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With Seán Martinfield

Seán Martinfield
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

THE SOUND OF SILENTS - Words and Music at the 11th Annual Silent Film Festival

By Seán Martinfield

July 18, 2006

"True art transcends time" was the controlling theme of this past weekend's 11th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre. Beginning with Friday night's screening of the 1927 romantic classic, SEVENTH HEAVEN, starring Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor, the event proved to be a magnificent success for Artistic Director Stephen Salmons and Operations and Festival Director Stacey Wisnia. To the finest of musical accompaniment pouring from the grand piano, the pipes of the Mighty Wurlitzer, and two highly acclaimed Bay Area orchestras, the innovative and sparkling zeal of the Past blissfully marched down the aisle with the valiance and driving determination of the Present. The word is out - what was once regarded as a dead and vanished Art Form has risen up and called into being new branches of Creativity and Industrial endeavor, inspiring architectural designs to forever house and fortify its revered silvery spirits of Light, and to offer its devoted students the Academic wreath of Master of Arts.

Opening Night guest speakers included the very gracious Robin Adrian (son of celebrated MGM costume designer Gilbert Adrian and Janet Gaynor) introducing SEVENTH HEAVEN and celebrating the centennial of his mother's birth. Come Saturday morning, a major highlight was the on-stage appearance of Joseph McBride, author of "Searching for John Ford: A Life", and his delightful exchange with special guest star Harry Carey, Jr. Still very spry, sharp and amusing, the 85-year-old veteran actor of 146 films is the son of silent western leading man Harry Carey who had just lit up the screen in director John Ford's 1917 cowboys-to-the-rescue, BUCKING BROADWAY. As author of "Company of Heroes: My Life as an Actor in the John Ford Stock Company", the junior Carey joined Mr. McBride at the autograph table to greet their fans and exchange favorite anecdotes. As a longtime Festival sponsor, The Booksmith (located on Haight Street) always provides a very welcomed array of publications by film historians, critics, and biographers. Among this year's glittering list of invited authors were a number originating from the Bay Area, including Jack Tillmany ("Theaters of San Francisco"); Jim Van Buskirk ("Celluloid San Francisco: The Film Lover's Guide to Bay Area Movie Locations"); and the very distinguished Scott O'Brien ("Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to Be Forgotten"), guest lecturer from the Danger and Despair Noir Festival.

The Festival roster was international in its scope, including eight feature length films, three shorts of Laurel & Hardy, selected trailers, out-takes, and five amazing newsreels covering the 1906 Earthquake. Among this treasured footage of Old San Francisco was "A Trip Down Market Street" - captured just four days before the disaster struck by then resident production team, the Miles Brothers. Back again Sunday morning (on the most glorious summer day yet seen in the Castro District), the darkened theatre was packed for a free admission gift - a Lecture / Demonstration, "Amazing Tales From The Archives", given by representatives from Haghefilm Conservation, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, and Pacific Film Archive. The major point, of course, was to stress the importance and urgency of preserving the world's cinematic art and to demonstrate - as monies and minds collaborate - how that happens. Throughout the "power points" and projected samplings of miraculous restorations to what seemed to be the doomed mileage of the previous Century's highly flammable nitrate-based film stock, one could feel the transforming waves of hope and inspiration taking hold of the viewers. By the end of the presentation, it was our collective imagination on fire for this growing field of film technology. Equally ardent (now with a more-informed perspective) the warmest appreciation for the Benefactors and all manner of Guarantors, Staff and Patrons of the Silent Film Festival - "where supply meets demand".

Providing the voice and life's blood to Hollywood's first tier of gods and goddesses are the superb musicians providing non-stop accompaniment. On the Castro Theatre's Mighty Wurlitzer, famed organist Clark Wilson demonstrated remarkable versatility and resourcefulness between the hearts and flowers scoring of SEVENTH HEAVEN and the psychologically challenging opportunities of PANDORA'S BOX. As hoped, Mr. Clark's initial rendering and later variations on "Diane", the evergreen romantic theme of SEVENTH HEAVEN, reflected and bolstered the passionate exchanges of the incredibly handsome Charles Farrell and diminutive Janet Gaynor. For the iconic Louise Brooks and the atmosphere of Berlin and the Weimar Republic still contained in a Pandora's box, Mr. Wilson drew upon themes and rhythmic patterns from the musicals THREEPENNY OPERA, THE MERRY WIDOW, and CABARET. For the concluding feature, SHOW PEOPLE and its romantic leads Marion Davies (mistress to William Randolph Hearst) and William Haines (faithfully partnered to his one-time stand-in Jimmy Shields for 50 years), organist Dennis James was the perfect choice. His performance history including extensive tours with silent stars Lillian Gish, Myrna Loy and Charles "Buddy" Rogers for revivals of their films, Mr. James brings the definitive "Hollywood" touch.

At the grand piano, without benefit of sheet music or candelabra, were pianists Michael Mortilla and Jon Mirsalis. Mr. Mortilla accompanied the rough-riding BUCKING BROADWAY and the melodramatic tale of SPARROWS starring America's Sweetheart, Mary Pickford. In both cases, Mr. Mortilla's improvisational skills and hawk-eyed attention to the action of the screen resulted in perfect musical portraits awash with clear-cut chord structures, cascading arpeggios, tender and amusing intimacies contrasted by increasingly bombastic build-ups for fearless cowboys to the rescue or hungry alligators in relentless pursuit of homeless orphans. Mr. Mirsalis, on the other hand, brought a more controlled and classical approach to Lon Chaney's THE UNHOLY THREE - the story of three thieving carnival performers: a cross-dressing ventriloquist, a cigar-smoking midget pretending to be a baby, and a nervous muscle-bound thug named "Hercules" who winds up in the jaws of an orangutan. Classy.

In an unusual twist, jazz ensemble The Hot Club of San Francisco was brought in to accompany the splendid French entry, AU BONHEUR DES DAMES. Set in Paris, exploiting the heights of French Art Deco, the members of this ensemble do not exaggerate their name - they are le jazz HOT. If you know the lyrics to some of their accompaniment choices, i.e., Night and Day, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, and Embraceable You, then an even deeper intrigue develops with their relationship to subtext and subtlety. Go out of your way to purchase their recordings. Get a guaranteed underscore for your next romantic rendezvous.

As brilliant and unexpected was the Balka Ensemble for the 1927 Russian romantic comedy, THE GIRL WITH THE HATBOX. A Traditional ensemble featuring Russian folk music, the group makes exquisite use of the balalaika and domra. Featured in the film is the lovely Anna Sten who would later become known as "Goldwyn's Folly" - that being the very mistaken belief of producer Samuel Goldwyn who brought her to America believing he could turn her into another Garbo. (Why?!) For the rest of us, it was the completely unknown but nevertheless infatuating leading man, Ivan Koval-Samborsky, for whom the balalaikas tolled the familiar, "When you are in love, it's the loveliest night of the year." To top the story off, the lovers win the Russian Lottery. Garbo never had it so good.

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