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Silent Film in San Francisco

Richard von Busack interviews festival director Stephen Salmons about this weekend's festival.

Silent film was truly the universal language; a cinema that was mute, yet spoke in all tongues. The 10th anniversary of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs July 810 at the Castro Theater, one of the last old-time silent movie theaters standing. (See www.silentfilm.org for details.)

There are nine programs of films ranging from MGM productions like King Vidor's World War I drama The Big Parade to a little-known Brazilian romance, 1929's Sangue Mineiro. Stephen Salmons, who has been with the festival since 2001, is the SF Silent Film Festival's Artistic Director.

SALMONS: The idea of the festival came from Melissa Chittick. She was a volunteer at the Red Vic Movie House collective in San Francisco, and she asked them why they didn't play movies from the 1920s. They in turn suggested that she start a festival of them.

She realized from the beginning that she couldn't make a profit, so learning how to operate as a nonprofit was the fist step. She started it out of her kitchen in the Lower Haight; we used to call it the Data Kitchen. Now we have an office and a three-person staff: me, executive director designate Linda K. Brown and operations and festival director Stacey Wisnia, ex-manager of the Castro.

This is Melissa's last year—she's going on to find something that pays real money, since she achieved what she wanted to achieve.

Her first screening was at the Frameline Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Film Festival, where she showed an early Ernst Lubitsch movie called I Don't Want to Be a Man—it's all about a girl who disguises herself as a boy, only to be hit on by men. Dennis James did the soundtrack. We had a good turn out, and we could tell we were on the right track.

We began to have fundraisers. In 1996, we played the silent Ben Hur. That sold out, with two standing ovations for Dennis James. We hadn't planned on that kind of response; 1997 was even bigger. Greed was the benefit for our third festival. An appropriate movie for a benefit, Greed.

In 2000, we ran The Wedding March by Erich von Stroheim, with Fay Wray in person; 2001 was our last one-day festival; that's when I joined. We're going two days, three nights now.

We're starting to get a reputation. A lot of the silent-film fests are starting to hear about us. What we're hoping for is not just the continued annual festival, but also presentations elsewhere, with outreach programs to schools. So much that can learned from silent films, about culture and history.

METRO: Everyone knows about Cannes and Sundance, but what's the silent-movie festival scene like?

SALMONS: There are big ones in Europe, because they get government funding. The granddaddy is every October in Pordenone, Italy [www.cinetecadelfriuli.org]: eight days, 12 hours a day. Very scholarly, that one; they'll show snippets of movies, if it's all they have.

Recently, they featured a complete version of Abel Gance's Napoleon, some five hours long as restored by Kevin Brownlow. There's no way you can see that in the United States. Francis Coppola owns the U.S. rights, and he commissioned a score by his father. But that score won't cover the longer version, so he's forbidden it from being shown here.

METRO: Silent-film archives are the source for so many of the films the Silent Film Festival shows. In the recent restoration of Metropolis, there were something like a half-dozen film archives credited. How many film archives are there, worldwide?

SALMONS: www.fiafnet.org/uk is a list of film archives world-wide; there's something like 130 of them. So many foreign archives are the source of lesser-known movies; often some long-missing film will turn up at an end-of-the-road archive—a print that got forgotten about.

For example, a lost Gloria Swanson/Rudolph Valentino film just turned up, 1922's Beyond the Rocks. That's from the Netherlands Film Archives. The print was in perfect condition. It'll be appearing at Pordenone.

I've really enjoyed opening people's eyes to silent films from China, India and Brazil. It's a shame that people don't realize that out-of-Hollywood filmmaking was equally sophisticated in the silent era.

Sangue Mineiro, the Brazilian film we're showing, by Humberto Mauro, was a big influence on Brazil's Cinemo Nova of the 1950s. It's a big thrill, with Mauro Correa's Brazilian music performed live—it's the music you would have heard at the time.

The 1925 Indian film we're showing—Prem Sanyas (a.k.a. Light of Asia)—really represents the start of Bollywood. Actor/producer Himansu Rai and director Franz Osten helped found Bombay Talkies, the first Indian film studio.

METRO: Bombay Talkies? Like the title of the early Merchant-Ivory film, Bombay Talkie?

SALMONS: Yeah, that's the reference. They continued to run the company until World War II, when Osten was arrested for being a Nazi sympathizer.

METRO: Then again, so was Gandhi, in the early days of the war. A real discovery for me at these silent-film revivals is how great Harold Lloyd is. Like every other movie snob, I'd assumed he was too slick and facile, compared to Buster Keaton.

