Tag Archives: San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Happy Birthday, Colleen Moore

Colleen Moore was born on this day in either 1899 or 1902, depending on whether you believe the official reports or her own autobiography.  I’ve only seen one of her films, Her Wild Oat (1927), but I got to see it on the big screen at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  She was a delight.  My favorite actresses are feisty and independent, and she was both.  She had an interesting connection with silent film comedian Buster Keaton—they both broke their necks filming on train tracks.  In different movies, of course!  Her autobiography Silent Star is a favorite of mine, and here are some of the photos from it.  Moore died in 1988, but she is not forgotten, even though many of her film were lost.  Happy Birthday, Ms. Moore!

Her Wild Oat, with director Marshall Neilan.

With popular western actor Tom Mix.

With her Packard.



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Langdon, Capra & Brownlow

A great debate rages over the sad career of Harry Langdon.  He was a silent film comedian who became very popular under the direction of Frank Capra in a trio of films, then split with Capra and sank into obscurity.  Was Capra responsible for his success?  Did Langdon get overconfident and ruin his own career?  Sometimes you want to ponder what really happened and what might have been, and sometimes you just want to sit back and enjoy a funny movie.  Saturday at the Castro Theatre, I just wanted to watch The Strong Man and have a laugh. 

Harry Langdon

Harry Langdon

The Strong Man was the second film made by Capra and Langdon, and it’s my favorite of the three.  The San Francisco Silent Film Festival hasn’t shown enough comedies in the last couple of years, so I see whichever ones they schedule and keep asking for more.  The real reason I chose to see this film, though, was because silent film historian Kevin Brownlow was giving the introduction, as well as accepting an award from the Festival.  Kevin Brownlow wrote The Parade’s Gone By, which is one of the best histories of the silent era.  He met so many of those involved in making the films, before they passed away, and in the course of recording history he became part of it, too.  He was largely responsible for the restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon, which was shown in 1980-81 to such acclaim that even I heard about it, and I was a clueless teenager back then. 

Kevin Brownlow is now in his early seventies, and he’s soft-spoken and charming.  His introduction to The Strong Man was excellent, of course, and the film was pristine.  It was made from the original negative, and only the very first scene had a few of the stains and scratches one sees on old films.  The rest of the print was sharp and clear, and the contrast was just the way I’d set it, if I had the remote control in my hand.   The grey shading was wonderfully subtle, especially on Langdon’s face, remarkable when you consider the thick makeup he wore. 

I have two favorite scenes in The Strong Man.  The first is when little Langdon has to carry a tall woman up a big staircase.  She has pretended to faint, and she’s so clearly bigger than Langdon, that every step up—and slide back down—is genuinely fraught with peril.   My other favorite is when Langdon is forced onstage in front of a rowdy and potentially violent audience in place of the drunk strong man, where it’s obviously a case of entertain or die.  He blinks shyly out at the crowd and tries a little soft-shoe.  He tries to pick up a weight.  A little dance.  Another weight.  Another shuffle.  The scene builds from this into a chaotic climax that literally brings down the walls.  When you watch these scenes, it becomes pretty obvious that both Langdon and Capra knew what they were doing.

After the movie, I went up to the theatre mezzanine to meet Kevin Brownlow and get an autograph.  It was such thrill!  I also met William A. Wellman Jr, whose father directed Wings, the first film to win a Best Picture Oscar.  He autographed a Wings poster for me, and I added his books about his father to my reading list.  I also discovered that a new biography of Richard Barthelmess was published last year.  He’s one of my favorite silent era actors.  Naturally, I added that book to my wish list, too. 

I wanted to go to a couple of the films being shown on Sunday, the final day of the festival, but I just couldn’t manage it.  I will just have to wait for the announcement of when the winter film festival will be held. Last year it was held right before Christmas, which was a really bad date for most people.  I’m hoping for a better choice this winter.  And more comedies!

Update: Here’s a great blog post about the rest of the festival.

