The 21st annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival takes place this week at the Castro Theatre. The festival opens Thursday night at 7:00pm with an encore presentation of the recently restored Beggars of Life (1928) directed by William Wellman, starring Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen, and Wallace Beery. The always spectacular Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will accompany the film.
The SF Silent Film Festival is the largest of its kind in the country. Its roster of titles guarantees a completely entertaining / frequently profound movie-going experience. Films once thought lost – now magnificently restored and preserved through state-of-the-art technology – are given the World Premiere treatment in the grand atmosphere of the Castro Theatre. A wide variety of live accompaniment is provided by an extraordinary array of instrumentalists and ensembles. Newly commissioned scores reveal the sense of timelessness present in the art of Silent Film. This year’s always fascinating freebie, Amazing Tales from the Archives, welcomes filmmaker and restoration expert Georges Mourier, also Peter Schade and Emily Wensel of Universal Pictures, and Bryony Dixon – senior curator of silent film at the British Film Institute. Internationally popular composer and pianist Stephen Horne will accompany the selected clips.
“This year, there are five restorations that San Francisco Silent Film Festival is responsible for,” said artistic director Anita Monga. “Our board president, Rob Byrne, is our itinerate restoration person. We have two films we did in partnership with Cinémathèque Française – The Italian Straw Hat and Les Deux Timides. We have a short film that we did with Carleton University and NYU – What’s the World Coming To? It’s part of the Girls Will Be Boys program.” Behind the Door is a revelation. An Irvin Willat film, made in 1919. It’s extraordinary! Stephen Horne drew it to our attention. There wasn’t a complete print at the Library of Congress. And they stopped letting it out because it had degradation issues. Rob went on a worldwide search and found the best elements in Moscow. So, this is a restoration done in collaboration with Gosfilmofond of Russia. Wallace Beery plays an evil U-boat captain.We also have Mothers of Men or Every Woman’s Problem with Dorothy Davenport. These five restorations are all squarely on our doorstep. Other restorations on the program include Varieté, Destiny and A Woman of the World starring Pola Negri, which Paramount Pictures just did. Also, The Last Warning, a restoration from Universal. I like that the big studios are getting into the effort.”
I asked Anita if the festival includes a particular film she has been eager to schedule.
“The Italian Straw Hat would have to be it. Because we screen everything with live musical accompaniment, the film was encumbered by a lot of issues. Composer Raymond Alessandrini did a score for the Cinémathèque Française. They would not allow the film to be presented with live musical accompaniment unless it was the Alessandrini score. But it was for an orchestra! And the problem? As the film was married to the score, it ran at the wrong frames per second. It’s too fast.”
How did that happen?
“The real question is – how do great things happen? It’s easy to make things not happen. It was just somebody in charge of the project who, at some point, didn’t think to check the frame rate. David Shepard made a DVD of The Italian Straw Hat [released in 2010] and had Mont Alto do a score for it.”
“We could have screened that DVD. The French weren’t particularly happy that David had produced it. But it became possible to see the film on your small screen and with the music by Mont Alto. We would have been happy to have Mont Alto play their score. But they said – no, we would have to do the Alessandrini score. We were part of the picture restoration of the film. Cinémathèque Française said they would allow us to do it with a smaller ensemble that could adapt the score. So, Guenter Buchwald worked with Alessandrini to create this reduction.”
There is always the argument by the purists: stay with music from (or popular during) the year the film premiered or if there is an existing score – play that.
“It’s very difficult or impossible in most cases to know what a silent filmmaker would have wanted. Some did create their own scores, for example, Charlie Chaplin. Murnau wanted a specific score for Sunrise. In most cases, the music didn’t figure into it at all. We want the scoring to be as broad and thoughtful and as beautiful as it can. We are extremely happy with our musicians.”
“Within Our Gates, by director Oscar Micheaux, is a 1920 response to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation. It is the oldest African American film directed by an African American that we know of. Our print is coming from the Library of Congress. It has been scored by a composer from Old Dominion University, Adolphus Hailstork. There was a conference happening at Old Dominion. It was called ‘The Birth of an Answer’. They were looking for images and cultural works. Dr. Hailstork was asked to compose a score for the film. His score is for seven strings and Gospel chorus. The music director and conductor of the Oakland Symphony, Michael Morgan, will be conducting.”
Dorothy Davenport had 137 screen credits prior to her 1917 appearance in Mothers of Men or Every Woman’s Problem. Married to handsome leading man Wallace Reid, Dorothy’s strong presence on the screen would prove to be true energy in real life. Wallace became addicted to morphine following injuries suffered in a train accident during the filming of The Valley of the Giants in 1919. He never recovered and died in January 1923. Dorothy channeled her devotion to Wallace by going immediately into the film project, Human Wreckage, in which she appears as the wife of a successful attorney who becomes addicted to drugs. Moreover, Dorothy co-directed the film and contributed to the screenplay.
“Had I been around then,” I said, “I would have been one of those guys who saw anything starring Dorothy Davenport, particularly a message-film about a woman’s right to vote.” Had I been the same tenor then, I’m sure I would have profited from the title song published two years earlier by Gus Edwards – the same composer who cleaned-up on By the Light of the Silvery Moon and In my Merry Oldsmobile. After all, the sheet music publisher, Jos. W. Stern & Co., proclaimed the tune to be ‘a soul stirring patriotic song for true Americans.'”
Verse: Some day – written down on history’s page,
Will be the deeds of glory;
Sons and daughters of another age,
Proudly they’ll read the story,
And their eyes will glow with the pride they show,
Grand honor to bestow.
But what of the ones, who in vain will wait by castle and cottage gate?
Chorus: Mothers of men of England,
Mothers of Germany,
Mothers of France and Russia, America and Italy.
It is now and it will be forever, here at home or on fields afar.
Oh! It is not the men, but the mothers of men,
That make men what they are.
“The film is a bit of a political potboiler,” said Anita. “I can’t answer to what the audience make-up might have been, but I suspect it was a majority of women. The film was clearly made as an advocacy piece, an aspirational piece – because it projects into the future. It has to! At this point, women did not have the vote. It projects to a future where women can hold major elected office.”