S.F. Silent Film Festival Turns 20

Bay Area lovers of silent film will be flocking to San Francisco’s Castro Theatre this weekend. That venue is hosting the special 20th year of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. This year’s festival (which runs May 28 to June 1) offers American features starring John Gilbert (Flesh And The Devil) and Harold Lloyd (Speedy), international silent films from France (Faces Of Children) and Norway (Pan), and even surprising re-discoveries (Sherlock Holmes and Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day).

Even if you missed the Opening Night presentation of the silent version of All Quiet On The Western Front, there are other interesting offerings to check out at this year’s silent film festival:

100 Years In Post-Production: Resurrecting A Lost Landmark Of Black Film History–New York’s Museum of Modern Art discovered seven reels of an unreleased film project by legendary black entertainer Bert Williams. The project gathered an incredible cast of African-American performers to perform in a comedy about the efforts of Williams’ character to win a local beauty’s hand. Had the film been released, it would have been the earliest surviving film with a heavily black cast.

Avant-Garde Paris–This shorts program presents two classics of French avant-garde cinema. Man Ray’s enigmatic Emak-Bakia features dizzily distorted shapes, off-kilter images of the modern world, and beautiful women. Critic Pauline Kael called Dimitri Kirsanoff’s Menilmontant, a drama about the struggles of two orphaned sisters in the big city, a little-known silent masterpiece.

Pan–Actor Harald Schwenzen adapted Nobel Prize-winner Knut Hamsun’s famed novel for the silver screen. This tale of overwhelming attraction was the one and only film Schwenzen directed. But it was psychologically astute enough to ensure Schwenzen’s place in cinematic history.

Sherlock Holmes–The hot ticket of the S.F. Silent Film Festival will probably be this supposedly lost film adaptation of the adventures of A. Conan Doyle’s famed sleuth. The film stars stage actor William Gillette in the title role. Gillette was considered the foremost interpreter of the Baker Street sleuth in his day, and his image and mannerisms influenced illustrators and later actors playing the character.

The Swallow And The Titmouse–Six hours of footage from Andre Antoine’s 1920 realistic drama sat unedited on the Cinematheque Francaise’s shelves for over six decades until film editor Henri Colpi discovered it. Colpi trimmed this material down into a documentary-like drama set in post-World War I France and Belgium. The story concerns bargeman Pierre de Groot, who delivers both construction material and a little contraband on the side. New pilot Michel joins de Groot and his family because he wants to find and steal de Groot’s new shipment.

Visages d’enfants (Faces of Children)–Jacques Feyder’s 1920s silent classic is set in a remote village in the Swiss Alps. There, young Jean grieves over the death of his beloved mother. Film theorist Jacques Mitry called this powerful portrait of childhood grief the only 1920s French film he’d save if forced to choose just one.

The above suggestions do not mean avoiding checking out the classic The Last Laugh or the 1925 version of Ben-Hur. If you haven’t seen either of those films, do so on the Castro screen since all Silent Film Festival screenings have live musical accompaniment. But use this festival’s offerings to expand your understanding of silent film beyond Charlie Chaplin and Battleship Potemkin.

For further information about the Silent Film Festival films and advance ticket information, go here.

Image from “Sherlock Holmes” courtesy of S.F. Silent Film Festival

About the Author

I'm a film reviewer for the Beyond Chron blog. Agnes Varda and Hirokazu Kore-eda are among my favorite filmmakers. I occasionally break down and watch a good action film...but don't tell anyone.

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