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

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2024: Finding Clara Bow, Swashbuckling Restorations, & More

For over 25 years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival called the Castro Theatre home. With the iconic theater now closed for a year-plus-long renovation, SFSFF has relocated to the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, located in a beautiful park created for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition at the north edge of the Presidio. The auditorium, primarily a performance space, seats nearly a thousand and features a spacious foyer where passholders could visit and relax between shows (particularly useful on chilly weekends).

SFSFF prides itself on mixing landmark productions and audience favorites with rediscoveries, revelations, and rarities, often recently uncovered and restored. And for its 27th edition this year, the festival presented 20 features and six short films over five days, all with live musical scores by some of the finest silent film accompanists in the world.

The opening night film, Albert Parker’s 1926 swashbuckler The Black Pirate, certainly qualifies as both landmark and favorite. This rousing adventure, starring Douglas Fairbanks as the genial gentleman pirate, was shot on full-sized ships that give it a tremendous scope. It was also a groundbreaking experiment in Technicolor filmmaking, only the fourth feature shot entirely in color, and it was presented in a brand new restoration mastered from original camera negatives and a wealth of original archival prints. For the first time ever, the distinctive palette of the two-strip technology was accurately recreated for modern audiences.

Continue reading at Slant

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

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2023: One Last Silent Movie Party at the Castro Theatre?

The 26th San Francisco Silent Film Festival was another joyous gathering of silent cinema fans, historians, scholars, and all stripes of movie buffs. Launched in 1995, the festival has grown from a single-day event to—excluding two years of Covid shutdowns—an annual, five-day celebration. It’s about the movies, of course, and this year SFSFF presented 20 features and seven shorts. But it’s also about the silent movie experience. All shows were accompanied by live music, from solo piano to small combos to a 10-piece mini-orchestra for the closing-night event, playing both archival music and original scores, many composed for the screenings.

Allan Dwan’s The Iron Mask, from 1929, opened the festival with a bittersweet farewell to the silents. The film, the swashbuckling final silent feature to star Douglas Fairbanks, has added resonance for SFSFF audiences because of the legacy of the Castro Theatre, the festival’s home for its entire 26 years. The new owners of the movie palace in the heart of the Castro district have controversially chosen to remove the seats and level the floor to turn it into a concert venue, which would effectively end its suitability as a screening space.

In many ways, The Iron Mask’s selection was a fitting farewell, as Fairbanks’s older kind of hero is shaped by loss and disappointment but still driven by duty and honor and, of course, friendship, to fight the good fight one last time. The final images are at once joyous and melancholic, a celebration of what has been accomplished as the end comes.

Continue reading at Slant Magazine

You can also read the essays written for the festival program book at the SFSFF website here.

Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Essays, Silent Cinema

Japanese Girls at the Harbor

When Hiroshi Shimizu released Japanese Girls at the Harbor in 1933, the veteran filmmaker had already made more than eighty-five films. When he died in 1966, he had at least 160 films to his credit in a thirty-five-year career, most of them made at Shochiku, also the home of his friend and colleague Yasujiro Ozu. In his time Shimizu was both a popular director and a respected filmmaker, but after his death he was practically forgotten, even in his home country. He was born in 1903, the same year as Ozu, yet after the glorious celebration of Ozu’s centenary with a near-complete touring retrospective in Japan, Shimizu received a belated “101st Anniversary” celebration at the 2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival, an afterthought, showcasing a mere thirteen films.

Why? Access is certainly a factor. Only a fraction of his films survive, even fewer are available on home video, and his work is rarely revived outside of Japan. Another reason may be a reputation that stuck as a director of light entertainment after his series of children’s films that he began making in the late 1930s. “Shimizu’s world is a sunny one, where the sadness of things only rarely intrudes,” wrote Alan Stanbrook after a 1988 retrospective at London’s National Film Theatre, the first to showcase the director in the West. And then there was the reductive public persona that remained long after the films receded from the public.

Continue reading at The San Francisco Silent Festival website

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

A Rich and Varied World: Highlights of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The great misconception of silent cinema is that it’s all about movies that lack the dimension of sound. It’s the idea of “lack” they get wrong. Apart from the oft-stated fact that silent cinema was never silent—from the biggest movie palaces to the smallest storefront theaters, the movies were always accompanied with music and often with sound effects—movies developed as a uniquely visual form of storytelling just as radio drama and comedy evolved into a sophisticated form of audio storytelling. Whether you believe it a purer from of cinema or an archaic one, silent movies offer a different kind of experience than sound cinema, one built on faces and physical performance to communicate character and emotion. Forget the cliché of outsized acting styles and simplistic situations plucked from slapstick farces and spoofs. There is a rich world and varied world in the silents, from surreal comedy to magnificent spectacle to adult drama, with performances both bold and nuanced.

