SF Silent Film Festival Makes a September Appearance

We get another day this year of massive silent movie overload. It’s coming September 20, when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes over the Castro for their first Silent Autumn event. According to a festival press release, "We’ve moved our annual winter event to fall ," although September in my book counts more like late summer.

The program leans toward the well-loved and famous rather than the curious and obscure. The three features will be The Son of the Sheik (1:00), The General (7:00), and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (9:00). If you know anything about silent films, you’re probably already familiar with these titles.

But just because you know the titles doesn’t mean you’ve experienced them with a good print, live music, and an enthusiastic audience.

Buster Keaton pushed film comedy like no one else when he made The General. He meticulously recreated the Civil War setting, mixed slapstick comedy with battlefield death, and  hired thousands of extras. He filmed what may be the single most expensive shot of the silent era, then used that shot as the setup for a gag whose punch line is a simple close-up. The result was a critical and commercial flop in 1926, but today it’s rightly considered one of the greatest comedies ever made.

The General

I’ve seen The General many times theatrically–most recently at the Oakland Paramount. I’ve even seen it–at the Castro many years ago–with the Alloy Orchestra, who will accompany it at the Autumn event. I don’t recall much about their score, but it didn’t move me as much as some other General scores, such as Carl Davis’ and Christoph Bull’s.

The Alloy Orchestra will also accompany The Son of the Sheik. I’ve only seen this one once, about 40 years ago, at Hollywood’s fabled Silent Movie Theater. They screened it with a needle-drop score, rather than with live accompaniment. I look forward to seeing it properly. (I might prepare for it by seeing The Sheik first.)

Son of the Sheik

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari helped launch the German expressionist movement, and it’s about as expressionistic as they come. It’s quite possibly the weirdest horror film I’ve ever seen. Donald Sosin will accompany.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

In addition to these features, this one-day festival will include two collections of shorts. Both will be accompanied by Sosin.

The first, Another Fine Mess: Silent Laurel and Hardy Shorts (11:00am), is exactly what the name implies. Remembered primarily for their talkies, Laurel and Hardy were also the last great stars of silent comedy; their characters gelled and their fame rose just before sound came in. The website only lists two titles: Two Tars (which I haven’t seen) and Big Business (which I love). They’ll probably screen one or two others; I’m hoping for Liberty and/or The Battle of the Century.

Big Business
The second collection of shorts will be A Night At the Cinema In 1914 (3:30). Put together by the British Film Institute, this collection of 14 shorts recreates the experience of watching a typical English movie-going experience from the dawn of World War I.

I know where I’m going to be September 20.

9 thoughts on “SF Silent Film Festival Makes a September Appearance

  1. Are they going to use the Wurlitzer organ this time? Last time It was silent, just orchestra and piano music! Someone didn’t want to pay the organist fee.

    1. No organ this time, but I don’t think it’s a matter of budget.

      The festival seems to have had a falling out with Dennis James, the predominant silent film organist of our time. James is a great musician, but he has a way of alienating people.

      1. There are many other fine organists around the USA that can do silent movies. I think It’s a money issue. The festival people don’t want to spend the extra money to fly in and put up at a hotel a organ player for just a few shows, plus pay $$ the Castro Theatre charges for the rental of the organ. It’s a sad time at the Castro Theatre SF as they have cut out matiness on Wed plus the movie bookings have gone way down hill the last year. The silent festival ticket holder people need to protest about the organ that sits quite when It was meant to be heard during these classic silent films, Don’t buy tickets till they put in a few organ movies.

  2. I suspect that flying in an organist and paying the Castro’s fee for organ use would be cheaper than flying in the three members of the Alloy Orchestra.

    And if it is a money issue, well, we all have to live on a budget.

    I would love to hear more organ music at the Festival. But I also love the pianists and ensembles they use. And I’m certainly not ready to boycott them.

  3. Just bring in or rent a new digital electric organ and hide the speakers behind the old dusty Castro Theatre organ grills. Some of these electric organs sound just as good as the pipe organs and have the bass low end sound. The present old organ that needs help will go semi digital electric soon anyway when they can get the funds.

    1. I’m not sure if a rentable electric organ would have speakers with sufficient oomph for the Castro.

      OTOH, when Bob Vaughn played at the UC Theatre (of Blessed Memory), he used a rented organ, and they’d aim a microphone at the organ and amplify the music through the theater’s sound system.

  4. What follows are my own opinions (and I’m not humble!).
    1. Parts of California are really fu–ing weird!! Maybe it’s the entire state!
    2. Re: the Wurli in the Castro. FIX IT!!!!!
    3. Gid rid of the “organist” who wants to make it part of some gigantic “musical” monstrosity!! Ditto the “plan” to do so!!
    4. The Alloy Orchestra is NOT an orchestra. It (they) suck!!
    5. Dennis James is the “predominant” (did you mean “pre-eminent”??) silent film organist of our time”. REALLY??
    In either case, NO WAY!! He sucks!!
    6. There are many capable theatre organists for silent movies!! (Myself included.)
    7. Walker and Allen digital theatre organs are most certainly able to provide excellent sounds (digital sampling of real pipes) and can easily fill the Castro Theatre with MORE than enough “oomph”!!.
    My preference is Walker!!

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