Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra | Credit: Pamela Gentile

The 2023 edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), in the Castro Theatre July 12–16, once again features prominent visiting musicians providing live accompaniment for screenings.

The largest, most prestigious festival devoted to silent film in North America, SFSFF will present 23 programs, including 15 recent film restorations (seven in their North American premieres), all with live musical accompaniment. The films come from six countries besides the U.S.: France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the former Czechoslovakia, and the Ukraine of Soviet times.

A partial list of the many participating musicians includes Wayne Barker (U.S.), Frank Bockius (Germany), Guenter Buchwald (Germany), Stephen Horne (U.K.), Masaru Koga (U.S.), Utsav Lal (U.K.), William Lewis (U.S.), Ben Model (U.S.), Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (U.S.), Maud Nelissen (Netherlands), and the Sascha Jacobsen Quartet (Argentina/U.S.).

The festival begins on July 12 with a restoration of Allan Dwan’s swashbuckling masterpiece The Iron Mask, starring Douglas Fairbanks. Musical accompaniment will be provided by the Guenter Buchwald Ensemble (Buchwald, Bockius, and Koga).

Maud Nelissen
Composer-performer Maud Nelissen, with an image of Mae Murray from The Merry Widow in the background | Courtesy of Maud Nelissen

SFSFF’s own restorations will have their world premieres at the festival: Flowing Gold, accompanied by Lal (July 14, 1 p.m.); Padlocked, music by Horne (July 14, 3 p.m.), and The Dragon Painter, with music by the Masaru Koga Ensemble (July 14, 7 p.m.).

A Stan & Ollie matinee on July 15 at 11 a.m. features three Hal Roach-produced silents by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy: The Second Hundred Years, Flying Elephants, and Battle of the Century, all with accompaniment by Barker.

The actor Edward Everett Horton, whose career in entertainment stretched all the way to the “Fractured Fairy Tales” of Rocky and Bullwinkle in the 1950s and ’60s, will be featured in a matinee screening of three films on July 16 at 11 a.m., with music by Model.

Fans of operetta will be in for a treat with the festival’s closing film, as Nelissen — Dutch composer, conductor, pianist, and silent-film accompanist — told SF Classical Voice.

The Merry Widow of Erich von Stroheim [will be played] with my music score, which is partly based upon the music of Franz Lehár and partly on my own music. I had the permission of the Lehár Estate to freely use the music, which, I think, is something special.

“It will be the chamber music version (I also made a score for symphony orchestra). I conduct from behind the piano, and it’s an inspirational collaboration with the Mont Alto Orchestra, with extended strings and percussion.”

The film version of The Merry Widow dates from 1934, about a decade after the dawn of the “talkies.” A lavish production, the film used Léhar’s original music and featured Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier.

Music fans will also be interested in the July 15 screening of Martin Frič’s 1929 The Organist at St. Vitus Cathedral, which Nelissen will accompany on piano and organ. “What makes the film very interesting,” Nelissen says, “is the artwork and the main character played by a very famous Czech actor-singer and war hero, Karel Hašler.”