I surveyed the 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival for Fandor a few weeks ago, covering the highlights and landmarks in brief. But it was always my intention to explore the films, and my experience with them, in a little more detail, time permitting. As it turns out, time has not permitted much opportunity, so I’ve carved a few hours out of a weekend to collect my notes and my thoughts over a few of the films.
The San Francisco International Film Festival has been expanding its size and its mission from the very beginning, when it was a single film showing with live music. Since then, it has expanded to four days, playing new restorations and rediscoveries, bringing in the finest silent film accompanists from around the world, commissioning original scores, and offering presentations from archivists walking us through their latest projects.
This year marks the latest and most exciting expansion of their mission: the world premiere of two new restorations undertaken by the SFSFF in collaboration with international film archives.
Allan Dwan’s 1916 The Half-Breed, a California frontier western starring Douglas Fairbanks in the title role, has been available before in a largely complete but partially re-edited 1924 re-release held by the Cinématèque Française (that version was released on disc a few years ago in Flicker Alley’s marvelous Douglas Fairbanks box set). Rob Byrne set about attempting to reconstruct the original, longer 1916 cut with the help of an incomplete (and very damaged) print of the original release held by the Library of Congress and a radically re-edited reduction print found by Lobster Films in France. Research into the scant documentation verified a few incomplete sequences and a couple of completely missing scenes, which Byrne, collaborating with Cinématèque Française, was able to reconstruct with the additional prints. (At the “Amazing Tales from the Archives” presentation on Friday morning, Byrne presented a step-by-step look at the process of not just finding footage, but doing detective work into finding the original titles, the original narrative, and the editing as seen on the original release; it was the most detailed presentation I have seen on the work and research that goes in to restoring a silent film.)
The result is not necessarily one of Fairbanks’ best films, but the restored film shows a more nuanced and interesting drama than heretofore seen, a conflicted portrait of racism and prejudice through the filter of history that decries intolerance without defying it (the film can’t let even as noble a half-breed as Fairbanks walk off into the sunset with a white woman), yet vividly lays out the hypocrisy of prejudice and white superiority in scene after scene. The film was adapted from a Bret Harte short story by Anita Loos, whose distinctive wit is evident in the surviving original intertitles (most of them are lost and the difference between the deft language and satirical edge of Loos and the bland writing of the rewritten titles of the reissue is unavoidable).