SALMONS: A lot of movie watchers ask themselves that question: Who was this guy, this highly accomplished filmmaker who was not what we'd originally think of as an artist, in the sense of an artist meaning "someone who stands outside of society."

METRO: What other films has the SF Silent Film Festival been looking into?

SALMONS: Cuban silent film turns out to be a discovery—some are being restored right now.

METRO: The possibilities for musical accompaniment have to be rich, there. I've always read about how splendid Japanese silents are, like Ozu's early work, but I've never seen any.

SALMONS: We may show I Was Born, But ... sometime. And Mizoguchi's silent film Crossways is great—a comedy that's kind of a two-hour nightmare sequence. Have you seen any movies by Anthony Asquith?

METRO: Sure—his excellent mid-1950s version of The Importance of Being Earnest.

SALMONS: He turns out to have had an involved silent-movie career, as sophisticated as Hitchcock's. He also made a movie called The Lodger, not to be confused with Hitchcock's The Lodger.

As for Hollywood silent films, we'd love to show a Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle program; a four-DVD set just came out of some of his movies.

METRO: A tribute to him, held in the city where he was undone. [The highly successful comedian Arbuckle's career was ended by a scandal at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.]

SALMONS: For years, we talked about having an opening night party in that room. The archives at Eastman House in Rochester, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and UCLA have a backlog of stuff that could be run over the years. Brilliant stuff that nobody's heard of.

METRO: I've never seen the Lillian Gish version of The Scarlet Letter.

SALMONS: We're running a 35mm print of it, put together from eight or nine archives. UCLA has the original negative.

METRO: It's been said that as Victor Sjostrom came from Sweden, a nation of Lutherans, that he had an intuitive understanding of Hawthorne's material.

SALMONS: Gish said that in her autobiography. It's actually funny, in addition to being dramatic, this Swedish interpretation of Puritanism. There's a sense of derision toward Puritanism. In particular, there's a big laugh when Hester Prynne coyly asks Reverend Dimmesdale to tell her again how bad she is.

METRO: The animation program includes the Animation Rarities program, with the Fleischer Brothers' 1928 "Koko's Earth Control," in which cute li'l Koko the Clown and his dog destroy the world.

SALMONS: We brought that back by request. For me the real discovery of this year's festival is the B-picture The Sideshow (1928), one of four of the silent pictures Columbia Studios made that still exist.

METRO: It looks like a Tod Browning kind of thing.

SALMONS: It might have been an influence on Browning, but it's a different kind of film than Freaks. It's about a circus owner who falls in love with a regular-sized woman.

METRO: The spectacularly ill-fated Marie Provost plays the love interest.

SALMONS: When I was writing the notes for the film, I didn't know how much I wanted to go into her story!

[Like the Arbuckle tragedy, Provost's own doom is chronicled in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon, though Nick Lowe's song "Marie Provost" also tells of the fallen silent star who died alone, only to be gnawed at postmortem by her hungry dachshunds: "She was the winner/ Who became the doggie's dinner"—Lowe.]

The star is Billy Curtis, billed as "Little Billy" and best known as the Mayor of Munchkin Town from The Wizard of Oz. He's also in The Court Jester with Danny Kaye and the all-midget Western The Terror of Tiny Town. He was a great actor, but because he was a Little Person, he never got the roles he deserves.

I couldn't find out anything about him, and then I was at the Tiburon Film Festival and I ended up talking to Gary Graver, who was there as part of an Orson Welles tribute. Graver was Welles' cameraman on F for Fake and the uncompleted The Other Side of the Wind, as well as Welles' version of The Merchant of Venice.

METRO: You mean Othello, right?

SALMONS: No, The Merchant of Venice—Welles filmed a version of The Merchant of Venice, of which only a reel exists today. The rest of the negative got stolen out of the trunk of his car—a typical Welles story. Anyway, Graver and I started talking, and he mentioned that he knew Billy Curtis. He'd directed him in a mid-1960s independent movie he'd made, The Embracers. And eventually he was a pallbearer at Curtis' funeral. Apparently, Curtis was a member of the actor's club the Masquers. He was a hard drinker and didn't care for the company of other Little People. Graver brought in photos of Curtis from L.A., as well as a poem Curtis wrote. Graver is introducing The Sideshow.

METRO: Why does the interest in silent films persist?

SALMONS: I think it's the experience of watching a silent film in a packed auditorium. Silent films have such beautiful cinematography, but they're a less realistic experience. Thus you have to bring a lot more to it. Seeing it on the screen with a live musical accompaniment, with musicians paying attention to the film, yet reacting to the audience as they play—here's a situation of everyone discovering the film together. It's a more operatic, communal experience. I don't think you get that in a contemporary movie theater.

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