Anita Monga, Artistic Director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, is a treasure trove of all things to do with silent cinema. Every time I talk with her, I learn something new, and every year at the festival that she oversees so lovingly, I see a selection of films that are the perfect distillation of everything the silent era had to offer, including films that haven’t been seen in decades, sometimes not since the time before films had spoken dialogue.
This year, those discoveries include the legendary William Gillette in his only screen appearance, but that appearance was in (and as) SHERLOCK HOLMES. Gillette was considered the definitive Holmes of his time, having toured in the stage version for many years before the performance was recorded for posterity in 1916.
When I spoke with Monga on May 18, 2015, that’s where I started the conversation. We went on to discuss the other re-discovered film, THE CAVE OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, from China, and the spectrum of films from the silent era, including avant-garde shorts from France, a tone poem of a film in Sweden’s PAN, and triumphant return to the festival of John Gilbert in FLESH AND THE DEVIL, co-starring Greta Garbo. The film was the start of that legendary pair’s equal legendary, not to mention, tempestuous love affair that
Also of note in the festival is a film that has been in post-production for 100 years, BERT WILLIAMS: LIME KILN CLUB FIELD DAY, one of the first films made by African-Americans and featuring an all African-American cast.
This year’s festival also, and for the first time, includes a trivia quiz with prizes, a cornucopia of films featuring some of the biggest women stars of the day, a commemoration of World War I’s centenary with ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, a look at Technicolor in the silent era with BEN-HUR, followed by an on-stage interview with film historian Kevin Brownlow conducted by the ebullient Serge Bromberg, founder and director of Lobster Films.Bromberg will also be sharing the work of Charley Bowers, an unjustly forgotten comedian whose work was, perhaps, too far ahead of its time.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival celebrates 20 years of bringing classic films to a grateful public with a packed program that includes Harold Lloyd in SPEEDY, as well as a bracing program of French avant-garde shorts, another installment of Thrilling Tales from the Archives featuring top archivists in top form discussing their latest restorations, and SHERLOCK HOLMES, the long lost 1916 film marking the only film appearance of William Gillette, and it’s in his signature role, will make its San Francisco debut, as will one of the first narrative features about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, WHEN THE EARTH TREMBLED. The ebullient Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films will reintroduce us all to the puckish world of Charley Bowers with his tippling elephants, and will be in conversation with film historian Kevin Brownlow as a fitting finale to the festival. The 20th anniversary of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival runs from May 28 to June 1.
For more information about the Silent Film Festival’s 20th anniversary, as well as its year-round programming and membership opportunities, click here.