“Nobody watches silent movies anymore”.
I was a little taken aback when I read the above quote recently in an otherwise well-researched book about Pre-Code film. Nobody watches silent movies anymore? Tell that to the audiences who flocked to the Fox and the Revue Cinema this past weekend to watch two silent classics: It (1927) and The Hands of Orlac (1924). In spite of the unusually mild February weather, both films played to a packed house.
Being a huge fan of Clara Bow, I was excited to see her on the big screen in the film that immortalized her as the original “IT Girl”: on Saturday, the Toronto Silent Film Festival screened It (1927) at the Fox theatre in the Beaches, with live music accompaniment by Tania Gill. Prior to the film, my beau and I checked out the merchandise table where I picked up some sassy Clara Bow buttons for a toonie each and he found a cool Marilyn Monroe biography for only one dollar! Regrets? I have a few: there was a Gloria Swanson DVD collection for $20.00 which I unwisely passed up (I figured I should keep my cash for groceries but really, when choosing between bread and Gloria, one should always choose Gloria!). I couldn’t resist asking my beau to snap a photo of me under the Fox’s vintage Candy Bar sign (pictured).
Our bellies still full of popcorn and our hearts stolen by the radiant Clara, my beau and I (along with our good friend Jeff) stepped out again on Sunday to enjoy some more silent movies – this time at the Revue theatre in Roncesvalles where they were screening the deliciously creepy German Expressionist film The Hands of Orlac (1924) as part of their Silent Revue series. Once again, the wonderful accompanist Tania Gill provided the music; if you’ve never seen a silent film before, you should know that they should NEVER be watched in actual silence – the music accompaniment doesn’t just enhance the viewer’s experience but is mandatory both in moving the plot forward and creating the “feels” of the story. Gill’s piano accompaniment to the romantic comedy It (1927) was fun and jaunty while her performance for The Hands of Orlac (1924) was hauntingly goose-bump inducing. Prior to the film, the Silent Revue’s curator Alicia Fletcher explained that their high-quality print only had German title cards. Therefore, she verbally translated the film in English during the screening – this was the first time I had watched a silent film with verbal translation and it was absolutely lovely! I have read that during the silent era theatres would sometimes hire translators to read out the title cards, particularly in Japan where Benshi, as these performers were known, would also provide live narration of the films. The afternoon made me think of the sense of community and audience engagement that silent films encourage – for example in the 1910’s and 1920’s, audiences would often provide the sound effects to the movies (stamping their feet on the floor to simulate horse’s hooves or making smoochy kissy sounds during love scenes, etc..). Also, as I have stated here before in my review of The Big Parade (1925), the language of pantomime is universal.
The Fox theatre opened in 1914 and the Revue in 1912, which means that the silent movies we watched this weekend probably had their original runs in both theatres. I find that thought comforting somehow. Life comes full circle so rarely that it’s surprisingly pleasant when it does.
The Toronto Silent Film Festival continues in April; for movie info and show times, please visit: https://www.torontosilentfilmfestival.com/index.html
For more information on the Silent Revue monthly series, check out: https://revuecinema.ca/revue-series/silent-revue/