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June 22, 2010 > Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival

Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival

By Mona Shah
Photos By David Kiehn

Gilbert M. Anderson, better known as "Broncho Billy," was one of the first film stars. Every year, for the past 12 years, the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum puts on a "Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival" to honor the actor's important contribution to film history. This year's 13th annual event, set for June 25, 26 and 27, presents a weekend full of silent era drama, romance and comedy.

Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum (NESFM) is dedicated to providing a safe haven for collections of historical artifacts and movie memorabilia, especially those relating to the former Essanay Film Manufacturing Company of Niles and silent film production in the greater Bay Area. Most months of the year, NESFM sponsors film showings from the silent era, but June is a special month, reserved for the festival.

The film festival's theme this year is "Lucky 13." Fortune and fate, bad turns and lucky breaks -not to mention drama, romance and plenty of laughs - carry through this weekend of films.

To celebrate the festival's 13th year, the feature film opener is "Bell Boy Thirteen" starring Douglas McLean, a comedian now generally forgotten, who might be compared today with John Cusack in a similar vein of comedy. In another connection to our "lucky thirteen" idea is "The Lottery Man" directed by Theodore Wharton, whose main fame was in his serials starring Pearl White, but had also made a number of Essanay films in 1912-13.

"The Lottery Man" includes a performance by Oliver Hardy, more than 10 years before he was teamed with Stan Laurel. Another "lucky" film is Hawthorne of the USA starring Wallace Reid, who breaks the bank at Monte Carlo and gets involved with revolutionaries. Reid was among Paramount's biggest stars of the day, and his cheerful, clever films were very popular, as will be demonstrated by this example.

Another highlight of the festival is "The Jack-Knife Man," the best of director King Vidor's early films, with former Essanay Niles actor Harry Todd in a major role. Todd's grandson will attend, coming up from Los Angeles to see this beautiful 35mm print from the Library of Congress.

The festival will also present a rare screening of "Just Squaw," made locally in Boulder Creek and San Rafael, starring Beatriz Michelena. This one of only two films she made that survives. The museum showed the other, "Salomy Jane," in 2008.

Continuing an on-going presentation of outstanding Edison Film Company features of the 1910s, "The Customary Two Weeks" (1917) and "The Innocence of Ruth" (1916) will be screened; both forgotten today, but very entertaining and worthwhile.

A special short of note in the Friday night program is "Aviation at Los Angeles, California," showing state-of-the-art aircraft in 1910, filmed by Anderson's Essanay cameraman Jess Robbins. Glenn Curtiss is seen, and so is Gilbert Anderson, pulling long distance aviator Louis Paulham closer to the movie camera.

During this festival, you can experience many treasures of early American film shown the way they were meant to be seen... in an authentic 1913 nickelodeon theater, accompanied by live music.

Broncho Billy Film Festival
June 25, 26, 27
Niles Edison Theater
37417 Niles Blvd., Fremont
(510) 494-1411
For event schedule and prices, visit or

David Kiehn (museum historian and programmer) contributed to this article

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