The glamour, the stars and the films that kicked off the San Francisco Film Festival in 1957.
By Traude Gómez
It was a dark and stormy night on December 4, 1957. San Franciscans and international guests in black tie and gowns scurried into the Metro Theater on Union Street to escape the torrential rains. It was Opening Night at the first San Francisco International Film Festival.
Actor Franchot Tone flew in to act as master of ceremonies. Tone's major roles in Hollywood films had made him a well-known figure to many Americans, but in 1957 he was also known as the host of CBS's Playhouse 90. Unable to be in two places at once, Tone asked James Mason to fill his shoes on the live drama program so he could come to the Festival. Tone introduced dignitaries in the 1,000-seat theater, among them Harold Zellerbach, president of the San Francisco Arts Commission, and Festival director Irving M. "Bud" Levin, who had spearheaded the groundbreaking event.
In the audience was the venerable Frank Borzage, director of such classic Hollywood films as A Farewell to Arms, History Is Made at Night and Three Comrades. (Tone had dragged the director of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Tay Garnett, as far as the Hollywood airport, but Garnett said he had to make a phone call and missed the plane. Garnett tried again the following night, again unsuccessfully.) After Tone read a congratulatory telegram from Vice President Richard M. Nixon, the lights dimmed, and Helmut Kautner's The Captain from Köpenick began to flicker on the screen.
That morning, columnist Herb Caen had written in the Chronicle, "The first SF International Film Festival opening today at the Metro, is definitely international. America's only entry is Uncle Vanya, based on the Russian classic by Chekhov. Britain's big one is a performance in London by the Soviets, Bolshoi Ballet. And Japan's hottest contender is Throne of Blood, a Far Eastern version of Sweet Will's Macbeth."
For the next 14 days, an international film premiered each night to a fancy, eager audience. It was the dedication of San Francisco native Irving Levin and the many who helped bring the first international film festival to North America that made it possible.
Levin passed away in 1995, but his legacy continues. His widow, Irma Levin, worked by his side as hostess from 1957 till 1964, after which the Levins left the running of the Festival to others. She reflected on the first Festival from her Nob Hill home, with her son Fred. "I was scared to death," she laughs. "We were very young. How would you like having all these people coming into your home, and you don't know any of them?" Trepidation, however, didn't stop her from hosting almost nightly pre- and post-film parties at their Sea Cliff home.
"There were films from 12 countries," recalled Irving Levin in a 1979 interview with San Francisco magazine. "I purchased the best film each country had to offer." Levin grew up in the theater business. His father, Samuel H. Levin, built the Balboa, Coronet, Galaxy, Stonestown, Coliseum, Alexandria, Metro, Vogue and El Rey theaters, which Irving later inherited. Irma knew Irving from high school, but she went to Hollywood to work at Paramount Studios as a hat designer before returning to San Francisco and marrying him.
San Francisco was a friendly audience to international cinema in the late 1950s. The famous international festivals of the day were at Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Edinburgh. There was some thought that perhaps San Francisco could join their ranks. Locally, Levin had helped organize an Italian film festival in 1956 at the suggestion of Italian consul general Pierluigi Alvera. And in 1957, a group calling itself the Camera Obscura Film Society was sponsoring a Sunday series of "unusual, classic and experimental films."
Fred Levin remembers that the Vogue, Bridge and Clay theaters played foreign films in the 1950s, albeit to a small audience. "It was the beats who went to these films," he says. "Most people didn't want to read subtitles. You could buy French cigarettes. It was a whole different world." Bud Levin wanted to open up this world to a bigger audience.
Playing at the Larkin and Clay theaters at the time was Jean Renoir's great film, French Can Can (under the title Only the French Can). Also playing in the City were I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, Tammy and the Bachelor and Love Slaves of the Amazons. Cinerama vied with Todd-A-O, Technicolor, Color by Deluxe, VistaVision and CinemaScope to thrill the viewer. On your TV-at the time considered the deadly enemy of film-you could tune in to American Bandstand, Wagon Train and Leave It to Beaver.
The Festival "was my deal with the City," said Levin in an April 1995 interview with the Richmond Review. "Back in the '50s, San Francisco needed to keep its place in the arts world with an international film festival. There wasn't one in North or South America. I took on the job of exposing the people of San Francisco to movies as an art form. I am thankful for what I got out of it," he added. "I wanted to expose them to what film is. That it was an art form. That there was something to it."
