The Film Music Society FMS FEATURE ARTICLE...

July 7, 2003
"Silents" is Golden
San Francisco Silent Film Festival serves silent classics with live scores
by Marilee Bradford

The 8th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, a two-day exposition of silent movies from some of the world's leading film archives, will feature live film score accompaniment during its annual showcase on July 12 and 13 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.

As during its seven previous summer events, the festival will offer a unique opportunity for public big-screen viewing of a diverse collection of pre-talkie era films, from legendary classics to newly restored rarities to international fare, and for the first time will include new silent film works. According to the festival's development director Linda Kay Brown, attendance is expected to exceed last year's total of more than 7000 enthusiasts.

Integral to the festival's credibility and its coveted access to silent movies is the expert handling of delicate film stock by the festival's venue, the 1400-seat vintage 1921 Castro Theatre near downtown San Francisco. This fully restored, plush movie palace is home to the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ, one of the pride-and-joys of the theatre's loyal silent-moviegoers.

Pixar Animation Studios will kick off the festival with a rare presentation of Walt Disney's early films, The Alice Comedies. Between 1923–1927 (pre-Mickey Mouse), Disney's Laugh-O-Gram Company created this successful series of shorts by combining live action with animation to depict the adventures of a four-year-old girl in a cartoon world. The entire series will be accompanied on piano by Michael Mortilla. Virginia Davis McGhee, the original Alice, will appear for an on-stage interview with film historian/critic Leonard Maltin and Russell Merritt, author of Walt In Wonderland.

Perhaps the most anticipated viewing is of King Vidor's exalted The Crowd (1928), the age-old struggle of the individual versus society, depicting Everyman desperately walking the fine line between standing out in a crowd, which brings wealth and power, and being out of step with the crowd, leading to failure and ruin. Maltin will introduce the film, and Dennis James will provide live accompaniment on the Wurlitzer.

Other ageless classics to be screened include The Penalty (1920), an over-the-top crime thriller starring Lon Chaney as a deranged crime lord, with Jon Mirsalis at the piano and an introduction by Chaney's great-grandson Ron Chaney; the classic Buster Keaton comedy Go West (1925), presented in a brand new print from the original camera negative and accompanied by James on the Wurlitzer; and Carmen (1915), starring legendary opera diva Geraldine Farrar and directed by Cecil B. DeMille. At its debut, Carmen was scored to the Bizet opera as adapted by Hugo Riesenfeld. For this screening, a transcription of that original 1915 Riesenfeld score will accompany the film.

Making an exception in its historical programming, the festival will present two modern silents: Claire (2001), based on a Japanese fairy tale about two farmers whose lives are changed when they find a luminescent girl in an ear of corn, with composer Ann Richardson conducting her original score for an eleven-piece ensemble; and Rock Ross's experimental short Stupor Mundi (1999), about a love triangle between Liberty, Justice and Death, with a playful score by Nik Phelps composed especially for the theatre's Wurlitzer.

The festival will also present four international silent films – two from Mexico (1912 and 1917), both scored by Cascada de Flores, a trio dedicated to the traditional folk music of Mexico and Cuba; and two from France (1922 and 1927) by famed surrealist filmmaker Germaine Dulac, accompanied by Mortilla at the piano.

The 8th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival is produced by The Silent Film Festival, a nonprofit organization "founded to educate the public about silent film as an art form and its cultural value as a historical record." The organization was established in 1996 by artistic director Stephen Salmons and executive director Melissa Chittick. Salmons will be hosting throughout the event.

For festival showtimes, ticket prices and program information, visit or call the festival information line at (415) 273-1175.

© 2003 Marilee Bradford