22nd San Francisco Silent Film Festival

The 22nd San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs from Thursday, June 1, 2017 through to Sunday, June 4, 2017. The festival features a recently found Cecil B. DeMille production from 1926 called “Silence.” A fragment from a 1927 Louise Brooks film called “Now We’re in the Air” will play with a Clara Bow feature called “Get Your Man” from 1927. The full schedule includes the following:

Title Year Director Country Performance Time
The Freshman 1925 Newmeyer,  Taylor USA Thursday, June 1, 2017 — 7 PM
Amazing Tales From the Archives Various Various Various Friday, June 2, 2017 — 10 AM
Now We’re in the Air/Get Your Man 1927/1927 Frank Strayer/Dorothy Arzner USA Friday, June 2, 2017 — 1 PM
The Dumb Girl of Portici 1916 Lois Weber USA Friday, June 2, 2017 — 3:30 PM
Body and Soul 1925 Oscar Micheaux USA Friday, June 2, 2017 — 7 PM
The Informer 1929 Arthur Robison UK Friday, June 2, 2017 — 9:30 PM
MAGIC AND MIRTH: A Collection of Enchanting Short Films, 1906–1924 Various Various Various Saturday, June 3, 2017 — 10 AM
A Strong Man 1929 Henryk Szaro Poland Saturday, June 3, 2017 — 12 PM
Filibus 1915 Mario Roncoroni Italy Saturday, June 3, 2017 — 2:30 PM
Outside the Law 1920 Tod Browning USA Saturday, June 3, 2017 — 5 PM
Battleship Potempkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin) 1925 Sergei Eisenstein USSR Saturday, June 3, 2017 — 7:15 PM
A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ichipeiji) 1926 Teinosuke Kinugasa Japan Saturday, June 3, 2017 — 9:30 PM
The Doll (Die Puppe) 1919 Ernst Lubitsch Germany Sunday, June 4, 2017 — 10 AM
Silence 1926 Rupert Julian USA Sunday, Sunday, June 4, 2017 — 12 PM
A Man There Was (Terje Vigen) 1917 Victor Sjöström Sweden Sunday, June 4, 2017 — 2 PM
The Lost World 1925 Harry O. Hoyt USA Sunday, June 4, 2017 — 4 PM
Two Days (Dva Dni) 1927 Heorhii Stabovyi USSR Sunday, June 4, 2017 — 6:30 PM
The Three Musketeers 1921 Fred Niblo USA Sunday, June 4, 2017 — 8:15 PM
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A Day of Silents

On Saturday, December 3, 2016, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present “A Day of Silents,” with a showing of 6 silent films with live music at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. The schedule includes the following films, with the directors in parentheses:

Saturday, December 3, 2016

10:00 — Chaplin at Essanay (Charles Chaplin) — 1915 — 84 minutes
12:15 —  So This is Paris (Ernst Lubitsch) — 1926 — 68 minutes
14:15 —  Strike (Stachka) (Sergei Eisenstein) — 1925 — 94 minutes
16:45 — Different from the Others (Richard Oswald) 1919 — 74 minutes
19:00 — The Last Command — (Josef von Sternberg) — 1928 — 88 minutes
21:15 —  Sadie Thompson (Raoul Walsh) — 1928 — 97 minutes


“So This is Paris,” directed by Ernst Lubitsch (image from San Francisco Silent Film Festival).

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A Night of Silents

Here is the schedule and the musical guests for “A Day of Silents” at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, CA, USA.

Saturday, December 4, 2015

11 AM (84 minutes)
THE BLACK PIRATE (with  Douglas Fairbanks)
Live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra

1 PM (68 minutes)
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin

3 PM (73 minutes)
THE GRIM GAME (with Harry Houdini)
Live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin

6:30 PM (122 minutes)
THE INHUMAN WOMAN (L’INHUMAINE) (with Georgette Leblanc)
Live musical accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra

9:15 PM (92 minutes)
PICCADILLY (with Anna May Wong)
Live Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin

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Silent Film Wrapup

The 2015 San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s (SFSFF) wrapped up this year with an unprecedented 6 days of wonderful silent films, beginning with “All Quiet on the Western Front 1930” and ending with “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925).” The intervening days included such films as “The Last Laugh (1924),” “Speedy (1928),” and “Why be Good (1929).”

