Monday, February 27, 2012

Special Event: Kevin Brownlow on Napoleon

Timed to coincide with the four screenings of Abel Gance’s masterpiece Napoleon (1927) at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland (March 24–April 1), the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive are delighted to welcome British film historian Kevin Brownlow to the PFA Theater for a lecture on the restoration of the film, a project that has preoccupied Brownlow for much of his prestigious career.

Brownlow, the first film historian ever honored with a special Academy Award in 2010, became fascinated with Gance’s film when still a schoolboy in London in the 1950s. “I was stunned by the cinematic flair,” says Brownlow. “I was exhilarated by the rapid cutting and the swirling camera movement. What daring! I had never seen anything comparable—and I set out to find more of it.” That determination led to a lifelong quest.

The first major Brownlow/BFI restoration culminated in a screening at the Telluride Film Festival in 1979, with eighty-nine-year-old Gance watching from a nearby hotel window. In the intervening years, Brownlow has been involved with additional restorations. The current version of the film reclaims about thirty minutes of footage culled from archives around the world. Don’t miss this rare chance to hear Brownlow discuss the project. His talk will be illustrated with scenes from the film, accompanied by Judith Rosenberg on piano.

Kevin Brownlow: “Abel Gance’s Napoleon, A Restoration Project Spanning a Lifetime” takes place Friday, March 30, 2012 at 7:00 p.m. Live musical accompaniment will be provided by Judith Rosenberg on the piano.

For more information about the extremely rare screenings of Napoleon, presented by SFSFF with Carl Davis conducting the Oakland East Bay Symphony, visit

Interested individuals will also want to tune-in on March 24 when Kevin Brownlow appears on West Coast Live, a two-hour radio variety show hosted by Sedge Thomson which broadcasts live-to-satellite Saturday mornings in front of West Coast theater audience and coast-to-coast radio fans.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Silent Film Fest in the news

Silent film and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival were featured this week on ABC Chanel 7.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Napoleon: Le Petit Parisian

Here is another vintage newspaper advertisement for Napoleon. This one ran on April 7, 1927 - the day Abel Gance's revolutionary film premiered at the Paris Opera in 1927. Pictured is the top third of a page of Le Petit Parisian, one of the city's newspapers. As well as Napoleon, also playing in town were other still remembered films including Ivan the Terrible, La Boheme (with John Gilbert), Beloved Rogue (with John Barrymore), and a Chaplin feature at the Max Linder theater.

And here, for those who read French, is the review which appeared in the same newspaper the following day. Should anyone care to translate this short review, please post an English version in the comments field of this post! [ Click on the scans to view a larger and more readable image.]

If you are still undecided about attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's presentation of Kevin Brownlow's restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon at the Oakland Paramount on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1 - then check out this piece on the Huffington Post. Or, visit the SFSFF website for more info.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Dizzy Heights: Silent Cinema and Life in the Air

The great French artist Fernand Léger once said, "The cinema and aviation go arm in arm through life; they are born on the same day." While not literally true, Léger's observation is true enough. Aviation and motion pictures came of age together.

As history shows, around the same time that the Wright Brothers and other pioneers of manned flight were developing the first airplanes, the flickers were emerging as a dominant new form of entertainment and art. Within just a couple of decades, the first motion picture — a silent film — would be shown aboard an airplane.

The Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, along with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, have joined together to present a series of films devoted to aviation. "Dizzy Heights: Silent Cinema and Life in the Air" screens at the PFA February 23 through February 26.

Patrick Ellis, a doctoral student in the Department of Film and Media at UC Berkeley and guest curator of the series, notes "For many years, the vehicle in which most people first experienced flight was not the airplane, but the movie theater. The new flying machines were still prohibitively expensive and often dangerous, but the vertiginous thrills they provided could safely be simulated with a fisticuffs-on-the-wing film like Dizzy Heights and Daring Hearts (1915). That is, when the idea of mechanical flight did not seem simply far-fetched. If a ship could actually fly, it was thought, well then anything might fly: beds, houses, people. The great silent fantasists — Winsor McCay, Georges Méliès, Walt Disney — all explored these possibilities."

"Others imagined how life might be lived in a world of commonplace flight. The London of High Treason (1929), a science-fictional "aerotropolis" of conspirators and saboteurs, suggests that such speculation was not without attendant anxieties. This was, after all, the first generation to see these machines put to war. In A Trip to Mars (1918), made at the war's end, we find a pacific message gleaned from the new technology of flight. Above all, the new way of seeing — the aerial view — is savored in these films. In The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower (1927), director Julien Duvivier steals glances at the world below from every available purchase, possessed by the view from above — a harbinger of our present life in the air."

