The Beautiful Sounds of Silents

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Imagine the joyful laughter of young children as they enjoy the misadventures of the main character of a movie. Is it the latest Pixar epic? Something from Disney? 

No, their amusement comes from 90-year-old silent films starring Charlie Chaplin. On April 8, 2006, the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor presented four of Chaplin’s short films from 1916. Youngsters who were born in the 21st century were treated to comedy classics that first hit the big screen during World War I.

These short films were part of a recent bounty of silent movies at the Michigan, Detroit Film Theatre, and Redford Theatre.  These screenings have been a good education in the wide variety of styles and musical backgrounds that viewers enjoy when watching these ancient wonders. 

The happy reactions of the children and their parents at the Michigan proved that Chaplin still has the magic touch for entertaining audiences. Maybe his childlike innocence and vulnerability got the kids’ attention. Or perhaps the amazingly creative gags that come out of nowhere. A comedy style that was rooted in vaudeville, stage plays and illustrated story books can still touch the hearts of audiences who have been conditioned to complex computer animation.

The Chaplin films were part of a Family-Friendly Film Series at the Michigan that concludes on May 20 with a presentation of The Wizard of Oz. The films in this series are free to children under the age of 12.

These Chaplin films (One A.M., The Pawnshop, The Floorwalker and The Rink) were released by the Mutual Film Corporation. Chaplin made 12 films for Mutual in 1916 and 1917, earning $10,000 per week and establishing himself as one of the first superstars of the movies. “It was the Chaplin of these pictures who became the beloved idol of millions throughout the world,” wrote film historian Lewis Jacobs in his 1939 book, The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History.

The packaging of these films showed how the history of silent film can be preserved and presented to modern audiences. Each film had a short written introduction that described its place in Chaplin’s career. The end credits of each film noted that they were restored in 1984. The music for these films was created in 1989 and included piano, woodwinds and other instruments, as well as musical sound effects for people falling down or bumping into each other.

Watching these Chaplin films in the Screening Room of the Michigan brought back happy memories of pleasant Sunday afternoons with Art Stephan of the Ann Arbor Film Society. In that same theater, Art would set up a projector in the middle of the audience and share from his home movie collection of silent and novelty films. In his own unpretentious style, Art would talk about long forgotten silent stars like Mabel Normand and Max Linder as if they were good friends. At the end of an easygoing afternoon of classic cinema, a sincere exchange of Thank You’s would pass between audience members and Art, who passed away two years ago.

Harold Lloyd

Later on April 8, the Redford Theatre in Detroit presented another famous silent film comedian, Harold Lloyd, in the 1925 feature, The Freshman. Lloyd’s antics and adventures came to life through the inspired musical accompaniment of theater organist Lance Luce, who has made many appearances at the Redford. Luce’s energetic performance helped the crowd roar with laughter. It showed how much fun an old movie can be when you see it with other people, instead of sitting at home alone watching it on television.

Lloyd was one of the three most famous silent film comedians of the 1920s (along with Chaplin and Buster Keaton). Chaplin’s tramp character showed the value of creating a marketable personality. Lloyd followed that lead to forge his own identity as a bespectacled young man of the Roaring 20s whose good-natured and well-intentioned ambitions set the stage for many humorous conflicts.

Like the Chaplin films, The Freshman showed how the visual grammar of film was forming before recorded sound came along a few years later. It’s amazing—and sometimes stunning—to see the physical lengths to which the silent comedians went to get a laugh. In The Freshman, Lloyd has to imitate a tackling dummy to make a good impression on the football coach. I don’t think there was any digital enhancement in the powerful impacts that Lloyd suffered during these scenes!

Before The Freshman was screened at the Redford, Lance Luce performed a small concert of music that ranged from old standards to Easter-related religious music. Between songs, Luce educated the audience on the mechanics of the Barton theater organ; the music that he was performing; and how the audience could help put his children through college by buying one of his four music CDs.

Luce is one of many outstanding organists who perform at the Redford. On May 6, 2006, Redford visitors will have another chance to hear the musical accompaniment of a silent film. John Lauter will play music along with the 1922 film Beyond the Rocks, with Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino.

David Drazin at DFT

On three Sunday nights in March 2006, the Detroit Film Theatre presented dramatic films that were provided by the Library of Congress. The films—The Big Parade, Wings, and The Wedding March—were accompanied by Chicago-based pianist David Drazin.

Highlights of these special evenings were a speech by staff person from the Library of Congress about the importance of film preservation. Drazin also amused the audience at each showing with a short film that created the illusion of Drazin leaving the theater and entering the movie on the screen to resolve a family problem.

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Copyright © 2006 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

 

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