Silent Film Festival Announces 2012 Line-up

05/15/2012 06:54 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has announced the line-up of films for their annual July event at the Castro Theater. And once again, they have put together a varied and interesting program.

The Festival opens with a special presentation of the air war epic, Wings, the first film to win an Academy Award -- and ends with The Cameraman, Buster Keaton's brilliant comedy about the business of making movies. In between, there is an international assortment of films from Sweden, Germany, Russia and China, as well as a couple of American-made films set in foreign locales.

The Festival's "centerpiece film" is a not-on-DVD and never-shown-in-San Francisco restoration of Pandora's Box, starring the legendary Louise Brooks. I, for one, am looking forward to that.

Among the other stars set to grace the Festival screen are Douglas Fairbanks in his first swashbuckler, dapper Ronald Colman in a tearjerker, and sultry Brigitte Helm in The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna. A few years back, she wowed audiences as the sexy robot in Metropolis.

Others making early-in-their-career appearances, including Gary Cooper, George Bancroft and Lois Moran, while "It Girl" Clara Bow and Prague-born leading man Francis Lederer both do double duty while appearing in two films over the course of the four day event.

Sure, to appeal to kids is a Saturday morning program featuring the irrepressible Felix the Cat. The all-women Bay Area musical group known as Toychestra is teaming up with pianist Donald Sosin to accompany this program of rare silent cartoons.

More adult orientated fare includes three not-to-be-missed small masterpieces, Mauritz Stiller's Erotikon, Josef von Sternberg's decadent The Docks of New York, and Henry King's revelatory Stella Dallas. Legendary directors Ernst Lubitsch and Victor Fleming helm others.

Perhaps the most unusual offering is South, the 1919 documentary of Ernest Shackleton's failed expedition to Antarctica. Now restored by the British Film Institute with its original tints and toning, the film will be narrated by English actor Paul McGann (Withnail and I, Doctor Who) reading excerpts from Shackleton's moving letters in conjunction with Stephen Horne's haunting piano score.

Here is the line-up for the 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which is set to take place July 12-15. Many of the prints set to be screened are restorations. All programs feature live musical accompaniment.

Wings (USA, 1927)
Thursday, July 12 at 7:00 p.m.

Director William A. Wellman's now restored WWI epic is both a rousing action film as well as a tender romance. The scenes of air combat, featuring spectacular aerial photography, are breathtaking. Also breathtaking is Clara Bow's brief nudity, which caused something of a furor at the time. But that's not what got the film it's recent PG-13 rating more than 80 years later. / Accompanied by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, with Foley sound effects by Academy Award winner Ben Burtt (whose credits include the Star Wars and Indiana Jones film series).

"Amazing Tales from the Archives"
Friday, July 13 at 10:30 a.m.

Archivists and film historians (to be announced) shed light on their ongoing efforts to find, rescue, and preserve cinematic treasures for generations to come. Admission to this event is free.

Little Toys (China, 1933)
Friday, July 13 at 1:00 p.m.

A blend of romance and social commentary was a trademark of director Sun Yu, who is considered one of the great filmmakers in Chinese history. Voted one of the hundred best Chinese films, Little Toys stars the beautiful Ruan Lingyu, who is considered one of the great icons of Chinese cinema. / Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the piano.

The Loves of Pharaoh (Germany, 1922)
Friday, July 13 at 4:00 p.m.

This was Ernst Lubitsch's last big film before he left Europe, and with its cast of thousands and spectacular sets, it was meant to show Hollywood he could make epics. One of the great screen actors of the time, Emil Jannings, stars as the powerful Egyptian Pharaoh who must marry the daughter of an Ethiopian king to avert war. / Accompanied by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer.

Mantrap (USA, 1926)
Friday, July 13 at 7:00 p.m.

This sparkling comedy was based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis but considerably humanized by director Victor Fleming, who saw Clara Bow's character as more of a flirt than a femme fatale. Under his direction, the story of the big city gal who marries a backwoods lunk (Ernest Torrence) became not only a love and adventure story, but a sex comedy as well. / Accompanied by Stephen Horne on the piano.

The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna (Germany, 1929)
Friday, July 13 at 9:15 p.m.

Before film director Max Ophüls lent his name to a distinctive style of elegantly smooth camera work, there was Hanns Schwarz. This is his masterpiece, superb in every way and often referenced with the adjective "Ophulsian." Set in Czarist Russia, The Wonderful Lie is the story of the mistress (Brigitte Helm) of an upper class general who gives up her pampered life for the love of a lowly lieutenant. / Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

"Irrepressible Felix the Cat!" (USA, 1925-1929)
Saturday, July 14 at 10:00 a.m.

