Film purists often point to the days before talkies took over the movie industry as the height of cinema as an art form — when visual elements had to convey everything.
Now in its eighth year, the Denver Silent Film Festival is back with ten classic films running the genre gamut from comedy to drama. There will be a selection of Felix the Cat, Buster Keaton and Colorado-produced shorts, early films by Alfred Hitchcock and Yasujiro Ozu, Oscar Micheaux's Within Our Gates (the earliest surviving film directed by an African-American), and many other rarities, including some screenings accompanied by live musicians.
For the first time, the festival will present its selections on digital formats — a shift that may stun some celluloid purists. But the reason is simple, says Denver film luminary Howie Movshovitz, who runs the annual festival. “The restorations are now distributed digitally, and digital formats give us a wider range of choices than we had before — and the quality of the films is much improved."
Keep reading for a full list of films and information about the screenings provided by the festival.
Friday, April 26, 7 p.m.
Blackmail is simultaneously Alfred Hitchcock’s last silent film and his first talking picture. Both versions exist, and the overall feeling is that this silent version is the better of the two. It has the cinematic “purity” Hitchcock described to François Truffaut in their famous interview, and it also has Hitchcock’s rich sense of the role of guilt in human affairs. A woman picked up by an artist kills him in self-defense. The detective assigned to the case is her boyfriend — and that’s just for starters. Accompanied by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
A Morning with Felix the Cat
Saturday, April 27, 10 a.m.
Felix the Cat was the star of silent animation. As last year’s DSFF honoree Russell Merritt has written, Felix was “the mirthful personality kid, the effervescent trickster who could also play the lovesick Romeo, the lecherous sheik, or the doting uncle while still coming across as a loner.” Felix comes to the screen in the spare, sometimes haunting, sometimes absurdist designs of Otto Messmer. Musical accompaniment by The Doll House Thieves.
"Felix the Cat in Woos Whoopie" (Otto Messmer, 1930, 7 minutes)
"Felix the Cat in Sure Locked Holmes" (Otto Messmer, 1928)
"Felix the Cat Dines and Pines" (Otto Messmer, 1923, 10 minutes)
"Felix the Cat in Astronomeows" (Otto Messmer, 1928)
"Felix in Fairyland" (Otto Messmenr, 1923, 9 minutes)
"Felix in Hollywood" (Otto Messmer, 1923, 9 minutes)
A Conversation with Amy Heller and Dennis Doros
Saturday, April 27, 12:10 p.m.
Amy Heller and Dennis Doros are this year’s recipients of DSFF’s Career Achievement Award. Together they founded and run Milestone Films, through which they have restored and released many critically important films, both silent and sound. Their silent restorations include the great documentary Grass; Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 remarkable animation, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and films by Lois Weber. Dennis Doros is now president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. This is a chance to meet and talk with two extraordinary people in the world of silent film.
Saturday, April 27, 2:10 p.m.
At the core of Shiraz is the story of the 17th century Mumtaz Mahal, the Mughal empress whose death led her husband to build the Taj Mahal. The rest is a fanciful, often lurid — and gorgeous — melodrama. Shiraz is one of three films by producer Himansu Rai and German-born director Franz Osten. Accompanied by Utsav Lal.
Within Our Gates
Saturday, April 27, 5:00 p.m.
Within Our Gates is the earliest surviving feature film directed by an African-American. It’s a melodrama about race, bigotry, uncovering the truth and also love, and on the subject of racism the film is blunt and unyielding. A wronged African-American woman (Evelyn Preer) helps save a school for black children. Preer is a significant talent, who never got a chance to work seriously in mainstream (white-made) movies. Director Oscar Micheaux is a phenomenon of early cinema; he once lived in Denver. Accompanied by Hank Troy.
The Oyster Princess
Saturday, April 26, 7:30 p.m.
This is DSFF’s signature program. Composer/accompanist/teacher Donald Sosin, and CU Denver percussion teacher Todd Reid work with a group of CU Denver student musicians to compose and then perform an accompaniment — all essentially in three days. The Oyster Princess is a comedy about the complexities of finding a husband faced by the daughter of an oyster magnate. Long Fliv the King features the wonderful Charley Chase as — sort of — the king. Accompanied by the UCD/DSFF Student Orchestra, with Donald Sosin and Todd Reid.
David Emrich Colorado short films
Sunday, April 28, 10:00 a.m.
David Emrich, author of Hollywood Colorado — The Selig Polyscope Company and the Colorado Motion Picture Company, will present a mix of stills and film clips from very early shorts made in Colorado. Accompanied by Hank Troy.
Buster Keaton shorts
Sunday, April 28, 12:00 p.m.
Viewers unfamiliar with Buster Keaton or silent film in general are often stunned by Buster Keaton’s elegance and grace, and his deep sense of the comedy of the world we inhabit. Those familiar with Keaton have the same experience: His films seem original and remarkable no matter how often you’ve seen them. Buster’s struggles are profound, brilliant and hilarious. Accompanied by Hank Troy.
"The Cook" (Roscoe Arbuckle, 1918, 23 minutes)
"One Week" (Eddie Cline and Buster Keaton, 1920, 25 minutes)
"The Goat" (Buster Keaton and Mal St. Clair, 1921, 23 minutes)
"The Playhouse" (Eddie Cline and Buster Keaton, 1921, 23 minutes)
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Sunday, April 28, 2:45 p.m.
Each year, DSFF presents a program of new silent shorts made by film students at CU-Denver, under the guidance of Jessica McGaugh and Andrew Bateman.
Sunday, April 28, 4:45 p.m.
Dragnet Girl is one of Ozu’s silent crime movies. Unlike his better-known family dramas, he’s working in a genre, but as you might expect, he doesn’t simply do a gangster picture. The lead characters yearn for respectability, yet as in American movie gangsters, they find it hard to go straight and are driven to go for the one last job. That desperate ploy never works, though Ozu finds a gentler resolution than American films. The gun is important, but it’s not the instrument of final judgment. And Ozu ends the film with images of domesticity, which may or may not be earned. Accompanied by Billy Overton.
The Ancient Law
Sunday, April 28, 7:30 p.m.
This masterpiece from German filmmaker E.A. Dupont is a melodrama about the conflict between the secular and the religious, embodied in a split between a father and a son. A young Hasid in a Russian shtetl, the son of a rabbi, somehow gets the overwhelming desire to become an actor in the outside world. The story is much like the 1927 American film The Jazz Singer, but DuPont gives a far richer treatment to both sides of this profound “argument” than does Warner Bros. Composed and performed by Alicia Svigals, violin, and Donald Sosin, piano.
The festival takes place at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Sloan's Lake, 4225 West Colfax Avenue, April 26 to 28. Individual films ar $13; a festival pass runs $110 and can be purchased at the Alamo Drafthouse website and the Denver Silent Film Festival website.