San Francisco Silent Film Festival

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The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is a little over a month away. I’m excited as this is my 4th year as a “researcher/writer” for the festival. I know, I know! Several people have said to me: “You? SILENT film?? – HA!”

Judy isn’t my ONLY interest. 🙂 I have always been a huge fan of Old Hollywood. The history of film is fascinating, to say the least. I’ve especially been interested in the history of MGM in general as well as their celebrated musicals. What an amazing story, and sad that it’s all pretty much gone. Still, we can celebrate the artistry and accomplishments of the studio through the films and recordings and interviews and outtake and all that survives. Everyone seemed to come together for, should I say it?, a type of Camelot. A brief moment in time when everything aligned to create this amazing place where anyone with drive and talent could thrive.

And thrive they did! But not just in their forte, the MGM Musical. MGM was adept at other genres as well. Their silent films are especially wonderful to see. Watching “The Crowd” or “The Big Parade” or “Ben-Hur” up on the big screen with a gorgeous Wurlitzer or orchestra is a special experience. And unique in the history of film – they don’t make ’em like that anymore! Most people don’t realize that “silent” film really isn’t “silent” at all. There is always some type of music and/or effects, usually written specifically for the film so it enhances the story. And what they do with imagery to create a mood or effect is incredible. Far better than the cold digital effects we see today.

The movie I’m assigned this year is the 1927 Norma Shearer/Ramon Novarro adaptation of “The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg”. It’s the same story as the famous operetta, about a sheltered prince (Novarro – the original Judah Ben-Hur) who is allowed to go to a public college in Heidelberg, and what happens when he falls in love with a bar maid (Shearer). It’s directed by none other than the great Ernst Lubitsch, who also directed “Ninotchka” with Greta Garbo and “To Be Or Not To Be” with Carole Lombard. Lubitsch brings his “Lubitsch Touch” to “Student Prince”, making it a charming and beguiling film. I won’t go on any further and give away the plot.

My role in all of this is to write the essay about the making of the film as well as factoids, etc. about the stars, for the program. I am also responsible for finding photos and writing the text for the slide show that precedes the showing of the film. Each research committee member does this for the film their assigned. Some of the films have amazing histories behind them. The research that everyone has done has been fantastic. I always learn so much just from listening to everyone give their reports at our meetings, and then reading the various drafts of the essays. What a great group of folks, from all walks of life. Obviously, with a Judy Garland fan like me on the committee.

One side note, last year I was good naturedly teased because I was able to get a Judy Garland image into the slide show for my film. These slide shows have to relate to the film and the stars and/or society or the film making business at the time. Or all of the above! My film last year was the Marion Davies/William “Billy” Haines comedy “Show People”. The general theme of my program essay and the slide show was “Alternative Lifestyles”. Haines was openly gay, and would not marry a woman as a “beard”, choosing instead to stay with his partner until his death. Davies was William Randolph Hearst’s “mistress” (companion would be a nicer term), through his death. The Judy link? Haines went on to become Hollywood’s greatest interior designer (he was responsible for good friend Joan Crawford’s all white living room). He was so famous that when Warner Bros. was in production for the 1954 Garland remake of “A Star Is Born”, they wanted Haines to design the sets for the Maine/Lester beach house. Haines refused to work for the movies, and refused this job. Plus, he was way too expensive. So, they based the Maine/Lester home on Haines’ famous interiors to Warner Bros. studio chief Jack Warner’s home. To emphasize this, and Haines’ impact on design in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, I used a still from the “Someone At Last” musical number in “A Star Is Born” that showed off the design of the beach house.

It was fun, and a good way to show Haines’ impact not just on interior design but in films, even though he wanted no part of it. So they good-naturedly ribbed me and said “Only YOU Scott could manage to get a photo of Judy Garland in a Silent Film slide show”!!!

This year, no such luck. No Garland link to Ramon or Shearer aside from the basic Hollywood nightlife scene, such as Judy with Norma at the 1940 Oscar ceremony. Or the fact that they were at the same studio. None of this could be related to “The Student Prince”, and I wasn’t trying. After all, the slide show and essay isn’t about Garland at all.

If you’re in the San Francisco area from July 13-15, be sure to stroll on down to The Castro Theater. All of the films this year are great – and the Silent Film Festival only shows the best possible prints, usually 35mm and always usually gorgeous to look at.

And did I mention how amazing it is to see these on that big screen with music and hundreds of fans in the audience…? 🙂


  1. Hi Scott,As much as I love Judy, I have a question reguarding silent film.Awhile ago I heard that “Show People” was being released on dvd – do you know anything reguarding that release?? Thanks for ALL you do for all of us!!!!! George

  2. Hi “tigger64″!”Show People” was the film that I was assigned last year. Unfortunately it’s not on DVD yet, although like you I had heard a while ago that it was being released on DVD as well. But I haven’t heard anything for quite some time.It’s probably Marion Davies’ most well known silent film, so I’m thinking that it will probably appear as part of a collection – hopefully sooner than later.I have it saved on my DVR (the Comcast version of Tivo) from an airing on Turner Classic Movies.Thanks for writing – and thanks for the nice comment!

  3. I thought judy garland was great,my favourite film of hers was star is born,its such a shame she came to a sad end,my real idol though is Doris day she was also friends with judy,if you can take the time would you look at my blog on Doris we could swap linksThanks.

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