Of course, the term silent film is something of a misnomer.
“From the very beginning there was always music being played as a background, but the storytelling had to be told classically in image,” said John Ellis. “They always had music.”
And they will again.
The second annual Frank Buxton Silent Film Festival returns to the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art on Friday, Nov. 15, a three-day marathon of movies (shorts and features both) all of them light on chit-chat but smothered in style and historical importance — with corresponding live musical accompaniment, of course.
The flickering creations of yesteryear’s auteurs cast long shadows over the cultural landscape of today.
“A lot of your great filmmakers … John Ford, he was a silent filmmaker; Raoul Walsh [was a] silent filmmaker,” Ellis said. “Hitchcock did wonderful silent films … So you had a lot of the great masters of the sound era, who we think of as the real Hollywood artists, that started in silent [movies].”
The festival is again curated by Ellis as a tribute to his longtime friend and collaborator Frank Buxton, a Bainbridge cultural icon and lifelong champion, advocate and appreciator of the arts (he actually worked with Buster Keaton and met Charlie Chaplin). It featured a diverse array of offerings in its inaugural lineup last year, and is set to once again bring a truly unique program to the island’s artistic epicenter.
“I’m really excited about this year,” said BIMA spokeswoman Jesse Ziebart. “It’s the art of cinema and [this is] an important corner of that, it’s like the building blocks of a lot of it. And it’s so diverse and it’s incredible and it’s a craft that’s still practiced today, people are still making silent films. And having that live accompaniment part of it has become a really entertaining and sellable point for us.
“It’s an opportunity to put something totally different in our space.”
Something different indeed — and that was half the point.
From a lesser known Buster Keaton outing to a selection of shorts from a pioneer of the craft, from a hard-to-find Tacoma-shot feature to a special collection of early European efforts, Ellis said no other venue will be offering such a viewing experience again anytime soon.
“We do this in conjunction with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival … and we’re able to bring to Bainbridge stuff that isn’t being shown anywhere in this region,” Ellis said. “Nobody in Seattle is going to see this unless they come over here and see it here at BIMA.
“These are special treatments that are coming to BIMA for this weekend.”
Kicking off the weekend at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15 is a screening of Buster Keaton’s 1928 feature “The Cameraman.”
Directed by Edward Sedgwick and Keaton, this film features the silent icon as a clumsy sidewalk tintype portrait photographer in New York City who develops a crush on a secretary who works for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Newsreels. To be near her, he purchases an old film camera, emptying his bank account, and attempts to get a job as one of the studio’s cameramen. Hijinks and hilarity ensue, though the film is unfortunately known as being the last of the good times for Keaton.
It was his first feature for MGM, having exchanged his previous completely independent situation for secure employment at Hollywood’s biggest studio in the wake of the expensive then-bemoaned (but later revered) “The General” (1926). In about a year, however, the studio would take away his creative control, putting him on a treadmill of lesser outings that caused devastating harm to his career and reputation.
“They’d promised him the moon, the sun and the stars and then they took it away from him, basically,” Ellis said. “It’s one of his finest films. It is a romp but it’s got it all, and I don’t know how to describe it except it’s going to be great.
“I think it’s one of my favorite films,” he added. “It’s not as well known as ‘The General.’ It’s not as well known as some of the other major films of his, but I think it’s kind of perfection.”
The BIMA screening will feature and original score by the duo Miles & Karina, who performed at last year’s festival.
“They’re going to knock it out of the park with their score,” Ellis said.
Festival passes are no long available, but tickets to individual screenings are on sale via www.brownpapertickets.com (search “Frank Buxton Silent Film Festival).
Admission to “The Cameraman” is $30 per person. Visit the “calendar” www.biartmuseum.org to learn more.
A free showing of a selection of shorts by French director and illusionist Georges Méliès will take place from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on both Saturday, Nov. 16 and Sunday, Nov. 17. No reservation is required.
