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San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Gems glittering on the silver screen

The summer belongs to the Hollywood blockbuster, right? Wrong. To fully appreciate the art of modern cinema, you have to travel back in time to see where the art form came from. The 11th San Francisco Silent Film Festival is your ticket to the first three decades of the 20th century when films leapt off the silver screen in all their monochromatic glory without accosting the senses.

By no means were these pioneering filmmakers limited by the medium. Their works display a level of creativity, brilliance, and experimentation seen seldom today. Nor were these films truly silent; musical accompaniments by solo piano, Wurlitzer organ, or funky ensemble captured audiences' imaginations as fully as any surround-sound symphonic scores do today.

Watching these gems on the Castro's huge screen is a real treat. On-stage conversations with film scholars, and the offspring of some distinguished silent movie stars, add to the entertainment value. To round out the experience, many people attend in period dress.

This year's festival commemorate the centennial of the San Francisco earthquake and fire by presenting archival newsreel footage from the Library of Congress.

Kicking off the festival on Friday, July 14, is Seventh Heaven (1927), starring the much-beloved romantic team of Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell. The film won three Oscars at the very first Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Gaynor, who plays an abused street waif in love with a lowly sewer worker whose head is in the stars. Even the onset of war cannot keep them apart. Presented with the short film, "A Trip Down Market Street", filmed just four days prior to the 1906 earthquake. Talk about good timing.

Saturday, July 15, features five intriguing films. Bucking Broadway (1917), once thought lost but rediscovered in France, is a fast-paced western directed by first-timer John Ford that pits a laid-back cowboy who hopes to marry his bosses' daughter against the arrogant city slicker who aims to possess her. Presented with the short, "San Francisco Earthquake and Fire" (April 18, 1906).

In Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930), a French country girl comes to the capital to seek work in her uncle's dress shop, only to find it being run out of business by a giant department store. Based on the novel by Emile Zola, this French realist drama is a "tour-de-force of avant-garde cinematography and rapid-fire montage, produced at the height of silent-era artistry." With live musical accompaniment by the Hot Club of San Francisco.

Sparrows (1926) is a dark fable of good vs. evil starring Mary Pickford as the oldest of nine orphans who are enslaved on a farm surrounded by swamp and quicksand in the deep South. She rallies the others to attempt a dangerous escape across alligator-infested waters.

Pandora's Box (1929) is a fascinating look at prewar Berlin in which Hollywood ingénue Louise Brooks gives a riveting performance as a pleasure-loving vamp who ruins every life she touches. "A devastating portrait of an erotic siren let loose in a society poised on the brink of collapse." Presented with the matter-of-factly titled short, "Exploded Gas Tanks, U.S Mint, Emporium, and Spreckels Building" (1906).

Sunday, the final day of the festival, starts off at 11am with a free screening of the documentary Amazing Tales from the Archives, in which "archivists and preservation experts share tales of impossibly fragile paper prints, exotic film gauges, and deteriorating movies that are seemingly unsalvageable, and then show excerpts of films that have been saved for posterity." A must-see for anyone intrigued by the fragility of our film heritage. According to festival founder Stephen Salmons, "We chose to make it a free-admission program because we really want to encourage people to learn more about film preservation -- and also because the archivists are our heroes. They deserve the limelight."

Following the educational program, Laurel and Hardy appear in three side-splitting two-reelers. The Finishing Touch (1928) depicts their disastrous efforts to build a house within 48 hours. Liberty (1929) shows them escaping from prison only to be attacked by a live crab atop a skyscraper. Wrong Again (1929) is a surreal comedy of errors involving a thoroughbred, a stolen painting, and a millionaire's peculiar ways. Presented with the short, "Scenes in San Francisco" (May 9, 1906).

The Girl with the Hatbox (1927) is a slapstick comedy from Russia, in which a beautiful young woman works in a hat shop while resisting the advances of a lovesick railroad clerk. Soon she finds herself fooling the Housing Authority into allowing a penniless student to occupy her room, while she becomes enmeshed in a wild chase for a lottery ticket. Soviet censors once labeled this madcap farce as subversive.

From the feverish imagination of Tod Browning comes The Unholy Three (1925) about a sideshow ventriloquist who hatches a scheme to rob the rich by disguising himself as a sweet old lady who owns a pet shop. Lon Chaney leads the unlikely cast of oddball humans along with a vicious pet gorilla and talking parrot. This from the man who would later direct "Freaks".

Show People (1928) is a lively behind-the-scenes satire of silent-era moviemaking, in which Marion Davies plays a starry-eyed girl from Georgia who succeeds at crashing the Hollywood gate -- with unexpected consequences. Her costar William Haines, a box-office hit who never remained in the celluloid closet, is equally charming as her down-to-earth leading man. Cameo appearances by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and John Gilbert. Presented with the short, "Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World's Fair at San Francisco" (1915), a comic travelogue showing Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Mabel Normand visiting the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which celebrated the successful rebuilding of San Francisco nine years after the 1906 disaster. New Orleans should be so lucky in 2014.

July 14-16
at the Castro Theater