The S.F. Silent Film Festival Is All About Buster Keaton

And it runs through Sunday at the Castro Theatre.

1928: Buster Keaton (1895 – 1966) stars with Marceline Day and Norman McNeil in the film ‘The Cameraman’, directed by Edward Sedgwick and Keaton for MGM.

Since its founding twenty-four years ago, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s mission has been to not only present silent films in the best possible conditions — high-quality prints screened in a grand movie palace with live musical accompaniment — but to support and promote their preservation.

But in recent years the mission has expanded to include hands-on restoration work, with the festival seeking out rare and endangered films in archives around the world and leading the effort to bring these long-lost gems of our cinematic heritage back to the silver screen. 

The festival runs through Sunday night at the Castro Theatre.

This year’s restoration project, The Signal Tower, was undertaken in partnership with Photoplay, the company founded by one of the forefathers of silent film preservation, Kevin Brownlow. A 1924 thriller set along the Noyo River in the redwood forests of Mendocino County, the film was directed by Clarence Brown, who had a solid silent-era career, including several Greta Garbo films, before directing such well-loved talkie classics as National Velvet and The Yearling. The Signal Tower will be screened at 7 p.m. Thursday with live accompaniment by multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne of the British Film Institute and percussionist Frank Bockius.

Still from The Signal Tower

That’s just one of about a dozen recent restorations in this year’s festival, hailing from nearly as many countries  — Japan, Italy, France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, the U.S.S.R., Sweden, India, and Bali, in addition to the United States. 

The festival is bookending its program with two restorations that represent the alpha and the omega of Buster Keaton’s career as a master of exemplary feature-length comedies. The five-day event concludes Sunday night with Our Hospitality (1923), his first true feature-length film. 

In the early 1920s, Keaton was eager to make the leap from two-reelers to features. But to mollify his wary producers, his first effort was an episodic movie that could be broken into three short films if the experiment failed. But with his next film, Our Hospitality, Keaton firmly took the reins and produced a period comedy based on the Hatfield-McCoy feud, complete with beautiful location shooting, brilliant gags, and dangerous stunts. Restored by Lobster Films of Paris, the film shows at 8 p.m. Sunday with live accompaniment by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

Fast forward a few years to The Cameraman and we find Keaton, after a decade as an independent filmmaker, under contract to MGM, which sought to wedge Keaton into its assembly-line process. MGM cluttered the process with a gaggle of script writers who spun a complicated scenario. Keaton managed to strip away the extraneous plot lines and dialogue-driven humor and then took the show on the road, filming part of the movie in New York to escape the studio’s oversight. 

The result is the last of Keaton’s great comedies, a simple story that drew on Keaton’s improvisatory talents and physical comedy and location shooting in the streets of New York and at Yankee Stadium. MGM brass were so taken with the film that they deemed it the model comedy and made it required viewing for every comedian they had under contract. Conveniently overlooking the fact that Keaton circumvented the studio formula at every turn, they interpreted the movie’s success as affirmation of tight studio control and from then on kept Keaton on a tight leash in an increasingly bland series of studio-bound comedies with creaky plot lines and weak humor. 

The Cameraman was restored by the Criterion Collection, Warner Bros. and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna. It shows Wednesday at 7 p.m with Timothy Brock conducting his own score performed by students from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  

Between those two films lay the festival’s usual wide-ranging fare. Highlights include Lon Chaney in West of Zanzibar, Erich Von Stroheim’s Wedding March, G.W. Pabst’s The Love of Jeanne New, John Ford’s Hell Bent, Marion Davies in Lights of Old Broadway, and Hiroshi Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbor. 

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, through Sunday, May 5, at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., silentfilm.org 

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