Silent Night–and Matinees, Too

Quiet! I don’t want to hear another word!

Music’s okay; go ahead and play some music. Applause and laughter are fine, too. And I don’t mind reading words–I just don’t want to hear them.

You guessed it. This is my annual “Silents of Summer” post, inspired by the two weekend-long silent film festivals that brighten the Bay Area in June and July.

No DVD can replicate the experience of a properly screened silent movie. Nothing in your living room compete with that glorious combination of the old and the immediate–80-year-old (and older) performances accompanied by music performed as you watch. That combination of canned and live entertainment makes silent films unique; go to a screening of a movie you’ve seen 100 times, and you still get a new experience.

And that experience is coming to a theater near you–assuming you live near Fremont or San Francisco.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Essanay Film Company, which would eventually set up a studio in Niles, California (now a part of Fremont). 2007 also marks the 10th anniversary of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum‘s Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival (Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson being one of Essanay’s founders and stars). So it’s not surprising that the festival, running from Friday, June 29 through Sunday, July 1, has plenty of Essanay. Opening night will include a 1915 Essanay feature, The Raven, and the first short made at the new company. Also in the lineup is a series of shorts from Essanay’s Chicago studio, and a study on how the company turned Francis X. Bushman into a matinee idol. But you’re too late for the series of Broncho Billy shorts; it’s sold out.

The Niles Museum presents silent films 51 weeks of the year–the only regular such showings in the Bay Area. A low-end affair, everything at Niles feels low-key and friendly, from the weekly screenings to this, the big affair of the year. Nearly every film in the program will be presented in 35mm (a major improvement since last year’s festival) and all will have live piano accompaniment.

At last year’s festival I was swept away from The Valley of the Giants, a big, fun melodrama set in Northern California’s redwood forests. I must have not been the only person impressed, because it’s making a comeback this year at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, running at the Castro from July 13 through the 15.

While Niles feels friendly and low-key, the Castro is glitz and high class. Everything is big, and the accompaniment isn’t limited entirely to piano. Dennis James will play the Castro’s Wurlitzer pipe organ for the opening night show of The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg and the closing presentation of Cecil B. DeMille’s last silent, The Godless Girl. Clark Wilson will take the organ for the 1921 version of Camille (a tribute to Turner Classic Movies). And the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will fly in from Colorado for Beggars of Life and Miss Lulu Bett.

Other programs of note, all with piano accompaniment, include a collection of Hal Roach shorts, an Italian adventure film from 1915, and, in a sequel to last year’s popular free Sunday morning seminar, More Amazing Tales From the Archives.

For those two very special weekends, the actors on screen will be as quiet as a captivated audience, spellbound in darkness.