Clap If You Believe!

It was one of the most exciting moments I’ve ever experienced in a movie theater. Already, the audience at the Redford Theatre on March 10, 2007 had enjoyed organist Lance Luce’s musical accompaniment to the delightful 1924 silent film Peter Pan.

But late in the film, as Tinker Bell the fairie lay on the verge of death, Peter Pan looked straight out at the audience and implored it to clap loudly if it believed in fairies. The Redford crowd enthusiastically responded, and urgently raised their volume when the word “LOUDER!” flashed across the screen. When this make-believe interaction succeeded, a triumphant round of applause propelled us into the rest of the movie.

Stepping Back in Time

“Lance Luce will play organ accompaniment throughout, just like in the good-old-days,” read the audience handout, which also said, “Let’s Celebrate The End of Winter With An Evening of FUN”.

Lance warmed up the crowd with a half hour of music that started off with “It’s a Wonderful Day Today”, by J. Fred Coots. The tunes continued with a medley of Irish songs for St. Patrick’s Day, including “Danny Boy” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling”. Lance demonstrated the air-activated cymbals, snare drum, and bass drum with George Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band”.

Then, the lights went down, the Barton Theatre Pipe Organ lowered, and the screen lit up with Betty Bronson’s playful and mischievous performance as Peter Pan. Lance Luce’s smooth, rhythmic organ playing pulled us into this classic tale of a boy who didn’t want to grow up.

When we watch sound movies, the film does most of the work—voices, music, images, motion. But watching a silent film is quite different. The musical accompaniment, whether live or recorded, can affect the presentation of a movie the same way that direction and actors influence the performance of a play or a conductor affects the playing of a symphony. Of course that’s also true with sound films, but with silent films, music plays a larger role.

I’ve heard silent films accompanied by organ, piano, chamber music, classical guitar, orchestra music and modern electronic sounds. The moods and melodies of the music affect how the film comes across. Add in the personal, dreamlike feeling of film without vocal dialogue, and silent movies can be real adventures of the imagination.

The Journey to Never-Never-Land

So it was again with Peter Pan, which was filled with the delight and creativity of make-believe. During intermission, you could feel elation in the air. The crowd, like the movie characters, seemed to be floating on the magic of the film. It built on the good feelings of the early spring warmth of the weekend.

The different child actors came alive with humor and spontaneity, and the fake dog and crocodile were great fun. The sets and special effects were impressive, especially the flying scenes and the miniature fairy-people. The pirate ship scenes with Captain Hook were as powerful as anything that we’ve seen with the Pirates of the Caribbean.

And Betty Bronson, as Peter Pan, gave the performance of her life. I wondered why I had never heard of her before, and after some research learned that her career declined after A Kiss for Cinderella, a 1925 film of another story by Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie. Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s & Video Viewer’s Companion describes Bronson as a “Lively American leading lady of the 20s; did not succeed in talkies.”

Still, Betty Bronson’s moment in movie history is preserved, thanks to the restoration of the original nitrate print of this film. And thanks also to the Redford’s presentation of this and other silent films in the way they were meant to be seen.

As I walked out, about 15 people surrounded Lance Luce by the piano in the inner lobby, where he was selling copies of a sacred music CD that he had recorded. In the outer lobby, I heard happy comments like, “I enjoyed it—the whole experience, the organ, the theatre…”

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Copyright © 2007 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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