The San Francisco Silent Film Festival occupies the Castro Theatre this Saturday, February 16th beginning at 10:00 am with a re-discovered gem from 1916, Snow White, starring Marguerite Clark. The film has acquired a special place in the history of movie making in that it had a profound impact on the teenaged Walt Disney. Both films spark immediate acceptance of the lofty and sometimes very ballet-like world occupied by its cast of iconic characters—some with varying degrees of magical power. The film was thought to have been lost. Until one day, not so long ago, the spell was broken and Snow White was found.
"A print was found in the Netherlands," said the festival's Artistic Director, Anita Monga during our recent visit. "And it was a cause for celebration. The National Film Preservation Foundation, based in San Francisco, spearheaded the preservation movement. The film was preserved at the George Eastman House in New York. So, the preservationists and restorationists of the world keep us in business. In the Bay Area we have one of the major supporters of the Silent era, David Packard of the Packard Foundation. He has been responsible for a huge amount of preservation and restoration. He has underwritten new laboratories and facilities for UCLA Film and Television Archive and also for the Library of Congress. Our ability to see classic film is due in great part to people like David Packard.
Our thing behind showing this film from 1916 is the Walt Disney Family Museum's exhibition devoted to the 75th Anniversary of Snow White. They came to us suggesting that we show this film as an adjunct to their exhibition. Not that it's a Disney film at all, but because Walt Disney saw this film at its premiere in Kansas City when he was a young man and wrote about how spectacular the presentation was. Scholars believe he was inspired by this film and the performance of Marguerite Clark for his own animated feature."
Attention trivia enthusiasts! The brave huntsman is played by Lionel Braham. Many Charles Dickens fans share a fondness for the 1938 MGM film version of A Christmas Carol starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge. Lionel Braham is the very jovial Ghost of Christmas Present.
Snow White will be accompanied by Donald Sosin, an extremely popular pianist at the Festival. Donald returns at Noon to play for “Think slow, act fast”—three shorts starring Buster Keaton: One Week (1920), The Scarecrow (1920), and The Play House (1921).
"We are so pleased that we have really lovely 35mm prints of these titles. Anyone who is at all interested in genius should see these shorts. Keaton is so influential. Some of his effects have never been surpassed and are particularly interesting considering they are all mechanical and that he did all his own stunts. From the beginning, Keaton had a real understanding of film, what it could do, and how to put a cinematic piece together."
Another fact that becomes clear with these three films by Keaton is that he was a very attractive guy. There's something in him—even through that dead pan expression—that simply smolders on the screen. Anita agrees. "His intelligence comes through. I think that's very sexy. In fact, for fun, we did a little pole on our website asking people to vote for the sexiest male and female Silent film stars. There were ten in each category. Buster was up against guys like Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, Ramon Novarro, and Lars Hanson. Keaton won."
Following at 2:00 is the greatest fantasy-hero of them all, Douglas Fairbanks in the best version ever made of The Thief of Baghdad. The film has been spruced-up to a 2K digital restoration. Musical accompaniment is being provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, an ensemble that brings a luxurious freshness to the period music it co-ordinates for Silent Film accompaniment. The group recorded the soundtrack for the DVD of The Thief of Baghdad released by Kino Video as well as other Fairbanks favorites including The Mark of Zorro and A Modern Musketeer. Festival fans are still marveling over their magnificent accompaniment of last summer's presentation of Wings starring Buddy Rogers and Clara Bow.
"All restorations are done digitally. There is a ton of information on the screen and it's incredibly beautiful. The Thief of Baghdad is incredibly beautiful. People who have seen it on the big screen are raving about the detail, the color and of course you can't divorce it from just being about Douglas Fairbanks. Raoul Walsh is the director, but Fairbanks is really the auteur. The film has all the earmarks of what made Douglas Fairbanks so special and so important. He was such a brilliant personality and so completely and utterly modern."
Saturday evening begins with "America's Sweetheart", Mary Pickford in her last silent film, My Best Girl directed by Sam Taylor (Lady of the Pavements, The Taming of the Shrew). The film will be introduced by Jeffrey Vance and Donald Sosin will return to accompany. Married to Douglas Fairbanks at the time, Mary's leading man is Buddy Rogers who was still flying high from his appearance in Wings. Rogers is nothing short of adorable and virtually steals every moment in their scenes together. Mary divorced Fairbanks in January of 1936 and by June of 1937 married Buddy Rogers, 11 years her junior. As with the happy ending of My Best Girl, Mary and Buddy took off to Hawaii on an ocean liner for their honeymoon. Also on board was no less a stellar couple than MGM soprano Jeanette MacDonald and (also a bit younger) Gene Raymond. They had married just days before in an elaborate ceremony that included Ginger Rogers as a bridesmaid, Nelson Eddy as the soloist, and a pink wedding gown for the bride designed by Adrian. Stories abound concerning certain absences of the happy bridegrooms as they all crossed the Pacific. My Best Girl is totally charming and chock-full of Hollywood history.
Last on the bill is arguably the greatest example of German Expressionism. Faust, directed by F.W. Murnau (Sunrise, Nosferatu) makes jaw-dropping use of the style of lighting known as "chiaroscuro"—easily recognized as the sharp highlighting on a character or setting.
"This Faust is so beautiful," said Anita. "Murnau was a pre-eminent artist of light and shadow in the Silent era, in cinema history. Anytime you see an interesting chiaroscuro in Film Noir you can thank Murnau for setting cinema on that beautiful light and shadow. This was Murnau's last film in Germany. It's subtitled "The German Folk Tale", but there's a lot of Goethe's Faust in this also. Emil Jannings plays the Devil, "Mephisto". Lillian Gish was supposed to be "Gretchen". But she insisted that her cinematographer, Charles Rosher be attached and that proved to be too much for the producers. It was like "we don't care how big a star you are". In fact, it wasn't even supposed to be Murnau! It was Emil Jannings, a huge star at the time, who said that if he was attached then Murnau was attached. But it's really Emil Jannings and Gösta Ekman's film.
It's hard to go back to perfect films and wonder what would have happened if a certain person had been attached. Lillian Gish was a major star. It might have overpowered this role, but we don't know that. I can't put myself there because I consider Faust to be a perfect film. Interestingly, Charles Rosher had already made it to Berlin by the time studio had pulled the plug on Lillian's participation. And since it wasn't so easy to just get on a plane and fly to Berlin, Rosher stuck around for the filming. Murnau apparently peppered Rosher with questions about filming in Hollywood. After Faust, Murnau moved to Hollywood and went on to make Sunrise. Murnau had a very early death. He died shortly after in an auto accident in Santa Barbara on the Pacific Coast Highway. So, there is the hard question of what would have happened had he been able to continue filming. I found something interesting. By all accounts, Murnau was incredibly tall, almost seven-feet tall. It's interesting to think about because Max Schreck in Nosferatu is seen as being tall and spindly."
I asked Anita if she had a personal favorite on such an incredible program. "That's very difficult," she said. "You know I can't pass-up Buster Keaton. All of our films are so different, so unique. But, if you come see Buster Keaton then you'll want to stay for Thief of Baghdad and if you can make it through the entire day through Faust—you won't be sorry."
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