Bright Lights Film Journal

The Sound of Silence: The 2010 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

“Even the most obscure titles drew impressive crowds, and the premiere events boasted sold-out houses.”

Now in its 15th year, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is showing no signs of slowing down. This year the festival was expanded from three to four days, and the long lines snaking around the block from the historic Castro Theatre attested to the fact that filmgoers are still eager to view silent films as they were made to be seen, projected on a big screen and accompanied by live music. The SFSFF generally does a good job of programming both familiar titles to attract silent film neophytes and obscure works to please hard-core fans, and this year was no exception, with well-known stars and directors sharing space on the bill with rarely seen works. While some films on the program were certainly more enjoyable than others, there was definitely value and interest — whether social, historical, or cinematic — in each film screened.

Recognizing the long-held — although recently disputed — truism that “the silents were never silent,” the festival this year focused on the sounds that accompany silent films, highlighted by a special round-table discussion with each of this year’s attending musicians. This presentation, titled Variations on a Theme, provided a fascinating glimpse into the ways that musicians approach composing and playing live music for silent film. The panel discussion and audience Q&A brought to light a division between the participating musicians: organist Dennis James and Rodney Sauer of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra came down firmly on the side of historical accuracy, both arguing that it’s important to closely recreate what would have been heard at the time of a film’s original release, while Ken Winokur of the Alloy Orchestra said that his group prefers to compose music that’s “temporally vague,” neither historic nor distinctly modern. Pianists Stephen Horne and Donald Sosin both agreed that primary importance goes to finding music to support the emotional and dramatic core of the film, whether that music is original, improvised, or comprised of pre-existing, traditional pieces. Although it was clear from her questions that the panel’s moderator, Chloe Veltman, was probably not an aficionado of silent film music, the discussion offered audience members insight into the complex work of composing for and accompanying silent films.

This year’s festival kicked off with a screening of the John Ford epic The Iron Horse (1924), accompanied by Dennis James on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer theater organ. Although Ford was only 29 years old when he made the film, it was his 50th feature as a director, and its box office success helped to establish him as a master of westerns. The film tells the story of the building of the transcontinental railroad, from the inspired men who made the railroad a reality, to the final driving of the Golden Spike that united the eastern and western branches. Although made early in his career, the film is classic John Ford, with sweeping vistas contrasted with detailed character studies, and an insistence that this country was made great because of salt-of-the-earth types who weren’t afraid to work hard and dream big. Even Abraham Lincoln makes an appearance to support the railroad as both a practical and a patriotic effort. The film was not among the best on this year’s bill, but the crisp 35mm print and James’s energetic score helped to turn what could have been a formulaic genre picture into an entertaining event.

A major strength of the SFSFF is its inclusion of films from outside the United States, giving audiences an idea of what film industries and cultures from around the world looked like during the silent era. This year’s festival featured films from seven countries, including the Chinese comedy A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931). Based loosely on Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, with a little Robin Hood thrown in for good measure, the film provides a fascinating glimpse into a China just beginning to embrace “modern” (i.e., Western) culture. The women in the film are active and assertive, a far cry from the stereotype of the docile and subservient Chinese woman of earlier times. The film’s stars, Ruan Lingyu and Jin Yan, were dubbed the Chinese Greta Garbo and Rudolph Valentino, respectively, and it’s easy to see their appeal here. Both are tremendously charismatic, with Ruan especially charming as a modern woman who goes to great lengths — including impersonating a male soldier — to get her man.

Despite the presence of several higher-profile films on the program, one of the clear highlights was the virtually unknown but stunning Italian film Rotaie (Rails, 1928). This print, owned by Cineteca Milano in Italy, is not available on video or DVD and is rarely loaned out, making the screening at the Castro that much more special. The story involves a desperately poor young couple who serendipitously find a wallet overflowing with cash. Seizing the opportunity afforded them by this windfall, they hop the first train they see and end up in a Monte Carlo-type seaside resort, where the husband quickly builds their wealth at the card table. After being befriended and then taken advantage of by the wealthy denizens of the resort, the young couple ultimately loses their money and returns to their proper social sphere. Director Mario Camerini, who was often criticized for his links to the Mussolini regime, ends the film with a celebration of both the working class and industrialization, as the husband lands a job in a gleaming, modern factory, a far cry from the shallow, bourgeois existence found at the resort. Despite this somewhat unsatisfying ending, the film as a whole is beautifully made, with German Expressionist-inspired chiaroscuro lighting as well as Soviet-style montage sequences emphasizing trains and other modern machinery. Adding to the experience was Stephen Horne, who accompanied the film on piano, flute, and accordion, sometimes simultaneously. In her introduction to the film, SFSFF Artistic Director Anita Monga claimed that she liked this film more than F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise. I would argue that Rotaie not only rivals that film, but also holds up favorably against other great films of the late silent era, including King Vidor’s The Crowd and Murnau’s The Last Laugh.

A continual focus of the festival is on issues of archiving and preservation, and so it’s fitting that the centerpiece screening was the newly restored version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Metropolis represents one of the great success stories in film preservation. Lang’s original 150-minute version was released only briefly in Germany and a few other countries before being edited down to 107 minutes for distribution in America (Ufa, the German film studio that produced the film, worried that Americans might be put off by the film’s excessive length and “communist themes”). The missing 40 minutes were long thought lost until a complete print was discovered in a collection in Argentina, and after 20 years of bureaucratic wrangling and red tape, Metropolis was finally restored to its original version. The restored version is a revelation, as the sometimes choppy version familiar to audiences for the last 80 years now flows more smoothly and is much more comprehensible. The print screened at the festival was, for the most part, beautiful, although the restored sections only exist on somewhat deteriorated 16mm, and despite the best efforts of the preservationists there is a marked difference between the existing and restored footage. Still, I’ve seen this film many, many times over the years and have never enjoyed it as much as I did at the festival. The Alloy Orchestra provided the excellent accompaniment to the film, their sharp percussion and sometimes dissonant chords serving as the perfect counterpoint to Lang’s tale of a dystopian future where the working classes toil away in an underground city, operating the machines that make possible the upper classes’ luxurious existence. Happily, the restored film, along with the Alloy Orchestra’s outstanding score, will soon be available on DVD.

