em>Mantrap</em> (1926) with "It Girl" Clara Bow, <em>The Spanish Dancer</em> (1923) with femme fatale and tragedienne Pola Negri, <em>The Canadian</em> (1926), based on the Somerset Maugham play, and <em>Stella Dallas</em> (1925), a riveting adaption of the popular novel made some 12 years before the more familiar version starring Barbara Stanwyck.

  • Felix the Cat! with Toychestra

    Not every film has an adult theme. In fact, there's always a family friendly selection sure to appeal to kids. This year it's a 70 minute program of silent era Felix the Cat cartoons which include <em>Felix the Cat in Blunderland</em> (1926) and <em>Felix the Cat Weathers the Weather </em>(1926). But what's more, the musically wonder-filled Bay Area group, <a href="" target="_hplink">Toychestra</a>, is teaming up with pianist Donald Sosin to accompany this sampling of rare animation. Toychestra is an all-woman musical ensemble which play toys. Some are actual instruments like toddler-sized pianos and xylophones. Others just make great sounds, like a multi-sonic Activity Center. Individually amplified and mixed live these "instruments" create a sophisticated aural experience that's a far cry from a bunch of kids making a racket. All in all, this is a great way to introduce your youngster to early film. And what's more, children under 10 years of age are admitted free.

  • Louise Brooks

    As Lulu, Louise Brooks is legend. So much so that the film for which she is best known today, <em>Pandora's Box</em> (1929), will be shown twice on July 14th. The Magic Box Theater in Chicago is screening this seminal masterpiece, as is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. If you don't have a TARDIS and can only make one screening, I would recommend the San Francisco event. The Festival is showing a new and true restoration of <em>Pandora's Box</em>, which is not available on DVD and has only been shown twice before anywhere in the world. Censored, cut, and critically disregarded when it first debuted, <em>Pandora's Box</em> is today considered one of greatest of all silent films. This restoration, the Festival's centerpiece film, was funded by silent movie enthusiast Hugh Hefner; it may be as close as we will ever get to director G.W. Pabst's original vision -- and Brooks' original luminescence. What's all the fuss about the American-born Brooks and starring role in the German <em>Pandora's Box</em>. British actor Paul McGann explains it well in<a href="" target="_hplink"> this article</a> he wrote in 2007.

  • The Sounds of Silents

    Every film at the Festival, from the briefest short to the mightiest epic, is presented with live musical accompaniment. It's the way silent films were meant to be shown, and a big reason for attending the Festival. This year, Dennis James will once again rock the house on the Castro's mighty Wurlitzer as he accompanies both <em>The Mark of Zorro</em> (1920) and <em>The Loves of Pharaoh</em> (1922). Also set to fill the theater with lush, lyrical, sweeping, heart-swelling sounds are pianists <a href="" target="_hplink">Stephen Horne</a> (coming all the way from England) and <a href="" target="_hplink">Donald Sosin</a>, as well as the acclaimed <a href="" target="_hplink">Alloy Orchestra</a> and the <a href="" target="_hplink">Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra</a>. And don't miss the Swedish ensemble led by <a href="" target="_hplink">Matti Bye</a>, regular performers at European film festivals and a winner of the Golden Beetle, Sweden's Oscar. They will accompany the Swedish classic, <em>Erotikon</em> (1920), and debut their original score to <em>Pandora's Box</em>.

  • Philip Kaufman

    Every year a contemporary filmmaker with an appreciation for film history has been invited to the Silent Film Festival to present a program. Past directors have been Guy Maddin and Terry Zwigoff, and Academy Award winners Pete Docter and Alexander Payne. This year, the Festival welcomes Philip Kaufman, whose directorial credits include <em>The Right Stuff</em>, <em>The Unbearable Lightness of Being</em>, <em>Henry and June</em>, and <em>Hemingway & Gellhorn</em>. The latter recently premiered at Cannes International Film Festival. Kaufman will introduce the ineffably beautiful <em>The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna</em> (1929), starring the lovely Brigitte Helm (<em>Metropolis</em>) and the affable Franz Lederer (<em>Pandora's Box</em>). It's visually gorgeous, very European - and another story of unhappy love across class divide.

  • Authors and books

    It's not only directors and actors who attend the Festival, but also writers, historians, archivists and critics. This year, nearly 20 authors including acclaimed biographers and film historians will be on hand signing their books. Not to be missed are Michael Sragrow - <em>Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master</em> (Pantheon), Mick LaSalle -- <em>The Beauty of the Real: What Hollywood Can Learn from Contemporary French Actresses</em> (Stanford), Jeff Codori -- <em>Colleen Moore: A Biography of the Silent Film Star</em> (McFarland), Emily Leider -- <em>Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood</em> (University of California), Mary Mallory - <em>Hollywoodland</em> (Arcadia) and Wendy Marshall -- <em>William Beaudine: From Silents to Television</em> (Scarecrow Press). Marshall, by the way, is the granddaughter of Beaudine, and one of a handful of children and grandchildren of silent film personalities in attendance. Author and film historian Jeffrey Vance will also be on hand to introduce <em>The Mark of Zorro</em> (1920). His splendid 2008 book,<em> Douglas Fairbanks</em> (University of California Press), helped inspire, and even shape, the recent Academy Award-winning film, <em>The Artist</em>. Director Michel Hazanavicius told Vance as much. Vance will be signing books after Zorro makes his mark.

  • Georges Méliès' A Trip to the Moon

    If you saw Martin Scorcese's <em>Hugo</em>, or if you ever took a film class, chances are you're familiar with Georges Méliès' delightful <em>A Trip to the Moon</em> (1902). However, you've never seen this version of Méliès' magical masterpiece, a new fully tinted restoration which recreates the exquisite hand coloring of Méliès' original print. <em>A Trip to the Moon</em> will be shown prior to the Festival's final film, Buster Keaton's ridiculously sublime <em>The Cameraman</em> (1928). Though very different, both are classics. And what's more, Méliès' original narration for<em> A Trip to the Moon</em> will be read by a very special guest. Who that might be has not yet been announced.

  • The Castro Theater

    The San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes place at the historic Castro Theater, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary. Built in 1922, this grand 1,400-seat theater is one of the finest movie palaces in the Bay Area. It is also full of history. Just ask local theater historians Jack Tillmany and Gary Lee Parks, who will be on hand signing copies of their newest book, <em>Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsula</em> (Arcadia). Quick: name the three-time Academy Award winning actress who once worked as an usherette at the Castro. Image courtesy of <a href="" target="_hplink"></a>. Photo by Duane Lucas-Harper.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes place July 12 through 15 at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. More info, including the compete program of films and more, can be found at

Except where noted, slideshow images are courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Thomas Gladysz is an arts journalist and silent film enthusiast. He is also the founding director of the Louise Brooks Society, an online archive and international fan club devoted to the legendary film star. Gladysz has organized exhibits, contributed to books, appeared on television, and introduced the actress's films around the world. He will be signing copies of his "Louise Brooks edition" of Margarete Bohme's classic novel, The Diary of a Lost Girl, following the screening of Pandora's Box at this year's San Francisco Silent Film Festival.


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