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Silents Soar In San Francisco

by Leonard Maltin
July 18, 2012 1:00 AM
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SFSFF Program-290

How many times can I learn the same lesson? I was going to skip a Sunday morning showing of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival. After all, I know the movie by heart; I owned an 8mm print of it when I was a kid. But my wife and I arrived at the Castro Theatre in time to catch the last half-hour and decided to go inside the darkened auditorium. There, Doug was leaping about, undoing the bad guys as Dennis James roared away on the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ. The 35mm print was stunning, and it didn’t take long for us to get caught up in the fun. I’m so glad we didn’t miss out.

That feeling was driven home at the next show on the bill, Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York, which we screened when Criterion released its indispensable boxed DVD set of Sternberg silents a couple of years ago. But as this is a mood piece, seeing a 35mm copy in a theater with Donald Sosin providing pitch-perfect accompaniment, gave us a completely different experience. We were also knocked out by Eddie Muller’s eloquent introduction, which was also printed in the program book. “The Docks of New York is an elegant and elegiac love story about battered souls at the bottom of the barrel,” he said. “It’s also the most emotionally affecting film of the director’s exhilarating if erratic career… There are just enough twists in the 76-miute running time to comprise a narrative; the film plays much more like poetry, granting von Sternberg the breathing room to create and explore his own waterfront world, one with no connection to reality, except in the quick and volatile fragments of life he vividly captures. Freed from the dictates of plot, von Sternberg turned his attention to conjuring moments. Many of them are as beautiful as anything in cinema…” All true.

Watching a silent film at home simply can’t compare with being in the beautiful Castro, surrounded by more than a thousand like-minded people, gazing at a great print on an enormous screen and being enveloped in the presentation—a wondrous combination of images and music. And the music at this year’s festival was superb, as usual: the creative piano scores by Donald Sosin and Stephen Horne, the authentic period sounds of Rodney Sauer and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the rousing organ music by Dennis James, and the unique approaches of the Alloy Orchestra and the Matti Bye Ensemble. A local group called Toychestra contributed their distinctive sounds to the Felix the Cat animation show.

Two eminent authors at the signing table in the Castro mezzanine: John Bengtson, whose books on silent-comedy locations are unparalleled, and “the czar of noir,” Eddie Muller.
Two eminent authors at the signing table in the Castro mezzanine: John Bengtson, whose books on silent-comedy locations are unparalleled, and “the czar of noir,” Eddie Muller.

There were bona fide classics at this year’s festival, like The Mark of Zorro, Pandora’s Box, and the celebratory opening night showing of Wings, in Paramount’s beautifully restored version with music by Mont Alto and live sound effects by Oscar-winning sound wizard Ben Burtt and Rodney Sauer. (The next morning, Paramount Pictures’ VP of Archives Andrea Kalas and Sony’s Grover Crisp offered an interesting show-and-tell demonstration of digital restoration at the annual show called Amazing Tales from the Archives.) There were recent archival treasures like The Loves of Pharaoh, which I wrote about when it debuted in Los Angeles, Clara Bow in Mantrap, introduced by director Victor Fleming’s biographer Michael Sragow, The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna, films from Sweden and China, and Henry King’s peerless soap opera Stella Dallas, adapted by the great Frances Marion.

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  • Yaice | August 13, 2012 4:23 PMReply

    Oh, I love silent films, but I hate watching them with an audience. Modern audiences cannot relate to many of the things that we silent movie buffs are accustomed to, mainly, the style of acting back then. What looks silly and hammy today was merely the way things were done back then, and I've seen enough silent films to have gotten familiar with the conventions of silent cinema.

    Unfortunately, general audiences will laugh inappropriately at the wrong moments, and thus ruin the whole experience. As much as I'd like to see silent films on the big screen, it's just become too annoying, and I've resigned myself to watching them at home.

