The first thing not to miss is the Festival’s opening night film, which is also the first film to win an Oscar, Wings (1927). Director William A. Wellman’s newly restored WWI spectacle is the story of two men who go off to battle and the woman they leave behind. Made now long before he made Beggars of Life with Louise Brooks, Wings is also a rousing action film, whose truly spectacular aerial photography and scenes of air combat are the stuff of cinematic legend. Some say they have never been equaled. Also breathtaking is Clara Bow’s brief nudity, which caused a bit of a furor at the time. However, that’s not what got the film it’s recent PG-13 rating more than 80 years after its record setting premiere.
Wings, now meticulously restored, will be introduced by William Wellman Jr (the director’s son) and will be accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, with live sound effects provided by multiple Academy Award winner Ben Burtt. (His credits include the Indiana Jones and Star Wars series, and notably such iconic sound effects as the hum of a light saber, the “voice” of R2-D2, the heavy-breathing of Darth Vader, etc….) What Burtt does with the roar of airplane engines and the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns should be just as memorable.
2) Doctor Who
That’s right, Doctor Who is attending this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival. But more than that, he is also participating. The celebrated English actor, silent film and Louise Brooks enthusiast, and Bristol Silents patron Paul McGann, who played the eighth incarnation of the Doctor, is teaming up with pianist Stephen Horne to present South (1919), Frank Hurley’s moving documentary of Ernest Shackleton’s failed/heroic 1914-1917 expedition to Antarctica. Now restored by the British Film Institute with original tints and toning, the film is a visually stunning record of one of the great adventures in the annals of exploration. McGann will narrate, reading Shackleton’s somber letters to Horne’s elegiac score. McGann’s many credits go beyond Doctor Who and include a bunch of BBC television (like the controversial Monocled Mutineer, which is just out on DVD in the UK) as well as feature films Withnail & I, Empire of the Sun, Alien 3, etc…. This unique presentation promises to be powerful, and moving.
3) Sunshine and shadow
Silent films were both sunshine and shadow. This year’s Festival includes a handful of films which explore the dark, conflicted and sometimes seedy side of life. Notable among them is The Docks of New York (1928), Josef von Sternberg’s atmospheric silent which anticipates film noir in its depiction of hapless souls straight out of a police blotter. Also, don’t miss these three stories of unhappy love across class and social divides, Mantrap (1926) with “It Girl” Clara Bow, The Spanish Dancer (1923) with femme fatale and tragedienne Pola Negri, The Canadian (1926), based on the Somerset Maugham play, and Stella Dallas (1925), a riveting adaption of the popular novel made some 12 years before the more familiar version starring Barbara Stanwyck.
4) The Irrepressible Felix the Cat!
Not every film has an adult theme. In fact, there’s always a family friendly selection certain to appeal to kids. This year it’s a 70 minute program of silent era Felix the Cat cartoons which include Felix the Cat in Blunderland (1926) and Felix the Cat Weathers the Weather (1926). But what’s more, the musically wonder-filled Bay Area group, Toychestra, is teaming up with pianist Donald Sosin to accompany this sampling of rare animation. Toychestra is an all-woman musical ensemble which play toys. Some are actual instruments like toddler-sized pianos and xylophones. Others just make great sounds, like a multi-sonic Activity Center. Individually amplified and mixed live these “instruments” create a sophisticated aural experience that’s a far cry from a bunch of kids making a racket. All in all, this is a great way to introduce your youngster to early film. And what’s more, children under ten years of age are admitted free.
5) Louise Brooks
As Lulu, Louise Brooks is legend. So much so that the film for which she is best known today, Pandora’s Box (1929), will be shown twice on July 14th. The Magic Box Theater in Chicago is screening this seminal masterpiece, as is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. If you don’t have a TARDIS and can only make one screening, I would recommend the San Francisco event. The Festival is showing a new and true restoration of Pandora’s Box, which is not available on DVD and has only been shown twice before anywhere in the world! Censored, cut, and critically disregarded when it first debuted, Pandora’s Box is today considered one of greatest of all silent films. This restoration, the Festival’s centerpiece film, was funded by silent movie enthusiast Hugh Hefner; it may be as close as Brooks' fans will ever get to director G.W. Pabst’s original vision – and Brooks’ original luminescence.
