Dinosaurs and the It Girl: The SF Silent Film Festival Returns June 1

Plus Paul Robeson (in dual roles!) and Douglas Fairbanks at his most swashbuckling-iest.

In an age of streaming movies and social media feeds that are blowing up with “must-see” videos of every stripe, how does the San Francisco Silent Film Festival guarantee a full house for its annual program of century-old cinema at the Castro Theater?

Simple: by bookending a diverse array of dramas, comedies, and curiosities with two of the surest of surefire crowd-pleasers. The festival opens Thursday night, June 1, with Harold Lloyd, the undisputed box office champion of silent clowns, in The Freshman (1925), his genre-defining collegiate comedy, and concludes Sunday night with the irrepressible Douglas Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers (1921), an early entry in the actor’s enormously popular series of swashbuckling action adventures.

But these popular American films just scratch the surface of this year’s festival. Between them are three days of cinematic treasures brought to life by some of the world’s foremost practitioners of live silent film musical accompaniment.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers (Jeffrey Vance)

Friday’s offerings include Get Your Man (1927), a long-neglected vehicle for “It Girl” Clara Bow, and The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), which was produced and choreographed by its star, the legendary ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, and helmed by an equally legendary woman, pioneering director Lois Weber. Friday’s marquee event is the screen debut of actor-singer-athlete-activist Paul Robeson playing dual roles in Oscar Michaux’s Body and Soul (1921). Robeson plays an escaped convict masquerading as a preacher as well as the convict’s twin brother.

Saturday starts with Magic and Mirth, a program of short films rediscovered and restored by the late silent film preservationist David Shepard. The day’s highlight is one of cinema’s touchstones, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), which employs the director’s signature montage theory and features one of the screen’s most indelible moments — a baby carriage plunging down the Odessa steps after the child’s mother is shot by soldiers trying to quell the revolution.

Among Sunday’s screenings is A Man There Was (1917), one of many stirring, poetic films made by Victor Sjöström, who almost singlehandedly launched Sweden’s golden age of cinema. The best elements of Sjöström’s art are in evidence in his adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s epic poem: soul-searching drama, elegant camerawork, and a deep appreciation of the natural landscape. A Man There Was is followed by The Lost World (1925), the first of many screen adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel, which shows the Amazon overrun by stop-motion dinosaurs designed by Oakland-born Willis O’Brien, the man who would later animate the greatest of stop-motion cinematic creatures, King Kong.  

Nine other screenings round out this year’s festival, all accompanied by the festival’s usual stable of musicians — Stephen Horne, Guenter Buchwald, Frank Bockius, Donald Sosin, Berkelee Silent Film Orchestra, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Alloy Orchestra, Matti Bye Ensemble — and this year joined by Washington, D.C.-based electronic musician DJ Spooky, who will perform his score for Body and Soul.  

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Thursday-Sunday, June 1-4, at the Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., silentfilm.org 

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