Film festival junkies like to joke that "it's a dark and dirty job, but someone's got to do it." After four days of intense programming, the 15th San Francisco Silent Film Festival has come to an end and I've finally caught up on lost sleep.
In the case of the Silent Film Festival, cramming 16 film programs into a little more than three days isn't all about entertainment. A great deal of the festival is highly educational, scholarly, and
For transportation buffs, the Silent Film Festival offers a treasure trove of archival footage and historic images. Aviation fans can thrill to the sight of early model biplanes while turn of the century streetcars and horse-drawn carriages are seen in films shot in locations around the world.
During one lecture, I noticed a slide showing passengers debarking from the RMS Berengaria. Originally built in 1912 for Germany's Hamburg American Line as the S.S. Imperator, the ship was turned over to Britain's Cunard Line after World War I as part of the war reparations (perhaps to replace the RMS Lusitania, which had been sunk by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915). Another movie featured footage of the RMS Olympic (the Titanic's older sister ship) at sea.
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This year's opening night was devoted to a screening of John Ford's 1924 Western, The Iron Horse. A complex tale that starts off in Springfield, Illinois with Charles Edward Bull (a Justice of the Peace from Reno, Nevada) impersonating a young Abraham Lincoln, Ford's narrative showcases the building of America's first transcontinental railroad. The action culminates in a reenactment of the ceremony held on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Summit when a gold spike was driven to celebrate the job's completion.
An intertitle that appears near the end of The Iron Horse asserts that the original two locomotives were used for this scene in the film. However, history and Wikipedia refute that claim (both engines were scrapped before 1910). Railroad buffs may enjoy reading Everlasting Steam: The Story of Jupiter and No. 119 from the archives of the National Park Service.
Ford's film (which was mostly shot near Reno) revolves around childhood sweethearts Davy Brandon (George O'Brien) and Miriam Marsh (Madge Bellamy). After Brandon and his father set off to seek their fortunes in the West, they come across a rugged mountain pass which the elder Brandon predicts will one day have a railroad running through it. Ambushed by Indians, Davy's father is killed by a strange man (Fred Kohler) who only has two fingers on his right hand.
As Davy grows and matures, he finds work as a Pony Express rider who is eventually recruited to help find a more direct and less costly railroad route through the mountains. As fate would have it, Bauman (the man who killed Davy's father) is now one of the wealthy landowners resisting such efforts.
The Iron Horse, which supposedly cost $750,000, became the top grossing movie of 1924. With scenes that include moving herds of American bison and cattle (not to mention two quickly erected Western towns with dance hall saloons), the plot includes such colorful characters as Col. William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody (George Waggner) and Judge Haller (James A. Marcus), who holds court in saloons, on railroad cars, and wherever else his legal services are required.
The real thrills to be found in this film, however, come from the early steam locomotives, the hordes of hostile Indians attacking the railroad workers (who were usually protected by the Pawnees on the payroll), and the sense of watching the history of the "Wild West" unfold before an audience while Dennis James builds suspense and tension on the Mighty Wurlitzer Organ in the Castro Theatre.
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When was the last time you saw an amputee pedal a bicycle using one foot and a shoulder-length crutch that contained a loaded firearm? Just as I thought.
Written and directed by Richard E. Norman (a white man who made silent films featuring all-black casts for "the racial market"), 1926's The Flying Ace stars Laurence Criner as Captain Billy Stokes, a World War I hero who is pushed back into service in his former job as a railroad detective when the payroll suddenly goes missing. As Megan Pugh wrote in her program notes:
"At a time when Hollywood employed white actors in blackface to play shuffling servants and mammies, the Norman Film Manufacturing Company in Jacksonville, Florida hired all-black casts to play dignified roles. Instead of tackling discrimination head-on in his films, Norman created a kind of segregated dream world where whites -- and consequently racism -- didn't even exist (African Americans were not allowed to serve as pilots in the United States Armed Forces until 1940)."
In The Flying Ace, the aging station manager, Thomas Sawtelle (George Colvin) and his pretty daughter, Ruth (Kathryn Boyd), can't figure how the railroad's payroll disappeared but know there is trouble afoot.
Although locals Blair Kimball (Boise de Legge), Finley Tucker (Harold Platts), and Jed Splivins (Lyons Daniel) seem intent on sending Billy to die in the local swamp, they are ill-prepared for Billy's friend Peg (Steve Reynolds), a one-legged cripple who can perform wonders on a two-wheeler, chase a villain around a building, and easily outwit the bad guys.
While Billy demonstrates his sharp detective instincts (the villain was snapping ether capsules under his victims' noses to make them pass out), the film's climactic mid-air rescue of a damsel in distress is made all the more delicious by the fact that The Flying Ace contains absolutely no plane stunts!
Issues of logic and continuity did not prove to be a big issue for the audience. Instead, they embraced the carefully plotted script and a cast of wonderful actors. The film's spry piano accompaniment was provided by Donald Sosin.
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Last, but not least, some news that I'm sure will make silent film fans happy. Those who have attended events at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival over the years are often quick to show their appreciation for the pre-program slide shows by applauding those slides that give credit to the curator of each presentation.
When I spoke with the festival's Executive Director, Stacey Wisnia, she confirmed that one of their upcoming projects is to turn these slide shows into multimedia features on the organization's website (as well as including program notes for all of the previously-screened films in the website's archive). If you would like to contribute to this project, you can contact the festival's Development Director, Jeremy O'Neal here.