San Francisco Silent Film Fest 2018: Ranking the Films

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The 2018 San Francisco Silent Film Fest is quickly approaching, and Silent Film Quarterly editor Charles Epting is thrilled to be attending for the first time. Over the next few weeks we will be running several preview blog posts out of sheer eagerness and anticipation.

I have gone through the schedule of the festival and (subjectively) ranked all 20 feature films in order of how excited I am to see them. I will come clean and admit that it was impossible to keep personal biases out of mind in some instances (looking at you, People On Sunday), but I have tried to be as fair and diplomatic as possible. I am certain that some movies will be unexpected treats, and others will be comparative letdowns. I will of course provide post-festival coverage both here and in the magazine, and we can see how my rankings hold up.

So without further ado, my way-too-early ranking of the SFSFF’s 2018 offerings…

20. The Man Who Laughs
Few people will question the brilliance of this film; the only reason it doesn’t appear higher on this list is the fact that it appears relatively commonplace alongside some of the more esoteric, rare, and forgotten titles being presented.

19. The Lighthouse Keepers
One of the very first films directed by the celebrated Jean Grémillon, the plot revolves around a father and son off the coast of Brittany. Psychologically thrilling to the point of being considered “horror” by some commentators.

18. Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness
Effectively a piece of Russian-produced Communist propaganda, this film gives an interesting (but ultimately depressing) look into the last years of the Weimar Republic. Certainly an important piece of late-1920s German cinema.

17. Ancient Law
The story of the son of an orthodox Rabbi who becomes an actor, this timeless plot perhaps inspired The Jazz Singer several years later. An exceptional cast (including Werner Krauss and Henny Porten) and E.A. Dupont’s direction should make this worthwhile.

16. Soft Shoes
Harry Carey was already 17 years into his acting career when Soft Shoes came out, and while it might not be one of his more memorable films it is certainly exciting simply for its rarity. Add the talented Lillian Rich, and this might be an unexpected highlight.

15. Master of the House
For many people, the incredible career of Carl Theodor Dreyer begins with Joan of Arc. A 2014 Criterion release of Master of the House fortunately introduced it to a wider audience, but its inclusion in the festival lineup will surely inspire at least a few new viewers.

14. The Other Woman’s Story
One of the last films produced by B.P. Schulberg before Preferred Pictures folded, The Other Woman’s Story is all but forgotten today but elicited positive reviews upon its release. This should prove to be an interesting murder mystery.

13. Fragment of an Empire
Too many people are only familiar with Russian silent cinema through the works of Eisenstein. Fragment of an Empire, a typical propaganda film, helped kickstart the career of the important director Frederick Ermler. Should be visually stimulating.

12. Good References
Good References is probably a good representative of the two dozen or so comedies Constance Talmadge made between 1918 and 1922. With a fairly strong supporting cast, I expect this film to be funny but nothing to write home about.

11. Policeman
Tomu Uchida’s career spanned over five decades, but Policeman is one of his only early films that survives today. As an early gangster film, it should prove for interesting comparisons with contemporary American movies.

10. An Inn in Tokyo
Yasujirō Ozu last surviving silent film, An Inn in Tokyo serves as a nice counterpart to Policeman. Like most I am only familiar with his post-World War II masterpieces, so it will be interesting to see how his style evolved over the decades.

9. Trappola
An starring vehicle for beloved Italian star Leda Gys, who never experienced much success in America. Epistolary in nature (told through diary entries and letters), this light and effervescent comedy should provide a nice relief from the festival’s heavier films.

8. The Hound of the Baskervilles
Both the last silent Sherlock Holmes film and the last Conan Doyle adaptation produced during the author’s lifetime. Carlyle Blackwell began with Vitagraph in 1910 and made only a couple of pictures after this. A very significant piece of Holmesiana.

7. Rosita
The combined talents of Mary Pickford and Ernst Lubitsch (in his first American film) made this a major success both critically and financially. However, Pickford later disavowed Rosita, and it is only by a stroke of luck that the film survives today.

6. Battling Butler
Exciting for two reasons—the first being that it’s Buster on the big screen, and the second being that it’s not The General or Steamboat Bill, Jr.  One of Keaton’s least-known features, which is inexplicable given its quality. With a full orchestra—it won’t get much better than this screening.

5. No Man’s Gold
Although Tom Mix’s career spanned nearly the entire silent era, he was arguably at the height of his powers in 1926. Mix inspired an entire generation of cowboys; any chance to see one of his Fox features on the big screen should be met with excitement.

4. A Throw of Dice
So extravagant that it has often been compared to Cecil B. DeMille, A Throw of Dice presents two of India’s earliest movie stars in one of India’s greatest silent films. Although it has been owned by the BFI for decades, it has only been shown stateside in recent years.

3. The Saga of Gosta Berling
Mauritz Stiller is an undisputed master of early Swedish cinema, Lars Hanson was a heartthrob on both sides of the Atlantic, but who are we kidding: the main attraction here is Greta Garbo in her first starring role. Well-worth the 3-hour-plus runtime.

2. People On Sunday
Full disclosure: People On Sunday is one of my favorite silent films ever made, and I have begged dozens of people to purchase the Criterion Collection DVD. Seeing this on the big screen will undoubtedly be a personal highlight for myself.

1. Mare Nostrum
This film was the personal favorite of both Rex Ingram and Alice Terry, and its beautiful locations and early special effects will certainly make it interesting. But let’s be completely honest: what I’m really, truly excited about is the introduction by Kevin Brownlow, who is celebrating his 80th birthday this year. This has potential to be the most poignant and important moment of the festival.

To purchase tickets or for more information, visit the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s website here.

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