Saturday, February 14, 2009

San Francisco Silent Film Festival

San Francisco Silent Film Festival
4th Annual Winter Event
The Castro Theatre
Saturday, February 14

Live piano accompaniment by PHILIP CARLI
Preceded by short, Alice Guy Blache's THE DETECTIVE AND HIS DOG (1912)

Live piano accompaniment by PHILIP CARLI
Preceded by short, Alice Guy Blache's MATRIMONY'S SPEED LIMIT (1913)

I spent a great afternoon in the Castro Theatre & out of the rain for the 1st 2 programs of the SF Silent Film Festival's Winter Event. The house was packed for Keaton's Our Hospitality. Several people appeared in period costume. The film was introduced by a board member who showed a slide of himself at the age of 19, working with Buster Keaton in 1949! I'd never seen this Keaton classic before, & I am glad to report that it still delivers its laughs & thrills in the right places. The gags with the toy-like Rocket steam engine are especially silly & foretell the great locomotive chases in The General. The audience applauded the breathtaking waterfall rescue at the end. I like that the big stunts & chase scenes are balanced by smaller, more human, moments of humor. The audience also applauded the gag in which Keaton, struggling with the low headroom of a train carriage, swaps an over-sized top hat for his trademark pork pie hat.

The 2nd feature, A Kiss from Mary Pickford, is a true rarity. It's a Soviet era satire on movie stardom. The entire movie was built around a handful of film clips documenting the visit to Moscow by Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks. The couple had no knowledge that they were also making a Soviet feature film! In a brief & informative introduction, Hugh Munro Nelly explained how the film contradicts the official Soviet account of the visit, which claims that no crowds greeted them. The print has subtitles in Ukrainian, which were read to us in translation.

The film is light yet sophisticated. It features a terrific comedic performance by Igor Illinsky as a hapless wannabe movie star. Crowds play an important part in the movie, & I like how they were populated by individuals, as opposed to being an undifferentiated mob. The movie contains a bizarre scene with 3 sinister & sadistic scientists evaluating the hero's suitability as an actor. It hints at a darker side of Soviet society.

The shorts commemorate Alice Guy Blache. The program notes claim she is the only woman to have owned a movie studio. Matrimony's Speed Limit curiously prefigures Keaton's Seven Chances, down to specific gags involving the hero proposing to unsuitable women against a deadline minutes away.

All the films were accompanied with great stamina by Philip Carli on the piano, who played classical sounding scores that were appropriate to the period. I wished that I had the stamina for the remaining programs, which included one of the my favorites, Murnau's Sunrise.

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