  • Jim Reinecke | July 18, 2012 8:05 PMReply

    Once again, Leonard, I read one of your posts with a mouthful of water and eyes full of green! If only such presentations were readily available here in St. Louis! Back in the '80's at the newly refurbished Fox Theater in midtown STL, they presented a series of classic films with a different movie featured each Monday night. During these summertime offerings, one silent film per season (with live Wurlitzer accompaniment) would always be booked. So, I have very pleasant memories of seeing Mr. Fairbanks in Raoul Walsh's visually sumptuous 1924 version of THE THIEF OF BAGDAD with Stan Kann at the organ (yes, the same Stan Kann who was a frequent visitor to the Tonight Show in the 70's and 80's where he would display a lot of contraptions that didn't work. . .this fellow was, in reality, a superb organist). It dazzled and delighted people of every age group who left that theatre on that sultry St. Louis evening with looks of total contentment on their faces. Sweet memories to be sure! I purchased the 3-film Von Sternberg set from Criterion (God, you're right about THE LAST COMMAND. . .what a masterpiece!) and found THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK to be a wonderfully moving experience but I'm sure that a theatrical viewing with all the trimmings would take that experience to even greater heights. And it would have been a genuine thrill to meet people like yourself, William Wellman, Jr. (his father is one of my pantheon filmmakers) and Eddie Muller who has entertained me with his writings as well as his commentary tracks on the DVD's of many film noirs. (By the way, folks, I'm sure that Leonard is familiar with this, but if you happen to get hold of the DVD for Joseph Losey's extraordinarily dark and surprisingly realistic gem THE PROWLER, by all means watch it a second time with Mr. Muller's commentary as an accompaniment. His story about that film's leading lady, Evelyn Keyes, regarding her response when, during an interview, he asked what her favorite word was, is an absolute howl!)

  • Dan | July 18, 2012 7:50 PMReply

    I live in Rochester, NY as a student and we have the Dryden Theatre at the Eastman House that I go to religiously. Two of my favorite experiences have been with silent films, one of them being 'The Mark of Zorro' which I had to watch for a silent film class. The other being Keaton's 'Our Hospitality' my personal favorite of Keaton's. The scene where he saves his loved one on the waterfall had the audience roaring. It reminded me why I wanted to make films.

  • Marya | July 18, 2012 1:37 PMReply

    This year's fest was so wonderful. I really loved seeing films I'd never seen before. Probably my favorite new-to-me's were "The Wonderful Life of Nina Petrovna," "The Canadian," and "Stella Dallas." See "The Docks of New York," "Pandora's Box," and "The Mark of Zorro" on the big screen was so fanatastic. Seeing children delight in Fairbank's marvelous performance some 90 years later is a great feeling. Also watching "The Cameraman" (or any Keaton, really) with an audience makes the experience all the more enjoyable. It's amazing how the energy of 1400 people all laughing and sighing and hissing and crying feels.

    P.S. I was great talking to you about Picnic. Can't wait to pick up that Blu-ray.

  • Sam | July 18, 2012 1:49 AMReply

    "...arrived at the Castro Theatre in time to catch the last half-hour"..!!?? Wtf? Don't interrupt everyone else's fun! Cinemas should be closed after film starts; even basic manners should prevent ppl from invading during a screening...

  • gary | July 20, 2012 4:09 AM

    Luckily one can sneak upstairs to see the last half hour from the balcony that isn't being used during most morning shows. I have mixed feelings about later entry. While I agree it can be distracting to others, most people coming to this festival are sensitive and will come in the side aisles, wait until their eyes adjust and hope for a seat on the end.
    And the reality is that people getting up to go to the bathroom or snack bar or much more offensive because they make the disturbance twice and often from the middle of a row.

  • Joe Adamson | July 18, 2012 1:38 AMReply

    THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK is, by my reckoning, the greatest American silent DRAMA -- I appreciate what was said about von Sternberg creating a world of his own, but according to Paramount production records housed here at the Margaret Herrick, there was several days' shooting at the actual Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro --

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