Thursday, March 26, 2015

Silents In A Talky World

[Setting the mood - Old-timey theater ads played before the show.]

The first silent movie I laid eyes on taught me that once technology had evolved to allow for spoken dialogue in films, all those silent movie actors became obsolete. Oh, and the only thing to soothe the actors after being kicked out of their career was their best friend - adorable dogs that did tricks.

This all sounds like a plausible plot for a flick right out of the 20s, but au contraire, it was actually 2011's The Artist! I know, I know,  I didn't see a silent movie until four years ago. Bring on the chastising, because I deserve to be ridiculed.

Nowadays, the original silent movies are historical landmarks that can still move an audience to tears. They are rolled out in some old theaters across the country just for special events, like a concert or play. And people are going! Well, I can only judge based on a sold out showing of a silent movie I was able to attend just recently.

I've been trying to catch up on these oldies over the last couple years and continued with that effort over the weekend at a classy affair that pulled off, what I imagined was, quite the authentic experience.

Over the last couple months my hometown has been hosting a silent movie series at our local historic theater. Every showing comes with a professional organist who plays the original scores live as accompaniment to the flicks. It is just like the old days and as the movies were intended to be seen. The organist, Dennis James, brings these productions to places all over the world. Based on a quick perusal of his website, it seems like he is the preeminent guy that is keeping the true art of silent movies alive. Three cheers for him!

The second I saw that the Buster Keaton classic The General was playing, I jumped at the chance to finally be able to see it. The event even came just in time for me to treat my Grandma to the movie as a birthday present. Not only is it regarded as one of the best silent movies of all time, it is also on many highfalutin lists as one of the best movies ever made. It is one of two silent movies included in the top 20 of AFI's "100 Greatest Movies Of All Time" list.

All this buzz speaks for itself - I was all in. 

Within the first couple minutes of the movie, it is clear why people still adore Buster Keaton. He is a master actor who is able to convey a deep story through very little means. Keaton infamously will never be seen smiling in the majority of his films, remaining "stone faced", but he was still able to express emotion in different ways.

Mostly this is done through his extraordinary talent for physical comedy and his gutsy stunts. The fact that he is running on top/sitting on the front of moving trains for the majority of the film is enough, let alone that he is being funny while also being bold. This guy really did it all, including being credited as director and writer for this movie. That really puts in perspective actors of today who get full of themselves just for reciting lines that they didn't even write.

[The organ - aka the star of the show. ]

I always find it hard to imagine that a silent movie can possibly be laugh out loud funny. The pressure to find this flick uproarious was increased when the organist spoke before the movie began. He kept on cracking himself up while just explaining that The General was a hoot.

But they're not even telling jokes! You just have to watch - it  has a lot to do with timing. Marvelous sequences with misfired canons, train chases, and misunderstandings produces comedy from the ridiculous situations these characters are finding themselves in.

Keaton really was the beginning of slapstick. When he first walked on to the screen, my first thought was of Gilligan. You know, the guy who was marooned on an island with a bunch of folks, including Lovey and Mr. Howell. The two actors resemble each other in looks and it is now obvious to me that much of Gilligan's bits/Bob Denver's acting was inspired by Keaton.

Besides all the comedy, the logistics of making this movie is really what is still astounding. There are many moments that seem, even by today's standards of using CGI, very difficult to achieve. One outstanding scene in particular, finds Keaton riding on the front of the train attempting to clear a bunch of large wooden posts off of the track.

The train continues to progress forward and he has one post in his hand. As the train approaches another beam on the track, Keaton throws his piece of wood and "bam!", it hits the other beam in the exact spot that makes it flip over and off the tracks. How many takes do you think that took? Accomplishing that single moment is quite an incredible feat, considering all the moving parts and danger involved.

Big stunts combined with the overall large scope of the movie led to The General becoming one of the most expensive silent movies ever made. With a whopping $750,000 budget  in 1926, it's no surprise it got that distinction. One of the scenes that increased the cost of filming was the single most expensive shot done in the silent movie era. During a part of the movie, an actual train begins crossing a bridge that collapses, causing the train to crash into the river below. That stunt was worth every penny.

Even if you haven't seen The General, it is a guarantee that many of the scenes would be recognizable to everyone. They have become so infamous that they are burned into our subconscious and are often replicated in other movies. Anyone recognize this guy sitting on the front of a train? Or how about a guy sitting on the train wheel rods? As the train starts to move forward, he goes up and down and up again, never cracking a smirk.

What remains after almost 90 years is a movie that feels completely authentic. It still leaves an audience gasping and laughing with delight. I have not watched a movie with such a fired up crowd since seeing Bridesmaids in the theater. And this is coming from a wild bunch of five hundred people that were 75% of age for a senior discount.

Sitting in a vintage crushed velvet seat, looking up at a gorgeous chandelier as the lights dimmed, the reels started to turn, and an organist began tinkering away on the keys, was an experience that all very much felt like venturing back in time. All that was missing was people donning a bunch of large gorgeous hats.

Today we are spoiled with the modern movie experience - the comfort of high backed chairs, stadium seating allowing for a non-obscured view of the screen, and professional sound. I could give that all up, because nothing else compares to watching a movie in the glamor of a historic theater. Our ancestors really knew how to go out to the movies and have an entirely classy night.

Even though "the talkies" did change the world of movies, those silent treasures have not become totally irrelevant like old Hollywood had predicted. Advancements are made, and things change, but we can still take some time to enjoy and honor our past.

Until next time!

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