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Metropolis Restored

Soon after Fritz Lang’s Metropolis premiered in Berlin in 1927, the studio that produced it came under new management.  The 2 ½ hour film was recut, both by the Germans and again by US distributor Paramount, and the excised footage was presumed lost, although small bits would turn up every now and again to torment film lovers.  Then Fernando Peña, a young cinephile in Argentina, heard a story from his mentor about a 2 ½ hour version of Metropolis in a private collection.  This poor fellow spent twenty years battling bureaucratic red tape trying to get access to this can of film. Finally, the collection arrived at the Museo del Cine, and in 2008, Peña’s ex-wife became the museum director.  It took Peña and Félix-Didier ten minutes to find the can and determine that it was the original uncut version, in a badly scratched 16mm format, brought to Argentina before the film was cut down.  It then took them months to convince the world that they had the real thing.  Now the film has been restored and recut, and I was in the audience for one of the very first screenings, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on July 16th.

Fernando Peña and Paula Félix-Didier were interviewed onstage before the film began.  They were both charming and funny, and this was going to be Peña’s first viewing of the restored film. When asked about his future plans, Peña said, “Well, it’s all downhill from here.” 

The Alloy Orchestra did a fantastic job accompanying the film.  It wasn’t just music but all sorts of incredible sound effects, particularly when the mob was destroying the machines.  (Kino will be releasing the DVD version with the Alloy Orchestra doing the alternate score.)

I was concerned that I wouldn’t recognize the newly restored footage, but it turned out that was not an issue.  The lost footage was badly scratched and in 16mm format, so those pieces had a narrow black border all around the edges, and the scratches were still very visible.  It became clear that very few entire scenes were cut, but instead it was reaction shots, alternative perspectives within the same scene, and quite a bit of two particular characters:  The Thin Man and Josaphat.  Also, a lot of the missing footage lengthened and heightened the escape of Freder, Maria, and the children from the flooding Worker City.

Brigitte Helm as the two very different Marias.

Brigitte Helm as the two very different Marias.

This was my first experience seeing Metropolis on a big screen, and it really became clear how iconic Brigitte Helm is as Maria.  Her face is still mesmerizing.  As the evil Machine Man version of Maria, she was brilliant and hedonistic and so different from the saintly Maria.  Helm said making Metropolis was “the worst experience I ever had.”  You can certainly see why, since she’s battered and tossed and soaked throughout the film.  The poor woman must have been covered in bruises.

The 1400 seat Castro Theatre was sold out for this screening, and it was a very enthusiastic audience.  I just wish we’d been treated with more consideration.  I love the SF Silent Film Festival, and I hate to criticize the staff, but we were left standing outside in line until 8:15pm, when the film was supposed to begin.  It was quite cold, which I know must be hard to believe for anyone who hasn’t endured a San Francisco summer.  The line was wrapped completely around the block, and nobody came out to offer any explanations for the delay.  When we finally got inside, the line to the women’s bathroom almost reached the screen along the side aisle.  The program didn’t begin until 9pm, the movie itself starting at 9:15.  The poor young guy I stood in line with was wearing only a tee shirt, and he must have missed his last midnight BART train to the East Bay.  Still, no explanation was offered, just a not-so-funny joke from the host onstage, who said the world had waited over seventy years to see the whole Metropolis, so what was another forty minutes.  Ask that kid stranded in San Francisco in a tee shirt what that forty minutes meant to him!

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A Silent Scream

Today kicks off the 15th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre.  It will be my third summer attending, and it’s one of the highlights of my year. 

Like most people, I was ignorant of the power and beauty of silent film, until I had a very strange dream in 2006.  It was a chaotic tumble of images, and when I woke up, I had a name pounding in my head like a pulse.  It was insistent.  (I don’t usually hear voices in my head, I swear!)

Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks

The name was Louise Brooks.  I wasn’t certain I knew who she was, so I looked her up and discovered she was a silent film star who wrote a well-respected book called Lulu in Hollywood.  I went to my neighborhood used bookstore (remember those?) to find it, but they didn’t have a copy, so I bought Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns instead.  The Silent Clowns is a wonderful book about the great silent comedians, focusing on Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.  I read it cover to cover.  Then I rented my first Buster Keaton film, The Cameraman, and that was it.  I was in love.  Not just with the comedian himself but the whole era of film.   It probably helped that I had a bout of flu soon after that allowed me to watch every single Buster Keaton silent film and short in the course of a week.  There’s nothing like total immersion.

