Films Silent or Jewish

What? More festivals? Two words: Silents and Jews.

The Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival starts tonight (Friday) at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont. Of the two weekend-long silent film festivals that grace the Bay Area every summer, Broncho Billy is the smaller, friendlier, small-town affair. The prints are 16mm, the live accompaniment is by piano, and there are always people worth talking to between the shows. Among the scheduled programs are a presentation on stunts and special effects in silent westerns (with a screening of William S. Hart’s Tumbleweeds,) a collection of Harold Lloyd shorts, and the John Barrymore swashbuckler The Beloved Rogue.

Because of the size of the auditorium, sell-outs are a definite danger.

When it’s over, silent film fans will then have a scant three weeks to move northwest (make that north by northwest) to San Francisco, where the Castro will host the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. A more upscale (and pricier) event, this one uses almost exclusively 35mm prints, with some movies accompanied by pipe organ, others piano, and a couple by ensembles. And what the Castro lacks in small-town charm it makes up for in big-city glamour. Highlights include a recently-discovered John Ford western, a Soviet comedy, Laurel and Hardy shorts, G.W. Pabst’s amazing and sexy Pandora’s Box, and King Vidor’s wonderful satire of Hollywood itself, Show People (which, among other virtues, proves that Marion Davies had talents beyond what she could do for William Randolph Hearst’s libido).

It’s worth noting that the festival’s opening night feature, Seventh Heaven, is playing at the Pacific Film Archive just week later. Although lacking dialog and essentially a silent film, Seventh Heaven was one of the first movies released with a soundtrack—at least when it showed in the few theaters that were wired for sound. Clark Wilson will accompany Seventh Heaven at the Silent Film Festival on the Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ; it will play with the recorded, 1927 score at the PFA.

The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens at the Castro just four days after the Silent Festival closes. It runs there for eight days, then moves to three other Bay Area venues for another ten. Altogether, it’s showing 51 films, including 26 that haven’t yet premiered in the Bay Area. I’ve seen one of those, the opening night selection Four Weeks in June, at a press screening. Think of this Swedish film as Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont with fully-developed human beings.

Other movies that look promising include Live and Become, about an Ethiopian in Israel, and a couple of broad comedies:  Roots (not to be confused with the miniseries) and Local Call. Documentaries include Forgiving Dr. Mengele, Jews of Iran, and Blues by the Beach, about a Tel Aviv club attacked by a suicide bomber. I hope to see some of these before the festival opens; if I do, I’ll be sure to tell you about them.

But first, let me tell you about what’s playing this week.

Recommended: Army of Shadows, Balboa and Rafael, opens Friday. Resistance is a dirty and almost inevitably deadly job, but in Nazi-occupied France, someone had to do it. Jean-Pierre Melville’s dark adventure from 1969, newly restored, finally gets an American release. The story is occasionally difficult to follow if you don’t know the history (or the geography), but the rewards are well worth the effort. The suspense set pieces, including a night-time novice parachute jump and a rescue attempt by ambulance, are nerve-wracking, but not nearly so much as the protagonists’ constant moral dilemmas.

Recommended, with Reservations:  Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Elmwood, opens Friday; and continuing at the Rafael. When a British film starring an aging and respected thespian has neither laughs nor explosions, it is, by definition, a serious work of art. Except when, as in this tale of bonding between an old lady and a young man, it is neither deeply serious nor especially artful. On the plus side, the performances are excellent and the pretending-to-be-someone-you’re-not story doesn’t move to the obvious conclusion. On the minus, the main characters are too good to be true and everyone else is a caricature.

Recommended, with Reservations: The Beloved Rogue, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Sunday, 4:00. Douglas Fairbanks wasn’t the only silent swashbuckling hero. John Barrymore also donned tights to fight evil and defend a woman’s honor. In The Beloved Rogue he plays a drinker and womanizer (talk about typecasting) who must save his beloved France from treachery. The ending isn’t as rousing as it should be—we’re robbed of the big fight—but Barrymore is fun to watch as a hero far less virtuous than Fairbanks. The Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival’s closing presentation, with piano accompaniment by Jon Mirsalis.

Noteworthy: 48 Hour Film Project, Roxie, Tuesday through Thursday. It takes Hollywood years to make a movie (or even just get a script approved). But in this local competition, part of a nationwide contest, filmmakers will be given a genre, character, prop, line of dialogue, and two days to write, shoot, and edit their film. Of course, Cinemasports does basically the same thing, giving contestants only 10 hours.