One of the great rewards of supporting historic theaters with classic film programs is the chance to see silent movies with live accompaniment. These performances are the product of a vibrant silent film community that has also helped to preserve silent movies through DVD recordings and restoration projects.
I recently enjoyed the work of four different silent movie performers. They accompanied a variety of short and feature length films, using a piano and two different theater organs.
This journey into a re-created past began on Friday, May 26, 2017, when I made a day trip to Columbus, Ohio for the annual Cinevent Classic Film Convention.
A popular feature of the four-day Cinevent is the movie room where personal film collections are used for screenings of both sound and silent movies.
Accompaniment for the silent films is handled by pianists David Drazin and Philip Carli. David is very well known to visitors to the Detroit Film Theatre, where he has accompanied many silent films, including The Last Laugh (DFT 101), Faust (Added Value), and The Farmer’s Wife (Early Hitchcock).
On this Friday afternoon, David accompanied two short comedies by the relatively unknown Lupino Lane. David used many honky-tonk piano flourishes to add even more life to the impressive physical comedy of Lane.
Philip followed David’s performance with a more serious musical score for the dramatic The Scarlet Car (1917), which featured Lon Chaney in one of his early roles before he became a big star in the 1920s.
These silent films were screened in a conference room in the Renaissance Columbus Downtown Hotel. The intimate setting, the piano accompaniment, and the sound of a whirring projector took the viewers back to the earliest days of silent film, before movie palaces and theater organs.
My silent film journey continued the next day on the evening of May 27 at the Senate Theater in Detroit. Organist John Lauter used the Senate’s formidable Wurlitzer organ to enhance the 1929 drama Diary of a Lost Girl.
This provocative German film was directed by G.W. Pabst and starred Louise Brooks. These two movie figures also worked together in Pandora’s Box (1929), which was screened at the Redford Theatre on March 28, 2015, also with accompaniment by John Lauter. John’s accompaniment for both of the Pabst/Brooks movies captured all of the moods and nuances of these sexually charged dramas.
Diary of a Lost Girl was released at a time when most movies were being produced with the new technology of sound.
As I watched Diary of a Lost Girl on the big Senate screen, I was impressed with the skillful way that Pabst made excellent use of such silent film tools as facial closeups and hand gestures. Maybe he knew that this was probably his last chance to fully exploit such tools, before the inevitable pressure to film with sound.
Diary of a Lost Girl is part of an ambitious attempt by the Senate to build a classic film program. The silent movie part of this program will feature another German classic on October 21, when Stephen Warner accompanies the 1922 horror film Nosferatu.
My silent film journey ended on June 2 and 3 at the Redford Theatre with three movies that were accompanied by one of the most prominent ambassadors for this ancient art form.
Ben Model, who is based in New York City, has performed hundreds of live scores for silent movies. He also has been involved in silent film DVD recordings and silent film restoration efforts.
At this Silent Film Weekend Festival, Ben (whose last name is pronounced mow-DELL), used the Redford’s Barton organ to accompany vibrant 35-millimeter prints of The Mark of Zorro (1920); Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928); and Chicago (1927).
Each of these screenings was part of a bountiful package of entertainment that also included several musical selections, a short comedy, and very informative introductions. Ben made creative use of the many sound effects of the 89-year old Barton organ, including horns, chimes, and the attached piano that he used to simulate a player piano in Chicago.
At the Friday and Saturday evening screenings, Ben was introduced by the busy John Lauter, who I have seen play the theater organ at the Redford, Senate, and Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. John’s remarks included much background information on silent film accompaniment, including its disappearance after the beginning of sound pictures, and its comeback about fifty years ago.
The Friday night performance of the comedy/drama The Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks resonated with much movie theater organ history. The movie was screened fifty years ago at the first public performance of the Motor City Theatre Organ Society, which owns and runs the Redford.
At that October 24, 1967 performance, the accompaniment was provided by Gaylord Carter, who has been described as one of the two driving forces behind the revival of silent film screenings with live accompaniment. The other driving force was Lee Erwin, under whom Ben Model studied.
The Mark of Zorro was preceded by the 1920 short comedy Nonsense, starring Sid Smith and Jimmie Adams, whose names were new to me. Ben said this was one of the many silent movies that he has helped save from obscurity. Ben also noted that many silent films have survived because of 9.5 and 16-millimeter prints that were originally created for the home rental market.
The weekend continued on Saturday afternoon with Buster Keaton in the short comedy The Goat (1921) and the feature length Steamboat Bill, Jr. The feature includes one of Keaton’s most famous stunts—the apparent collapse of a building wall on Keaton, who is saved only by an open window.
Saturday evening, Ben accompanied Chicago, whose source material was later used in the 1942 Ginger Rogers movie Roxie Hart and the Oscar-winning 2002 movie Chicago.
Chicago starred Phyllis Haver in a lively comedic performance. Most of Haver’s films were released during the silent era, and the preservation of silent movies helps to preserve the memory of performers like her.
Chicago was preceded by the Laurel and Hardy short comedy From Soup to Nuts (1928). Every time that I see a silent movie with Laurel and Hardy, I’m reminded that their great success in talking pictures was built on a carefully developed visual style that they created during the silent era.
This memorable Redford weekend ended at about 11 p.m. on June 3, when I and many others gave Ben a standing ovation for his accompaniment for Chicago.
Now I’m reflecting on the many silent movies that I’ve recently watched. Every one of them took me back to a time when films were relatively new. Audiences enthusiastically connected with these lively series of images, with musical accompaniment that added a distinctly human touch to the experience.
Copyright © 2017 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.