The 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Written by:
Renata Polt
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The Eloquence of Silence: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes place at the Castro Theater July 14th – 17th. For more information, check out the festival’s website at

Half the pleasure of the upcoming San Francisco Silent Film Festival will be the films and associated programs—18 in all—on offer.

The other half is the scene at the historic Castro Theater during the festival weekend, starting July 14 through July 17. A significant number of audience members dress up in period costumes, many of the shows are sold out, and there’s a vibe of anticipation and excitement. All the films are shown with live musical accompaniment, with orchestra, piano, organ—excuse me: “the Mighty Wurlitzer”—even electric guitar. I’ve seen several of the films on DVD, but without the music, and without the crowd, it’s a very di fferent, and inferior, experience.

Every year—this is the festival’s 16th—the organizers come up with a treasury of new discoveries as well as familiar standards. Not all are American. This year, countries represented are Italy (“Il Fuoco,” 1915), Japan (“I Was Born, But…,” 1932), Great Britain (“The Great White Silence,” 1924), Sweden (“The Blizzard,” 1923), Russia (“The Nail in the Boot,” 1931), and Germany (“The Woman Men Yearn For,” 1929).

Directors and stars this year who will be familiar to film fans are John Ford, F. W. Murnau, Janet Gaynor, Douglas Fairbanks, Walt Disney, Lon Chaney, Norma Desmond, and John Gilbert. Special programs, some of them free, include “Variations on a Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Film,” “Amazing Tales from the Archives: Kevin Brownlow on 50 Years of Restoration,” and “Amazing Tales from the Archives: The Archivist as Detective;” as well as two programs of shorts: “Walt Disney’s Laughograms”-six fairy tale cartoons from the studio that Disney founded in Kansas City in 1915; and “Wild and Weird: Short Film Favorites with New Music,” a collection of ten shorts featuring remarkable special effects.

Here’s a preview of some of the films I was able to see.

“Il Fuoco” (“The Fire”), directed by Giovanni Pastrone, 1915. The print that I saw of this is wildly tinted-hot fuscias, brilliant golds-but I don’t know whether the festival’s print will be as unorthodox. The story concerns a femme fatale (Pina Menichelli) so alluring that she makes American vamps of the period (such as Pola Negri) look like amateurs. The woman, a poetess, seduces a young painter. With hardly any intertitles, the film relies almost exclusively on the expressiveness of the actors. To paraphrase Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”: “They had faces then.”

Allan Dwan’s “Mr. Fix-It” (1918) stars a very young Douglas Fairbanks as a student who “fixes” everybody’s romantic and social problems with wit, kindness, and lots of acrobatic stunts. Long believed lost, the film comments on the stuffiness and snobbery of upper-crust American society.

“Shoes” (1916) was directed by Lois Weber, one of the few women directors of the period. This melodrama makes no secret of its social message: parents need to be responsible for their children, and society needs to recognize the needs of the poor. The film’s heroine, Eva (Mary MacLaren), a clerk in a busy department store, is unable to buy herself shoes to replace her falling-apart pair because her shiftless and greedy parents take all her salary. She has only one recourse…. The film, “Endorsed by the National Council of Public Morals,” makes up for what it lacks in subtlety with in a vivid portrayal of life at the time.

My favorite film, however, was “The Woman Men Yearn For,” a thriller with Marlene Dietrich in her first starring role. Directed by Kurt Bernhardt from a story by Kafka’s friend and literary executor Max Brod, the film is set on a train, a Grand Hotel, and at a wild New Year’s Eve party, all beautifully filmed, as are the industrial shots of an ironworks. Dietrich is lusted after by monocle-wearing Dr. Karoff (Fritz Kortner, a star of “Pandora’s Box” as well as later films such as “The Razor’s Edge”). She’s also yearned for by a young newlywed, Henri Leblanc (Uno Henning). The camerawork and mood are reminiscent of films by Josef von Sternberg, who made “The Blue Angel” with Dietrich the following year.

There are lots of other films I’m looking forward to seeing; among them:

—John Ford’s backstage film “Upstream,” the opening night film, recently discovered in a New Zealand archive.

—Mauritz Stiller’s “The Blizzard,” a restored version of a film that includes a reindeer stampede.

—Clarence Brown’s “The Goose Woman,” featuring Louise Dresser as a fallen prima donna.

—Victor Sjöström’s “He Who Gets Slapped,” with Lon Chaney, Norma Shearer, and John Gilbert in a circus setting.

And several others that words cannot do justice…

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