Thursday, September 11, 2008

Early Filmmaking in San Francisco

The Celluloid Era: Early Filmmaking in San Francisco
Tuesday, September 9, 7:30 P.M.
Kanbar Hall
Jewish Community Center of San Francisco

This lecture was sponsored by the San Francisco Historical Society. Stephen Salmons of the Silent Film Festival started by talking about film's early history & its historical roots in the Bay Area, including the famous Muybridge photos of Hearst's galopping horse. Salmons even staked the claim that San Francisco, not Berlin or Paris, held the 1st public exhibition of movies. Muybridge projected short clips of animals in motion using his zoopraxiscope in the 1880's. Admission was a whopping 50 cents.

Next David Kiehn from the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum gave a talk about the Essanay Studios set up in Fremont to take advantage of the Niles Canyon setting for making westerns. They built a glass-enclosed studio which was state of the art for the time. The studio churned out hundreds of short movies in the few years it was in operation in Niles. The people of Fremont must be quite proud of their movie-making heritage, as they have weekly programs devoted to silent films.

Salmons came back to the podium & showed more clips of silent movies shot on recognizable locations in San Francisco. We saw Fatty Arbuckle & Mabel Normand viewing the Pan-Pacific Exhibition, Charlie Chaplin driving along the Great Highway, Valentino about to be Shanghaied at Pier 43, & Lon Chaney on the steps of the Old Mint. Salmons included a great throw-away gag from Keaton's The Navigator, shot at the top of Divisadero St. in Pacific Heights, right up the hill from where I live.

However, it looks like the great San Francisco movie of the silent era is mostly lost forever. Greed was Erich von Stroheim's meticulous adaptation of Frank Norris's McTeague. Of the original 9 hours, only 2 hours & 20 minutes survive. Salmons showed a tantalizing clip that was shot in a 2nd story building in Hayes Valley that still exists.

The presenters showed slides & about a dozen QuickTime movie clips from off a Mac laptop. Bruce Loeb accompanied the clips live from an electronic keyboard. As attendees of the Silent Film Festival already know, Salmons is an excellent speaker, with a distinctive voice & a desire to educate & amuse. His co-presenter was clearly extremely knowledgeable but unfortunately not such a successful speaker. This event really had more than enough content for 2 lectures. It started at 7:30pm & didn't end until almost 10pm, without a break & without any audience Q & A.

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