If you love the movies, "Dizzy Heights: Silent Cinema and Life in the Air" is a great opportunity to take-in some little seen works, a couple of which call to mind Fritz Lang's ever popular science fiction spectacle, Metropolis (1927).

Thursday, February 23, 2012
7:00 p.m. A Trip to Mars
Holger-Madsen (Denmark, 1918) Archival Restoration! Part science fiction and part utopian fantasy, this silent film from Denmark combines the fascination for flight with a WWI-era imagination of a world without war—in this case, perhaps ironically, the planet Mars. (90 minutes) Introduced by Mark Sandberg. Bruce Loeb on piano.

Friday, February 24, 2012
7:00 p.m. High Treason
Maurice Elvey (U.K., 1929) Archival Print! In a futuristic London, the Peace League must stage a popular revolt in the air force —and in so doing repair the romance between a pacifist and a soldier. A modernist Lysistrata, an English Metropolis — High Treason is science fiction for the Jazz Age. (75 minutes) Live musical accompaniment by Peter Chapman.

Saturday, February 25, 2012
6:00 p.m. The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower
Julien Duvivier (France, 1927) Archival Print! A palate cleanser for those who found Spielberg’s Tintin wanting, Julien Duvivier’s late-silent adventure masterpiece served as an inspiration for the original Tintin comics, and delivers much of the same charm, inventiveness, and visual delight. The PFA is screening the only known copy of this rare film. (129 minutes) Introduced by Patrick Ellis. Live musical accompaniment by Ken Ueno, Matt Ingals, Hadley MacCarroll.

Sunday, February 26, 2012
2:00 p.m. Fantasies of Flight: Animation and Comedy Shorts
The utter novelty of human flight during most of the silent period is hard for our post-jet-set age to fathom: this program aims to recapture an inkling of this lost sense of wonder. Included are the French comedy Airplane Gaze; Edwin S. Porter’s The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend; Winsor McCay’s The Flying House; Disney’s Alice’s Balloon Race; Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon, and the Mack Sennett-produced aviatrix comedy, Dizzy Heights and Daring Hearts. (97 minutes)  Introduced by Patrick Ellis. Frederick Hodge on piano.

More info: "Dizzy Heights: Silent Cinema and Life in the Air" screens February 23 through February 26 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. The PFA is located at 2575 Bancroft Way, between College and Telegraph. More information about the film series can be found at

"Dizzy Heights: Silent Cinema and Life in the Air" is a project of the UC Berkeley graduate course in film curating taught by BAM/PFA curators Kathy Geritz and Steve Seid. With thanks to Doug Cunningham, Laura Horak, Luke McKernan, Alexa Punnamkuzhyil, Mark Sandberg, and Stacey Wisnia. Presented with support from the Graduate Film Working Group and the Department of Film and Media, UC Berkeley, with the assistance of Marianne Jerris, Danish Film Institute; Fleur Buckley, British Film Institute; Marleen Labijt, Eye Film Institute Netherlands; Daniel Bish, George Eastman House; Marie-Pierre Lessard, Cinémathèque Québécoise; Serge Bromberg and Maria Chiba, Lobster Films; Nicholas Varley and Mark Truesdale, Park Circus; and Mary Tallungan, Walt Disney Studios.

Monday, February 20, 2012

David Denby on silent film

Writing in the current issue of the New Yorker, David Denby has authored a long piece celebrating the silent film era in relation to Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist. Louise Brooks' back - pictured here - plays a central role in Denby's four page article, which is well worth reading. Check it out here.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Advertising Napoleon then #2

Pictured above is a newspaper advertisement for Napoleon which ran on November 14, 1928 in Charleston, West Virginia. This American version of Abel Gance's film ran approximately 80 minutes, cut from Napoleon's original near six hour run time. And pictured below is another vintage newspaper advertisement which ran in February of 1929, the same month that Napoleon played at Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse in New York City. The ad pictured below comes from Sandusky, Ohio.

 If you are still undecided about attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's presentation of Kevin Brownlow's restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon at the Oakland Paramount on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1 - then check out this piece by Thomas Gladysz on the Huffington Post

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Advertising Napoleon then #1

Pictured above is a newspaper advertisement for Napoleon which ran the day before Abel Gance's revolutionary film premiered at the Paris Opera in 1927. And pictured below is a two-page magazine advertisement for Napoleon which ran in May of that same year.

