I knew that San Francisco Silent Film Festival is the premiere silent fest in America, but I was elated to learn from Céline Ruivo, curator of the film collection at the Cinématèque Française and a special guest at this year’s festival, that in Europe, SFSFF has a reputation as one of the premiere silent film festivals in the world. It has earned that reputation. In its now four-day length (three full days plus a gala opening night), it is both selective and expansive in its programming, with rediscoveries and new restorations along with well-known audience favorites and world masterpieces.
The opening night program qualifies as both rediscovery and revival. Prix de Beaute (1930, France), directed by Augusto Genina from a screenplay by G.W. Pabst and Rene Clair (who originally developed the project for himself), is famous largely for its star: it was Louise Brooks‘ third and final starring role in her brief European vogue. It was also released in both silent and talkie versions, and the sound version (with La Brooks dubbed by a French actress) is what most people have seen. The recently restored silent version is both longer and more interesting, even while it remains a minor coda to her Pabst masterpieces. The story of a newspaper secretary who wins the Miss Europe beauty contest takes abrupt tonal turns from bubbly romantic comedy to high-society spectacle to working class drama to operatic melodrama. But at its best it offers a look at working class life at work and at play in 1930 Paris and it sweeps us up in the rush of Brooks’ fairy-tale journey to stardom. Her fresh, natural presence in the world of late silent-era acting makes her all the more guileless and innocent in a culture where every man wants to possess and control her.
The programmers are as careful with the musical component as they are on the film materials. Every film is accompanied by live music from world-class silent film musicians. The opening night films was accompanied by Stephen Horne, a solo musician as one man band: he plays piano, flute and accordion (often two at once), and plucks strings of piano to suggest a Spanish guitar in a nightclub scene. The affectionate joke around the theater is that Horne returns to SFSFF every year because they get a combo for the price of a solo act! Also returning this year are the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra from Colorado and the Mattie Bye Ensemble from Sweden, while German pianist and organ player Günter Buchwald made his SFSFF debut on four programs.