The festival offers something for everyone and always gives the audience a unique opportunity to see something that hasn’t been seen many decades. The gem that everyone talked about this years was “Sherlock Holmes (1916),” a recent discovery that featured noted American Holmes actor William Gillette. Every year, certain SFSFF showings create a buzz and attract a big crowd, and this one brought in a full house to the Castro Theater. As the one film everyone waited for, it did not disappoint. I’ve been attending the festival for many years now and I’ve seen the crowd shift to a younger demographic. A good experience brings back fans year after year.

I heard some of the attendees saying they would get festival passes next year. I recommend this because after one sees a variety of silent films — comedies, tragedies, science fiction, drama, etc. — the true artistry of these wonderful films becomes clear. One can’t compare a silent film to a sound film; it’s like comparing sculpture to painting. Additionally, the Castro Theater, a venue built in the silent film era (1925), gives the audience an opportunity to see the films as they were meant to be seen.

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The Rains Came

Returning to the great movie year of 1939, I sat down and watched “The Rains Came,” the Twentieth Century Fox film directed by Clarence Brown and starring Myrna Loy, Tyrone Power and George Brent. It’s a melodramatic disaster film with good special effects of an earthquake and a great flood rampaging through the mythical Indian city of Ranchipur. Loy pays Lady Edwina Esketh, a woman of many romantic affairs who possesses a love of money. Power plays a selfless Indian doctor named Major Rama Safti, while Brent plays a womanizing nobleman named Tom Ransom.

Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy star in "The Rains Came."

Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy star in “The Rains Came.”

Ransom comes to Ranchipur to paint the Maharani, played by Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya. Known to be a lush, Ransom also causes a few scandals while he uses his considerable skills with women. Ransom also knows Lady Edwina Esketh very well, although they only meet in Ranchipur by chance. It appears their re-acquaintance will ignite long dormant romantic sparks until Major Safti catches Edwina’s eye. Things look to be settling into romantic melodrama of the talkiest form until suddenly the movie literally shakes the audience out of their seats with a terrible earthquake, a burst dam and rampaging flood waters. Lady Esketh, Ransom and Major Safti then must all make major sacrifices in the aftermath of the disaster.

The Rains Came won the 1939 Academy Award for best special effects, a remarkable achievement considering it went up against the Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. The flood, which occurred on the Twentieth Century Fox lot, looks very real as it comes crashing down from above the town. Supposedly, the studio sent crew to India to record some music for the film but didn’t actually film there. There is no second unit footage of India to add authenticity to the film.

Overall, the movie seems a little daring for its time. Lady Esketh obviously fools around right in front of her crashing bore husband Lord Albert Esketh (Nigel Bruce). Ransom only half-heartedly rebuffs the determined and love-stricken daughter (played by Brenda Joyce) of missionaries who seem more interested in hob-knobbing with the rich than saving souls. Redemption for everyone eventually comes, as it must for every sympathetic Hollywood character of the period, but at a steep price.

Tyrone Power plays Major Safti in dark makeup with a thin mustache, a turban and a very American accent. Previously he starred in another Twentieth Century Fox disaster movie called “In Old Chicago,” released in 1937 with Alice Faye and Don Ameche. Power gets battered around by nature but manages to always look good.

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Lord Love a Duck

I found quite a surprise last week while watching The Works network on TV. They presented a 1966 film directed by George Axelrod called “Lord Love a Duck.” The movie stars Tuesday Weld and Roddy McDowall as a couple of high school students. Weld, playing Barbara Ann Greene, wants to be famous and McDowall, playing Alan “Mollymauk” Musgrave, offers to help her. The movie then begins a convoluted plot that becomes mostly a farce with a few serious dramatic moments. Besides McDowall and Weld, Ruth Gordon and Harvey Korman also play over-the-top characters.

Tuesday Weld seeks fame in "Lord Love a Duck."

Tuesday Weld seeks fame in “Lord Love a Duck.”


Axelrod, who also helped write the screenplay, opens his movie just after Alan does away with some people during a high school graduation ceremony. After his arrest, he narrates the whole story into a tape recorder while the film plays in flashback. Quick cutting and very sardonic dialogue ensue, especially from McDowell and Ruth Gordon, who plays the hilarious mother of Barbara Ann’s fiance. Mollymauk, Alan’s nickname and a species of duck, weaves himself everywhere throughout the film. He even shows up at a chaotic, Southern California-style spring break, where the girls dance around in bikinis and Barbara Ann meets her fiance Bob Bernard (Martin West).

