San Francisco Silent Film Festival
Battleship Potemkin

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Films from Poland, the UK, Italy, the USSR, Japan, Sweden, and the USA.

June 1-4, 2017
Castro Theater, San Francisco
SF Silent Film Festival website

Father’s Day, wedding day, graduation–all important June occasions. And, of course, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, June 1st to 4th. This year, as in the 21 preceding years, the festival will feature a wide selection of films from the teens through the twenties of the last century. This year’s films come from Poland, the UK, Italy, the USSR, Japan, Sweden, and, of course, the United States. They include names familiar to fans, such as Harold Lloyd, Clara Bow, Lya de Putti, Lon Chaney, Sergei Eisenstein, Ernst Lubitsch, Douglas Fairbanks, and Adolph Menjou. There are two woman directors (Dorothy Arzner and Lois Weber) and an African-American director (Oscar Micheaux). Wow.

Here is a chronological rundown of the program. Some of the films I’ve seen, some not.

The festival opens at 7 p.m. Thursday, June 1st, with “The Freshman,” Harold Lloyd’s biggest hit, directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. (Don’t confuse it with a 1990 film of the same name, starring Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick.) College has changed a bit since 1925, but freshman still feel disoriented and eager to find a place in the crowd. Harold Lamb (Harold Lloyd) makes it on to the football team; there’s a scene filmed at Cal’s Memorial Stadium. Like all of the festival’s films, “The Freshman” is accompanied by live music. “The Freshman” is followed by the opening night party (see below).

Friday June 2nd starts off at 10 a.m. with a free program of “Amazing Tales from the Archives,” dealing with some of the miracles of film preservations.

At 2, Roaring Twenties icon Clara Bow and Charles “Buddy” Rogers star in “Get Your Man,” directed by San Francisco-born Dorothy Arzner, who went on to direct films into the 1940s.

In “Get Your Man,” the delightfully ditzy Bow falls in love with a Parisian aristocrat. Nothing deep here, but lots of charm. The film was restored from numerous fragments. A propos fragments, “Get Your Man” is accompanied by a partial restoration of a supposedly lost Wallace Beery/Louise Brooks film, “Now We’re in the Air!” Brooks’ films (e.g. “Pandora’s Box”) are so few that this fragment should be worth watching.

It’s followed at 3:30 by another film directed by a woman, Lois Weber: “The Dumb Girl of Portici,” starring famed ballerina Anna Pavlova. Set in Naples, the film was “Universal Studios’ most expensive production to date and the first blockbuster ever directed by a woman.” (I’m quoting from the program.) According to an article in by Daniel Eagan in Film Comment from earlier this year:

Based on an 1829 opera by D.F.E. Auber, The Dumb Girl of Portici placed poor, mute heroine Fenella in the middle of a revolt by Italian peasants against their Spanish rulers. When Fenella is seduced by Alphonso, a betrothed aristocrat, her brother Masaniello unites his fellow peasants against their cruel overlords. An early performance of the opera in Belgium reportedly helped spark a revolution there against the Dutch. Anna Pavlova, touring North America with a troupe that at times numbered 200, performed Fenella regularly in repertory along with pieces by Bizet, Verdi, Ponichelli, and others. Facing ruinous debt in the midst of her tour, the Russian dancer signed a contract with Carl Laemmle at Universal that promised her 50 percent of the profits to star in what would be her only feature film.

At 7 on June 2nd the festival presents “Body and Soul,” directed by African-American Oscar Micheaux and starring the great Paul Robeson–football hero, singer, actor (he starred with Jose Ferrer and Uta Hagan in “Othello” in New York in the 1940s). In “Body and Soul,” his film debut, Robeson plays identical twins–the evil Reverend Jenkins (actually a crook out to fleece his innocent congregation), and Jenkins’ nice-guy brother. Martha Jane (Mercedes Gilbert) wants her innocent daughter Isabelle (Julia Theresa Russell) to marry Jenkins, but Isabelle is actually in love with the upstanding brother. The actors are, supposedly, all African-Americans, though you could have fooled me about some of them. The dialogue, though, is pure caricature “black talk,” such as, “We’s gwine in de kitchen and cook you some suppah.”

The melodramatic plot has some odd twists, and if you can figure out what happens at the end, please let me know. Seeing Robeson on the screen, though, makes it worth while. Don’t confuse this 1925 “Body and Soul” with any of the identically named later films.

Lya de Putti stars in the 9:30 film, “The Informer,” the first film adaption of a novel by Liam O’Flaherty (John Ford’s version came out in 1935). John Robison directed this British drama set during the “troubles” in Ireland.

