Why Silents Are Golden: This Year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival

As regular readers know, I’m passionate about silent movies. Without the crutch of spoken words, a motion picture becomes pure cinema–reality on an entirely different plane. The actors can be fully unique, complex individuals (not that they always are) while remaining archetypes.

Take Louise Brooks. In silent films, she’s magical, mysterious, and the very embodiment of female sexuality. In a talkie, she’s a pretty girl from Kansas.

When you see a silent film, properly presented, you get more than a movie; you get a concert. When silents ruled the cinema, every movie theater kept musicians on the payroll. Today, more than 80 years after the death of the art form, there’s no lack for talented and creative composers and musicians skilled at accompanying silent files.

And there’s no better way to enjoy the films and the musicians than the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. For four days every July, the Festival takes over the Castro Theater to exhibit well-known masterpieces, forgotten gems, and rare prints, while also bringing in exceptional musicians to accompany them. The Castro’s own gaudy glory, huge screen, and variable-speed projectors add to the atmosphere, as does the large, enthusiastic audience that the festival attracts.

This year, the Festival runs from Thursday, July 12, through Sunday, July 15. Here are just a sampling of the screenings I’m most looking forward to:

  • Wings. The festival opens with the first Best Picture Oscar winner. Newly restored by Paramount, it will be accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (amongst my favorites), with live sound effects by one of Hollywood’s best, Ben Burtt, (for more on Burtt, see The Sound of Wall-E at the Rafael).
  • The Loves of Pharaoh. This big, German historical epic, directed by Ernst Lubitsch shortly before he came to America, will be accompanied by Dennis James on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ.
  • Pandora’s Box. Speaking of Louise Brooks, here’s her masterpiece. Newly restored, it will be accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble.
  • The Docks of New York. I’ve never seen this highly-praised Josef von Sternberg drama, but I’m looking forward to it. Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the grand piano.
  • The Cameraman. Buster Keaton’s first film for MGM, his penultimate silent, and, in many people’s opinions, his last masterpiece. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany both this and the newly restored “Trip to the Moon.”