Rumors of the death of silent cinema are greatly exaggerated. After the talkies arrived, the special techniques of silent films continued as needed in mainstream cinema, even going underground into commercials and music videos. There’s something about what Alfred Hitchcock called “pure cinema”, the ability to tell a story through visual movement and music, that casts a magic spell.
The decades since the advent of home video have seen a flowering of silent film festivals. Among the mightiest and most venerable is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, now celebrating its 25th anniversary. Back blazing at the Castro Theatre after two years of COVID shutdown, the festival will present 29 screenings from 5-11 May. Be there or be quadrilateral.
The list below previews most of the films in alphabetical order, thanks to streaming screeners graciously provided by the Festival. We’re aware that seeing them on our laptop, devoid of score, doesn’t compare to the experience of being overwhelmed in the theatre’s huge space with live musical accompaniment, all of which is part of what makes the silent film experience such an intoxication.
Amazing Tales from the Archives
Friday, 6 May
This free program features several presenters who discuss some of the restorations in this year’s festival. The official program mentions that “Senior Film Restorer Kathy Rose O’Regan will present SFSFF’s latest restoration project, the Gault Collection from 1925 Ireland.”
Apart from You (Kimi to wakarete, 1934)
Director: Mikio Naruse
Mikio Naruse was on the side of women, especially those who worked as geishas or bargirls. Many of his early silents are variants on this theme, and he was still working it decades later with such acclaimed examples as When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan o noboru toki, 1960).
Apart from You focuses on the strife between the working mom who has raised a son by being a geisha, or essentially a prostitute, and that son’s socially induced sense of shame. In this film, as in Naruse’s other delicately observed productions, emotional content achieves a balance of humane restraint and open expression, as underlined by his choices of camera movement and sometimes very expressive editing. In other words, the film packs a punch.
Arrest Warrant (Order na arrest, 1926)
Director: Heorhii Tasin
Sunday, 8 May – Music by Sascha Jacobsen Quintet
This Ukrainian drama focuses on the civil war between revolutionaries and Russian Cossacks, or rather how this war affects one woman, Nadia (Vira Varetska). Trusted to hide a packet of names, she’s interrogated, psychologically tormented, and threatened with her son’s death until she collapses.
The occasional flurry of images shows current theories of Soviet montage, while other images convey Nadia’s subjectivity, like an extremely slow-motion shot of her interrogator sipping tea. Relationships and motives become surprisingly complicated, and things don’t end well for the individuals caught up in this mighty struggle. Albert Kyun’s cinematography often lets us notice the spotlight moving over characters, perhaps unwittingly reflecting their situation in the spotlight and crossfire of history.
Director Heorhii (or Georgi) Tasin is quite elusive at this end of film history. Working in Ukraine, he’s credited with writing one of the few Soviet silent horror films, Vladimir Gardin’s A Spectre Haunts Europe (Prizrak brodit po Evrope, 1923), which Wikipedia says was based on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and includes a scene that may have influenced Sergei Eisenstein’s famous “Odessa Steps” sequence in Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925).
Tasin’s films as director include Jimmie Higgins (Dzhimmi Khiggins, 1928), based on Upton Sinclair’s novel and co-scripted by none other than Isaac Babel, and The Night Coachman (Nochnoj izvozchik, 1928). Alim (1926), about a “Ukrainian Robin Hood”, had a rare screening in April 2022 at London’s Birkbeck Institute of the Moving Image. All sound tasty. Clearly, Tasin deserves more exploration, as does his writer Solomon Lazurin.
By the way, this is a benefit screening with proceeds donated to World Central Kitchen and Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Below the Surface (1920)
Director: Irvin Willat
Friday, 6 May – Music by Philip Carli
Produced by Thomas H. Ince for Paramount, this beautifully tinted melodrama in terrific shape stars Hobart Bosworth as “Martin Flint, a staunch bulwark of honesty and respectability.” There’s no better description of the persona of this important early silent hero, who became famous well into middle age. To give you an idea, his roles included the Wizard of Oz (in 1910), Davy Crockett, and Jack London’s Wolf Larsen and Martin Eden.
In Below the Surface, Bosworth plays a hardy deep-sea diver along with his son Paul (Lloyd Hughes) on Dorcas Island, “a little haven of peace off the New England coast” where “the inhabitants eat breakfast at 6, dinner at 12, and supper at 6:30”. Duplicitous city slickers convince Paul to make a dangerous dive. Greater danger comes from femme fatale Edna (Grace Diamond), leading to strife between father and son. Silent stories were “simple” but the emotions subtle and complex, even when played to the rafters, and here’s a gripping example with exciting underwater scenes.
Blind Husbands (1919)
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Friday, 6 May – Music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Having established himself as “the man you love to hate”, actor Erich von Stroheim launched his directorial career with this controversial hit in which he plays the epitome of a Continental cad, an Austrian Army Lieutenant who comes between a clueless American doctor (Sam De Grasse) and the doctor’s lonely, vulnerable wife (Francesca Billington).
