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16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, July 14-17, 2011

Vladimir Roudenko as the young Napoleon, in Abel Gance’s legendary epic NAPOLEON. Photo courtesy Photoplay Productions

By Janine Gericke.

My fondness for silent film grows more every year because of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. It is exciting to see these pieces of history projected onto a giant screen, especially one as storied and decadent as the Castro Theatre. This festival is populated by a real community of people who love these films, fight to preserve and restore them and really push for them to have public screenings. There is no point in preserving beautiful films if no one can see them. I feel very lucky to live in a city that can support a festival like this one. And as usual, this year’s festival offered another stellar lineup.

UPSTREAM. Pictured: Nancy Nash, Grant Withers, photo courtesy of AMPAS

Opening night saw the premiere of John Ford’s 1927 film Upstream, which had recently been discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive. Another festival headliner included F.W. Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece Sunrise (with a solo electric guitar accompaniment by Giovanni Spinelli), a restored 35mm print of the Douglas Fairbanks film Mr. Fix It (1918) a magnificent Marlene Dietrich in The Woman Men Yearn For (1929) and Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped with an introduction by filmmaker Alexander Payne. Festivalgoers were also very excited for news of the upcoming screening of Abel Gance’s five-and-a half hour epic Napoleon, restored by film historian Kevin Brownlow and screening at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre this spring.

Walt Disney’s Laugh-O-Grams – presented by the Walt Disney Family Museum and co-presented by Pixar – was a great way to start off Saturday’s programming. This unique program, hosted by Leonard Maltin and J.B. Kaufman, showed some of Walt Disney’s earliest animation (1921-1923), long before the famous Mickey Mouse was created. This program had piano accompaniment from Donald Sosin and some very talented student musicians. We were first shown a sample reel made by and starring Disney, in which the illustrator is shown drawing at a comically rapid pace as his drawings coming to life. This was just a glimpse at what was to come. The remainder of the program showed Disney’s interpretation of classic fairy tales, each with their own twist. The fables included Little Red Riding Hood, Goldie Locks and the Three Bears, Puss in Boots, Jack the Giant Killer, and Alice’s Wonderland. Alice’s Wonderland was the only film to feature animation and live action, with a young actress portraying Alice.

SHOES. Pictured: Mary MacLaren, courtesy of collection EYE Film Instituut Nederland

One of the high points of the festival for me was getting the chance to see Lois Weber’s gorgeously restored Shoes (1916), which made its U.S. premiere at this year’s festival. Dennis James provided the score for the film on the mighty Wurlitzer. The Eye Film Institute in the Netherlands accomplished three years of restoration work to bring Shoes to the world. Before the film’s screening, the audience was shown a reel of the before and after of the restoration process. You could see where mold and bacteria had taken its toll on some of the frames and just how transformative the Eye Film Institute’s work really was. Although, not all of the frames were ultimately salvageable, what was restored was simply astonishing. Shoes is a social-problem film that tackles poverty and women’s wages – problems that continue to plague us. The film follows the life of a young woman who is forced to provide for her parents and three young sisters. All she wants is a new pair of shoes and, out of desperation, sacrifices a part of herself for something that she needs.

I am a big fan of Yasujiro Ozu, so I was ecstatic to see one of his films at this year’s festival.  I Was Born, But… (1932) is the story of two young boys and their family, who have recently moved from the city to the suburbs of Tokyo. The film has many funny moments, including a scene with a young boy wearing a sign on his back that reads “upset tummy. Please do not feed him anything,” while he is eating a piece of bread that he stole from one of the young brothers. The whole family must adapt to their new life, and the boys learn about the difficulties of life and how you can’t always please everyone. Ozu tells his story with subtlety, showing the beauty of everyday life. The outstanding Donald Sosin provided the musical accompaniment for this feature, bringing 1930s Japan to life.

I WAS BORN, BUT... Pictured: Tatsuo Saitô, Tomio Aoki, Mitsuko Yoshikawa

I have always been a fan of the festival’s shorts programs and, this year, the Wild and Weird program was one of my favorites. This was a fun program full of many “how’d they do that?” moments. The films, ranging from 1906 to 1928, showed directors’ use of in-camera special effects, such as double and triple exposure, dissolves and time lapse. Many of these directors also tried their own special effects, using stop motion animation, spinning camera work and freeze-frame photography. Among the shorts was Edwin S. Porter’s Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) in which a man gorges on a rich meal right before bed and then has very unusual dreams in which he and his bed fly over the city. Another Porter film, The Thieving Hand (1908) is about a man who is given an artificial arm – one that works perfectly, but is plagued by creeping kleptomania. The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) by Russian filmmaker Wladyslaw Starewicz is a stop-motion revenge story, peopled by stuffed-beetle puppets – the effect is stunning and more than a little creepy. Artheme Swallows his Clarinet (1912) by Ernest Servaes, depicts a man whose clarinet is pushed through his head after a piano falls on him. The reed and shaft of the instrument punch through the back of his head and it takes the help of three blacksmiths to remove it. The amazing Alloy Orchestra provided the music for this program and, as always, their music added to the outrageousness and oddities of the program. The entire collection is available on DVD, coupled with even more unscreened shorts, and I immediately ordered a copy.

Once again, I have tremendous thanks for the organizers of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Castro Theatre and all of the people who helped in restoring these amazing films. Every year I look forward to this festival and I am always waiting to hear what new treasures have been uncovered. Here is to another great year and looking on to next!

For more information on the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, please visit their site http://www.silentfilm.org/

Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

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