Méliès pioneered technical and narrative developments in the earliest days of cinema, popularizing such techniques as substitution splices, multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand-painted color.
He was also one of the first filmmakers to use storyboards.
His most famous works include “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) and “The Impossible Voyage” (1904), both depicting surreal journeys in the style of Jules Vern stories.
At 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16, the auditorium will host a special selection of shorts from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
Admission is $20 per person.
The collection consists of early European silent films — including one, “Filibus” (1915), which New York Times writer J. Hoberman recently compared to this year’s firebrand award (and controversy) magnet “Joker” — curated by Rob Byrne in collaboration with Eye Films Amsterdam and will feature live musical accompaniment by Miles & Karina.
“You don’t want to miss the shorts,” Ellis said. “There’s a longer short and then there’s a collection of short, short, short shorts. And the collection of short, short, short shorts are from the turn of the previous century. They are early shorts. And there is one in there that is just hysterical. It was shot in 1906 in Italy and it’s a young man and a dog and a crocodile outfit and a fisherman and it’s just delightful.”
Saturday’s offering conclude at 7 p.m. with “A Story of Floating Weeds” (1935).
No, that date is not a typo. This is a silent film made in 1935 — four full years after Universal brought Bela Lugosi’s most famous role to the big screen in “Dracula.”
“The Japanese kept making silent films for many more years than most of the other countries and they did this because they had a different presentation form,” Ellis explained. “We are recreating the Japanese benshi.”
In Japan, benshi were performers who stood to the side of the screen and introduced and related the story to the audience. For this screening, Japanese/English benshi-style narration and live musical accompaniment will be provided by the Aono Jikken Ensemble.
“It’s a really rare thing to see,” Ellis said. “And ‘Floating Weeds’ is an absolutely beautiful film … so this is a rare, rare treat.”
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu, the film tells the story of an aging actor who returns to a small town with his troupe and reunites with his former lover and illegitimate son, spurring a confrontation with his present mistress.
Admission is $20 per person.
On Sunday, Nov. 17 at 5 p.m. the theater will show “The Signal Tower” (1924).
The director, Clarence Leon Brown, was an engineer by trade. From Wikipedia: “An early fascination in automobiles led Brown to a job with the Stevens-Duryea Company, then to his own Brown Motor Car Company in Alabama. He later abandoned the car dealership after developing an interest in motion pictures around 1913 … was hired by the Peerless Studio at Fort Lee, New Jersey, and became an assistant to the French-born director Maurice Tourneur.”
It’s a tense, action-oriented story, Ellis said.
“It’s about a signal tower out in the middle of the Sierras that is essential to keep trains, when they have to make this big grade to go up, to keep the trains from crashing into each other,” Ellis explained. “This one guy who is running the signal tower is retiring and so his number two, who usually works at night, he’s moving up to the day shift and there’s this other guy who comes in who is the night shift and he’s bad business.
“It’s great and it builds up to a great climax.”
Live musical accompaniment for “The Signal Tower” will be provided by Andrew Shields, music director for The EDGE Improv. But he won’t be alone.
Ellis himself will man a train whistle and telegraph key, adding the essential narrative sound effects as part of his most visible foley performance to date.
Admission is $20 per person.
Finally, at 7 p.m. on Sunday, the festival’s final feature is “The Eyes of the Totem” (1926).
This reportedly haunting feature was shot on the streets of Tacoma in 1926 by H.C. Weaver Studios and was for decades considered lost.
“They made two films, it was going to be the Hollywood of the Northwest,” Ellis said. “Their timing was a little bad. In the Depression we had a collapse and so they only made the two films.”
Admission is $10 per person.
Ziebart and Ellis agreed that even if a screening is technically listed as sold out online, would-be audiences should plan to attend regardless, as occasionally pass-holders will miss a show and seats will be available.
“There was always a seat [last year],” Ellis said. “We want people to know that if they call, if they go online, and it says this particular showing is sold out, don’t give up because there is a good chance … we’ll get you in.”