Movie Preview: Silent movies let the classics speak

By Stephanie Shewchuk

In the Golden era of cinema, silent screen superstar Mary Pickford commented, “When sound came to the pictures, they took a giant step backwards.” With the shallow whiz bang of today’s movies, she may have been right. But The Uptown Stage and Screen remembers the time of silent cinema and have brought back the treasures of that cinematic period with Cantos Music Foundation’s presentation of Silent Movie Mondays.

The event, previously held at the Uptown, masterfully mixes silent film and music from world-renowned theatre organist Dennis James. He became interested in the organ at a young age and has worked with many of the professional musicians of the silent film era. He also had the pleasure of working with several celebrities from that time, including Lillian Gish, Buddy Rodgers, Myrna Loy, and Loretta Young.

He describes the current Silent Movie Mondays as a rare chance to see movies as they were originally intended–silent, but with live music from a number of performers.

“Almost all silent movie theatres were equipped with pipe organs, even those where a full symphony orchestra accompanied the films for the main evening screening,” says James. “The rest of the performances were presented with organ solo accompaniment.”

As Cantos Music Foundation’s Special Projects Manager Scott Dunlop explains, “The organ brings the show alive. The goal is for people to not even recognize that he [James] is there.”

Dunlop emphasizes the unique and enticing nature of the event, which previously offered a number of various themes to lure viewers.

“We, in the past, have experimented with a bunch of different genres,” says Dunlop. “This year we decided to try four comedies, which are all unique.”

The silent films selected for this year’s event include College, with Buster Keaton, Grandma’s Boy, featuring Harold Lloyd, It, starring the original “It” girl Clara Bow and Show People, which James and Dunlop both list as their favourite film in the series.

“I most enjoy Show People because it is MGM’s farewell to the silent pictures, providing an affectionate tribute to the entire industry and its participants,” explains James. “It has it all; movie stars, happiness, sadness, and all the drama silent films were so famous at portraying.”

Dunlop also believes the silent film genre possesses certain qualities appealing to many generations.

“To see the people that come out, it’s really amazing. Eighty to 90 year olds come to see the films they saw originally, 40 and 50 year-olds want to see those that they’ve known or heard about, and of course, there are always the film buffs,” asserts Dunlop. “I’ve even seen goths show up just because the event was something different and out-of-the-ordinary.”

James believes in the widespread charm of silent films and trusts the genre will see an increase in popularity.

“I can foresee a time in the near future where the live performance presentation of silent films will become as regularly seen and welcomed within the performing arts community as the other major revival art forms such as the ballet, opera, and symphony orchestra.”


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