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.
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.