If you are still undecided about attending the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's presentation of Kevin Brownlow's restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon at the Oakland Paramount on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1 - then check out this piece by Thomas Gladysz on the Huffington Post

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Napoleon FAQ


People have been contacting us from all across the U.S. and even from overseas, looking for details about San Francisco Silent Film Festival's monumental presentation of Abel Gance's NAPOLEON at the Oakland Paramount in March. So we've put together some answers that we hope will shed light on your many questions about the event, the film itself, and how to make arrangements for the best NAPOLEON experience possible. For even more information beyond these FAQs - including trailer, videos, and much more - visit the new dedicated NAPOLEON page on our website. And check out the current issue of Vanity Fair (the Hollywood Issue), with an article by Martin Scorsese on Kevin Brownlow and SFSFF's NAPOLEON event! 


I saw this at Radio City Music Hall in 1981 and it was the greatest film experience of my life. Francis Ford Coppola's father, Carmine Coppola, wrote the music and conducted the orchestra. How will the Oakland screenings be different?

The version presented by Mr. Coppola at Radio City and later around the country was just under 4 hours. In the intervening 30 years, Kevin Brownlow and Patrick Stanbury's Photoplay Productions and the BFI have restored Gance's NAPOLEON to a more complete 5 1/2 hours and have upgraded the visual quality of much of the film.

The Photoplay/BFI restoration - a unique 35mm print - also uses authentic dye-bath techniques to re-create the color tinting and toning that enhanced the film on its original release, giving a vividness to the image as never before experienced in this country.

And a major new component for American audiences is the monumental score created by legendary composer Carl Davis. NAPOLEON has not been presented here with an orchestral score of any kind in nearly 30 years.

It can't just be these four performances in Oakland. This has got be leading up to something... a national concert tour perhaps?

No, these four performances at Oakland's glorious Paramount Theatre are it. No plans are being made to present the restored NAPOLEON in any other American city. The cost and technical challenges are just too daunting for most venues - and the sheer size of the three-screen Polyvision ending can be duplicated in only a handful of theatres. The technical requirements for presenting Polyvision alone-not to mention the enormous cost-make this something no one in the U.S. has been willing to tackle until now.

To do this elsewhere, Carl Davis would also have to work with a different symphony orchestra in every city - that's at least four solid days of rehearsal. And don't forget that each performance requires 5 1/2 hours of continuous music - a grueling schedule for any orchestra or conductor. 

What is Polyvision? And what are the technical requirements?

Polyvision was one of Abel Gance's greatest innovations: for NAPOLEON's finale, the screen dramatically expands to three times its normal width, for both panoramic views and montages of images. There has not been anything like it since: even the similar American process Cinerama, first presented 25 years later, never made such virtuosic use of its three screens.

To present Polyvision at the Oakland Paramount, three projection booths equipped with three perfectly-synchronized projectors must be specially installed, along with a purpose-built three-panel screen, which will fill the width of the auditorium. These technical requirements can only be handled by top technicians and a 3-person team from Boston Light & Sound is being specially brought in for the Paramount's installation.

Ok, so it's only in Oakland... But it's being presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Why not San Francisco itself? Why not the Castro Theatre? That's a great movie palace.

Indeed it is: it's where the San Francisco Silent Film Festival holds its annual festival in July. But it's NOT BIG ENOUGH for NAPOLEON! The Castro has no orchestra pit and not enough floor space to accommodate a 48-piece orchestra; it has 1,400 seats compared to the Paramount's 3,000; and, perhaps most important, its proscenium is way too small for the Polyvision ending.

The Paramount, perhaps the most beautiful Art Deco movie palace in the world, is the only theater in the Bay Area that's completely suitable for this huge event. It's easily reachable by all means of public transit and well worth the trip in itself.

So just how do we get there?

The Oakland Paramount is located at 2025 Broadway between 20th and 21st Streets in downtown Oakland. The Paramount is steps away from the 19th Street BART Station. To plan your trip on public transportation, visit BART or For driving directions to the Paramount, please visit Driving Directions. There are several major parking facilities located near the Paramount. Visit Paramount for a map of the area.

The Bay Area is accessible to three major airports, Oakland International (OAK)San Francisco International (SFO), and San Jose International (SJC) . And out-of-towners can also visit for travel options.

We're coming in from out of town. Where should we stay?

