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San Francisco Silent Film Festival Highlights Early Color Movies

The Tulips Segundo de Chomón San Francisco Silent Film FestivalThe Tulips: Segundo de Chomón’s tinted short was screened at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
  • This year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented color fantasies by the likes of Segundo de Chomón and Louis Feuillade, and illustrated the work involved in the restoration of two world cinema classics: Paul Leni’s The Last Warning and Abel Gance’s Napoleon.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival showcased the magic of color in movies from the early 1900s

Tinting, toning, hand-coloring, and stencil color are terms hardly associated with today’s films. But in the early, pre-Technicolor part of the 20th century, these techniques were frequently used for some glorious effects. Mostly applied to short films or scenes requiring a fantasy element, hand-colored movies were a popular novelty beginning in the 1890s.

Of course, it was not a perfected technology and it never pretended to represent the true pallet of colors and hues. It was the effect that mattered.

This year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, held June 2–5, presented 15 marvelous examples of this particular genre. As I have a great fondness for this technique, I found the collection from Amsterdam’s EYE Film Institute the most exciting of all the films I saw at the festival.

Georges Méliès or Segundo de Chomón?

Curiously, there were no Georges Méliès films included. On the other hand, there were several excellent examples by Segundo de Chomón, whom I often get confused with Méliès.

That said, I’m not the only one who gets mixed up. The program guide confused de Chomón with director Gaston Velle for Tit-for-Tat / La Peine du Talion (1906), a humorous look at butterflies getting revenge against an entomologist on a hunt for specimens.

In all, it was a satisfying experience in a garish fantasy world far, far away. The ever capable Donald Sosin provided the musical accompaniment.

‘Amazing Tales from the Archives’: Crash course in film processing

Elsewhere at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, “Amazing Tales from the Archives” turned out to be a crash course in film processing. In other words: Preparing film for usage, perforating the strips around the edges, printing onto positive stock, editing, and delivering the final product to theaters.

We also got to see an “actuality film” of people arriving by train to work at a studio, and then thousands of hopeful applicants showing up for various screen tests.

But my favorite clip was a publicity short featuring American actor Jackie Coogan (the titular star of Charles Chaplin’s The Kid) making a special appearance at a British studio in the 1920s.

The Last Warning Laura La PlanteThe Last Warning with Laura La Plante.

The Last Warning & Napoleon restorations

The second “Amazing Tales from the Archives” program consisted of a brief introduction by Universal Studios regarding their restoration of The Last Warning, which was also screened at the festival.

Directed by German import Paul Leni, the 1928 mystery thriller featured the studio’s top female star, Laura La Plante, in addition to John Boles (Frankenstein) and Margaret Livingston (Sunrise).

The third program featured a lengthy discussion with Cinémathèque Française representative Georges Mourier, who went into great detail describing the ongoing restoration effort on Abel Gance’s 1927 historical epic Napoleon, which resulted in the audience filing out of the theater humming “La Marseillaise.”

From Pola Negri to René Clair

Lastly, a brief note about the festival’s feature films. Besides The Last Warning, this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival screened a number of notable titles, among them:

The women’s suffrage drama Mothers of Men (1917), starring Dorothy Davenport; Alf Sjöberg and Axel Lindblom’s man vs. nature adventure drama The Strongest / Den Starkaste (1929); and Victor Fleming’s comedy When the Clouds Roll By (1919), starring a pre-swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks.

Also: Irvin Willat’s Behind the Door (1919), with Hobart Bosworth and Jane Novak; Malcolm St. Clair’s A Woman of the World (1925), in which countess Pola Negri observes the natives of exotic Iowa in their natural habitat; and Fritz Lang’s expressionistic fantasy Destiny / Der müde Tod (1921), with Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen playing multiple characters.

A couple more: René Clair’s comedy Two Timid Souls / Les deux timides (1928), with Pierre Batcheff as a shy lawyer who misrepresents his wife-beating client; and William A. Wellman’s Beggars of Life (1928), with Richard Arlen, Louise Brooks in male drag, and, on the cusp of stardom, Wallace Beery (who also has a supporting role in Behind the Door).


“San Francisco Silent Film Festival” endnotes

San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) website.

The Tulips image: San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Laura La Plante The Last Warning movie image: Universal Pictures.

“San Francisco Silent Film Festival Highlights Early Color Movies” last updated in November 2021.

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