The San Francisco Silent Film Festival opens this week, Thursday, May 28, and runs through Monday, June 1 at the Castro Theatre. This year marks the festival’s 20th Anniversary. The line-up of evening and matinee screenings begins with the 1930 classic, All Quiet on the Western Front – the silent version. The original production sailed through the transition to talkies by including synchronized sound effects, along with title cards and dialogue. The film won the first Oscars for Outstanding Production and Best Director. Its history, survival, timeless anti-war message, and extensive restoration by the Library of Congress is an amazing saga. The film will be accompanied by the much-celebrated Mont Alto Orchestra.
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Talking with the festival’s Artistic Director, Anita Monga, is never a stroll down Memory Lane. The Silent Film era is an increasingly popular subject as well as a growing industry. Rescuing films thought to be lost or piecing together surviving elements – often located throughout the world – is an artistic crusade that invites and promotes international co-operation and celebrates its mutual success through shared technologies and well-organized events. Every film has an adventure behind it. The recovery and rescue of Cave of the Spider Women (Pan si dong) – produced in China in 1927 – has become a cause for celebration.
“This Chinese film was discovered at The National Library of Norway,” said Anita Monga. “It’s a kind of magical spirit film that was very popular in Shanghai at the time. Virtually no examples of that kind of film exist. The film was made in 1927. The Norwegian print that was the basis for this recovery was made in 1929. That’s when the film got distributed in Norway. Nobody knows how it got there. What they did was to burn Norwegian intertitles onto the Chinese. We had some Chinese translators go through the film. It turns out that many of the Chinese titles had been flipped or were upside down. One title card was inserted into a part of the film that clearly hadn’t been placed there by the Chinese. The Norwegians had inserted a little comic joke.”
“Where does it happen?” I asked. “What kind of a joke?”
“It’s this very crucial moment,” she said. “A chaste monk is on a journey to find a sacred text and gets inveigled into this cave of the spider women and the demon. Essentially, they have him trapped. The spider queen takes him for her husband. At the moment of consummation, the monk is sitting there – suddenly a title card comes up. “Wow! I must’ve drunk too much. I’ve never seen anything like this before.” The camera comes back – the woman has turned into a huge spider. The translator told me that it was like a duplication of an old title card and they had just inserted their own ‘hubba hubba’. It’s in the print – we’re dealing with it. It doesn’t destroy the film to have a little comic thing.”
“I can see how it happened. They would have gone to the physical print, taken the cards out, and then burned in the Norwegian translations – which were not very good. So, we went back to the Chinese. We’ve completely redone the intertitles and made them much better. You will see a Chinese card – sometimes the Chinese is really difficult to read – and the Norwegian translation. Now it actually does relate to the Chinese.”
“Is this the first time that kind of restoration has happened?”
“That we have come in with a definitive intertitle? Yes. We always go into the translations and make them better. Oftentimes you’re getting an English translation that is kind-of clunky. But we’ve never had a situation where we had to scrap everything. Because the cards are full, we’re having somebody narrate the English translation. We will make our translations available to anybody who wants to use them – including the Norwegians. They should be disseminating our translations in the future.”
Every film rescue comes with a story. Cave of the Spider Women was found in The National Library of Norway where it has been hiding for the past eight decades. Cans of nitrate film, Chinese labels, maybe. Anybody?
“These things happen all the time. So, there is great hope for many more such discoveries. Things got sent to places and, obviously, nobody knows how the print got there. It’s not like Chinese film was a big thing thing in Norway. Somebody decided to distribute the film. But you can’t just show a Chinese film without a translation. So, they went to the trouble of translating it into Norwegian, put that print together, and screened it sometime between 1929 and 1930. The film has been repatriated to China. After Cave of the Spider Women was restored, there was a celebration when the representative from Norway went to China and the film was presented in Beijing.”
Sherlock Holmes is a very-huge recovery and restoration miracle. San Francisco Silent worked with the Cinémathèque Française to restore the film. The film is significant because of William Gillette – regarded as the foremost interpreter of Sherlock Holmes on the stage. Conan Doyle had put the character to rest long before Gillette wrote a treatment that combined several of the stories. He then asked Conan Doyle if he could do it. He responded, ‘OK, bring the guy back to life.’
