Zellerbach and Levin
Irving M. Levin and Harold Zellerbach

In 1977 Paine Knickerbocker, who had covered the Festival as the drama critic of the San Francisco Chronicle until his retirement three years earlier, wrote a short history on the occasion of the 20th anniversary. He also served in the first Golden Gate Awards jury in 1957.

By Paine Knickerbocker

The local Film Festival, which has survived for a score of years and is now stronger than ever, was started by a most unlikely pair of partners: the suave Italian consul general Pierluigi Alvera and the audacious and dramatically mustached Irving M. Levin.

A local film theater man of amusing eccentricities, Mr. Levin once spoke sharply to an employee who used a tea bag in the office only once. But he had the courage to establish the first international film festival in the United States.

It was not a simple launching.

This was in 1956, during an Italian gala celebration, the prime purpose of which was to display postwar products and fashions from Italy at the De Young Museum, as well as a series of Italian films at the Alexandria.

The top film, which won three Golden Gate awards, was La Strada, directed by Federico Fellini and starring his wife Giulietta Masina, Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart. It has become a classic.

In the spring of the next year, a French Film Festival was promoted by Maury Schwarz, another art film house proprietor (he was formerly a boxer). Four stars were in attendance, including Gérard Philipe.

Then that fall, the first San Francisco International Film Festival was organized by Levin with the cooperation of Mayor George Christopher, Harold Zellerbach (the president of the San Francisco Art Commission) and many of the consuls whose nations were submitting entries.

During the early years there was little cooperation from Hollywood. Producers there feared this festival might detract from the excitement and commercial appeal of the Oscars, but Levin kept trying. Director Edward Dmytryk agreed to serve as one of the judges voting on the Golden Gate Awards. This was the year when Alvah Bessie was handling the Festival's publicity. Bessie and Dmytryk were both members of the Hollywood Ten, and both were jailed. But Dmytryk eventually recanted and named names, including Bessie. When Levin went through the motions of introducing the two men, Bessie looked at Dmytryk coldly and without a word left the room.

At this year's Festival, Hollywood on Trial, a documentary on the Hollywood Ten, will have its American premiere.

But despite occasional embarrassments, a pleasant informality existed in the earlier years. Al fresco lunches in the wine country delighted everyone, and droll adventures were not uncommon. Il Grido, an early Michelangelo Antonioni picture was shown at the first Festival. Steve Cochran, Alida Valli and Betsy Blair were the stars, and while the director was not present, Cochran, an American actor who often played tough roles, and producer Franco Cancellieri were. At a party at the Italian consulate after the film's showing, they eyed one another suspiciously, each with a lawyer in tow, for they were disputing certain details regarding the American distribution of the picture.

A few days later in Hollywood, Cancellieri secured the print and scheduled a screening for an exhibitor. Cochran learned of this maneuver and invited Jack Larue, a friend and veteran gangster type. While the others watched the film, Larue took each completed reel from the projector out to his car. When Cancellieri learned what was going on, he exploded, but he couldn't speak English. Dressed in a dark suit, dark shirt and white tie, Larue scowled fiercely, and Cochran returned the film to the Italian consulate.

Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy was shown first during three successive Festivals. Il Generale Della Rovere starring Vittorio de Sica and directed by Roberto Rossellini is another of these early treasures. It won five top prizes, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor. All the films being screened at 10:00 am during this Festival were selected for their excellence.

Quinn met Giulietta Masina when both were making a picture in Italy. She explained that her husband, Fellini, had a script he'd been trying to have produced for years. Quinn was shown the script, read it, liked it and agreed to act in it for no salary but for a piece of the picture. This permitted Fellini to have it produced. The producer wanted Gina Lollobrigida to star, but Quinn insisted on Masina, and La Strada went on to win an Oscar as Best Foreign Film. According to Quinn, "The producers made a mint."

Several fine Mexican films were shown by Levin, the most unusual being Animas Trujano, starring Toshiro Mifune. He speaks no Spanish, but he learned his part by rote and fine in his characterization.

Before leaving the scene, Levin made some headway with Hollywood. In 1959, Jerry Wald brought up his Beloved Infidel and its star, Gregory Peck, but it was not a Festival picture. Three years later, Frank Perry's David and Lisa was a surprise hit, and Keir Dullea won the Best Actor award. Carl Foreman showed his The Victors, an earnest film describing the various inhumanities of war, and in connection with that, Columbia Pictures staged a splashy party for the Festival. Hollywood's neurotic insecurity was disappearing.

Levin headed the event through the eighth Festival in 1964 when it became apparent that the program had grown too large for one person to handle. Although it was recognized that Levin's energies had been responsible for keeping the only international film festival in the United States going, there was a clear need for a larger organization and broad city support. In a few months, the civic community-headed by the Chamber of Commerce-offered assistance, and when Mayor Joseph Alioto took office, he lent his full support to the continuation of the Festival.

The Festival was no longer a one-man affair after 1964, nor was it competitive. Claude Jarman and Albert Johnson created a new format, and the event was more soundly financed. Jarman ran it smoothly while Johnson developed the programs in tribute to filmmakers, writers, stars and directors. A brilliant concept, it has been copied by many festivals elsewhere.

Most of the early programs were extremely interesting. Johnson was meticulous in editing, and the programs were highly entertaining. After William Holden had observed his career in clips from most of his pictures, from Golden Boy to his most recent, he sighed, "I've never before seen a man age so rapidly." These were lively, well-paced programs, offered free in the afternoons.

In 1973, George Gund assumed the position of Chairman, and Lorena Cantrell, Mark Chase and Martin Rubin became Associate Directors, with Jarman remaining as Director. The Festival continues to grow in international stature while presenting a rich and smoothly run program easily accessible to all who want to attend.