6) Music – The Sounds of Silents
Every film at the Festival, from the briefest short to the mightiest epic, is presented with live musical accompaniment. It’s the way silent films were meant to be shown, and a big reason for attending the Festival. This year, Dennis James will once again rock the house on the Castro’s mighty Wurlitzer as he accompanies both The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Loves of Pharaoh (1922). Also set to fill the theater with lush, lyrical, sweeping, heart-swelling sounds are pianists Stephen Horne (coming all the way from England) and Donald Sosin, as well as the acclaimed Alloy Orchestra and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. And don’t miss the Swedish ensemble led by Matti Bye, regular performers at European film festivals and a winner of the Golden Beetle, Sweden’s Oscar. They will accompany the Swedish classic, Erotikon (1920), and debut their original score to Pandora’s Box, starring Louise Brooks.
7) Philip Kaufman
Every year a contemporary filmmaker with an appreciation for film history has been invited to the Silent Film Festival to present a program. Past directors have been Guy Maddin and Terry Zwigoff, and Academy Award winners Pete Docter and Alexander Payne. This year, the Festival welcomes Philip Kaufman, whose directorial credits include The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry and June, and Hemingway & Gellhorn. The latter recently premiered at Cannes International Film Festival. Kaufman will introduce the ineffably beautiful The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrovna (1929), starring the lovely Brigitte Helm (Metropolis) and the affable Franz Lederer (Louise Brooks' co-star in Pandora’s Box). It’s visually gorgeous, very European – and another story of unhappy love across class divide.
8 ) Authors and Books
It’s not only directors and actors who attend the Festival, but also writers, historians, archivists and critics. This year, nearly 20 authors including acclaimed biographers and film historians will be on hand signing their books. Not to be missed are the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle – The Beauty of the Real: What Hollywood Can Learn from Contemporary French Actresses (Stanford), former San Francisco Examiner critic Michael Sragrow – Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master (Pantheon), Jeff Codori – Colleen Moore: A Biography of the Silent Film Star (McFarland), San Francisco biographer Emily Leider – Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood (University of California), Los Angeles blogger Mary Mallory – Hollywoodland (Arcadia) and Wendy Marshall – William Beaudine: From Silents to Television (Scarecrow Press). Myrna Loy, as many fans know, appeared in the 1928 Louise Brooks film, A Girl in Every Port.
Wendy Marshall, by the way, is the granddaughter of Beaudine, and one of a handful of children and grandchildren of silent film personalities in attendance at the Festival. Author and film historian Jeffrey Vance, who once spoke with Louise Brooks, will also be coming to town to introduce The Mark of Zorro (1920). His splendid 2008 book, Douglas Fairbanks (University of California Press), helped inspire, and even shape, the recent Academy Award-winning film, The Artist. Director Michel Hazanavicius told him as much. Vance will also be signing books after Zorro makes his mark.
9) A Trip to the Moon
If you saw Martin Scorcese’s Hugo (which contained a brief visual reference to Louise Brooks), or if you ever took a film class, chances are you’re familiar with Georges Méliès’ delightful A Trip to the Moon (1902). However, you’ve never seen this version of Méliès’ masterpiece, a new fully tinted restoration which recreates the exquisite hand coloring of Méliès’ original print. A Trip to the Moon will be shown prior to the Festival’s final film, Buster Keaton’s ridiculously sublime The Cameraman (1928). Though very different, both are classics. And what’s more, Méliès’ original narration for A Trip to the Moon will be read by a very special guest, namely Paul McGann.
10) The Castro Theater
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes place at the historic Castro Theater, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary. (Most all of Louise Brooks American silent films showed there in the 1920s.) Built in 1922, this grand 1400 seat theater is one of the finest movie palaces in the Bay Area. It is also full of history. Just ask local theater historians Jack Tillmany and Gary Lee Parks, who will be on hand signing copies of their newest book, Theatres of the San Francisco Peninsula (Arcadia).