San Francisco's Castro Theatre-250

Silent films shouldn’t be seen alone. Watching movies from the silent era is a participatory experience, a fact driven home this past weekend at the 19th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Unspooling in the seductive environment of the historic Castro Theatre, the three-day event presented a wide variety of films from many countries, including a handful of exciting restorations and discoveries.

It was Argentinian film collector Fernando Peña who discovered that an alternate version of Buster Keaton’s 1921 short subject The Blacksmith existed in home-movie form—with four minutes of hilarious, never-before-seen footage—and French archivist Serge Bromberg who unearthed the source material in 35mm, in a print he’d acquired but never screened some twenty years ago. Bromberg also unveiled a recent eBay acquisition: a complete print of Emile Cohl’s second animated short, a mesmerizing (and startlingly modern) display of metamorphosis unseen in its entirety since 1908!

An engaging showman and pianist, Bromberg also treated us to a new print of Charlie Chaplin’s A Night in the Show (1915) struck from the original camera negative, held at the Museum of Modern Art, and a recent restoration of Fatty Arbuckle’s The Waiter’s Ball (1917) from footage assembled by archivist David Shepard that renders it complete for the first time in many decades.

Good Bad Man Poster-300

One of my favorite films all weekend was another breathtaking rescue project, Douglas Fairbanks’ The Good Bad Man (1916), a frame-by-frame restoration undertaken by Rob Byrne on behalf of the Film Preservation Society (which you can learn more about HERE, recently founded by Fairbanks scholar Tracey Goessel. If you’ve ever retouched a picture using Photoshop or similar software, you know how labor-intensive the process can be: imagine doing that kind of work on an entire silent feature in order to remove dirt, scratches, and glue stains from splices. Byrne also managed to stabilize the image and eliminate flicker. Having seen the original source material, silent film scholar Kevin Brownlow wrote Byrne, “I still cannot work out how you did it…this is practically prefect! To resurrect a Fairbanks film nearly a century after it was made should be front page news.”

Even better, the film is terrific, a character piece set in the wild West (and filmed in Mojave, California) with Fairbanks giving a surprisingly nuanced performance as an eccentric outlaw, opposite a fresh and appealing young Bessie Love. The actor receives story credit for this early feature, which draws on his own lifelong interest in identity, having been abandoned by his father—like the character he plays. The photography, by future director Victor Fleming, is quite impressive, with Griffith-like panoramic shots of distant action that filled the giant Castro screen.  

San Francisco Silent Film Festival Program-2014-366

It would take pages of copy to properly assess this first-class festival, which offered 19 programs from Thursday to Sunday night, including rarely-seen features from England, Germany, Russia, Sweden, Japan, and China, along with such bona fide classics as The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Buster Keaton’s The Navigator. A wide variety of musical accompanists made the event all the more enjoyable. I’m a longtime fan of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, led by Rodney Sauer and now celebrating its 25th year: listening to their scores for The Four Horsemen and the Dolores Del Rio feature Ramona was a particular treat. Versatile pianists Donald Sosin, Stephen Horne, and Guenter Buchwald brought their own unique approaches to the art form; Sosin played solo and in ensemble (with percussionist Frank Bockius, among others), while Horne dazzled us by using a variety of instruments along with his keyboard.

Yes, one can now obtain The Max Linder Collection from Kino Lorber on Blu-ray or DVD—which is great news—but it can’t compare with watching the comedian at the beautiful Castro movie palace with a simpatico audience and live music. Listening to archivists and scholars like the BFI’s Bryony Dixon, NYU’s Dan Streible, and filmmakers/film buffs extraordinaire Craig Barron and Ben Burtt showing and describing rare footage is icing on the cake.

All hail to Stacey Wisnia, Anita Monga, and the many people who collaborate to make this annual event such a success. You can read more HERE, and if you can possibly travel to San Francisco next year for the 20th festival, I promise you’ll be glad you did.