After the success of the Italian Film Festival in 1956, Alvera suggested to Levin an international festival with films from all over the world. Levin thought it a great idea and began planning the international festival from the office of his theater business. Money proved the biggest obstacle. The Art Commission's sponsorship allowed Festival planners to use its name for credibility, but didn't provide funds. Mayor George Christopher was supportive, but not with money. "As long as it didn't cost anything, and no one had to pay, then Irving could do it," says Irma Levin. One money-saving practice involved setting another plate at the family dinner table. "We had Franchot Tone one night for dinner," remembers Fred Levin, who was 13 at the time. "It was just us: my brother and I, my parents and Franchot Tone."
Lack of support from other film festivals and Hollywood proved another obstacle. Irma Levin says the Venice and Cannes festivals feared San Francisco's endeavor would steal from their exclusive prestige. "They fought it. They didn't want to give films and they didn't want their film industries to cooperate and give us good films."
Despite these difficulties, Irving and his supporters forged ahead, working hard to secure films and bring them through customs. One supporter then and now is Serge Echeverría, who was a volunteer staff member at the 1957 Film Festival. He says of Irving, "His enthusiasm and joy for living was inspiring." Serge had just moved to San Francisco from Hollywood, where he had worked as an actor. At Levin's office, he filed, stuffed envelopes and distributed press information. "We were all so proud to work for the glory of San Francisco," he says. He also remembers the first Festival as a society event with nightly consulate parties.
Indeed, if the Festival didn't have money, it certainly had tremendous local support. The consulates celebrated the films from their countries with great fanfare. Italian consul Pierluigi Alvera held a formal reception after Michelangelo Antonioni's Il Grido at the consulate on Broadway. The consul general of India hosted cocktails before Pather Panchali. Consul general Frode Schon of Denmark held a reception before the screening of the Danish film Qivitoq.
The newspapers provided wide coverage, with Festival stories running daily. Chronicle drama critic Paine Knickerbocker, who reviewed most films, interviewed Franco Cancellieri, producer of Il Grido. "Cancellieri is extremely pleased by the fact that finally an international film festival is being held in the United States," wrote Knickerbocker. "A festival is one place," Cancelllieri told him, "where a sincere picture made without hopes of great commercial success can receive a considerable amount of attention."
Herb Caen-as always-had the best dish. He exposed one near-calamity: "SF's International Film Festival, going strong at the Metro, almost hit an unexpected snag Thursday when the Italian film, Il Grido was scheduled for an 8:30 showing," wrote Caen. "Steve Cochran, star and part owner of the picture, hadn't yet seen it in its entirety and insisted that the movie be run for him before he'd allow it to be shown to the public. So at 6:00 pm, Il Grido was screened at the Metro for an audience consisting of Cochran and his lawyer, Nate Cohn. 'Well, it's a lousy print,' Cochran said at the end. 'But go ahead, show it.' The Film Festival backers heaved a relieved sigh that could be heard clear out to Land's End."
Nonetheless, the Festival had its unexpected snags. The scheduled film from India, the second part of Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy, Aparajito, did not materialize. Instead, Ray's first feature, the first part of the trilogy, Pather Panchali, was entered.
On Closing Night, Mayor Christopher, Zellerbach and Levin presented the Golden Gate Awards, the winners having been chosen by five Bay Area newspaper drama critics. Four bronze plaques with a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge were awarded. Shirley Temple Black presented the Best Picture to Pather Panchali, which was received on India's behalf by consul S.N. Hussain. Satyajit Ray, who also wrote the Pather Panchali screenplay won for Best Director. Dolores Dorn-Heft (who was married to Franchot Tone at the time) won Best Actress for her performance in Uncle Vanya, and Heinz Ruhmann won Best Actor for his performance in The Captain from Köpenick.
The Closing Night film was supposed to be The Bigamist, an Italian comedy directed by Luciano Emmer. However, more snags. The Bigamist could not be had in time. Wheeling and dealing, Levin instead secured Luchino Visconti's Senso, which was shown out-of-competition. The post-film champagne reception at the Italian Consulate, honoring the Golden Gate winners, was sponsored by the local chapter of the American Association of the United Nations. In the end, the Chronicle reported that 11,500 people attended the Festival.
"It was an exciting time," Irma Levin remembers. "It's exciting to see how the Festival has grown and changed. You know, nothing stays the same. I wish Irving were here to see it."