Attending San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017

Ever since the TCM Film Festival became my favorite event of the year I’ve sought out other classic film fests. Turns out there’s a lot of them! Unfortunately, several are out of state but there’s a few that call California their home. Last year I attended the Lone Pine Film Festival and had a wonderful time. This year I decided to go all the way back to the silent era and last week attended the 22nd Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival thanks to a press pass.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is headquartered at the Castro Theatre and takes place over 4 days. This year I was only able to attend the first 2 days but it was such a wonderful experience that I plan to devote even more time to it next year.

Built in 1922 the  Castro Theatre has been lovingly restored and is the perfect venue for silent film. Prior to the festival I had never visited it and was completely in awe of my beautiful surroundings.

I arrived in time for the opening night film, which also happens to be one of my very favorites, The Freshman.

In fact, this particular screening sold me on the entire festival. I wasn’t about to miss it on the big screen, especially when it was to be introduced by Harold Lloyd’s granddaughter, Suzanne, and accompanied by a live score. Luckily, several other felt the same as I and it was a packed house. The famed Berklee Silent Film Orchestra was on hand to accompany the film and had actually composed a brand new score for the occasion. It was absolutely beautiful and perfectly matched the actions on screen. If you haven’t seen The Freshman, it’s about a college newbie eager to become the big man on campus. Unfortunately, he’s kind of a nerd and soon becomes the joke of the school. Luckily, his true love is there to stand beside him and he eventually achieves his goal. It’s sweet and heartwarming and genuinely hilarious. Seeing it live was quite special and the perfect beginning to the festival.

I returned to the theatre bright and early the next morning to listen to Amazing Tales From the Archives. On hand were three archivists who shared stories of their preservation efforts. We first heard from George Willeman, of the Library of Congress, who has been working on syncing wax cylinders to early Edison sound pictures. These date to 1912-13 and thanks to Edison Kinetophones actually have sound. I had no idea such things existed before The Jazz Singer! It was a primitive process to be sure but to hear entertainers from over 100 years ago sing and tell jokes was truly fascinating.

Next, Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi of EYE Filmmuseum, told the story of Jean Desmet, an early film pioneer. Desmet was a Belgian film distributor at the turn of the last century. Located in the Netherlands he amassed a large collection of international films to screen in his theatre. He was also a bit of a pack rat and saved nearly every article from his career and the collection eventually was acquired by the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. Thanks to his extensive documentation we are now able to gain a real understanding of the early film industry in Europe.

Finally, Heather Linville, of the Academy Film Archive, shared the story of Aloha Wanderwell.

Ms. Wanderwell was a 14 year old schoolgirl in France when the Wanderwell Expedition, a group of peace activists circumnavigating the globe, came to her country. They were seeking a local secretary and, with her parent’s approval, Aloha took the job. Thus began her explorations around the world with the troop. She never returned home and became a true adventurer traveling the world the rest of her life. In the 1920’s she became quite famous and would travel around giving presentations on her explorations. Prior to her death in 1996 the Academy acquired part of her archive and Ms. Linville has devoted much research to it. She hopes to one day present the films as Aloha did. We got a small taste at the festival and it was fascinating. I’m completely enamored with Aloha and can’t wait to learn more of her story.

Next on my agenda was the film, Get Your Man, starring Clara Bow.

Before it started, we were given a special treat. Now We’re in the Air!, a Louise Brooks film long thought lost, was discovered last year. At least a remnant of it was. As a treat we were able to view the newly found 20 minute portion and it was a true delight. Also a delight was Get Your Man. I must admit I’d never seen a Clara Bow film before and I was really missing out. She’s fantastic! This cute comedy co-stars Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers as a French aristocrat who keeps running into Bow’s carefree American girl. After getting locked in a wax museum overnight the couple decide they;re in love but Rogers is betrothed to another. What are they to do? Thanks to Bow’s manipulations everything works out in the end and the lovers live happily ever after.

Sadly, this was all I was able to fit in at this years festival but I enjoyed every minute of it. I can’t believe it’s taken 22 festivals for me to finally make it but I’m so glad I did. I can’t wait until next year!

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