Waterfront Hotel in Oakland's lovely Jack London Square is the official hotel sponsor for NAPOLEON. The Waterfront is offering discounted rates to NAPOLEON attendees. Visit their website  for accommodation details and reservations. To receive the discounted rates, enter the promo code PARAMOUNT2012 when making your reservation.

For information on other accommodations, including partner hotels in San Francisco, please visit our Event Information page. Downtown San Francisco is less than a 20-minute BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) ride away from the Paramount Theatre.

For additional questions about travel and accommodations, contact Lucia Pier at or 415-777-4908 x1.

Hasn't this been presented with Carl Davis' score in Europe?

Yes, but the challenges are the same there and performances have been rare events. The restored NAPOLEON was last presented in 2004 at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

Has the restored version ever been on television or video?

No, the 5 1/2 hour version with Carl Davis' score has never been released on television or video anywhere in the world. The 4-hour version with the Coppola score has been shown on television in the U.S. and was released on VHS and laserdisc, but never on DVD in this country. 

But will there be a DVD and BluRay release of the restored version in the near future?

No. The cost of recording the 5 1/2 hour Carl Davis score is prohibitively expensive for the DVD/BluRay market... and of course you wouldn't have the dramatic Polyvision finale that you'll experience in the theater. The triptych would merely be letterboxed onto your television - no matter how big it is.

TCM is the event's "Official Media Sponsor." Does that mean it will be shown on TCM soon?

No, for the same reasons stated above and for other more complicated rights issues. However, TCM recognizes the importance of this event and is proud to support it.

It's 5 1/2 hours long? When do we eat?

All four performances begin at 1:30 in the afternoon. There will be three intermissions, including a 1 hour, 45-minute dinner break at 5:00 pm. A number of local restaurants are planning special NAPOLEON menus. Go to our Event Information page for further details.

I love the poster. Can I buy one?

Yes! The  SFSFF's NAPOLEON poster, created especially for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival by the well-known illustrator Paul Davis, will be available for sale at the Paramount on performance days. We are also offering them for sale online by mail order prior to the event. Go to to order yours today.

Are there any other events planned around the screenings?

Yes, on Friday, March 30, Kevin Brownlow will give an illustrated talk on his 5-decade crusade to restore NAPOLEON at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley (visit PFA for more information).

The SFSFF is also holding a gala dinner - to be catered by a local celebrity chef -- in the magnificent grand lobby of the Paramount Theatre on Friday, March 23. Kevin Brownlow, Patrick Stanbury, Carl Davis, the Consul General of France, and other special guests will be attending. Visit for more information about the dinner and how you can support SFSFF.

Can I still get tickets?

Yes, but you better hurry. People are coming in from all over the world for this event and tickets are going fast. But there are still seats available for all four performances. Tickets can be purchased at the Paramount Oakland box office or online at

But the tickets must be expensive, right?

Not for a music and film event of this magnitude. Tickets range from $45 to $120... and there are no bad seats. And by becoming a member of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, you can purchase greatly discounted tickets.

So why is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival doing this?

Why climb Mount Everest? Someone had to take it on!

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Napoleon Through American Eyes

On this day in 1929, the New York Times ran a review of Abel Gance's Napoleon.

The 1927 French film had just opened at the Fifty-fifth Street Playhouse, a smaller New York City art house which showed European films and other exotic fair. (For instance, another European film whose reputation preceded it to these shores, G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box with Louise Brooks, made its American debut at the Playhouse ten months later.)

Napoleon did not receive a very good review. Mordaunt Hall, the newspaper's well known critic, found the film's abbreviated state made for a less than satisfying cinema experience.

Despite protests from Gance and even the threat of a lawsuit, MGM had suppressed the three-screen finale and cut the film for it's U.S. release from six hours to eighty minutes. As a resultant, Hall and others found the film a jumble and it's ending abrupt.

Prior to its showing in New York City, newspapers there and elsewhere around the country had reported on its production. It was big news in France and expectations were high when the film came to America.

Napoleon played elsewhere around the United States, in cities such as Sandusky, Ohio (where it was paired with a Rex Bell western, Wild West Romance) and Charleston, West Virginia. On November 11, 1928 the Charleston Daily Mail ran a picture of Albert Dieudonne, who played Napoleon, and repeated the buzz that the film was the greatest to have ever come out of France. No mention was made of its problematic history.

On March 24, 25, 31 and April 1, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival is presenting Kevin Brownlow's restoration of Abel Gance's epic masterpiece in a as-complete-as-it-will-ever-be five and one-half hour version with its original three screen finale and live musical accompaniment.

It is certainly an event not to missed. More info here.