That is the experience celebrated at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the biggest and greatest celebration of cinema before the talkies in the U.S. The 24th year of this annual event presented 23 features between May 1 through May 5 at the Castro Theater (“the Cathedral to Cinema,” as it was so described by the director of the National Film Archive of Japan, Hisashi Okajima), along with shorts and special presentations. 

Continue reading at RogerEbert.com

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

Your 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Festival Preview

“True art transcends time” is the motto of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which opens its twenty-third edition at the historic Castro Theatre on Wednesday, May 30. What began as a one-day event over two decades ago has grown into the largest and most impressive silent film festival in the country. The twenty-three programs presented over the five-day event include twenty features (from forty-five minutes to three and a half hours in length) from nine countries, ranging from the avant-garde, to the experimental, and even 3D shorts. And all are matched with live music from some of the best silent movie accompanists from around the world.

Continue reading at Fandor

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Silent Cinema

Silents Please: Lois Weber restored and ‘The Covered Wagon’ on Blu-ray

Shoes (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Dumb Girl of Portici (Milestone, Blu-ray, DVD)
The Covered Wagon (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD)

Milestone Films

Lois Weber holds a place in film history as the first major woman film director in Hollywood. What’s often forgotten in that honor is the talent that gave her a successful 25 year making films for the major studios. She took on serious issues through her dramas, putting a face to the social problems she addressed, and brought nuance and complexity to her stories of struggle and hardship in modern American life in the 1910s. She brought a sophistication to movies in the era when movies grew up and though she shares screen credit with her husband, Phillip Smalley, film historians agree that Weber was the defining creative force. Weber has been overlooked in film histories in part because so many of her films have been lost and her surviving films have not been widely available. The Milestone Films release of the restoration of Shoes (1916) and The Dumb Girl of Portici(1916) should help restore her place as one of the most important and influential filmmakers—male or female—of her day.

Shoes (1916) is one of her best films, a social drama that humanizes the plight of poverty through the story of an underpaid shopgirl supporting her entire family on her wages and too poor to replace the ratty shoes that are literally falling apart on her feet. The plot is simple when reduced to its essentials—she gives into the advances of a cad in exchange for a new pair of shoes—but the meticulous presentation of her life and the nuanced performance of actress Mary MacLaren give the film a tremendous power, and Weber frames the shoes as vivid metaphors for the poverty of working class women.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema

Blu-ray: ‘Fritz Lang: The Silent Films’

Kino Classics

Fritz Lang: The Silent Films (Kino Classics, Blu-ray)

Fritz Lang was a towering giant of silent cinema, legendary for his ambitious, epic scope and the imagination and grandeur of his visual storytelling. Kino has been releasing glorious new editions of his silent films as restored by The Murnau Institute in Germany for years: eleven silent features in the last decade, including the landmark restoration of MetropolisFritz Lang: The Silent Filmscollects them all, with the respective Blu-ray debuts of three early films previously only on DVD and the home video debut of an early film written by Lang. In all, 12 silent features on 12 discs: an instant collection of one of the most important–and most entertaining–filmmakers of the 1920s.

Making its disc debut in the set is The Plague of Florence (1919), directed by Otto Rippert from Lang’s original screenplay loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Masque of the Red Death.” This is on DVD only and not available separately at this time.

Harakiri (1919), Lang’s adaptation of “Madame Butterfly,” features German star Lil Dagover as the Japanese geisha married then abandoned by (in this version) an American naval officer. Lang is still learning to tell a visual story and he hasn’t mastered the art of directing actors but it sure looks impressive. It’s one of the three films making their respective Blu-ray debuts in this set, along with The Wandering Shadow (1920), his first collaboration with screenwriter Thea von Harbou, who became his longtime collaborator and, later, his wife (until Lang fled Germany and von Harbou joined the Nazi party), and Four Around the Woman (1921). The latter, a complicated thriller of intrigue, crime, suspicion, and mistaken identity, looks forward to his popular spy and crime thrillers and is mastered from the only known available print, which is incomplete and damaged. It features a lively score by a small combo.

