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article imageOp-Ed: San Francisco Silent Film Festival an archive of film history Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Jul 16, 2011 in Entertainment
Lines were forming an hour before the 2 PM matinee started for “Huckleberry Finn” on July 15 at the Castro Theater. San Franciscans are very enthusiastic about the 16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Unfortunately this reporter missed the Opening Night on Thursday with a gala celebration. Yet the matinee was still thrilling to attend and to this reporter’s surprise Lenard Maltin of television’s “Entertainment Tonight” was among the movie-goers as an honored guest.
Maltin has been to the SF Silent Film Festival before and was pleased to attend again as Maltin loves movies and movie history.
Founded in 1992 by Melissa Chittick and Stephen Salmons, over 1,800 people came to the first festival, and annual attendance has grown over the years to nearly 11,000.
The organization now involves a nine-person board of directors, a staff of four, a 22-member advisory committee, and more than a hundred event volunteers.
Judy Wyler Sheldon serves as chair for the Board of Directors for the film festival. This reporter had the privilege to meet and speak to her in person as she and many others like Bruce Goldstein were gathered in the upstairs lounge for the "Tales from the Archives" luncheon that included a lecture and presentation on historic film preservation.
“When people see a silent film, they are seeing a piece of history. Silent films are the history of movies,” said Sheldon.
She noted that movies are a historical record and movies in in their earliest days were not just something in America. People from all over the world were making films, it quickly became a universal art form.
The film festival strives each year to bring to San Francisco silent films from all over the world.
Bruce Goldstein who serves on the festival’s advisor committee agreed with Sheldon as he said, “I especially like the music.” Both he and Sheldon noted that seeing a silent film on the big screen with an audience is part of the movie experience.
“You can’t duplicate that experience at home with the television,” Sheldon said. “You have to experience it on the big screen with an audience in a place like this, the Castro Theater, “she said.
Sheldon also said that San Francisco was so fortunate to have one of the few remaining examples of the original movie theater palaces of that silent film era.
The grandest and most luxurious of all the movie palaces was the Fox Theater on Market Street near 10th Street. Unfortunately, it got torn down in the 1960’s because it was considered outdated and too big to upkeep.
"People at that time tried to save it but it was demolished," said Joseph Bartlow. He now lives near Mount Shasta in Northern California. Yet he likes to visit San Francisco his former home, for events such as this.
This is perhaps why, according to Bartlow, San Franciscans are so protective of The Castro Theater and cherish the opportunity to see vintage films through venues like the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
“We only select the best films,” said Sheldon. Yet she also noted that without such festivals and the auxiliary groups to help them, many films important to film history would be lost.
The staff at the SF Silent Film Festival believes the best way to truly appreciate the power and beauty of a silent film is by seeing it as it was meant to be seen. And, that is on the big screen with live musical accompaniment.
For the past fifteen years, the staff at the film festival have hand-selected the finest 35mm prints, engaged leading musicians to compose and perform live era-authentic musical scores, and invited filmmakers, authors, stars, archivists, and scholars to provide context and commentary for each film.
And, it seems such dedication has reaped the benefits because each year, the festival grows. It now includes frequent “mini-festivals” that allow movie-goers to see a classic silent film throughout the year, not just at festival time.
Like Sheldon, Rory O’Connor was introduced to the film festival by friends and then became a volunteer. Now he serves as a captain of volunteers helping to keep the flow of the lines of patrons moving along and answering questions, etc. for each of the 16 or more films and shorts that are shown for the four-day festival.
“We do very well as we have 20 to 25 or more of volunteers for each of the shifts during the festival,” said O’Connor. Shifts usually begin with the morning showing at 10 AM and continue until after 11 or in some instances after Midnight, depending upon the running time of the film.
“Every person who volunteers gets a ticket as payment to see a film,” said O’Connor. He noted that offering tickets to anyone who volunteers is a great way to attract people to the festival. “And not only to see a film at the festival but also to support the festival,” he said.
Many people this reporter interviewed said that they became more involved with the festival after they had volunteered. Many attending were festival pass holders such as Gretta & Ray de Groat; they were among those who showed up in 1920’s era costumes.
Steven Russell, also a festival pass holder commuted from the Peninsula about 30 minutes away from the City to attend the festival.
“I have been coming to the Silent Film Festival for about six years now and I quickly became a festival pass holder,” said Russell.
He noted that buying a pass works out well, because as he said, “I like movies in general,” he said. “And the silent movies in particular, he added, have a lot of historical aspects to them.” “But what I really like most is the live music that accompanies the film,” said Russell.
Donald Sosin provided the accompaniment on piano for the matinee of “Huckleberry Finn” that Thursday afternoon. And, even though the film was faded in parts with pieces missing and a script that was embellished from Mark Twain’s original book, the audience was still enthralled.
Certainly many in the audience were wise to some the naive notions of the world as depicted by filmmakers of the 1920’s. Yet, it seemed to this reporter, that afternoon that the audience still marveled at the artistry. Directed by William Desmond Taylor and released in 1927 “Huckleberry Finn” was almost lost entirely. But a foreign release print was found, most of the titles in Dutch and was painstakingly restored.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival ends on Sunday, July 17. But the staff continues to prepare for not only next year’s festival but the “mini-festivals” throughout the year. In March of next year the SF Film Festival will present "Napoleon" by director Abel Gance. Donations and benefactors are needed and of course, volunteers are always welcome.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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