Silents Please! The Glories of Silent Cinema celebrated in San Francisco
The 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs through Sunday, July 15
While the modern world has converged on San Diego for the weekend, I am happily immersing myself in the cinema of yesteryear at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
The 17th Edition of the top film festival dedicated exclusively to the art of silent cinema in the United States opened on Thursday, July 12 with an unforgettable screening of Wings (1927), winner of the very first Academy Award for Best Picture (until this year the only silent film so honored).
The timing couldn't have been more perfect: The Famous Players Film Company, the studio created by Adolph Zukor that transformed into Paramount pictures, released its inaugural film Queen Elizabeth, a four-reel "epic" starring stage luminary Sarah Bernhardt, on July 12, 1912. 100 years later, SFSFF 2012 opens with the last great silent film from the Paramount studios, accompanied live by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (playing the original score composed for the theatrical premiere by J.S. Zamecnik) with sound effects performed live by Oscar winning sound designer Ben Burtt (Star Wars and Wall-E) and a small army of artists turning bicycle tires, typewriters, hydraulic air hoses and other makeshift instruments into a symphony of industrial sound. Call them Captain Burtt's Foley Circus.
SFSFF presents 15 feature films and a couple of programs of short films over four nights and three full days, closing with The Cameraman (1928) with Buster Keaton, on Sunday, July 15. For this weekend, the historic Castro Theatre in San Francisco comes alive with (mostly) glorious 35mm film prints preserved and restored by archives from around the world, with live scores by some of the finest silent film accompanists around at each screening.
I've seen many of the films before, though few of them on the big screen with live accompaniment, I've long wanted to see a few others, and there are few that are new to me (and I hope will be revelations). Philip Kaufman, the "guest festival director" this year, will present one of those: The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna, a 1928 German drama from director Hanns Schwarz starring Brigitte Helm and Francis Lederer, on Friday, July 13. Earlier on Friday is a screening of Ernst Lubitsch's The Loves of a Pharaoh (1922) with Emil Jannings, the director's final lavish German production before he left for Hollywood, considered lost for many years. It shows in a newly restored DCP print, one of the few digital presentations of the festival.
It's a marvelous mix of landmark films with the greatest stars of the golden age, like Pandora's Box (1926) with Louise Brooks and the original The Mark of Zorro (1920), the first swashbuckler that Douglas Fairbanks ever made, and rarities like The Overcoat (1926) from Russia and the original screen version of Stella Dallas (1925) from director Henry King, a giant of the silent, and actor Ronald Colman.
Wings is the other exception in the prints-only policy at SFSFF. Paramount completed a lavish restoration of the film just this year (at a cost of $700,000, a rare investment by a studio in film whose worth is measured in historical significance rather than potential profit) and SFSFF broke tradition and screened the film digitally in a 4K DCP version. The digital restoration (the same that was done for the DVD and Blu-ray releases) and presentation was so well done than much of the audience had no idea that it wasn't a film print, surely a sign that digital presentation is coming of age as an option for classic film. The giveaway for: the image was so steady and unmarked, it was too perfect to be a 35mm print. Otherwise, the image has the texture and grain and depth of detail of the finest film restoration I've seen.
As for the film, director William Wellman, who was a World War I fighter pilot himself, builds the drama on the camaraderie of men in battle and fills the screen with the thrilling flight of the warriors. The magnificent dogfights, the sky swarming with planes, the downed ships spiraling down through the clouds with a tail of black smoke and yellow flame (color was digitally painted in for flourishes, just like the hand-coloring of the time) were all staged and shot for real and the budget soared to $2 million, making it one of the most expensive films of its era. Wellman makes sure it’s all there on the screen and in the process delivers a landmark: the last of the grand studio epics of the silent film era.
See more previews at Parallax View here.