Phantom of the Senate

Silent horror movies are a unique treat in the Halloween season, with their ancient shadows and limited dialog adding to the sense of mystery. When they are screened with the surging, moody sounds of a live theater organ, they become even more chilling.

Visitors to the Senate Theatre in southwest Detroit got to feel the organ-driven thrills of the 1925 silent Lon Chaney drama The Phantom of the Opera on October 24, 2015. The accompaniment was by Dennis Scott, a Chicago-based organist who has accompanied other silent movies at the Senate in recent years.

Before Dennis took Senate patrons to the Paris Opera House of The Phantom of the Opera, he took a humorous side trip to The Haunted House, a short 1921 comedy starring Buster Keaton.

This pairing of movies starring Buster Keaton and Lon Chaney gave visitors the privilege of seeing two masters of silent cinema at the top of their craft, in two different kinds of movies.

You saw two strong screen personalities using all of their technique to create unique effects, both comedic (Keaton) and terrifying (Chaney). They made you identify and sympathize with them, as they dealt with adverse forces in their lives.

Both actors also knew how to play against the grain of their basic messages of laughter and fear.

Keaton’s serious attempts to deal with everyday situations led to much of the humor in Haunted House. Chaney’s playful moments (like his grand entrance at the masked ball, and his empty hand at the end of the movie) helped give more emphasis to the scarier moments of Phantom.

Senate visitors also saw two different ways that intertitles were used in silent movies to tell a story. They provided humor and irony in Haunted House, and drama and mystery in Phantom.

Dennis Scott skillfully provided the appropriate accompaniment for each film, with playful melodies for Haunted House and dramatic flourishes for Phantom. In Haunted House, during a dream sequence when Buster Keaton is ascending to Heaven, Dennis played George and Ira Gershwin’s “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.”

In both movies, Dennis also provided the atmospherics and accents that are the strengths of theater organs like the Wurlitzer organ at the Senate. His playing compared favorably with performances of The Phantom of the Opera that I’ve seen at the Michigan Theater (Keyboard Wizards) and Redford Theatre (Father and Son).

Dennis’s organ playing for Phantom included these highlights:

  • The use of richer, deeper tones for Lon Chaney’s organ-playing in his subterranean living area.
  • The use of poignant, melancholy melodies when lead actress Mary Philbin thought longingly of her true love Norman Kerry.

Dennis talked about how The Phantom of the Opera helped renew interest in silent movies.

“This is a film that kind of helped revitalize interest in silent films, because my friend John Muri was requested one time to play a little snippet of it. He didn’t want to do it, because this was the 1960s, and he hadn’t played silent films since the 1920s when they’d all gone away.

“So he thought about it some more, so he ended up doing the unmasking scene from The Phantom and sort of got back into it and eventually a few years later he started recording silent film scores for Blackhawk and most of those films, all of them, are now owned by Kino.

“And it’s nice that some of John’s scores have been on 16-millimeter film, and they were converted to VHS, and they were converted to DVD, and at least one of them I know has come out on Blu Ray, and it’s still using John’s score, the film College [with Harold Lloyd].

“Anyway, he was in the vanguard of getting silent movies going in this part of the country. On the east coast, and in other parts of the country, there was Lee Erwin. On the west coast and all over the country, there was Gaylord Carter. These three men brought an interest to younger generations for the silent film.”

Dennis also promoted the Senate Theatre, which has been building a film program to go along with its regular schedule of organ concerts. The film presentations are similar to those at the Redford Theatre, with organ concerts before the movie and during an intermission. Several organists at the Senate have also played at the Michigan Theater and Redford Theatre.

And a loud round of applause greeted Dennis’s suggestion to have a Buster Keaton festival at the Senate, perhaps in conjunction with a Buster Keaton festival that is held every year in Muskegon, Michigan, where Keaton spent many summers of his youth.

Detroit Movie Palaces Home Page

Copyright © 2015 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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