From the beginning it was not an ordinary event. In its first year, the Telluride Film Festival featured two special guests: 75-year-old silent screen diva Gloria Swanson and controversial German director Leni Riefenstahl. Stage Struck, about a small-town waitress with big-time dreams, screened alongside The White Hell of Pitz Palu, the mountain adventure film with Riefenstahl in a lead role, and her first documentaries, groundbreaking in form, if distasteful in subject matter. To add to the excitement, the festival decided not to publicize its program beforehand. Moviegoers wouldn’t know what was playing until they showed up.
A bit of wishful thinking on the part of James Card, the festival came into being after an offhand comment the archivist made to Bill and Stella Pence that the town’s theater, Historic Sheridan Opera House, which the couple had just restored, might make a great spot for a film festival. Pacific Film Archive’s Tom Luddy joined the Pences and the team invited films, filmmakers, and theater owners to Telluride the following summer. Almost 40 years later, and Telluride has long been every cinephile’s favorite end-of-summer destination. (If you plan ahead—some passes for this year’s event are already sold out.) Showing new releases from Hollywood and around the world, experimental works (the festival was an early champion of the silent-aesthetic infused works of Guy Maddin), independent documentaries, and classics from the sound and silent eras, the festival earned a reputation for discerning eclecticism that has endured.
Since that first telling festival in 1974, Telluride continued to bring silent film luminaries to the Rockies, screening both their well-known and neglected films. In 1976, King Vidor attended with The Big Parade, The Crowd, and Wild Oranges. Other notable visitors continued to make appearances including Napoleon director Abel Gance and the great comedy film producer Hal Roach. The programmers also folded in short films from the nickelodeon days and beyond, as well as clip shows curated by Card and later William K. Everson. It was the rare year that a silent film didn’t screen, with some so memorable they bore repeating, like the 1994 premiere of Alloy Orchestra’s original score for Paul Fejos’s Lonesome, reprised in 2006.
Many of the films that have shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival over the years have played first at Telluride, including Sunrise, The Nail in the Boot, Girl with the Hat Box, The Woman Men Yearn For, and The Blot. Telluride’s vision of presenting classic and contemporary films in a way that honors the artist and the artistry dovetails with the Silent Film Festival’s overriding creed: true art transcends time. Join us as we celebrate the Telluride Film Festival and the art it is dedicated to show.
Telluride co-directors Tom Luddy, Gary Meyer, and Julie Huntsinger accepted the award onstage on Saturday, July 14, 2012