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San Francisco Silent Film Festival: From Ernst Lubitsch to 'The Valley of the Giants'

The 12th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) will be held at the Castro Theatre on July 13-15.

Among the festival's highlights are:

Ernst Lubitsch's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (above): Officially an adaptation of Wilhelm Meyer-Förster's novel Karl Heinrich but clearly inspired by Sigmund Romberg's operetta, The Student Prince works beautifully despite the absence of any singing. Ramon Novarro, who, ironically, would display a pleasant singing voice in his sound films, stars as the much-powdered student prince of the title. Norma Shearer, well on her way to superstardom, co-stars as the young maid the prince loves but can't marry.

One of the most touching films of the 1920s – or of any other decade, for that matter – The Student Prince boasts an honest, sensitive performance by Ramon Novarro, at the time one of MGM's top stars. Despite the horrendous make-up, Novarro fully conveys both the young prince's youthful exuberance and his later disillusionment. As a plus, Norma Shearer can be seen at her most unaffected. Lubitsch's long-time collaborator, Hans Kräly, adapted the material, while John Mescall was the man responsible for the dreamlike black-and-white cinematography. A huge hit at the time, The Student Prince actually lost money because of its high cost.

Dennis James will provide live musical accompaniment while San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle (an inveterate Shearer admirer) will provide the introduction.

In The Valley of the Giants (1927), Charles Brabin – best known (if known at all) as Theda Bara's husband – proves that he could direct an action picture as well as the best of them. The plot of The Valley of the Giants is not all that significant; it's something or other about a a good guy, a bad guy, a good girl, lots of money, lots of trees, and a runaway train wagon, but the performances are competent (with supporting player George Fawcett stealing all his scenes), the scenery is gorgeous (courtesy of cinematographer Ted McCord), and the action is thrilling. Milton Sills is the hero and Doris Kenyon, Sills' wife in real life, is the girl. (See review of the Milton Sills vehicle The Barker.)

Maciste (1915) is a recently restored Italian rarity, starring Bartolomeo Pagano in the title role. Pagano, in fact, was strong enough to carry 26 Maciste films on his shoulders. He first appeared as Maciste in the 1914 epic Cabiria, one of the seminal works of world cinema.

Theodore Roberts, Lois Wilson, Milton Sills in Miss Lulu BettMiss Lulu Bett (1921) was much praised at the time of its release. Directed by William C. de Mille, Cecil B. DeMille's older brother, the film stars Lois Wilson as a small-town girl who is forced to play the role of servant in her sister's household. While the still well-known DeMille (note the spelling) directed sophisticated (or sophisticated wannabe) boudoir melodramas and epics, the now forgotten de Mille (note the spelling) specialized in small, straightforward dramas and comedies.

The glitzier DeMille will also be represented with a screening of his 1929 reactionary melodrama The Godless Girl, starring Lina Basquette as a young atheist who finds God, redemption, love, and institutional abuse – though not necessarily in that order. Not even God, however, is powerful enough to save this dreary melodrama – but then again, The Godless Girl is one of those things: You gotta see it to believe it. Admittedly, DeMille does remember a few things about how to direct motion pictures in the film's “elevator” sequence. (I'm assuming the SFSFF will be screening the restored version, which includes sound sequences.)

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1928) is a suspense thriller directed by Anthony Asquith, who went on to have a long and prestigious career in talkies, including Pygmalion (1938), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), and The V.I.P.s (1963).

The “Retour de Flamme” (Saved from the Flames) show will feature rare French films made between 1900-1928. The show will be presented and accompanied on the piano by collector/preservationist Serge Bromberg from Lobster Films of Paris.

Additionally, William A. Wellman, Jr., will appear at a screening of his father's Beggars of Life, a somewhat slow-moving drama starring Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen, and Louise Brooks; film reviewer Leonard Maltin will present several shorts in the “Hal Roach: King of Comedy” program; and Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne and Head of Programming Charles Tabesh will be on hand to present the 1921 art deco version of Camille (above) – a feast for the eye, starvation for the mind. This bizarre take on the old warhorse stars Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino. The sets were designed by Valentino's soon-to-be wife, Natacha Rambova.

HOW TO BUY TICKETS
IN ADVANCE May 21-July 12: ONLINE www.silentfilm.org BY MAIL download order form at www.silentfilm.org, fill out and mail with payment to: The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, P.O. Box 2229, Danville, CA 94526 BY FAX 925-866-9597 June 18-July 12: BY PHONE 925-275-9005 June 14-July 12: IN PERSON Festival Box Office, 833 Market Street, Suite 811 in San Francisco. Hours: Thu-Fri 11:30am-5:30pm. DAY OF SHOW Castro Theatre Box Office Hours: Fri 5pm-8pm, Sat-Sun 9:30am-9pm

The first-ever San Francisco Silent Film Festival Raffle will take place throughout the festival weekend. Prizes to be awarded include a Grand Prize $5,000 Shopping Spree at San Francisco's own McRoskey Mattress Company. For information on how to purchase raffle tickets, and for complete festival details, go to www.silentfilm.org.

