What was Hollywood’s first million-dollar movie? You’ll have to go to the S.F. Silent Film Festival to find out

25th festival opens with Erich von Stroheim’s “Foolish Wives,” fully restored and with a new score

The 25th San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the largest festival devoted to silent films in the Americas, will present 29 programs of international movies accompanied by live music May 5-11 at the Castro Theatre. Fittingly, the opulently set drama “Foolish Wives” — released in 1922, the same year the Castro Theatre opened — ushers in SFSFF with a full-scale restoration, paired with an SFSFF-commissioned score performed by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra led by composer and conductor Timothy Brock.

Directed by and starring Erich von Stroheim as a conman who, along with two female accomplices, masquerade as Russian aristocrats in the target-rich plush playground of Monte Carlo, “Foolish Wives” was Hollywood’s first million-dollar movie. The film ended up being so pricey because its expensive sets at Universal Studios as well as breathtaking Northern California locations helped escalate its cost way over its original $250,000 budget.

“Stroheim’s extravagant attention to detail is evident in every frame of the film,” said SFSFF Board President Rob Byrne. “In Los Angeles he precisely recreated the square and casino of Monte Carlo, and at Point Lobos near Monterey created massive sets for a mansion, shooting club and promenade. Filming the crowd scenes there was a highlight of the San Francisco social season. The crème of San Francisco society boarded specially chartered trains to perform as extras.”

In addition to Point Lobos, location shooting for the film was done at Pebble Beach, sites that were chosen by location scouts, but also, according to independent curator Brad Rosenstein, may well have been familiar to von Stroheim because he had lived in the Bay Area prior to moving to Los Angeles and enjoying success in the movies. In any case, von Stroheim spent lavishly in both halves of California to recreate Monte Carlo in his film.

“There were actually two Monte Carlo sets, built 300 hundred miles apart,” Rosenstein said. There was a massive exterior Monte Carlo set — comprising the Casino, the Hotel de Paris and the Café de Paris — built in Hollywood on the Universal back lot, where most interior scenes were also filmed. But for the ‘reverse shot’ of this set, von Stroheim needed to include the sea and shoreline, and like many early filmmakers, felt that the Northern California coast was a reasonable approximation of the Mediterranean.”

But there may have been another ulterior motive for von Stroheim’s decision to film so much of “Foolish Wives” in Northern California, according to Rosenstein, who said that the extensive location shooting also put him farther away from close studio supervision and interference.

The restoration of “Foolish Wives” was a task shared by the SFSFF and New York’s Museum of Modern Art; SFSFF managed the project, did editing, digitally restored all images and supervised film grading and lab work that resulted in a new 35-millimeter preservation negative and two new 35mm prints, one for the MoMA film collection and another for the SFSFF Collection at the Library of Congress, while MoMA supplied the 35mm print upon which the restoration was based, and provided research materials and technical advice.

All of the forgoing work ended up costing approximately $260,000, which SFSFF and MoMA split evenly, and seemingly commensurate with the film’s steep 1922 price tag.

“Without question, this is the most expense restoration project we have undertaken,” Byrne said. “A more typical budget for a silent-era feature film is more in the range of $50K to $75K. Thinking of it a different way, this project was approximately four times more expensive than one of our typical restorations.”

While SFSFF and MoMA managed to restore “Foolish Wives” as a film that American audiences would have seen in 1922 and, crucially, to find the funds to complete the project, funding for film preservation has long been an issue, particularly for silent films.

“The studios have done a decent job of digitizing their copyrighted films, but there is very little funding available to preserve public domain work — which now includes most of the silent cinema,” said Dave Kehr, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film. “If we aren’t able to digitize our already preserved and restored films, they simply won’t be accessible in a film culture that has moved beyond 35mm projection.”

Once the meticulous, costly process of restoring a silent movie has been completed, the musicians who accompany the film in its SFSFF presentation most often will assemble a compiled score of period pieces chosen to evoke moods or leitmotif. While the musicians are quite efficient at stitching together these music sources, finding them — many have been out of print since 1929 — is a major challenge, according to composer and pianist Rodney Sauer of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, which accompanies several SFSFF films.

And the performance of the score poses its own challenges for the musicians, with tempo a key issue they must address and finesse.

“Tempo is very important, because, of course, the film does not follow us,” Sauer said. “We practice until we have the film tempos about right so that there is little space between musical cues. I do sometimes leave some spaces in the score for piano improvisation, which gives us a chance to get back in sync if we have drifted. Also, as long as some of these films are, I have places where the orchestra takes a break for several scenes while the piano improvises.”

Brock, who has almost 40 years of experience conducting for silent films that run the gamut from relatively dark German expressionist films to comedies with stars like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, turned to Russian as well as American sources for the “Foolish Wives” score.

“I wanted to do something that was as close to authentic as possible because I feel that the earlier the film, the more authentic the music has to be, in terms of historically accurate,” Brock said. “My philosophy has always been to write music that would not upset the director if he was living today.”

As von Stroheim was a stickler for detail and refused to bow to the commercial demands and realities of the Hollywood studios, those qualities ultimately led to dwindling directing opportunities for him, but not before he fortuitously crafted the cinematic masterpiece that is “Foolish Wives.”

“What was seen in 1922 as the height of realism now seems like the mad folly of one charismatic individual, Erich von Stroheim, a Jewish immigrant who convinced Hollywood he was an Austrian aristocrat and somehow persuaded Universal to construct a fantasy world to go with his character,” Kehr said.

Note: “Foolish Wives” will screen May 5, 7 p.m. at the Castro Theatre. At 3 p.m., Robert Byrne, Dave Kehr and Brad Rosenstein will host a free presentation on the history, local connections and restoration of “Foolish Wives” at the Roxie Theater.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival Highlights

“Steamboat Bill, Jr.”: Buster Keaton may very well have saved some of his most entertaining stunts for this 1928 comedy, his last independent feature for United Artists, in which he visits his steamboat-operating father, woos the daughter of his dad’s rival and impresses everyone through a cyclonic climax. May 7, 3 p.m. Live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

“A Trip to Mars (Himmelskibet)”: Fabulous Danish space odyssey from 1918 follows boldly determined captain who manages to pilot a sky ship and its crew to Mars, where they find a lush utopia populated by vegan pacifists, and the Martians set life-affirming lessons for the Earthlings after their less-than peaceful arrival. May 8, 9 p.m. Live music by Wayne Barker.

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”: Universal Pictures marvelously recreated the 15th-century cathedral and its Parisian setting in this 1923 second film take on the Victor Hugo classic and in which Lon Chaney masterfully displays an array of emotions as the landmark’s grotesque yet tragic denizen Quasimodo. May 10, 7 p.m. Live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

“The Divine Voyage (La Divine Croisière)”: The Breton coast serves as a beautiful setting for this 1929 long-lost French morality tale in which a group of local sailors set sail on a perilous journey for their ship’s avaricious owner but ultimately deliver their employer some richly deserved justice. May 11, 4:30 p.m. Live music by Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius.


San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.

When: May 5-11.

Tickets: $16 to $25; general all-festival pass $320.

Contact: (415) 777-4908, silentfilm.org

Buster Keaton in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (Courtesy San Francisco Silent Film Festival)

Buster Keaton in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” (Courtesy San Francisco Silent Film Festival)

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