Saturday’s films start off at 10 a.m. with a collection of short films, then continues at noon with a Polish thriller, “A Strong Man.” Since I’ve seen only one of the day’s flicks, I’ll leave the details of the others to you readers: at 2:30 “Filibus,” an Italian sci-fi drama about a baroness who moonlights as a “criminal mastermind,” to quote the program. The film, like many others in the festival, is tinted. Sounds like a hoot.

Five o’clock brings “Outside the Law,” a crime film directed by Tod Browning (“Freaks,” “Dracula”) and starring Lon Chaney. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

“Outside the Law is considered to be one of the first psychologically driven films in the gangster genre. The picture was the second film on which Browning worked with Lon Chaney. The contrasting dual roles Browning wrote for Chaney as a heroic Chinese servant and an evil gangster are considered to have solidified the long-lasting collaboration between the two. Outside the Law is one of only a handful of Browning’s films that is not a horror film. The film has been commended for its strong female lead, saying actress “Priscilla Dean in this picture is a film revelation… [she] goes to the fore and remains there…” In contrast to many films of the period, it generally depicts its Chinese characters favorably, most notably by having characters invested in the Confucian teachings of the teacher character, Chang Lo.”

The 7:15 film is the legendary “Battleship Potemkin,” directed by equally legendary Sergei Eisenstein. Made to memorialize the failed 1905 Russian revolution, it has been held up to film students as a masterpiece of editing–or “montage,” as it’s more academically called. Several scenes are permanently planted in my mind, although it’s been years since I saw them: the opening sequence of sailors discovering maggots in their meat (an episode that leads to the revolution), and the famous scene of the massacre on the Odessa Steps, in particular an episode involving a baby carriage.

Saturday’s schedule concludes at 9:30 with “A Page of Madness,” a Japanese film set in an asylum for the mentally disturbed. It’s a “modernist tour-de-force,” says the program.

Sunday, June 4th, opens at 10 a.m. with Ernst Lubitsch’s hilarious “Die Puppe” (“The Doll”). The film opens with a village scene; the town’s baron, eager to get his nephew married, assembles all of the village’s virgins for him to choose from. Instead, the marriage-averse nephew finds an artist to manufacture a life-size doll which he can pass off as his bride. (The doll comes with a users’ manual.) The film is filled with satire: monks gorging themselves at dinner, greedy relatives at the bedside of a man who’s supposedly dying, etc. Not to mention the talking horses.

“Silence,” produced by Cecil B. DeMille and directed by Rupert Julian (“The Phantom of the Opera”), follows at noon. This melodrama about guilt and innocence was based on a play and was long believed lost. Crime, punishment, blackmail, self-sacrifice, not to mention murder are all parts of the plot.

“A Man There Was” follows at 2. Swedish director Victor Sjőstrőm plays the lead in this film based on a poem by Henrik Ibsen, better known as a playwright. (Much later, Sjőstrőm also played the lead in Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries.”) This is a revenge tragedy and very Swedish.

“The Lost World,” directed by Harry O. Hoyt (1925), follows at 4, and this is one not to be missed. The first of many “Lost Worlds,” all based on a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, creator also of Sherlock Holmes, this 1925 version depicts remarkably believable prehistoric beasts created by the designer of King Kong. Wallace Beery is hard to recognize as the leader of the expedition that will discover this lost world, which is the home of pterodactyls, brontosaures, allosauruses, and a large man dressed up in an ape suit. There’s a love story, a volcanic eruption, and–wait for it–a scene set on the Coalinga River. A definite must-see.

“Two Days,” a USSR film from 1927, is set in Ukraine during the 1917 civil war. Opening with a dead puppy and ending with a betrayal, this film is atmospheric–and heart-breaking. See it if you’re feeling emotionally strong.

The concluding film, Fred Niblo’s 1921 “The Three Musketeers,” starring–of course–Douglas Fairbanks, as well as Adolphe Menjou, is the first of at least three films made from Alexander Dumas’ novel of comradeship and swordplay. The word “swashbuckling” originated in the 16th century, but it applies perfectly to this 17th-century adventure film, and to Fairbanks’ persona (in this and other silent films). The film runs 146 minutes and starts at 8:15, so prepare for a long evening.

All films are screened at San Francisco’s splendid Castro Theater (the opening night party is at McRoskey Mattress Company on Market Street, and has a separate admission).

Festival memberships are available from $50 and provide discounted ticket prices. Festival passes are also available for $260, or $230 for members. Single tickets cost $16 and up, with discounts for members. Children under ten come in free, and discounts for groups of ten or more are eligible for group rates (for advance puchase). The opening night party on June 1st is $25/$20.

For further information and online tickets and passes, visit info@silentfilm.org.

–Renata Polt

San Francisco ,

Renata Polt, a freelance writer and critic, is the translator and editor of A Thousand Kisses: A Grandmother’s Holocaust Letters.