No supplements with these films.

The rest of the set collects the superb Blu-ray editions previously released in separate editions.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema

Silents Please: the original 1925 ‘The Lost World’ and Murnau’s ‘The Last Laugh’ on Blu-ray

Two silent movie classics come to Blu-ray in new, restored editions.

The Lost World (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray)
The Last Laugh (Kino Classics, Blu-ray, DVD)

Flicker Alley

Every larger than life creature feature, from King Kong to Godzilla to Jurassic Park owes a debt to the original The Lost World (1925), the granddaddy of giant monster movies. Based on an adventure fantasy by Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s the story of a maverick scientist and explorer, Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery under a bushy beard), who reports on a land that time forgot on a plateau deep within the South American jungles. When what passes for the National Geographic society jeers his presentation, which is delivered with no evidence, gentleman adventurer and big game hunter Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) proposes a new expedition and volunteers to go along. The team is filled out with a somewhat elderly scientist (Arthur Hoyt), a reporter (Lloyd Hughes) representing the paper financing the trip, and the lovely Paula White (Bessie Love), whose father disappeared in that plateau on a previous trip.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema

Silents Please! – ‘Beggars of Life’ with Louise Brooks, ‘Varieté’ from Germany, and more

Catching up on some of the silent films released to Blu-ray and DVD in the past months…

Beggars of Life (Kino Lorber)

Kino Lorber

William Wellman was one of the most versatile directors of his day, making everything from comedies and musicals to gritty dramas and war movies, and his World War I epic Wings (1927) won the first Academy Award for Best Film, but in the late 1920s and 1930s he directed some of the most interesting films about struggles before and during the depression. Beggars of Life(1928) was made before the stock market crash but released in the aftermath, so while it’s not technically a response to the Depression, its portrait of hoboes riding the rails and forming a kind of outsider society was in tune with the times. Today, however, it is best known for Louise Brooks, the petit dancer turned actress who never became a star in America in her lifetime but starred in two great German silent films, Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, and became a cult figure in retirement.

Brooks is Nancy, a young woman who kills her violent stepfather in self-defense (presented as a flashback, it’s a startling and powerful scene which Brooks underplays with haunting pain), and Richard Arlen is Jim, a boyish beggar who stumbles across the body and helps her escape. He dresses her in men’s clothes and teachers her how to ride the rails with the rest of the tramps on the road, landing in a rough hobo camp where Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) rules through intimidation. Figuring out that this delicate “boy” is actually a girl (and seriously, who was she fooling?), he claims Nancy as his property and puts the couple through a kangaroo court, a great scene that straddles comedy and horror. Beery delivers a big, blustery performance as he transforms from predator to protector, the handsome Arlen at times he reminded me of a young Paul Newman, and Brooks is incandescent in her best role in an American films (she immediately left for Europe to make the movies that made her reputation).

Continue reading at Stream On Demand

Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews, Silent Cinema

Silents Please! – A ‘Knighthood’ for Marion Davies

I’d always known Marion Davies is one of the most gifted comediennes of the silent era, thanks to her collaborations with King Vidor, The Patsy (1928) and Show People (1928), two magnificent comedies carried by Davies’ charisma and empathy as well as her easy way with comedy, and readily available on DVD thanks to the Warner Archive. But she became a superstar thanks to a series of costume pictures produced by newspaper mogul William Randolph Heart, who fell in love with the chorus girl and was determined to showcase her in “important” pictures.

Undercrank Productions

When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922) was her biggest production to that time. She plays Mary Tudor, 16-year-old sister to King Henry VII (Lyn Harding) and a spirited princess in love with commoner Charles Brandon (Forrest Stanley), an impossible given the realities of royal diplomacy. She’s promised to the aged King Louis XII (William Norris), a wizened old monarch who wins the marriage lottery. There’s pageantry galore—vast sets, a big cast, and plenty of elaborate period costumes—and a lot of plot packed into the two-hour picture. It opens on a jousting match (talk about your sweet sixteen party games!) and it features back room scheming, secret trysts, swashbuckling swordplay in the streets, a magnificent royal wedding, and plenty of comic flourishes. It co-stars an impossibly young William Powell (in his second film) as a cad of a royal nephew, and ends with a grand nighttime set-piece with knights and royal guards galloping through the French countryside and torches handpainted bright yellow that jump out from the blue tints of the black and white production.

Continue reading at Stream On Demand