A Million and One Nights: Saturday at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

It’s Tuesday, so it’s time to tell you about Saturday at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I’m won’t discuss every film screened that day; just the ones I want to talk about.

A lot of the films, not just on Saturday but throughout the whole festival, were new restorations. It seemed as if every movie was introduced by someone who had worked on recovering the film. That was wonderful, of course. The more restorations, the better.

Magic and Mirth: A Collection of Enchanting Short Films, 1906–1924

I suppose I should have mentioned it earlier, but this year’s festival was dedicated by the memory of silent film archivist, preservationist, and enthusiast David Shepard. To celebrate what Shepard did for all silent film fans, French preservationist Serge Bromberg presented a selection of shorts that Shepard helped save from the ravages of time.

Bromberg, also a hero in silent film preservation, can talk like a master showman – even in English – not his native language. He spins tales, improvises jokes, and occasionally (but not this time), sets nitrate film on fire. He screened ten little-known shorts including:

  • Cartoon Factory: Koko the Clown struggles at the mercy of an animator who won’t behave; a clear influence on Chuck Jones’ masterpiece, Duck Amuck.
  • The Masquerader: An early Charlie Chaplin comedy made at Keystone. Chaplin basically plays himself, getting into costume and makeup as the Tramp and then later as an attractive woman for an act of retribution. He comes off as a real jerk. Beautiful restoration.
  • First Prize for Cello Playing: Nearly three minutes of gut-busting laughs as a cello player performs in the street, producing angry reactions from everyone in listening distance. The fact that we can’t hear the music makes it all the funnier.
  • The Witch: Another special-effects fantasy by Georges Méliès. The movie was meant to be screened with live narration, and Bromberg had fun with the English translation of the original French text. At times his adlibs seemed to be channeling Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius added considerably to the mirth.


This silly, impossible, and ridiculous crime adventure from Italy works as well as it does primarily because it is so silly, impossible, and ridiculous. The title character is a jewel thief who travels with her uniformed accomplices in a zeppelin. Fortunately for them, no one seems to look up. The plot involves her framing the detective trying to catch her. The ending promises a sequel, but I don’t think that ever happened.

I give it a C+.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provided excellent accompaniment.

Outside the Law

This 1920 crime movie – set and at least partially shot – in San Francisco, provides thorough entertainment. It would be easy to sell it as a Lon Chaney vehicle, since Chaney plays the main villain as well as a minor good guy. But the real star is Priscilla Dean as a hard-bitten, second-generation criminal with a heart that will inevitably melt. I’d never seen her before, but she apparently had a successful career playing such roles. The climactic fight is a wonder – especially for a film made at the very beginning of the ’20s.

But like any 1920s film set in San Francisco, it contains Chinese stereotypes, and uses white actors to play the major Chinese characters. On the other hand, the Chinese characters are all good people, which makes for a nice change.

I give it a B.

Universal, which produced the Outside the Law, recently gave the movie a 4K restoration – a nice thing to do considering that the movie is in the public domain. The restoration wasn’t perfect, and some scenes were seriously marred by nitrate decomposition. I suspect that fixing it would have been either economically unfeasible or simply out-and-out impossible.

Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius added proper atmosphere with their musical accompaniment.

Battleship Potemkin

I don’t think I need to tell you about this one. If you’re not familiar with the movie, or if you want my opinion, read my essay.

But I must tell you, with considerable regret, that I hated most of the Matti Bye Ensemble‘s musical score. It was repetitive, and too heavy on percussion. There’s no feeling of epic history or courageous action. Matti Bye particularly messed up the Odessa Steps sequence, taking one of cinema’s greatest action scenes and killing the emotions created in the visuals.

You can read my Thursday/Friday report.

Tomorrow: The final (and best) day of the Festival.