Silent Film Fest Preview

Wednesday evening, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival announced its 2016 schedule. And as fans have come to expect, it will be an intense experience. In the course of three full days plus an opening night, they will screen 19 different programs, all with live music. (There’s also an opening night party.)

Nine different musical groups will perform, including many we’ve come to know and love over the years, including Donald Sosin, The Matti Bye Ensemble, and my favorites, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Among the newcomers is the Oakland Symphony’s Michael Morgan, conducting musicians and singers from his orchestra.

Michael Morgan
Michael Morgan

You’ll need a lot of stamina to catch everything. Consider Saturday’s schedule. The first program of the day, The Battle of the Century and Other Comedy Restorations, starts at 10:00AM. The last, The Last Warning, starts (not ends, but starts) at 10:00PM. Friday will be a bit easier; the last film (Behind the Door) starts at an almost reasonable 9:30.

My stamina isn’t what it used to be. The Last Warning and Behind the Door are the only two films I’m planning to miss.

This year’s festival has a definite feminist vibe. Mothers of Men or Every Woman’s Problem is a suffragette drama from 1917. The program Girls Will Be Boys will present two short comedies about women dressing up as men (think Some Like it Hot reversed, only made first).

Mothers of Men or Every Womans Problem

I’ve only seen three of the features the festival will be screening, including the opening night film, Beggars of Life, which the Festival screened back in 2007. When I saw it back then, I wrote that this story of hobos “almost vibrates with romantic realism.” It stars Louise Brooks as a woman on the run (she killed her would-be rapist in self-defense) and Wallace Beery as a hobo king.

I’ve also seen Within Our Gates, but only on television. Oscar Micheaux’s answer to The Birth of a Nation is a daring and important film. Unfortunately, Micheaux let his message get in the way of his storytelling, causing the movie to jump around making various points. But at times it’s brilliant.

The third feature I’ve seen is Nanook of the North. Often called the first feature-length documentary (it isn’t), Nanook brings us into an Inuit culture that was disappearing as the film was being made. Shot over a period of years, it’s an amazing document, and a unique portrait of a family. In 1973, I had the pleasure of watching Nanook on an original, nitrate, 35mm print–the only silent I’ve ever seen on nitrate.

The Battle of the Century

But I don’t think anything on the program excites me like The Battle of the Century and Other Comedy Restorations. The Battle of the Century is a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler that–until very recently–was missing the entire second reel. To make matters worse, that missing reel contained what many believe is the biggest and best pie fight ever filmed. The reel has been found and the movie restored. It will screen along with other recently-restored comic shorts, including two of Buster Keaton’s.

Also of interest: Varieté and The Italian Straw Hat–two European classics that I have not yet seen. With my fascination with old film technologies, I can’t wait for Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema.

Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema

And this year’s free Amazing Tales from the Archives program will discuss yet another restoration of Napoleon, this time apparently without Kevin Brownlow’s involvement.