Von Stroheim’s perfectionism already led to a film running overtime and over budget, which would be the story of his career. Still, Blind Husbands proved a hit for Universal, perhaps because the thought of an American wife considering adultery was shocking to right-thinking moralists everywhere. Apart from such titillation, the director’s command of film technique was undeniable and remains masterful today.
In 1922, von Stroheim produced an “answering” film, Foolish Wives, which is the Festival’s opening night offering in a new restoration. See that title.
Dans la Nuit (1930)
Director: Charles Vanel
Monday, 9 May – Music by Stephen Horne
A wonderful surprise. Charles Vanel is known as one of the most prolific actors in French cinema. He directed a single feature, shot on location in a mountainous mining region. This confident unpredictable drama opens with a 25-minute tour de force about the protagonist’s wedding day as he rushes from the mine to the marriage. The film becomes surreal, frantic, and woozy with drink and frolic as the bride (Sandra Milovanoff) rushes from one dizzying event to another. The camera indulges in much hand-held business and nervous pans.
We know that no film hero can work in a mine without a disaster looming, and our groom (Vanel) ends up wearing a shiny mask over half his ruined face. This has no positive effect on his spirits or the marriage, and things start going south. The Wikipedia entry cites a claim that producers imposed a certain ending on Dans la Nuit. It didn’t help, for this may have been the last silent feature released in France after the talkies arrived, and the box office wasn’t strong. We’ll let today’s viewers decide if the fascinating ending is appropriate; it’s certainly memorable.
The Divine Voyage (La divine croisière, 1929)
Director: Julien Duvivier
Wednesday, 11 May – Music by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius
After the village becomes convinced its sailors have been lost at sea, and that it’s all the fault of greedy fatcat Ferjac (Henry Krauss), the fatcat’s daughter Simone (Suzanne Christy) takes a lesson from Joan of Arc and leads the villagers on a journey of faith. The film labels itself a “legend”.
Shot on location in a Breton fishing village, this mixture of sea adventure, mysticism, and human agony loves glorious skyscapes and human close-ups, and both are breathtaking. Indeed, certain moments are like Julien Duvivier‘s subtle homage to Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (La passion de Jeanne d’Arc, 1928). There are also giddy uses of handheld camera.
This tinted print was restored from multiple sources in 2021 by Lobster Films of Paris, and it looks ravishing. Please don’t stop there; The Divine Voyage is among several titles in the recent box set from Flicker Alley: Cinema of Rediscovery: Julien Duvivier in the 1920s.
The Fire Brigade (1926)
Director: William Nigh
Monday, 9 May – Music by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius
Many people still assume the silent era had no color. Not so. Various processes were part of the scene, including tints, stencil work, and even early two-strip Technicolor. All of those are used in this action-packed melodrama that serves as a salute to firefighters. The credits say so just before the documentary footage of a firemen’s parade.
The story in William Nigh‘s film focuses on Terry O’Neil (Charles Ray) and his rowdy Irish-American clan, with two brothers, a noble mother, and a grouchy grandpop. In a typical dramatic device, the social critique about political graft and unsafe construction, as bravely denounced by our heroes, gets embodied within Terry’s across-the-tracks wooing of rich Helen (May McAvoy), who doesn’t know her philanthropic dad (Holmes Herbert) is responsible for the city’s shame. The exciting climax has orphans threatened by fire, which isn’t an act of God but that of corrupt men. Thus, Hollywood studios embedded social messages within the emotional spectacle.
This MGM production of The Fire Brigade survives in black and white. This 2021 restoration by the Library of Congress and The Film Foundation shows the limits of restoration, for the big party sequence used to be in Technicolor. Only a few brief moments of this process have been preserved. Rather than try to recreate that digitally, which would need many color references and arbitrary decisions, most of the sequence remains uncolored. Stencils and tints are digitally restored. While the results are imperfect, they indicate how color got used in sophisticated ways as an added attraction.
Foolish Wives (1922)
Director: Erich von Stroheim
Thursday, 5 May – Live orchestra conducted by Stephen Brock
The opening night attraction is this exquisitely designed, meticulously directed melodrama in a two-and-a-half-hour restoration handled by the Festival in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art.
Following on from Blind Husbands, Stroheim plays an even more reprehensible scoundrel who, with the help of his dubious female minions or “cousins” (Mae Busch, Maude George), prowls Monte Carlo preying on an American diplomatic couple (Rudolph Christians, Patricia DuPont). Foolish Wives is the kind of film that makes reviewers break out terms like “lavish”, “extravagant” and “decadent”.
Unfortunately, this is among those legendary Stroheim spectacles where we’ll never see his multi-hour director’s cut, so we just have to settle for a rich, stunning condensation. And it’s absolutely worth it. PopMatters has more to say on the history of this film, in “Erich von Stroheim’s ‘Foolish Wives‘, or, the Skeleton of My Dead Child”.
The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show
Saturday, 7 May – Music by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockiu
The Festival’s official description: “British Film Institute’s Bryony Dixon will narrate her selection of rare treasures from BFI’s collection—early large-format films, each a minute or two, that capture the tail-end of the Victorian world in all its variety and splendor.”
