Speaking of silents

What are movie theatres without the movies to show in them?

For me, the interest in movie theatres is directly tied into movies themselves. I admit it, unabashed, that I am a hopeless cinema addict, no apologies. And while there are many genres that I have an affinity for – classic film, foreign, art, film noir, science fiction, horror, as well as current fare – my true love is in silent film. True, this is a niche genre, considering that the silents died out over 80 years ago. But what I love about this period is that in a span of roughly 30 years – from the latter 1890s to about 1928 – a complete art form was created, one that incorporated all the existing forms of the time: art, photography, stage drama, set design, writing, and music into a very new one.

It is estimated that about 80 to 90 percent of all the films made before 1930 are lost. Yet the interest in silents is greater than ever before, and there are still films from that period that are being rediscovered. A good case in point is from earlier last month, with the announcement of 75 “rediscovered” films from the New Zealand Film Archive and the National Film Preservation Foundation. Heading the list is John Ford’s full-length feature Upstream (1927). Other titles include Maytime (1923) with Clara Bow and the first surviving film directed by and starring Mabel Normand.

Another landmark discovery was a print of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, located in a vault in Buenos Aires, which included footage not seen since its original release in 1927. The new restoration of this film will be shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (www.silentfilm.org), which runs from July 15-18 at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Other films to be shown there include Häxan (1922), L’heureuse mort (1924), The Iron Horse (1924), The Strong Man (1926), The Flying Ace (1926), The Woman DisputedRotaie (1928), (1929), The Shakedown (1929), Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), Man with the Movie Camera (1929), Big Business (1929), and A Spray of Plum Blossoms (1931). Metropolis will have its DVD/Blu-Ray release later this year.

Other film festivals pay equal tribute to the silents. Scheduled the same weekend as the San Francisco Festival is Slapsticon (www.slapsticon.org) in Arlington, Virginia, a festival that specializes in early and silent comedy. Among the highlights to the festival will be a previously unknown Charles Chaplin performance in the recently recovered Keystone comedy A Thief Catcher (1914). While many of the popular names are represented at the festival – Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase, Harry Langdon, and Roscoe Arbuckle, to name a few – Slapsticon is a showcase for the lesser-known names such as Larry Semon, Lupino Lane, Max Linder, Billy West, Bobby Vernon, Snub Pollard, Ford Sterling, Andy Clyde, and Raymond Griffith.
And on Labor Day weekend in September, Cinecon 46 will take place in Hollywood, also showcasing a full roster of silent and early talkies (www.cinecon.org).

Meanwhile, more titles than ever before are finding their way to DVD and Blu-Ray. The restored edition of Metropolis will be released in November by Kino (www.kino.com). For those unfamiliar with Kino, it is one of the leading names associated with quality silent film on video and DVD. As a general rule, if a title released by Kino, it is oftentimes the best version available in terms of picture quality, music, and overall restoration. For anyone interested in silent film, browsing through the Kino catalog is akin to walking into a candy store.

Milestone (www.milestonefilms.com) has also been a top distributor in silent titles, from the Mary Pickford collection to Beyond the Rocks (1922), a film long considered lost, starring Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson.

Another name associated with top-notch silent film DVD releases is Flicker Alley (www.flickeralley.com). Their most recent release is Chicago (1927), based on the 1926 hit Broadway play by Maurine Watkins, which also spawned the Oscar-winning 2002 film.

There are also a number of smaller distributors of silent titles to home video, such as  Grapevine Video (www.grapevinevideo.com), Sunrise Silents (www.sunrisesilents.com) and Unknown Video (www.unknownvideo.com). Picture quality varies from film to film, which is to be expected depending on the source material, however in many cases, these is the only sources for many of these titles.

Local exhibits of silents can be found on a semi regular basis at Discovery Green (www.discoverygreen.org) in association with KUHF Houston Public Radio. Their free presentations include live musical accompaniment by regional musicians. Their last showing was The Lost World (1925) with music by the Green Hornet Project.

And, of course, there is Turner Classic Movies (www.tcm.com) with their Silent Sundays program, and their ongoing efforts for film preservation.

Having seen hundreds of silent films over the years, I have found that my appetite for these cinematic relics has only increased. The more I see, the more I want to see those films that I have not yet seen. And as mentioned before, there is a good 80 to 90% that I will never have the chance to see, simply because they have been lost to the ravages of time.

So for those lost titles such as Lon Chaney in London After Midnight or Theda Bara’s Cleopatra, I can only hope that somewhere, they are sitting in a vault just waiting to be rediscovered and shown to an eager public.

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Cinema Houston celebrates a vibrant century of movie theatres and moviegoing in Texas’s largest city. This weblog is a companion to the Book, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex (University of Texas Press, 2007), and website, www.CinemaHouston.net.

David Welling is a Houston-based writer, artist, and graphic designer. His lifelong interest in movies (and the places that show them) led to the writing of Cinema Houston, which included fifteen years of research, and its subsequent website.


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