San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2016

While kitchen calendars were being flipped to a fresh month, I was off on another short plane ride to northern California. This time around, I would be attending my first San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which I have been eagerly looking forward to. Despite being there for only one showing, my general impression of the festival was that it seemed to be in a very intimate setting, easily making me feel right at home with fellow silent film enthusiasts. Before diving into any festivities, though, I had a little bit of sightseeing to do.

The morning I arrived from my brief flight, my friend and I visited nearby Old Town Sacramento, where we decided to browse through some of the shops—including a bright and colorful store (located underground) that carries records, jukeboxes, and other musical treasures. It seems that no matter where I am, I will always end up going towards any sign of a record store like a moth to a flame.

We strolled up to the adjacent Sacramento River to see the Delta King riverboat (now a hotel), which was originally built in the 1920s. Not surprisingly, it eerily reminded us of Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) in a couple of ways: the first being that Buster Keaton used the local setting for the majority of his film (really, the town set was built just a hair’s breadth up the riverbank), and the second being that there is a steamboat by the name of “King” in the film—as my friend pointed out.

While we were mapping out our sightseeing locations before the trip began, I felt compelled to do a quick research session. It turns out that the boat (funnily enough) actually has some connection to Keaton. It was apparently used for filming in the 1960 version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which Keaton plays the part of a lion tamer.

Our next stop was at the California State Railroad Museum, which I thoroughly enjoyed. It has everything from life-sized locomotives to toy trains, all within a three-story building that actually seems larger on the inside than it appears. Of course, we were reminded of Buster once again, especially due to the engines that were evocative of those used in The General. Even that mannequin looks kinda like him. Okay, I’ll stop.

Once we arrived in San Francisco for our two-day stay, we stopped by the Conservatory of Flowers, a greenhouse that was built in 1878. The crisp white Victorian exterior (with a lovely multicolored rim of stained glass) is filled with all kinds of exotic flora. Considering that I love flowers, I just had to stop by.

The homes all around town are some of the cutest I’ve ever seen, and I kept pressing my face to the window all throughout our visit, even as we left for the beautiful Castro Theatre the morning of our long-awaited screening…

Saturday, June 4th: The Battle of the Century and Other Comedy Restorations

We arrived at the theater with enough time to spare, and secured a lucky parking spot just around the corner. Once we picked up our tickets, we found seats on the left-hand side towards the back. We still had a clear view of the screen, and of the surrounding gorgeous interior. Built in 1922, I’m amazed and grateful that such a gem of a movie palace is still running today.

The president of the festival spoke a few words and shortly introduced Leonard Maltin to the podium, who mainly talked about each of the four films that were to be shown in the program. He eventually handed the spotlight over to John Mirsalis, who doubled as presenter and pianist. The highlight of his presentation was when he shared some details about how he found the missing reel for Laurel & Hardy’s The Battle of the Century—which was obtained from a collector, if I remember correctly. When Mirsalis noticed there was a full second reel, some doubt started to rise. That is, until he started to project it and saw scenes that were unfamiliar to his eyes. The rest is history. It was great seeing the film again in a different city, though the effect was the same: laughs all the way. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard such wall-to-wall uproarious laughter as I have in that particular moment. It echoed beautifully around the theater.

Without skipping a beat, Buster Keaton’s Cops (1922) played next, followed by The Balloonatic (1923). The restoration work was sparkling with clarity, and I’m thrilled to add these two short films to my growing list of Keaton screenings, especially since the latter holds a special place in my heart. A child sitting behind us kept giggling all throughout each of Buster’s moments onscreen, and it just goes to show that the festival’s motto rings true: true art transcends time.

The last film shown was a very short film (dating all the way back from 1907) called Le cochon danseur, otherwise known as The Dancing Pig. It was… very peculiar, to say in the least.

After the program was over, we went up to the mezzanine to browse through various assortments of festival merchandise, books, DVDs, and other small gifts available for purchase. Strangely, I left empty-handed, but the two hours I experienced at the festival were enough to make me want to return for more silent film fun.

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