Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Festivals, Silent Cinema

Preview: San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2012

17th Annual SF Silent Film Festival will be my fourth go round at what is generally considered the top film festival dedicated exclusively to the art of silent cinema in the United States.

Compared to the glories of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, the largest silent film festival in the world, and Il Ritrovato, the magnificent celebration of classic cinema in Bologna every years, SFSFF may seem modest at 15 features films and a couple of programs of short films over four nights and three full days. But from the opening night screening of Wings (1927), the very first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, on Thursday, July 12 through closing night film The Cameraman (1928) with Buster Keaton, the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco comes alive with (mostly) glorious 35mm film prints preserved and restored by archives from around the world, with live scores by some of the finest silent film accompanists around at each screening.

Buster Keaton in ‘The Cameraman’

I’ve seen many of the films before, though few of them on the big screen with live accompaniment, I’ve long wanted to see a few others, and there are few that are new to me (and I hope will be revelations). Philip Kaufman, the “guest festival director” this year, will present one of those: The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna, a 1928 German drama from director Hanns Schwarz starring Brigitte Helm and Francis Lederer, on Friday, July 13. Earlier on Friday is a screening of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Loves of a Pharaoh (1922) with Emil Jannings, the director’s final lavish German production before he left for Hollywood, considered lost for many years. It shows in a newly restored DCP print, one of the few digital presentations of the festival.

It’s a marvelous mix of landmark films with the greatest stars of the golden age, like Pandora’s Box (1926) with Louise Brooks and the original The Mark of Zorro (1920), the first swashbuckler that Douglas Fairbanks ever made, and rarities like The Overcoat (1926) from Russia and the original screen version of Stella Dallas (1925) from director Henry King, a giant of the silent, and actor Ronald Colman.

Here are some notes on some of the films I have seen before, and I hope to follow up with reports on the discoveries I make over the weekend.

The battlefield of ‘Wings’

Opening Night:
Clara Bow takes top billing in Paramount’s lavish war drama Wings(1927) and Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Richard Arlen (both virtual unknowns at the time) play the buddies and fellow pilots at the center of the film, but the real star of this World War I picture is the amazing aerial spectacle: the dogfights in the sky over the battlefields. Director William Wellman, who was a World War I fighter pilot himself, invests us in the camaraderie of men in battle and fills the screen with the thrilling flight of the warriors. The magnificent dogfights, the sky swarming with planes, the downed ships spiraling down through the clouds with a tail of black smoke and yellow flame (color was digitally painted in for flourishes, just like the hand-coloring of the time) were all staged and shot for real and the budget soared to $2 million, making it one of the most expensive films of its era. Wellman makes sure it’s all there on the screen and in the process delivers a landmark: the last of the grand studio epics of the silent film era.

Wings will always have a place in film history: it won the very first Academy Award for Best Picture, while Sunrise was handed a kind consolation prize for “Artistic Quality,” an award never again given yet effectively announcing the real purpose of the Oscars: recognizing the intersection of art and success. Sunrise remains one of the greatest films ever made while Wings, a romanticized look at war, shows what Hollywood does best: sturdy studio filmmaking with romance, bonding under fire and rousing “war is hell” action. And it marks the end of an era. The call of the sound revolution was ringing through Hollywood, as even the Academy (then merely an insider’s club picking the winners among themselves) had to acknowledge. The very same year that Wings received its “Best Production” statuette, the part-talky The Jazz Singer earned Warner Bros. a special award and marked the beginning of the end of the silent era.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanies the film with live foley (that’s sound effects to you non-film folk) by Hollywood sound legend Ben Burtt. William Wellman, Jr., son the director, introduces the film.

Thursday, July 12, 7:00 pm.

‘South’: The Endurance trapped in ice.

South (1919) could be the companion piece to the SFSFF 2011 presentation of The Great White Silence, Herbert Ponting’s documentary on Captain Scott’s expedition to the North Pole. This film documents the ill-fated Ernest Shackleton Expedition to the Antarctic between 1914 and 1917. Short on narrative drive and dramatic structure but filled with striking images, this record is all the more powerful for its tragic authenticity. The images of the ice-breaker Endurance frozen in place and slowly crushed by piling ice floes were captured by a cameraman watching his lifeline to home splinter and sink before his eyes. The ensuing survivalist drama shows men making a grueling hike over miles of unstable ice and a desperate 800 mile voyage to civilization in a lifeboat, with a brief respite to enjoy the animal life found along the way.

This presentation is accompanied by Stephen Horne on the grand piano and actor Paul McGann narrating live.

Saturday, July 14, 5:00 pm.

Douglas Fairbanks turned himself into the first action hero playing Old California’s Robin Hood in the dashing silent classic The Mark of Zorro (1920). In his secret identity as the foppish Don Diego, Fairbanks slouches, shuffles, and gives the dim, dull air of a bored dilettante who can hardly be bothered to wake up, while clueing us in on the charade with smiling asides and playful parlor tricks and games. Behind the mask of Zorro, however, he comes alive with a zesty smile and an acrobatic performance, vaulting through windows and over walls and declaiming his pantomime speeches with every muscle in his body. You can almost hear him through the silence. Marguerite De La Motte is his doting love interest and Noah Beery gets villain duty.

Dennis James accompanies the film on the Castro’s Might Wurlitzer and Jeffrey Vance, author of the recent Fairbanks biography, introduces the film.

Sunday, July 15 at 10:00 am.

The Docks of New York (1928), directed by Josef von Sternberg, is a turn-of-the-century bowery answer to Sunrise, with romantic idealism fighting its way out of hard-scrabble lives and resigned characters of the waterfront culture. Where Sunrise is a European-inflected American fairy tale, Docks is an American romance of bruised lives told with exquisite grace from a script as simple as a fable and as resonant as a novel.

Betty Compson and George Bancroft

This the film where Sternberg really perfected his sculpting of screen space in depth through light, shadow, scrims, smoke and fog, but it’s also his most evocative direction of actors, from the brawny impulsiveness of George Bancroft’s ship’s stoker Bill, out to live it up before shipping out the next morning, to Betty Compson’s Mae, yet another of Sternberg’s magnificent women. She’s a bruised romantic who has learned not to give in to her dreams, but continues to dream regardless, and under her rag doll looks is a young woman who has been kicked around, body and soul, so long that she hasn’t much hope left. It’s a performance in the eyes and body language, from the resigned posture recovering from a near-drowning to the bar girl affectation she puts on to distract Bill from yet another fight. Watching Compson’s Mae slip back and forth from the practiced poses of fawning bar girl and adoring date to little girl lost both afraid and eager to give in to Bill’s sweet talk and put her hope on the line once more, is what gives the film its heart. Watching them blur together gives it its soul.

Donald Sosin accompanies the film on the grand piano and Eddie Muller, the “Czar of Noir” and head of the Film Noir Foundation, introduces the film.

Sunday, July 15, at 12 noon.

See also:
Anne Hockens on the musical accompanists of SFSFF 2012
David Jeffers on The Cameraman
David Jeffers on The Mark of Zorro
Visit the official SFSFF website here and browse the complete schedule here.