Silent Film Festival opens with All Quiet on the Western Front

Most people think of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)–the Oscar-winning movie that opened this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival last night, as a talkie–and they’re right. But in the early days of talkies, it was common to make an alternative silent version for theaters that had not yet converted, and for the foreign market. This was not unlike the flat versions of today’s 3D movies.

I had seen the talkie version twice before, on Laserdisc and Blu-ray. Last night I saw the silent version. It was also my first time seeing any version on the big screen.

It was a very crowded house at the Castro. Surprisingly, the show started on time with Festival Board President Robert Byrne noting that this was the festival’s 20th year. He thanked a number of people and organizations, including “the projectionists and people in the booth…the unseen who bring us the light.”

Universal Studios, which made All Quiet 85 years ago, sponsored last night’s screening, so Byrne introduced a Universal executive (I didn’t catch his name) who announced a major restoration initiative to save “significant films from every decade of Universal. Over the next four years, we will restore 15 silent films from Universal’s silent days.”

That’s wonderful news. Some 60 years ago, Universal thought so little of its silents that it didn’t bother renewing their copyrights. They’re all in the public domain.

Next up, Mike Mashon of the Library of Congress and author of the Now See Hear blog. “All Quiet on the Western Front was conceived, written, shot, edited as a sound film. What we’re witnessing tonight is a glorious anomaly…This print, which is 35mm [big applause from audience], was preserved by Library of Congress from the original negative.”

The movie started 13 minutes after the scheduled time. Not bad.

Whether silent or talkie, All Quiet makes a powerful antiwar statement. It focuses on one young German man (Lew Ayres) convinced by his professor to serve his country. Not everything is dark; he makes close friends and manages some fun pranks. But all that is overshadowed by hunger, the horror of war, and the deaths of one friend after another.

Is it better as a song film or a silent? Hard to say. In the silent version, the main characters come off somewhat as archetypes. With sound, they’re more like real, specific people. Both approaches are valid, and I give both of them an A.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra gave their usual a magnificent performance. Following in their own footsteps from their Wings performance of three years ago, they’ve added a typewriter and other gadgets for sound effects. In a war movie, even a silent one, effects can be as important as music. Occasionally, for dramatic effect, they went entirely silent.

Altogether it was a worthy way to open the Festival.