Now Playing! No Words, No Problem in Sumptuous Silents

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Prince Achmed on a magic isle in 'The Adventures of Prince Achmed.' (Courtesy of Milestone Films)

In the beginning, there was the word. Not the spoken word, mind you, but intertitles, for movies had neither sound nor soundtrack for the first 25 years or so. Musicians filled in that vast space, providing melodies, motifs, emotional cues and even sound effects and ambient noises in conjunction with the flickering images. A century on, film programs featuring live musical accompaniment are back in vogue, with the Bay Area at the forefront of the trend.

The San Francisco Symphony has hit on a winning formula of pairing a stage full of virtuosos with immortal classics and hometown favorites. The SFS embarks on its fifth series with the endlessly entertaining North by Northwest (Dec. 1 and 2 at Davies Symphony Hall), Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece which boasts a delicious dining-car pas de deux of double entendres and verbal seduction between Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant, the wholly implausible and splendidly executed crop-dusting sequence (sans music, incidentally), and the spectacle of Saint’s character being slut-shamed by a high-priced, unapologetic prostitute (Grant’s Madison Ave. advertising exec). All that, and a score by Bernard Herrmann.

'Lady Windermere's Fan,' 1925 with May McAvoy and Ronald Colman.
'Lady Windermere's Fan,' 1925 with May McAvoy and Ronald Colman. (Courtesy of SF Silent Film Festival)

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival packs its off-season marathon, A Day of Silents (Dec. 2 at the Castro), with something for everyone. Lotte Reininger’s animated The Adventures of Prince Achmed, accompanied by Philip Carli on the keyboards, will delight children and their lucky escorts. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra taps into the wit and poignancy of Ernst Lubitsch’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan, then Sascha Jacobsen and the Musical Art Quintet channel the dark alleys and darker impulses of Paris’ criminal element in The Rat. There’s much more -- all offering a respite from human speech.