An interesting example of silent-era independent filmmaking was found in The Flying Ace (1926). The Flying Ace was made by the Norman Film Manufacturing Company, and, like Norman’s other releases, was a “race film” featuring an entirely African American cast. Unlike filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux, who tried to use motion pictures as a way to confront and overcome racism, Richard Norman (who was white) simply wanted to make films to entertain a segment of the audience that was overlooked by the major producers. Rather than making sweeping social statements, The Flying Ace is a conventional adventure story involving a dashing young World War I veteran working as a railroad detective, in pursuit of payroll thieves as well as the station master’s pretty daughter. While the production values certainly don’t compare to contemporaneous Hollywood films — the aerial chase sequences, filmed on the ground in front of a painted backdrop, pale in comparison to the masterful airplane sequences in Wings, released the following year — the movie works well on its own terms. The story is involving and the action is exciting. The actors are also quite good, especially Kathryn Boyd as the daring, independent leading lady, and Steve Reynolds as Peg, the hero’s sidekick who, although missing a leg, performs amazingly acrobatic stunts.

Always a popular genre during the silent era, two fallen-woman films made the bill at this year’s festival. G. W. Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) is an outspoken condemnation of German bourgeois values during the Weimar years. The story involves a middle-class young woman named Thymian, played with a mixture of innocence and frank sexuality by Louise Brooks, who endures reform school and a life of prostitution after being seduced by her father’s employee. The film holds up extremely well, buoyed by Pabst’s brilliant direction and Brooks’s exceptional acting — the scene where Thymian discovers that her child has died while in the care of a callous midwife is a master class in subtle silent film acting. A different take on the fallen woman could be found in the Norma Talmadge vehicle The Woman Disputed (1928). In a typically American twist, Talmadge’s Mary Ann Wagner follows the opposite trajectory of Brooks’s Thymian, starting out as a prostitute and then working her way to middle-class respectability. Plying her wares in Austria during World War I, Mary Ann is pursued by two best friends, an Austrian soldier (played by Talmadge’s real-life paramour Gilbert Roland) and a Russian soldier. The love triangle eventually splits the friends apart, and Mary Ann, driven to desperation by the war, has to sacrifice both her pride and her body, turning to prostitution one last time to save her country. It’s interesting to compare the way The Woman Disputed and Diary of a Lost Girl treat the themes of dishonor and redemption — while both women are redeemed to some extent at the ends of their films, Thymian is not able to escape the stigma of her past and remains a “lost girl,” while Mary Ann is ultimately celebrated for her patriotic actions and reunited with her Austrian lover, who is only too glad to forget her checkered past.

A surprise gem this year was William Wyler’s The Shakedown (1929). What appeared at first glance to be a formulaic programmer turned out to be an involving film about a con man, played by the immensely talented and often overlooked James Murray, trying to go straight to win the love and respect of a woman and an orphan boy (played by Barbara Kent and Jack Hanlon). Made by the versatile and prolific Wyler while he was still in his twenties, the film features plenty of inventive camera movements and thoughtfully composed shots, and is not only an early view of the future Oscar-winning director’s developing style but also an excellent example of the freedom of movement found in late-silent-era films, before the constraints of sound technology forced cameras to stand still. Donald Sosin’s bluesy piano score perfectly complemented the story of con artists, boxers, and small-town life. The Shakedown, like Metropolis, is another preservation success story — long thought lost, a 16mm print of the film turned up in the home of a private collector only a few years ago.

The festival concluded with a very funny French comedy, L’heureuse mort (1924). Produced by Films Albatros, made up of a group of Russian émigrés living in Paris, the film is a satire on fame, fortune, and modern identity. The story involves an unsuccessful playwright who falls overboard while on a yachting excursion. Presumed dead, he is suddenly hailed as a literary genius, and those who had previously rejected him now clamor to honor him. When the very much alive playwright returns home, he decides to pose as his own twin brother in order to surreptitiously enjoy his newfound success. This is a delightful film, cleverly directed by Serge Nadjedine, who makes use of both inventive visual gags and witty intertitles to get the comedy across. The film’s star, Nicolas Rimsky, who also wrote the screenplay, is hilarious as both the milquetoast playwright and his more adventurous twin brother. The Matti Bye Ensemble made use of a wide variety of instruments in their accompaniment, from piano to balalaika, slide whistle, and musical saw, perfectly capturing the whimsy and humor of the film.

With this year’s expansion to four days, and the addition in 2005 of the annual one-day winter festival, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival proves that there is a growing market for silent-era cinema. Even the most obscure titles drew impressive crowds, and the premiere events boasted sold-out houses. Fortunately, success stories about the discovery of footage from Metropolis and The Shakedown and the cache of long-lost silents recently found in the New Zealand Film Archive, as well as constant efforts of archivists and preservationists detailed in the festival’s Amazing Tales from the Archives presentations, ensure that the SFSFF will always have “new” material to present to an eager public.