Buster Bookends Silent Film Festival

Buster Keaton’s first MGM feature and penultimate silent, The Cameraman, opens this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival on May Day (May 1st). Four days of bleary eyes and stiff backs – and a lot of fun – later, the festival will close with Keaton’s second feature, and in my opinion, his first feature masterpiece, Our Hospitality.

In between, there are works by Ernst Lubitsch, Victor Fleming, Clarence Brown, William Wellman, Tod Browning, John Ford, Eric von Stroheim, and many others. There’s also a young Gary Cooper in a nude bathing scene.

The Silent Film Festival is the biggest movie-going marathon in the Bay Area – and a pretty big live music event, as well. Most days start at 10:00am and end well after 10:00pm. The breaks between films are often short. I usually skip the late-night shows, although I plan to catch one this year.

Why do we go through this ordeal? Because it is amazing. It’s a swim in cinema at its purist, when the stories were told, not in words, but only in camerawork, art direction, and faces. And all of it with live musical accompaniment from the top talents of the art.

Here are the films I’ve already seen and therefore, can tell you about. All the screenings are at the Castro. Of course, I’ve never heard the accompaniment I’ll hear come May.

A- The Cameraman, Wednesday, May 1, 7:00, Opening Night!

Buster Keaton’s first film at MGM, his first without creative control, and his penultimate silent, comes close to being among his best. This story of a tintype photographer trying to break into the movie newsreel business provides plentiful opportunities for befuddlement, extended comic routines, and Keaton’s patented pratfalls. And yet, you can tell that something is different. The story is very much MGM.

Musical accompaniment by Timothy Brock conducting students of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. (Full disclosure: My wife teaches there.)

B The Oyster Princess, Thursday, May 2, 3:00

Ernst Lubitch’s very short, early feature (four reels, about an hour) starts out absolutely hilarious. It slows down in the second half but provides quite a few laughs – especially in the big Foxtrot sequence. The “princess” in the title is a terribly spoiled daughter of a ridiculously rich man. After an exceptionally destructive tantrum (she tore up all the newspapers because “the vases are all broken”), Daddy arranges for her to marry a very impoverished prince. Live musical accompaniment by Wayne Barker.

B+ West of Zanzibar, Friday, 9:20pm

This is one strange and nightmarish movie—a gem for those who love dark and gruesome tales. Set mostly in a remote jungle trading post, Tod Chaney plays a cripple bent on destroying the man who stole his wife and broke his back (Lionel Barrymore). There are no innocents here, but there are human beings caught, often by their own devising, in a wretched and evil life. Live musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.

A Our Hospitality, Sunday, May 5, 8:00, Closing night!

Three years before he made The General, Buster Keaton mined the antebellum South for comic gold in this almost gentle comedy about a Hatfield/McCoy–like feud. New York-raised Buster goes south to inherit his estate, but when he arrives at his destination, he finds himself a guest in the home of men sworn to kill him. Luckily, the code of southern hospitality forbids killing a guest…as long as he’s in your house. Read my Blu-ray review. My favorites, The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, provide the music.

I haven’t seen any of the other movies, but these ones look especially interesting:

  • Earth, Thursday, May 2, 5:00. I’ve never seen Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s celebration of all things Ukrainian. Now I’ll finally get the chance. Accompanied by the Matti Bye Ensemble.
  • Opium, thurs, May 2, 9:00. Apparently a story of addiction, love, vengeance, and hallucinations.


  • Lights of Old Broadway, Saturday, May 4, 10:00am. A mistaken identity comedy starring Marion Davies. Musical accompaniment by Philip Carli.
  • The Signal Tower, May 4, 7:00. Melodramatic danger threatens a family on the Mendocino Coast. Musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.

The Signal Tower

  • Hell Bent, Saturday, May 4, noon. A 1918 western directed by John Ford. That’s enough to interest me. Philip Carli will provide musical accompaniment.
  • The Wedding March, Saturday, 6:30. Erich von Stroheim stars and directs this story set at the end of the days of aristocracy. My favorites, The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, will accompany.

The Wedding March