Many people today have never seen a silent film.  Certainly there aren’t many who have seen one in a movie palace with live music.  Even those of us fortunate enough to attend the SF Silent Film Festival, which is the closest we get to the original experience, are missing an important element.  The original films were made on silver nitrate film stock.  Silver nitrate  film shimmers beautifully when projected, which is where the term “the silver screen” comes from.  Unfortunately, it is also highly inflammable, and it emits toxic fumes when it’s deteriorating.  It is so dangerous that it’s now actually illegal to project silver nitrate film without a special projector and viewing room.  Only those with access to film archives get to watch them anymore.  Oh, how I’d love to be one of those privileged few!  The films that have been restored and shown to the public have been transferred to safety film, which is just that–safe–but it’s not the same.   

There are so many misconceptions about silent films.  Nowadays people dismiss them as primitive, artless, badly acted, jerky and unwatchable.  While it’s easy to find films poorly produced on cheap DVDs that validate this dismissal, a little effort will reveal an artistry, freshness and level of creativity that makes one envious of early film audiences.  Some of the most beautiful films were created in 1928, just as sound was being introduced. 

 Theatres and studios were making the big transition to sound by 1929.  Ironically, the very first film audiences had no interest in sound, since it was the miracle of moving images that fascinated them.  Sound would have been developed for film much sooner, but early experiments were dropped until the novelty of moving images wore off.  Silent film audiences became extremely sophisticated and had no trouble lip reading.  They complained loudly, or laughed knowingly, when the actors mouthed lines that didn’t match the intertitles. 

Projection speed (the number of frames per second) is the reason so many silent films look wrong today when they’re not shown correctly.  When filmmaking was in it’s infancy, nothing was standard.  Different companies produced film stock that was different widths, with different numbers and shapes of sprockets.  The movie cameras were hand cranked, with different kinds of scenes cranked at different speeds for different effects.  The movie projectors didn’t have standard projection speeds.  Unscrupulous movie theatre owners would show films extra fast to allow more showings for greater profit.  ( They’d probably still be doing it today if they could get away with it!)  For years it was believed that all silent films should be projected at 28 frames per second, but that rule of thumb is too fast for some and too slow for others.  Cue sheets were sent out with films to the cinemas, and the musicians playing along  also provided sound effects.  Special scores were written for prestige films, as well as songs, and the movie palaces in big cities were accompanied by full orchestras.  Just imagine it!

Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton

The comedies of Buster Keaton are a brilliant introduction to silent film.  Keaton’s work remains fresh and even postmodern, and he’s called the most silent of the comedians, because his comedy needs the fewest intertitles.  It’s probably a mistake to begin with the dramas, since they are the ones that come across as melodramatic to modern audiences.  After some exposure to them, you get used to the heightened emotion and gestures, and they are genuinely moving.  Here’s a list of some of my favorite silent films:

  • The General and The Navigator (okay, just about any Buster Keaton silent)
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc
  • Tol’able David
  • The Kid Brother (Harold Lloyd’s comic tribute to Tol’able David)
  • Metropolis (look for the newly restored version due out soon)
  • Diary of a Lost Girl
  • Sunrise
  • The Thief of Bagdad
  • Sparrows and Daddy Long Legs (for two sides of Mary Pickford)
  • The Crowd
  • Modern Times (Chaplin, made in the 30s, because he was stubborn)

Oh, and read Lulu in Hollywood.  Louise Brooks insists.

For more information, visit www.silentera.com (silent film history and criticism) and www.pandorasbox.com (Louise Brooks Society).

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My Summer Vacation

I haven’t been writing very much lately, because I’ve actually been busy.  I almost forgot what that was like!  These last couple of weeks I’ve been getting ready for some of my summer volunteer work, so soon I will have plenty to write about.  First there’s the GLAAD Media Awards, then the Frameline Film Festival, and then July’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival. 

 I love the Silent Film Festival as an audience member, and each year I consider volunteering for it.  I think I actually did leave a message once about volunteering, but I never heard anything back.  I’ve already bought tickets for the newly restored Metropolis and Capra’s The Strong Man.  Kevin Brownlow is going to be attending The Strong Man and receiving an award.  I really want to meet him, since he’s one of the first and best silent film historians.  Leonard Maltin will also be back this year introducing several films.  I want to see more than just two films, and I wish I could set up a cot in the Mezzanine at the Castro Theatre and just sleep there for the weekend!


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