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Silents On Sunday At The Cinema: An Old-Fashioned Experience
Event flyer and its stars
Even before my most recent visit, I have done something I suspect most contemporary moviegoers have not done. I have seen movies from the silent era on the big screen. When I studied film in college, I watched several silent films on a big screen in the university auditorium. A few years before that, I made time to see a restored version of Abel Gance's 1927 epic, Napoleon, at the Chicago Theater, with a sixty piece orchestra conducted by Carmine Coppola. I have yet to have a more memorable viewing experience.
I live near the Hoosier Theater in Whiting, Indiana, the oldest movie house in northwest Indiana, and the last of its era still standing. On a late winter's Sunday afternoon, the Hoosier hosted a silent film fest. The program featured four silent comedy shorts. This event also included an organ accompaniment by Jay Warren, who's involved with the Silent Film Society Of Chicago. I have some VHS tapes that feature an organ score created by the late Rosa Rio, but I've never seen a live performance of music to film until this time.
Liberty (Laurel & Hardy)
Warren made a brief spoken introduction to each film, starting with the 1929 release Liberty, starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. There, they play escaped convicts trying to stay one step ahead of the police who pursue them. They elude the authorities as they try to be inconspicuous in a shopping district. They eventually find their way to a high rise building as they plot their next move, and try to exchange the ill-fitting pants they're wearing. The laughs come with each situation the pair makes, including a bumbling encounter with music store owner James Finlayson, who often played a foil to Laurel and Hardy in their films. Jean Harlow makes a brief appearance as a cab passenger.The director, Leo McCarey, directed many comedies in this era, and would wind directing Oscars for The Awful Truth and Going My Way.
It's A Gift (Snub Pollard)
Next came It's A Gift, a 1923 short starring Snub Pollard as eccentric inventor Professor Pollard. A group of businessmen contacts the professor, expressing interest in a gasoline substitute formula he has developed. They wish to see him at his earlier convenience. Viewers will likely enjoy what Pollard uses as a car. Some might take a look at the conveniences in Professor Pollard's house and think the set-up might make Rube Goldberg jealous. Some of the exposition in the movie still rings true today about the oil industry, describing it as filled with opportunists and a few honest men.
Chasing Choo-Choos (Monty Banks)
The third film was Chasing Choo-Choos, a 1927 picture starring Monty Banks as a character known as The Boy (although he was about 30 at the time), a worker at a big company who's in love with the boss's daughter, Virginia Craig (Virginia Lee Corbin). A gang of men, though, have bad intentions, ans want to frame The Boy. She hides on a train from them, but the real trouble comes when the train starts rolling. Banks, an Italian whose real name was Mario Bianchi, shows his physical comic skills as he tries to stop the bad guys and the train. Chasing Choo-Choos, Warren explained, was a shortened version of the much less successful feature Play Safe. The train story and its stunts might remind some of a much more famous feature made the previous year - The General, directed by and starring Buster Keaton.
Bumping Into Broadway (Harold Lloyd)
The silent fest ended with the oldest and longest (25 minutes) of the four flicks - Bumping Into Broadway, a 1919 short starring Harold Lloyd as an unnamed playwright trying to find success in New York. As he struggles to make ends meet in his cheap apartment, he learns the tenant next door (Bebe Daniels), an unpaid chorus dancer rehearsing a new show, is behind on her rent. He gives her his money, even though with the overbearing landlady, Bearcat (Helen Gilmore) and her bouncer (Noah Young). He avoids them as he tries to sell his first play. He then finds himself and his neighbor in more trouble as more money problems arise. Lloyd shows earnestness, pleasantness, and a creative way to evade trouble. He and Daniels would team to appear in other comedies. Pollard makes a hilarious cameo as a very enthusiastic stage director. The movie was produced and directed by Hal Roach, who made many comedies during this era, and is perhaps best known for his association with the Our Gang comedies (He also produced Liberty).
After The Credits
Each one of these films has dated elements in it, but each also still has plenty of laughs as these comics deal with the situations they face. Some of the ways they deal with problems create unexpected new problems. Chases play a part in each film, and often involve cops. Story often takes a back seat to situation, which leads to abrupt endings on some of these shorts. The afternoon had some modern twists, such as Warren's portable organ, which sounds like an old-fashioned pipe organ, and movies cued by computer. This marked Warren's third visit to the Hoosier, and ended with him hoping to return soon. If this does happen, I hope Hoosier management will do a better job of spreading the word. While they announced the event on Facebook (I am not a Facebook member), they did not promote the event on the theater website, nor did they e-mail website subscribers like myself of this special event. I happened to drive by the Hoosier marquee the day before the show to learn about it. I'd happily pay to attend a future silent event, and would recommend it to film fans and others curious about the early days of the movies. These silents are better than some current releases.
Below are three of the four movies I saw. I found nothing more but clips of Chasing Choo-Choos.