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San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Where it all began

As this town's antidote to the onslaught of summer blockbusters, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, now in its twelfth year, provides an ever-satisfying look back into the early decades of the 20th century when films leapt off the silver screen in all their monochromatic glory, accompanied by the true surround-sound of live music. This year's festival spans the silent era of filmmaking -- from its earliest days to the peak of its maturity -- and includes eye-popping treats from France, England, and Italy.

Kicking off the festival on lucky Friday, July 13, is The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927, 7pm), starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer. Ernst Lubitsch directed this tale of a doomed affair between a prince and a barmaid with wit and warmth. The two superstar leads, Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer, perform with typical abandon. It will be introduced by The San Francisco Chronicle's very own Mick LaSalle and will have live accompaniment on the Mighty Wurlitzer by Dennis James. Following the screening is the opening night party, celebrated in Old World style and beer garden spirit with tasty German food and drink. Music by Big Lou's Polka Casserole.

Saturday, July 14, starts out with a bevy of short comedies by Hal Roach: King of Comedy (1924–29, 10:30am), featuring "Our Gang" kids, a double-jointed robot run amok, a dose of reverse psychology, and a dollop of ill-bred domestic tranquility. The special guest is Leonard Maltin, and Donald Sosin provides live piano accompaniment.

Next up is The Valley of the Giants (1927, 1:15pm), an adventure yarn filmed amid the spectacular scenery in Kings Canyon National Park. As two business tycoons battle it out for control of the lumber industry, the son of one of the men enters the fray with fisticuffs to set things right. Live piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

Maciste (1915, 3:30pm) stars Bartolomeo Pagano as a man of amazing physical prowess who saves a young lady in jeopardy using only his prodigious intellect, gift of disguise, and feats of brawn. This is the first of 26 films made between 1915 and 1927 in which the Italian actor played this superhuman character. Live piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

Dark, intense Alla Nazimova and "Latin Lover" Rudolph Valentino join forces in Camille (1921, 5:45pm) the tragic tale of a carefree but lonely Parisian courtesan. Natasha Rambova not only designed the flamboyant, Art Deco costumes and beautiful sets but later married Valentino, while purportedly being Nazimova's lover. Live accompaniment on the Mighty Wurlitzer by Clark Wilson.

Rounding out Saturday's lineup is Beggars of Life (1928, 8:45pm), William A. Wellman's unflinching drama about society's castaways, including a hobo (Wallace Beery), a runaway (Louise Brooks), and the disaffected young man who looks after her (Richard Arlen). This is the west coast premiere of a new 35mm print made from 16mm preservation material -- the only known version. Live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Sunday, the final day of the festival, starts off at 10:30am with a free screening of More Amazing Tales from the Archives, a behind-the-scenes look at the utterly fascinating -- and urgently necessary -- world of silent film preservation. This year the program focuses on fringe films (trailers, newsreels, shorts, and fragments) as well as films consigned to obsolete formats, like 28mm, which was originally sold to homes and schools. Many of these shorts will be screened before the festival's featured films. This program is 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." Live piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

A treasure-trove of French rarities by Georges Méliès, Gaston Velle, and Ferdinand Zecca appear next in Retour de Flamme or "Saved from the Flames" (1900–1928, 12:45pm), a compilation that highlights "a veritable flood of actualities, comedies, Bible stories, travelogues, naughty bonbons, trick-photography fantasies, and countless never-before-seen wonders" -- essentially, cinema's foray into experimentalism before the "rules" were laid down. Live piano accompaniment by collector/showman Serge Bromberg, direct from Paris.

William DeMille -- older brother of Cecil B. -- expertly unveils the kitchen-sink drama of Miss Lulu Bett (1921, 3:35pm), an unfortunate small-town girl (Lois Wilson) who must work as a servant in her sister's household. In that thankless role, she wonders if her own hopes and dreams are all for naught. Live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Proto-noir Cottage on Dartmoor (1929, 6pm) by Anthony Asquith involves a barber's assistant who tries to court the shop's manicurist, only to spiral into obsessive rage when he doesn't get his way. As the program notes promise, "Asquith tosses in bomb-bursts of rapid-fire editing and off-kilter cinematography, and the pay-off will stop you dead. Hang onto your seats!" Live piano accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

Finally, ending the Silent Film Festival is the Cecil B. DeMille's The Godless Girl (1929, 8:45pm), a "high-voltage, ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama of wild youth and institutional abuse." In this tale, tragedy strikes when the girl leader of a group of teenage atheists (she swears allegiance on a monkey's head!) butts heads with the boy class president at school, who is also a fervent Christian. Both are expelled to a notorious reform school, where a sadistic guard known only as "The Brute" waits for them. Live accompaniment on the Mighty Wurlitzer by Dennis James.

Watching these gems on the Castro's huge screen is a real treat, and on-stage conversations with film scholars and preservationists add to the entertainment (dare I add educational) value. If prior years are any indication, many people attend the festival in period dress to round out the experience. This year there's a first-ever raffle with prizes ranging from a $5,000 McRoskey Mattress Company shopping spree to passes at next year's Seattle International Film Festival or a weekend stay at the Galleria Park Hotel downtown, among other prizes.