Things seem to be looking up for Barbara Ann when a movie producer, famous for making bikini pictures, spots her and wants to put her into a movie. This, of course, would make her famous, but Bob forbids it. This leads to a rather surprising plan concocted by Alan. The movie presents one satirical surprise after another, and it’s just the kind of film it’s fun to stumble upon while watching TV.

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The Battle of Algiers

Among all war films, the 1966 Italian-Algerian production called “The Battle of Algiers” seems to invoke the tensest evocation of the current state of warfare in the world. It’s war taken to a divided city where cultures compete and freedoms seem sapped as a result of over a century and a half of occupation. It tells the story of the Algerian revolution from both sides, with much bloodshed and explosions. In addition, we hear how tiresome the philosophy of the oppressors and revolutionaries become when confrontation happens at every turn, murder becomes the norm, and momentum builds towards the inevitable revolution.

A tense situation in "The Battle of Algiers."

A tense situation in “The Battle of Algiers.”

The film, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, stars Yacef Saadi as Djafar, a man so driven by both bitterness and a sense of determination to take on a colonial power as great as France. After Djafar and his associates, including several women, orchestrate the murders of several policemen and a series of bombings in Algiers, France sends the decorated and very experienced Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) to deal with the situation. He compares the revolutionaries to a tapeworm with many parts and encourages his army men to destroy the head. In the first scene of the film, Colonel Mathieu’s plan seems close to becoming successful. But we know how Algeria’s history played out: it gained independence from France in 1962.

Playing like a docudrama, The Battle of Algiers begins in 1954 and ends in 1962. The gripping action, full of violent confrontations, never subsides, and there is no happy ending other than the showing of the prideful struggle of a people desperate for self-determination. The film doesn’t attempt to explain how the efforts of a failed group of revolutionaries led to an uprising that happens several years later.

The film seems so realistic that people in the film really look like they received serious injuries. Director Pontecorvo carefully staged things to look real, and the tension never lets up. Except for a few dry quips from Colonel Mathieu about the French press, Pontecorvo makes no attempt to add any comic relief to the story. So, it’s surprising that the unrelenting tension doesn’t break in the wrong direction at any point in the film.

Music plays a big part in film, guiding the atmosphere as the film switches between episodes of terror and images of the powerful French army in their battle fatigues. The music in the opening scenes of a French battalion bounding through the narrow streets of Algiers to fight an enemy we haven’t seen yet sets up a powerful, but episodic, narrative that never lets up.

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I had the good fortune to see the 1957 Indian film “Pyaasa” the other night. The film tells the story of a poet named Vijay (Guru Dutt) who finds it extremely difficult to get his poems published. A failed college love affair and the many years of frustration he encounters from publishers lead him to a life of hopeless drunkenness. Only the great love of a beautiful prostitute named Gulabo (Waheeda Rehman) offers him the kind of redemption only a real artist craves — not fame and fortune but the satisfaction of charting a personal course through the fickleness of his worshiping but oddly fickle fans.

Guru Dutt plays the poet Vijay in "Pyaasa."

Guru Dutt plays the poet Vijay in “Pyaasa.”

Guru Dutt, who directed the film, frames the faces of his cast in muted light. While the characters are constantly taking forceful actions, their faces mostly convey subtle changes. One exception, Johnny Walker, who plays a massage oil salesman named Abdul, uses his expressive face with the grandest of gestures to inject more than a little humor into this dark and serious tale. When Vijay goes far down the road to alcoholism, we also become aware of how trapped his former school sweetheart Meena (Mala Sinha) feels in her confining but opulent marriage to a jealous publisher named Mr. Ghosh (Rehman). We also feel the stigma and hopelessness of Gulabo, who’s trapped in a life of prostitution with no chance of gaining society’s approval.

