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Music of the Silents at the Castro Theater, June 1–4

May 19, 2017

Music is an important component of most movies, but in case of the old silents, music is essential. Each year, as San Francisco’s famed Silent Film Festival unfolds, it’s live music at screenings, rather than soundtracks, because synchronized sound came later.

Silent-era films, some from a century ago, are accompanied by accomplished musicians from around the world in the magnificent movie palace of the Castro Theater (itself 95 years young), fans filling the 1,400 seats to view films on the big screen.

Among the star musicians participating in the festival: Donald Sosin, who will accompany the Amazing Tales from the Archives program (10 a.m., June 2), The Dumb Girl of Portici (3:30 p.m., June 2), Magic and Mirth (10 a.m., June 3), and The Three Musketeers (8:15 p.m., June 4).

Other musicians performing at the festival are DJ Spooky, the Alloy Orchestra, Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, Frank Bockius, Guenter Buchwald, Stephen Horne, Sascha Jacobsen, Matti Bye Ensemble, and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

The Dumb Girl of Portici is of special interest to balletomanes, starring legendary dancer Anna Pavlova, who was at the height of her fame when she teamed up with director Lois Weber to make the film in 1916. Pavlova choreographed, produced, and starred in this epic, Universal’s most expensive production to that date and the first blockbuster ever directed by a woman. Set in mid-17th-century, Spanish-occupied Naples, Pavlova’s mute fisher girl sparks a revolution.

Opening night, June 1, features one of the most durable silents, the 1925 Harold Lloyd comedy, The Freshman. Local angle: The film’s climactic football game was filmed at UC Berkeley’s Memorial Stadium. The UCLA Film and Television Archive restoration is accompanied by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, a group of student composers and instrumentalists from Boston’s Berklee College of Music, under the leadership of Sheldon Mirowitz.

The 2017 festival features numerous new film restorations, including two full-length titles SFSFF has had a direct hand in restoring: the 1921 Three Musketeers and the 1926 Silence. The roster includes films from France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Poland, Sweden, UK, Russia, and the USA.

The 2017 Festival Award will be presented to the Netherland’s EYE Filmmuseum on June 3, at the screening of the EYE-restored 1915 Italian futuristic crime adventure, Filibus. Accompanied by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the film is about “Baroness de Troixmonde’s secret — her alternate identity is a criminal mastermind called Filibus. The masked sky-pirate flies around in her Zeppelin, manned by black-suited, masked, obedient male acolytes, committing crimes and toying with the police.” (They don’t make movies like that anymore!)

The festival is dedicated to film preservationist David Shepard, who recently died. Shepard was responsible for the preservation and restoration of hundreds of silent-era titles, including several restorations — The Lost World, 1925; A Page of Madness, 1926 — to be screened in this year’s festival. The program Magic and Mirth, shown at 10 a.m. June 3, includes a collection of short films in tribute to Shepard.


Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].