In the last few years, leaps and bounds have taken The San Francisco Silent Film Festival to new heights of ambition and stature. The 17th San Francisco Silent Film Festival running July 12-15, 2012 at the Castro Theatre bears that out in what has been the institution's banner year thus far. The Fest topped itself with its historic presentation, earlier this year, of Abel Gance's Napoleon, exhibited in Kevin Brownlow’s complete 5 1/2 hour restoration (including the three-screen “Polyvision” finale) with Carl Davis conducting his score live at Oakland's Paramount Theatre.
How can the Fest top that? Perhaps it can't, but four days of classic and rare silents in the historic Castro Theatre will make a go of it, with plenty of special programs and guests adding luster. The fun kicks off Opening Night with the recently restored winner of the first Best Picture Oscar: William Wellman's 1927 "magnificent men in their flying machines" epic Wings. Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra with Foley sound effects by Ben Burtt, the picture will be introduced by William Wellman, Jr., with an Opening Night Party to follow at the historic McRoskey Mattress Company.
I'm particularly excited about South (Saturday, July 14 at 5pm), Frank Hurley's 1919 documentary account of Ernest Shackleton's 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, to be narrated live by actor Paul McGann (Withnail & I, Doctor Who). And there's just no going wrong with closing film The Cameraman (Sunday, July 15 at 7:30pm), a great 1928 comedy starring the brilliant Buster Keaton and accompanied live by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. McGann will appear live at this event as well, narrating Georges Méliès' famous short "A Trip to the Moon" (which will precede The Cameraman). Though Mont Alto is a mainstay, my preference is for Mighty Wurlitzer accompaniment, which can be found this year--performed by Dennis James--with another certified silent classic, The Mark of Zorro (July 15 at 10am) with Douglas Fairbanks handling the swashbuckling.
These choices might seem rather obvious, but I've only scratched the surface. One of the best elements of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has always been its adventurous programming of off-the-beaten path titles, especially the foreign ones. This year's program includes three German films, the aforementioned South from Great Britain, and one film each from China, Sweden, and the USSR. Casual film fans will probably already know G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (July 14 at 7pm), but will they know Sun Yu's Little Toys (Friday, July 13 at 1pm)? We've all heard of The Irrepressible Felix the Cat (July 14 at 10am), but how many have seen Grigori Kozintsev's Gogol adaptation The Overcoat (July 14 at 10pm)?
It's no wonder that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is cherished by cinemaphiles, including regular attendees Alexander Payne (the Oscar-winning screenwriter and director), film critic Leonard Maltin (Maltin will co-intro The Cameraman this year, with Frank Buxton), and leading noir expert Eddie Muller, who will introduce Stella Dallas this year (July 15 at 4:30pm). You don't want to miss out, believe me: whether you're a silent film expert or curious to see your first silent film, The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is a treasure of film exhibition that's yours for the taking. Get your tickets here.