Thursday at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Thursday was the first full day at the  San Francisco Silent Film Festival. And believe me; it was full..

Amazing Tales From the Archives

The free, 10am show this year presented four illustrated lectures. The first had San Francisco’s Silent Film Festival’s Robert Byrne, along with Thierry Lecointe, discussing flip books made from early films. Some of those films no longer exist, which makes these very interesting. Then Stefan Drossler of Filmmuseum München discussed filmmaker Robert Reinert, whose Opium screened late Thursday night. He discussed earlier Reinert films and Opium‘s recent restoration. Hisashi Okajima, director of the National Film Archive of Japan, shocked us with the low survival rate of old Japanese films. He also discussed early talkie experiments in Japan. Best and last, Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York’s Film Forum and founder of Rialto Pictures (and a real showman) told and showed us how talkies and television programs such as Fractured Flickers created the sense that silent films were not worth watching…let alone preserving. But he gave us a happy ending with Kevin Brownlow’s 1980 documentary, Hollywood

Stephen Horne had little to do at the piano. I doubt he played the for five minutes out of the nearly two-hour program.

Wolf Song

A sexy, mixed-race romantic melodrama set in the 1840s frontier, directed by Victor Fleming. Very much a star vehicle, even if the stars, Gary Cooper and Lupe Velez, were just at the start of their stardom. They became lovers while shooting the film, and that helps to heat up the silly story.

I give Wolf Song a B.

The 35mm print was good, but not exceptional. It’s three generations from the lost original negative, so there’s a bit of a softness and loss of contrast, but not too bad.

Philip Carli increased the romantic emotions on the piano.

The Oyster Princess

This was the first time I saw this one the big screen, and it didn’t really change my opinion. It’s early Lubitch, and he was still learning how to handle his touch. It starts out absolutely hilarious, slows down in the second half, but gets funny again at times.

I still give it a B.

The DCP was workable but not exceptional. It’s a very old film.

Wayne Barker provided a fine piano accompaniment.

Earth

This was the one I was most looking forward to, and my biggest disappointment. I had a hard time getting into Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s celebration of the Ukraine, farming, and the old giving way to the new (i.e. Communisim). Dramatic closeups and beautiful shots of wheat fields take over most of the film, but they soon become monotonous.

I give Earth a B.

The DCP was mostly acceptable. Aside from minor physical film problems, it had occasional digital noise.

The Matti Bye Ensemble’s score started off atmospheric, but soon became as monotonous as the movie.

The Signal Tower

Kevin Brownlow, who more than any other person has brought silent film to the masses, introduced this exciting railroad melodrama by Clarence Brown. Brownlow spent years trying to see this movie. He found one collector with a print, and then it took more years to see it. He couldn’t get his hands on it until the collector died. Brownlow told the story with considerable wit.

It was worth the wait. The Signal Tower gives you everything you want in a melodrama. A likeable hero, a dastardly villain, and a family in danger. The rip-roaring climax involves a horrible storm, a run-away train, a wife in peril, a husband torn between his family and his professional obligations, and a little boy with a loaded revolver.

I give The Signal Tower an A.

The 35mm print was new, but unfortunately it came from a very bad source – a 16mm print that must be many generations away from the camera negative. Sometimes it was so bad you could barely see the facial expressions. This print went through a 4k scan and then copied to 35mm. The really sad part is that it’s doubtful that a better source exists.

Pianist Stephen Horne and drummer Frank Bockius carried the film beautifully. There’s nothing like percussion for a runaway train.

I decided to skip  the late night movie, Opium. I needed my sleep.

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