From the archives: Highlights of the upcoming San Francisco Silent Film Festival (2011)

July 16, 2012

There is a lot to see, and hear, and do at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Things kick-off Thursday night. Here are a few highlights.

What to see: a rarely shown Marlene Dietrich silent film (The Woman Men Yearn For, 1929) which anticipates the seductive Lola-like role the actress later played in The Blue Angel; the finest sad-clown picture you’re ever see (He Who Gets Slapped, 1924); a newly restored romantic comedy starring Douglas Fairbanks not seen in San Francisco or anywhere else in more than 90 years (Mr. Fix-It, 1918); the sensational story of the witness to a murder who gives false testimony for the sake of publicity (The Goose Woman, 1925); the first ever film version of Huckleberry Finn (1920) released less than 40 years after Mark Twain’s book was first published; and the various orphan films shown throughout the three-and-a-half day event.

Upstream (1927), directed by John Ford. (Photo courtesy of the SFSFF)

Upstream (1927), directed by John Ford. (Photo courtesy of the SFSFF)

What to hear: rocker Jonathan Richman introduce the Italian story of an unadulterated femme fatale (Il Fuoco, 1915); the world premiere of a new score for solo electric guitar by Giovanni Spinelli (Sunrise, 1927); Sweden’s acclaimed Matti Bye Ensemble performing their newly commissioned scores for three films including The Blizzard (1923) and The Great White Silence(1924); and the one and only Dennis James accompanying Shoes (1916).

Sunrise: Scoring A Classic
 from Brian Dilg on Vimeo


Who to meet: contemporary director Alexander Payne (Sideways, 2004) introducing He Who Gets Slapped as part of the Festival’s “Director’s Pick” series; critic and film historian Leonard Maltin, who will be introducing various films and signing books after the “Laugh-O-Grams from Disney” program; and William Wellman Jr., son of the multiple Academy Award winning director, as he signs copies on Friday of The Man and His Wings: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture.

The single program not to miss takes place Sunday morning. And what’s more, its free and open to the public.

Kevin Brownlow, the world renown British film historian, will talk about his 50 years in film preservation and study. What makes this such a special happening is Brownlow’s unique claim to fame. He is the only film historian to have ever been given an Academy Award.


Kevin Brownlow speaking at last year's Festival. (Photo courtesy of the SFSFF)

Kevin Brownlow speaking at last year’s Festival. (Photo courtesy of the SFSFF)

Even before he gained his special Oscar late last year, Brownlow was legend in the world of early film. As a film historian, author, documentary film maker, preservationist, and long-time champion of the silent cinema – Brownlow’s importance cannot be over-estimated.

Brownlow’s 1968 book, The Parade’s Gone By, helped shape a generation of film scholars and enthusiasts. It is still in print. Likewise, his 13-part 1980 television series, Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film, which aired on the BBC and PBS, set the standard for film documentaries.

Brownlow is regarded not only as the preeminent historian of the silent film era, he is also one of itsleading preservationists. Among his many silent film restoration projects is Abel Gance’s epicNapoleon (1927), which was presented to great acclaim at Radio City Music Hall and other venues in the U.S. and around the world in the early 1980s.

Brownlow’s documentaries – some of which first aired on British and American television – includeAbel Gance: The Charm of Dynamite (1968), Unknown Chaplin (1983), Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow (1987), Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius (1990), D.W. Griffith: Father of Film (1993),Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995), Cecil B. DeMille: American Epic (2004), and I’m King Kong!: The Exploits of Merian C. Cooper (2005). There are six others on subjects including Garbo, Lon Chaney, and Universal Horror films.

Kevin Brownlow’s “The Parade’s Gone By” was first published in 1968. It is still in print through the University of California Press.

Brownlow has also authored a handful of significant books. Besides The Parade’s Gone By, his books include The War, the West, and the Wilderness (1979),Hollywood: The Pioneers (1979), Napoleon (1983), Behind the Mask of Innocence (1990), David Lean: A Biography (1996), and Mary Pickford Rediscovered (1999). Last year, the UKA Press in England issued The Search for Charlie Chaplin.

Two other books, How It Happened Here (1968 / reissued 2007) and Winstanley Warts and All(2009), are Brownlow’s behind the scenes account of the making of his own indie films, It Happened Here (1966) and Winstanley (1975). Each is available on DVD.

And that’s not all. Talk to anyone in the world of silent film, and they will tell you how Brownlow has helped them with their own project, opened up his archives to queries, sent them rare material, or wrote the introduction to their book. Brownlow is passionate about early film and its preservation. If you love early film, don’t miss this special opportunity to hear him speak.

The line-up of films and programs, including special guests and musicians for the 16th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival can be found at The Festival runs July 14 through July 17 at the Castro Theater.


If you do attend the Festival, be sure and pick up a program. They’re a great keepsake, and are filled with essays, images, and information on film. As a matter of fact, the programs are so good that recently the San Francisco Public Library acquired a set from the Festival’s first 15 years. The plan, according to SFPL librarian Gretchen Good, is to have the programs bound in book form. This unique volume will then be added to the library catalog, as well as to WorldCat, the online directory of library holdings from around the world. It’s an act of preservation.


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