Pyaasa, which means “thirst” in Hindi, uses lots of recited (or sung) poetry throughout its 146 minute length. Gulabo gets involved in the story when she reads some of Vijay’s poetry on some paper she buys from a waste paper dealer. The film maintains a thoroughly engaging romantic tension, mostly through the excellent acting of Dutt and Waheeda Rehman. It surprises me that Vijay’s family and friends have so little regard for his decision to become a poet. But their indifference, and in some cases, downright scorn, turns into the betrayal and manipulation that leads to a shocking climax to this wonderful film. When Vijay discovers that his poems have reached a wider audience, his small moment of triumph doesn’t lead to greater satisfaction until he reaches for success on his own terms.

The songs, with their romantic lyrics of longing and happiness, sound like Vijay’s poems. One tuneful exception, a funny romp sung by Johnny Walker about the joys of a good head message, seems completely out of place but nevertheless provides a good laugh.

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Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks doesn’t seem like the kind of actor who could fly into a convincing rage, but if there was ever a movie to do it in, “Captain Phillips” would be it. However, he does not fly into a rage or even raise his voice much. In fact, Hanks continued calm (as Captain Phillips) in the face of overwhelming terror and physical deprivation makes Captain Phillips a much more interesting and though-provoking thriller. Using reason against armed Somali pirates seems like an exercise in futility, but Phillips never strays from it because he thinks it just might work. Of course, the pirates have reasons for what they do too, and the talky script gives them plenty of room to explain it.

Tom Hanks as "Captain Phillips."

Tom Hanks as “Captain Phillips.”

The 1913 movie, about the attempt of a small group of Somali pirates to board and take the Maersk Alabama cargo ship, shows the hijacking attempt in great detail. Director Paul Greengrass manages to create a great deal of tension as he shows the ship’s crew vainly trying to thwart the boarding of the vessel by the determined pirates. After the exciting and successful boarding attempt, the resultant standoff aboard ship becomes a subtle battle of wits between Phillips and the pirate leader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi). Their interplay continues throughout the film as the real life adventure presents bigger and bigger stakes for both of them. Even though we know the outcome of this true event, the story grips us as rescuers race to scene while Phillips remains menaced.

The film opens with scenes of Phillips at his American home getting ready for his voyage. Hanks plays a scene with his wife Andrea (Catherine Keener) where he bemoans the state of the world. I wondered in this scene why he doesn’t just give up these dangerous voyages, but even the early scenes paint him as a lonely and ever vigilant sea dog. This becomes even clearer later when the film announces that the real Captain Phillips eventually went to sea again. It’s hard to imagine Captain Phillips could have loved his Somalian pirate adventure enough to keep sailing, especially when the film shows him in an almost complete state of shock after his rescue.

The film’s maintains a newsreel feel in its cinematography. The director of photography, Barry Ackroyd, makes us feel like we’re eavesdropping where the camera doesn’t belong in the early scenes with Hanks and Keener. The chaotic Somali scenes feature a jerky camera hard cranking in the macho posturing of the pirates and the dusty landscape. Phillips’ and Muse’s worlds may contrast greatly, but the camera records them both with the same flat reach for objectivity.

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The Love Parade

Ernst Lubitsch’s 1929 film “The Love Parade,” features romantic comedy at its finest, with playful adult situations and a score full of catchy numbers. The deftly acted and directed film features Maurice Chevalier as Count Alfred Renard, a confirmed ladies man who marries Queen Louise (Jeannette MacDonald) of Sylvania. Count Renard soon realizes that as the Prince Consort of Sylvania, he holds no power and must kowtow to the Queen. MacDonald’s Queen Louise makes him a virtual prisoner in the palace while she wields power in a mythical and seemingly trouble-free kingdom.

Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in "The Love Parade."

Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in “The Love Parade.”

The musical numbers include a few duets involving MacDonald and Chevalier, but other singers join the action too, including Lupino Lane, who plays Count Renard’s manservant Jacques. He sings a humorous and very acrobatic song called “Let’s Be Common” with the lovely Lillian Roth, who plays a maid named Lulu. I love Jeanette MacDonald but I sometimes don’t enjoy her extremely operatic style. Lubitsch did an amazing technical job for a sound film at it’s time, but I couldn’t understand some of the words sung by Queen Louise. Lubitsch kept me laughing throughout with the sophisticated dialogue and the subtle ways he implies sexuality. MacDonald and Chevalier take knowing smiles to new levels in this thoroughly enjoyable piece.

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