San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2024: Finding Clara Bow, Swashbuckling Restorations, & More

For its 27th edition, the festival presented 20 features and six short films over five days.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2024
Photo: San Francisco Silent Film Festival

For over 25 years, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival called the Castro Theatre home. With the iconic theater now closed for a year-plus-long renovation, SFSFF has relocated to the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, located in a beautiful park created for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition at the north edge of the Presidio. The auditorium, primarily a performance space, seats nearly a thousand and features a spacious foyer where passholders could visit and relax between shows (particularly useful on chilly weekends).

SFSFF prides itself on mixing landmark productions and audience favorites with rediscoveries, revelations, and rarities, often recently uncovered and restored. And for its 27th edition this year, the festival presented 20 features and six short films over five days, all with live musical scores by some of the finest silent film accompanists in the world.

The opening night film, Albert Parker’s 1926 swashbuckler The Black Pirate, certainly qualifies as both landmark and favorite. This rousing adventure, starring Douglas Fairbanks as the genial gentleman pirate, was shot on full-sized ships that give it a tremendous scope. It was also a groundbreaking experiment in Technicolor filmmaking, only the fourth feature shot entirely in color, and it was presented in a brand new restoration mastered from original camera negatives and a wealth of original archival prints. For the first time ever, the distinctive palette of the two-strip technology was accurately recreated for modern audiences.


Other familiar audience pleasers included Sherlock Jr., Buster Keaton’s self-aware 1924 short feature that ingeniously plays with filmmaking tools, and Harold Lloyd’s sweet 1927 comedy The Kid Brother. And in a more somber and serious vein, two Swedish masterpieces (and two of Slant’s favorite horror films of all time), Benjamin Christensen’s first-of-its-kind horror essay film Hxan from 1922 (with the Matti Bye Ensemble reprising its spare, eerie, evocative score created for the film’s 2010 festival showing) and Victor Sjstrm’s influential 1921 supernatural morality tale The Phantom Carriage, were among the more famous classics on display.

While these films are available on disc and streaming in excellent editions, the opportunity to see them on the screen with live music made them live again in a way that home viewings can’t capture. SFSFF doesn’t just revive silent films with big-screen presentations accompanied by live music. It restores films, creating both digital editions that can be screened around the world and 35mm preservation prints that are deposited with the Library of Congress.

The Black Pirate is easily the most iconic pirate film of the silent era, but it was Frank Lloyd’s The Sea Hawk, from 1924, that launched the genre and created many of the conventions carried on through the sound era. More accurate to Rafael Sabatini’s novel than the 1940 Errol Flynn remake, it stars Milton Sills as a heroic British sea captain who, betrayed by his brother and enslaved by the Spanish, gives his loyalty to the Moors and becomes the legendary Sakr-el-Bahr, the hawk of the sea, pillaging the Spanish fleet for the glory of his caliph.


A drama of rivalry, betrayal, and revenge, the film brazenly sails through waters that Hollywood wouldn’t dare dip their toes into just a few years later: a hero who renounces Christianity due to the inhuman practices condoned by Spanish clergy and a British aristocrat who embraces the culture of the Moors and remains loyal to his Caliph and to his Muslim sailors to the end. Where Fairbanks grins wide as he leaps, swings, and crosses swords with acrobatic glee, Sills has the solid presence of a leader, led by conviction and honor, and if he’s more grounded than Fairbanks, his character radiates a sense of command that earns the respect of his men.

Herbert Brenon’s Dancing Mothers, a mix of domestic melodrama and Jazz Age excess from 1926, is best known, if at all, for Clara Bow’s deliciously uninhibited performance in a supporting turn as a teenage flapper, Catherine (a.k.a. Kittens), throwing herself into an affair with a notorious society gigolo, Jerry (Conway Tearle). But the film belongs to the elegant Alice Joyce, playing the devoted mother, Ethel, abandoned by her daughter and philandering husband, Hugh (Norman Trevor), who party their nights away in speakeasies and nightclubs.

When Ethel dares step out herself, taking on an exotic persona to lure Jerry away from Kittens, Joyce lets you see the rediscovered sense of empowerment that she’s suppressed for years. Bow does indeed steal the scenes where she lets her character’s jazz baby essence run wild—she pops like a champagne cork while invading the apartment of her would-be paramour—but Joyce carries the film with understated grace as she discovers the strength to live her own life, and the film ends on a note of liberation and maturity rarely seen in classic Hollywood cinema.


On the subject of Bow, the festival presented the world premiere of the work-in-progress restoration of the 1923 short “The Pill Pounder,” featuring an early supporting performance by the future “it girl.” You may have heard of its rediscovery at a warehouse auction in Omaha, Nebraska, just a few months ago. The surviving reel had been cut down and its intertitles removed in the ’60s, when many silent shorts were recut and repurposed for TV (often accompanied by snarky narration), but while contextualizing shots and setups have clearly been removed, it’s quite easy to follow. The search for missing footage is underway, and it just may be sitting in another film can somewhere in the pallets sold off to other collectors. (Both Dancing Mothers and “The Pill Pounder” are SFSFF restorations.)