This all Felix the Cat program features archival 35mm prints of Otto Mesmer and Pat Sullivan's fabulous feline, including Felix the Cat in Blunderland, Felix the Cat Weathers the Weather, Felix Loses Out, Felix Gets Revenge, Felix Flirts with Fate and others. / Accompanied by Donald Sosin and Toychestra.

The Spanish Dancer (USA, 1923)
Saturday, July 14 at 12:00 noon

This splendid costume drama directed by Herbert Brenon tells the story of a Spanish gypsy (Pola Negri) in love with the penniless nobleman (Antonio Moreno). The lovers become involved in court intrigue involving the King (Wallace Beery) and his French wife. / Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the piano.

The Canadian (USA, 1926)
Saturday, July 14 at 2:30 p.m.

Directed by William Beaudine and based on a Somerset Maugham play, The Canadian is a beautifully realized film as well as an intimate study of relationships between a recently impoverished Londoner who emigrates to her brother's farm in Calgary, her brother's wife, and the homesteader (Thomas Meighan) she marries in desperation. / Accompanied by Stephen Horne on the piano.

South (United Kingdom, 1919)
Saturday, July 14 at 5:00 p.m.

Frank Hurley's extraordinary documentary of Ernest Shackleton's 1914-1917 expedition to Antarctica is a stunning visual record of one of the great epics in the history of exploration. / Accompanied by Stephen Horne on the piano, with Paul McGann narrating.

Pandora's Box (Germany, 1929)
Saturday, July 14 at 7:00 p.m.

Director G.W. Pabst cast the luminous Louise Brooks as Lulu, a femme fatale-of-a-kind who bewitches everyone who comes within her sphere -- men and women alike. Adapted from the Frank Wedekind's plays, Pandora's Box features what may well be the first lesbian character in film history. The print to be screened is a new restoration by San Francisco-based Big Sound. / Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble from Sweden.

Lulu's wedding dance in Pandora's Box
Image courtesy of the Louise Brooks Society

The Overcoat (USSR 1926)
Saturday, July 14 at 10:00 p.m.

This fourth film production by the avant-garde company FEKS (Factory of the Eccentric Actor) was crafted as "a cinematographic novel in the manner of Gogol." Criticized at the time for taking too many liberties with classic literature, The Overcoat stands today as a superb piece of cinematic modernism. Andrei Kostrichkin gives a brilliant performance as the meek bureaucrat whose greatest ambition is for a new overcoat. / Accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra.

The Mark of Zorro (USA, 1920)
Sunday, July 15 at 10:00 a.m.

As a masked champion of the people named Zorro, Douglas Fairbanks displays the athletic prowess, humor, and rakish charm that would propel him to superstardom in this, his first-ever swashbuckler. Cinéaste know the matinée idol depicted in The Artist owes more than a little to Fairbanks. And in fact, the film George Valentin views (as his own) in his apartment is The Mark of Zorro. / Accompanied by Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer.

The Docks of New York (USA, 1928)
Sunday, July 15 at 12:00 noon

Josef von Sternberg's atmospheric, shadowy, silent presages film noir in its depiction of hapless souls straight out of a police blotter. In a seedy bar, a sailor (George Bancroft) and a good-time girl (Betty Compson) create a bond out of animal attraction and commiseration. Their romance is unsentimental and von Sternberg's characteristic camerawork and framing imbue the story with depth and courage. / Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the piano.

Erotikon (Sweden, 1920)
Sunday, July 15 at 2:00 p.m.

This sparkling comedy by Swedish director Mauritz Stiller takes a waggish look at high society in the story of an entomology professor obsessed with the sexual life of insects while his bored wife entertains suitors. The Swedish Film Institute's beautiful tinted and toned restoration shows off the lavish production design of this small masterpiece, a film that inspired Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game. / Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble.

Stella Dallas (USA, 1925)
Sunday, July 15 at 4:30 p.m.

Those familiar with the 1937 version with Barbara Stanwyck know the story -- a mother sacrifices her happiness for the good of her beloved daughter -- but few will be prepared for Belle Bennett's extraordinary performance as the coarse, frowsy Stella. Directed by Henry King, the uniformly excellent cast (including Ronald Colman, Alice Joyce, Jean Hersholt, a very young Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Lois Moran in her breakout role) brings Frances Marion's script to believable, emotionally wrenching life. / Accompanied by Stephen Horne on the piano.

The Cameraman (USA, 1928)
Sunday, July 15 at 7:30 p.m.

The genius of Buster Keaton is on full display in this wonderful film, which follows Keaton, a sidewalk photographer, as he tries to break into newsreels in order to win the girl of his dreams. Keaton famously did his own stunts, and The Cameraman is a showcase for his physical virtuosity as well as an enchanting and goofy love story. / Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

More information about the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and their upcoming event can be found at

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.