Rare films from around the globe, featuring everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Walt Disney’s earliest animated characters, marked the 16th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival this past weekend…along with the announcement of the Festival’s plans to screen Abel Gance’s Napoleon with a live orchestra next spring. (see separate story HERE).
Executive director Stacey Wisnia, Artistic director Anita Monga, their dedicated staff and board of directors put on another great, wide-ranging show featuring films from Sweden, Japan, Germany, Italy, England, and Russia. It’s a far cry from the early years of the festival when founders Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons were grateful that anyone would show up to see Hollywood classics of the silent era. Now, the SFSFF has built up an audience that is willing to try unusual and challenging fare along with old favorites.
One of the happiest discoveries was the world premiere of a newly-restored Douglas Fairbanks film from 1918, Mr. Fix-It, written and directed by Allan Dwan. The day before its screening, preservationist Ken Fox (a graduate of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation) described the challenge of translating its—
To celebrate the 15th year of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, its directors decided to extend the event by an extra day, kicking off Thursday night and screening all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The results were exhausting but exhilarating. As in years past, near-capacity crowds turned out at every show, with several shows, like the newly-restored Metropolis, turning customers away.
There are other vintage film festivals around the country but none is as elaborate, ambitious, or masterfully mounted as this one, a genuine cultural event in San Francisco. It has a perfect home in The Castro, a glorious 1927 movie palace, and its programmers and board of directors create a first-class experience. There are signings with authors of film-related books between showings, along with the sale of books and DVDs, and informative slide shows that set the stage for each screening. What’s more, the audience is treated to the widest possible variety of live music. This year, Dennis James kicked off the proceedings by accompanying John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924) on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ, the three-man Alloy Orchestra played for—
As long as I’ve been attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival I’ve been promising myself to visit the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum...and this year I finally got there. It’s an easy drive over the Bay Bridge to Fremont, California and the charming village of Niles, which looks much as it did when G.M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson discovered it in the teens and decided to build a studio there. Dedicated volunteers have restored the theater on Niles Boulevard that once showed silent films and turned it into a wonderful museum, filled with evocative memorabilia and early filmmaking equipment. It’s also a working theater where silent films are screened every Saturday, and tour groups are welcomed.
The day I visited the museum, along with some friends, a fourth grade class had just been shown Charlie Chaplin’s The Champion (1915). Not only did they respond to the scrappy, funny film, but they expressed a proper sense of wonder that a palm tree visible in one scene was still growing right across the street, and a corner of the studio was still identifiable outside. My friends and I were given a—
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