The History of the Civil War (История гражданской войны, 1921)
Director: Dziga Vertov
Tuesday, 10 May – Music by Anvil Orchestra
Dziga Vertov was a master of assembling found footage or even creating it into dynamically edited documentaries that convey a message. His masterpiece is Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, 1929). This earlier example uses newsreel footage to convey the recent Soviet Revolution. This film wasn’t accessible to me.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
Director: Wallace Worsley
Tuesday, 10 May – Music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
One of the most famous films in this year’s festival is this expensive and tremendous hit for Universal Pictures. Every aspect of the studio machine was working on all cylinders, yet The Hunchback of Notre Dame would have accounted for nothing without the anchoring performance by Lon Chaney, which provides its own unique spectacle. What we have here is the recent Universal restoration.
King of the Circus (Le roi du cirque, 1924)
Director: Édouard-Émile Violet
Saturday, 7 May – Music by Philip Carli
French slapstick comedian Max Linder was as famous as Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton but has tended to be overshadowed by history. It’s too bad because he’s riotously funny, as King of the Circus proves. His elegant, top-hatted Max goes on a drunken spree, then woos a circus acrobat (Vilma Banky) by training to be an acrobat and a lion tamer.
Lobster Films performed its own heroic feat by using 11 prints from almost as many countries to create this tinted restoration. A few brief shots remain very rough, but most of this wild slapstick bliss is sharp and clear.
Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Wednesday, 11 May – Music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
If you were to ask me which of Ernst Lubitsch’s silent Hollywood films is his best, I wouldn’t be able to decide between The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), which is one of the most perfect achievements of silent cinema, or this film, which is another. It’s no surprise that the Festival picked it for its finalé.
This adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play, which proves you can do without his witty repartee as long as the image provides the repartee, has been drafted into the National Film Registry. Starring Ronald Colman and May McAvoy, Lady Windermere’s Fan is a film of transcendent elegance, wit, and sophistication, all the things Hollywood tries to do and occasionally succeeds in doing. Brilliant in all senses of the word.
Director: Mário Peixoto
Monday, 9 May – Music by Matti Bye Ensemble
This legendary work of avant-garde audacity from Brazil, photographed by Edgar Brazil and created by a prolific author when still in his early 20s, is one of those projects that cause helpless reviewers to use words like “exquisite” and “hypnotic”. Such words still fail to convey our slow immersion in Limite‘s uncannily beautiful images. Some images are protracted and repeated, some use a moving camera, and some adopt unusual, almost abstract angles. The result is something like dream, something like memory, something like poetry.
A man and two women drift in a rowboat at sea. Scenes that seem to be flashbacks allude elliptically to moments of their past, such as the fact that one woman escaped from prison. Still, attempts to impose a narrative interpretation are doomed to failure, for Mário Peixoto’s film is some kind of psychological, existential, possibly political parable. Like the humans in it, you can only drift where it leads.
Penrod and Sam (1923)
Director: William Beaudine
Sunday, 8 May – Music by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius
Booth Tarkington’s nostalgic stories of trouble-prone 11-year-old Penrod Schofield were a great success early in the 20th Century and inspired many films. William Beaudine‘s Penrod and Sam is the first of three films of a 1916 novel focusing on two best friends and their mischievous entourage, complete with rivalries, wars, schisms, secret clubs, and effective tearjerking incidents.
The great attraction is the natural yet expressive performances of the many children, starting with Ben Alexander (later of TV’s Dragnet) as freckled Penrod, and Joe Butterworth as the scrappier Sam. Newton Hall gives a startling performance as the neighborhood sissy. Gertrude Messinger plays the spunky girl, while her brother Buddy Messinger plays the gang’s rich rival. Mary Philbin, known for The Phantom of the Opera (Rupert Julian, 1925), plays Penrod’s sticky sister.
Two black brothers (Eugene Jackson and Joe McGray) are part of the gang. While their roles teeter on the edge of stereotype and sometimes fall in, these kids are charmers whose presence is accepted without fuss. Jackson is important, having a long career that includes the Our Gang comedies and a recurring role in the TV milestone Julia (1968-71). Wikipedia identifies him as “the first African-American child to have a speaking part in a major motion picture”, that being Hearts in Dixie (Paul Sloane, 1929).
Prem Sanyas (1926)
Director: Franz Osten
Sunday, 8 May – Music by Club Foot Hindustani
A crucial film in Indian cinema, this elegant epic came about because pioneering actor-producer Himansu Rai secured a director from the German industry to help kick-start Indian features. The topic is an eminently Indian one: a biopic of how a callow prince named Siddhartha Gautama (played by Rai) became a spiritual seeker who achieved enlightenment as the Buddha.
Interestingly, the film’s most direct source is Edwin Arnold’s English narrative poem The Light of Asia (1879), and the film has also gone under that title. Importing a German director and English source for a quintessential work of Indian cinema is one of those wonderful examples of how “authentic” history is complicated. Another complication: Franz Osten and Prem Sanyas, created by Himanshu Rai and a forerunner of Bollywood spectacle with a cast of thousands, was shot in Lahore, now Pakistan, so it’s also crucial to Pakistani cinema.