The 12th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival is produced by The Silent Film Festival, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting silent film as an art form and as a cultural and historical record.

Sponsors of The 12th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival include McRoskey Mattress Company, Wells Fargo, Istituto Italiano di Cultura, KQED, Classical 102.1 KDFC, San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Queen Anne Hotel, The Galleria Park Hotel and the Consulate General of France in San Francisco.

12th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival Schedule (info/synopses from the SFSFF website):

Friday July 13 7pm Opening Night Presentation
THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG (1927) Directed by Ernst Lubitsch Starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer
The classic tale of a doomed affair between a Prince and a barmaid is adapted to the screen in grand MGM style, and directed with great wit and warmth by Ernst Lubitsch. The two superstar leads, Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer, perform with joyous, full-hearted abandon. Widely regarded as both a masterpiece of the silent era and a love story for the ages, The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg is best seen - and fallen in love with - on the larger-than-life screen.

Charley Chase in Movie NightSaturday July 14 10:30am
HAL ROACH: KING OF COMEDY (1924–29)
There are many legends of silent film comedy: Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase, Pete the Pup - to cite just a handful. But one name ties them all together: Hal Roach. Please join us for this tribute to the mighty King of Comedy, as we present four gems from Hal Roach Studios: Fast Company, starring the Our Gang roustabouts in a tale of goats and riches; Just a Good Guy, with double-jointed Arthur Stone as a robot run amok; The Boy Friend, a crash course in reverse psychology from Max Davidson; and Movie Night, a story of ill-bred domestic tranquility with Charley Chase as a duck-bedevilled paterfamilias.

Doris Kenyon, Milton Sills in The Valley of the GiantsSaturday July 14 1:15pm
THE VALLEY OF THE GIANTS (1927) Directed by Charles Brabin Starring Milton Sills and Doris Kenyon
Based on the novel by San Francisco's own Peter B. Kyne, The Valley of the Giants is a white-hot adventure yarn filmed among the giant sequoias of Kings Canyon National Park in the Sierra Nevada. Spectacular vistas frame the lightning-paced tale of a business magnate who fights a scurrilous railroad tycoon for control of the lumber industry. The magnate's son steps in to set things right, and all hell busts loose. Forgotten silent star Milton Sills is terrific in the lead role as the fists-and-brains son, and the thrills come fast and furious.

Bartolomeo Pagano in MacisteSaturday July 14 3:30pm
MACISTE (1915) Directed by Luigi Romano Borgnetto Starring Bartolomeo Pagano and Ada Marangoni
In 1914, first-time actor Bartolomeo Pagano found himself thrust into stardom for his performance as Maciste, man of towering physical strength, in the blockbuster Cabiria. Pagano reprised the superhuman character in 26 films made between 1915 and 1927, and we are proud to present, newly restored by Cineteca di Bologna, the very first Maciste movie! A young lady in jeopardy, certain that only Maciste can save her, seeks out Pagano for help. Through an unbeatable combination of intellect, disguise and brawn, Pagano/ Maciste triumphs!

Saturday July 14 5:45pm
CAMILLE (1921) Directed by Ray C. Smallwood Starring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino
In recognition of Turner Classic Movies for its contribution to the preservation, restoration and exhibition of silent film, we invite you to this special tribute, highlighted by a screening of what just might be the most defiantly flamboyant art film to ever come out of Hollywood. Produced under the strict supervision of star Alla Nazimova, the tragedy of Camille unfolds in a distinctive pictorial style highly reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley, with innovative costume and set design by the notorious Natasha [sic] Rambova – purported real-life lover of Valentino and Nazimova. A must-see on the big screen!

Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen in Beggars of LifeSaturday July 14 8:45pm
BEGGARS OF LIFE (1928) Directed by William A. Wellman Starring Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen and Louise Brooks
William A. Wellman, director of Wings - the first film to receive the Best Picture Academy Award - turns an unsentimental eye on society's lost souls: the hobos who hop rides on freight trains in search of a day's pay, a square meal, or a jolt of White Mule. Wellman expertly spins a tale of three people thrown together by chance: a girl on the run from the law ( Louise Brooks at her anti-flapper best), a disenchanted boy who looks out for her (Richard Arlen of Wings) and hobo king Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery, who steals the show). West Coast Premiere of a new 35mm print made from I6mm preservation material - the only known version!