“Gillette was the quintessential Sherlock Holmes and had been playing him on the stage for many years. But Gillette knew he was getting too old to continue portraying him and that the film had to happen right now. Sherlock Holmes aficionados have been looking for this film for years. It’s like the Holy Grail. A couple of years ago Cinémathèque Française was going through its entire collection. They got to the S’s and there it was. It runs 116 minutes and was the only film he ever made.”
“The Donovan Affair is an interesting film. Frank Capra billed it as his first all-talkie movie. It was very early in the sound era and sound wasn’t married to the print. It was on big metal disks which the reel projectionist had to sync-up. Those were lost. The print that exists at the Library of Congress is without any sound. Because it was a talkie, it’s incomprehensible. Bruce Goldstein, who runs The Film Forum in New York, was obsessed for years by this search for the shooting script. He finally found a partial script at the New York Board of Censors. He got character actors who studied the roles and used things like lip reading to fill-in problems with the script. Now they have a full script. They are going to be presenting it with full script, full acting. It’s going to be really fun.”
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is distinguished by its phenomenal roster of musicians who accompany each film, including this year’s admission-free events – Amazing Tales from the Archives accompanied by renowned pianist Donald Sosin; and So You Think You Know Silents accompanied by pianist Steve Sterner of the Gower Gulch Players. Other guest musicians include:
The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra (The Last Laugh)
Frank Bockius (Cave of the Spider Women, The Ghost Train, Sherlock Holmes)
Serge Bromberg (The Amazing Charley Bowers)
Guenter Buchwald (Pan, Sherlock Holmes, The Deadlier Sex)
Earplay (Emak-Bakia in Avant-Garde Paris)
Stephen Horne (When the Earth Trembled, The Ghost Train, Visages d’Enfants, Ménilmontant in Avant-Garde Paris, The Swallow and the Titmouse)
The Matti Bye Ensemble (Flesh and the Devil, Norrtullsligan)
Future programming more or less begins after the last screening at every Festival. I asked Anita if this year’s Anniversary had a controlling theme and if certain films had been standing in line for awhile.
“We don’t have room for a theme. We try to be balanced with our approach. For instance, a World War I anti-war film – a tragedy, a really beautiful masterpiece – then on to a weird Chinese curiosity, followed by a three-reeler about the San Francisco earthquake [When the Earth Trembled]. As the year went along, I saw that Norrtullsligan was at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. Then it was like, ‘Oh, that restoration! Yes, we definitely want to do that.’ There are any number of titles that are kind-of in the back of my mind. For instance, Flesh and the Devil. I particularly wanted to bring this back. It had been one of our winter events, an off-season event with the Mighty Wurlitzer. Stacey Wisnia [Executive Director] and I both had the feeling we wanted to do it with an ensemble, especially the Matti Bye Ensemble. They have an affinity for Greta Garbo and Lars Hanson. It’s that Swedish-thing going on there.”
“What film are you really-really looking forward to?”
“I am such a fan of Pan. It was a revelation to me. It’s a Norwegian film based on the novel by Knut Hamsun. The actor, Hal Schwenzen, directed it, made it – an obvious labor of passion. It’s not a straightforward narrative, but it’s very evocative and true about human emotion. I saw it last October at the Le Giornate del cinema muto in Pordenone, Italy. The psychology seems very modern. In fact, everything about the storytelling is very modern. I love it.”
The Festival closes with M.G.M’s premiere masterpiece from 1925, Ben-Hur, starring Ramón Novarro and Francis X. Bushman. The screening will be preceded by Kevin Brownlow on stage in conversation with Serge Bromberg.
“Ben-Hur is unusual because it’s the first time we’ve shown anything without live musical accompaniment. Kevin Brownlow is bringing his personal print from England. It’s with the Carl Davis score. We wanted to do a program where Kevin Brownlow talked about some stories from his life and his interviewing a lot of people he knew from the silent era. We wanted to take that first hand stuff from him and impart it to our audience. The main focus of the show for me is Serge Bromberg and Kevin Brownlow in conversation.”
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