The Lady, a 1925 melodrama about a showgirl who marries a spoiled rich kid and ends up betrayed and abandoned, is more conventional in theme than Dancing Mothers, but Frank Borzage’s sensitive direction and Norma Talmadge’s nuanced performance gives the tormented young woman a powerful emotional journey. It’s a twist on the Stella Dallas tale of a sacrificial mother who accepts misery to save her child and this one jumps from London to Monte Carlo to a dive of a tavern on the docks of Marseilles. Talmadge ages 20 years in the role and looks even older—there’s no vanity in her embrace of the woman aged far beyond her years by a hard life—and never overplays the role, whether she’s a pathetic flower seller looking for a lost son the face of every child she sees or the desperate mother who smiles through the heartache to distract an imperious millionaire who has determined her an unfit mother.

The Pill Pounder
Clara Bow in “The Pill Pounder.” San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Harry A. Pollard’s 1926 bedroom farce Poker Faces stars Edward Everett Horton as Jimmy, a company man known for keeping his feelings hidden behind an implacable expression. Then a spat propels his wife, Betty (Laura La Plante), out of the apartment and into a job with his boss on the eve of an important business dinner and his face becomes an open book of alarm, anxiety, and desperation. It’s a classic comedy of phony fronts, misunderstandings, and obstinate pride cascading into absurdly complicated situations involving a masher of a client and an actress with a jealous husband posing as Betty. Horton, so memorable for his fussy comic turns in supporting roles through the ’30s and ’40s, is marvelous as a leading man; his whole body amplifies the turmoil and panic that plays across his expressive face.


Silent Ukrainian cinema was showcased with the 1929 The Opportunist, an absurdist satire of post-Revolutionary Russia set in the chaos of the revolution. A schlub of a scheming everyman attempts to scavenge the spoils of war, scrambling across the countryside on a camel while being captured, conscripted, and promoted by the Bolsheviks, the White Russians, and a bandit brigade fighting both armies. Context helped understand the politics, thanks to enlightening introductory remarks, but unnecessary to enjoy the farcical nature of the comic adventure.

Star Ivan Sadovsky could be Ukraine’s answer to Nathan Lane, a stout comic actor who flashes a dazed smile and proclaims himself a comrade to everyone he meets, then proceeds to figure out how he can profit from his new situation. Yet the bizarre image of the camel strolling among the soldiers and horses, staring deadpan at the chaos while contentedly munching on whatever grain is at hand, practically steals the film. No surprise, it was banned by Soviet authorities immediately after its premier and practically disappeared until its recent rediscovery.

The Street, from 1923, gave its title to a whole genre of Weimar cinema: the street film, with its sad and sometimes sordid dramas of life in impoverished slums and decadent, debauched clubs. Don’t expect realism from this simple but evocative tale of a bored and restless middle-class husband (Eugen Klpfer) who flees his wife (Lucie Hflich) for the energy and excitement promised in the shadows that play across the ceiling of his claustrophobic apartment.


Just like the more overtly expressionist cinema of the era, shadows dominate and the man’s conscience seems to appear everywhere, such as a pair of eyes in a neon sign that blink to life, watching him creep after Aud Egede-Nissen’s beautiful young con woman (she’s already clocked him as an easy mark). There’s something uniquely and memorably primal in the direction by Karl Grune, who ably straddles social realism and expressionist nightmare across the The Street’s studio recreation of the city at night, where the decadent nightclubs are filled with both sophisticates and provincials, and criminals wait for the innocents to stray into their webs.

On the other end of the street is G.W. Pabst’s The Devious Path, from 1928, with Brigitte Helm as Irene, the neglected wife of a workaholic lawyer husband, Dr. Thomas Beck (Gustav Diessl), who, disdainful of her bohemian friends, essentially makes her a prisoner in their anonymously elegant home. She flees to the apartment of a handsome but poor young artist, Walter Frank (Jack Trevor), and then a nightclub to lose herself in drink, drugs, and the attentions of a boxing champion, Sam Taylor (Nico Turoff).

Where The Street is blanketed in darkness, the decadence here plays out in brightly lit rooms against creamy white walls where beautiful people let inhibitions go. Sometimes too far, as a coke-addled beauty on a self-destructive spiral lures Irene into a taste of the forbidden and glimpse of the dark side of this kind of “freedom.” Helm is incandescent as Irene, proud and petulant, bristling against the constraints and emotional indifference of her oblivious husband, yet finding little joy in her headlong escape into decadence and sensation.


This year, SFSFF closed with the debut of another new restoration, James Cruze’s The Red Mark, a 1928 prison drama inspired by the Devil’s Island prison colony in French Guiana. It’s a trifle of a romantic melodrama with a lovely French lass (Nina Quartero) living outside the prison walls, a cocky, newly released young pickpocket (Gaston Glass) in love with her, and the corrupt, brutal warden (Gustav von Seyffertitz) who wants the girl for his wife. There isn’t much to the story and it has even less of an ending, but Cruze creates a marvelous colonial world in the South Seas, a town of former convicts and descendants living under the glare of a warden who rules the island like a dictator and personally operates the prison guillotine.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival ran from April 10—14.

Sean Axmaker

Sean Axmaker has written for Turner Classic Movies Online, The Seattle Weekly, Keyframe, and Cinephiled. He is the editor of Parallax View and was the film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for nine years.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

Interview: Taylor Mac on Time-Travelling and Gender-Switching in Orlando

Next Story

Boy Kills World Review: A Jacked-Up Parade of Soulless Ultraviolence