Sunday July 15 10:30am
MORE AMAZING TALES FROM THE ARCHIVES FREE ADMISSION
Back by popular demand: our behind-the-scenes look at the utterly fascinating - and urgently necessary - world of silent film preservation. This year the focus is on two types of rarities: films on the outer edges of the silent era movie-going experience, and films consigned to obsolete formats. Rob Stone will examine the dilemma that archivists face the world over: how to ensure the preservation of “peripheral” films - trailers, newsreels, shorts and fragments; and Patrick Loughney will introduce us to such long-abandoned formats as 28mm, which was originally sold to homes and schools. Several one-of-a-kind 28mm films, now restored to 35mm, will screen at select programs throughout the festival weekend! Donald Sosin will perform live piano accompaniment to the film excerpts.

Le Spectre RougeSunday July 15 12:45pm
RETOUR DE FLAMME (SAVED FROM THE FLAMES, 1900-28)
France is the birthplace of cinema as magic. Georges Méliès, Gaston Velle, Ferdinand Zecca and many others, driven to heights of inspiration by the possibilities of the brand-new medium, produced a veritable flood of actualities, comedies, bible stories, travelogues, naughty bon-bons, trick-photography fantasies and countless never-before-seen wonders. Join life-long collector/showman Serge Bromberg, direct from Paris, for an awe-inspiring program of early French cinema - with many surprises! Serge Bromberg will perform live piano accompaniment.

Sunday July 15 3:35pm
MISS LULU BETT (1921) Directed by William de Mille Starring Lois Wilson and Milton Sills
Cecil B. DeMille is the one representative of the DeMille clan who is acknowledged today as a true Hollywood pioneer. His older brother William, however, who was a successful Broadway playwright, also earned a reputation as a director of genius, fully the equal of his brother - and this is considered his finest film. Based on the Pulitzer Prize play by Zona Gale, Miss Lulu Bett tells the story of a small-town girl, played with pained humility by Lois Wilson, who has been relegated to the thankless role of servant in her own sister's household. DeMille observes the details of ordinary life - dinner table conversation, dirty dishes stacked up in the sink, idle hopes and dreams - with gravity and grace, and makes us long for Miss Lulu Bett to find
happiness. But can she?

Sunday July 15 6pm
A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR (1929) Directed by Anthony Asquith Starring Uno Henning, Norah Baring and Hans Schlettow
Hitchcock wasn't the only silent era British director to make audiences claw their seats in suspense; Anthony Asquith - later known for classics like The Importance of Being Earnest - here whips up a psycho-noir to make the Master smile. A lovelorn barber's assistant tries to court the shop manicurist, but he quickly devolves into obsessive rage. 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! Introduced by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation.

Lina Basquette in The Godless Girl by Cecil B. DeMilleSunday July 15 8:45pm
THE GODLESS GIRL (1929) Directed by Cecil B. DeMille Starring Lina Basquette and James Duryea
Cecil B. DeMille - William's younger brother - pulls out all the stops in this high-voltage, ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama of wild youth and institutional abuse. Lina Basquette plays lioness/lamb Judy, mouthpiece for the Godless Society, a group of teen-age atheists. When she locks horns with Bob, Class President and ardent defender of the Christian faith, tragedy strikes. Both are sentenced to time in a notorious reform school, where a sadistic guard known only as The Brute awaits. Loosely conceived as both an indictment of the juvenile correctional system and a panegyric on the mysteries of faith, The Godless Girl is part topical, part hysterical, part spectacle - and pure Cecil B. DeMille! Introduced by Scott Simmon of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

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  1. THE MONT ALTO MOTION PICTURE ORCHESTRA
    Live Music for Classic Comedy!
    Monday, July 16, 7 p.m.

    Buster Keaton in
    STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.
    Preceded by MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE
    starring Charley Chase

    Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St, San Rafael, CA 94901
    415.454-1222; http://www.cafilm.org

    $14 ($10 CFI Members & Youth 12 & under)

    Experience classic silent film comedy the way you were meant to enjoy it: with a live orchestra and beautiful 35mm film prints in the setting of a magnificent theater. The Mont Alto Picture Orchestra, a quintet based in Colorado, is an internationally acclaimed ensemble practicing the traditional art of silent film scoring. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), the last independently produced feature from the imcomparable Buster Keaton, stars the stone-faced comic as the citified son of a Mississippi riverboat captain who has to prove himself worthy in the eyes of his father and his sweetheart. In the most incredible acrobatic feats ever committed to screen, Buster battles a cyclone to save the day.

    Preceding the feature is Mighty Like a Moose (1926), starring Charley Chase and one of the finest comedy shorts directed by Leo McCarey for producer Hal Roach. A husband and wife undergo cosmetic surgery without telling each other and, not recognizing themselves, each find the other irresistible!

    The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra includes: Brian Collins, clarinet; Darcy Dennison, cello; Dawn Kramer, trumpet; Britt Swensen, violin; under the direction of Rodney Sauer, piano. We would like to extend special thanks to film archivist and distributor David Shepard for his 35mm prints and to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which takes place July 13-15 and features The Mont Alto Silent Film Orchestra playing for different silent classics.