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Silents Golden Again

Classics films that predate the first talkies are enjoying a renaissance across the nation. Fans say the films' creaky reputation is undeserved.


LINCOLN CITY, Ore. — Idela Warton's eyes light up when she talks about the silent film era--her era. At 87, she remembers the pre-talkie days.

"I can remember going to see them with my parents," said Warton, standing in line at the Bijou Theater to see Ramon Novarro's 1928 "Forbidden Hours," the silent film's first public showing in 73 years.

"Charlie Chaplin was my favorite. And Rudolph Valentino."

Warton is not alone. In recent years, movie buffs have flocked to silent film festivals in Italy, London and San Francisco, and to organ- or orchestra-accompanied showings of classics in renovated film "palaces" in Los Angeles; Atlanta; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Jersey City, N.J.

It's a virtual renaissance of silent film, spurred, observers say, by Turner Classic Movies' decision five years ago to show a weekly feature on "Silent Sunday Night."

"They have shown the audience silent films are not beat-up Keystone Kops stuff," said Richard P. May, vice president for film preservation at Warner Bros., which, like Turner, is part of AOL Time Warner.

Turner, which owns MGM's film library, has about 100 silent films that have never been musically scored. In addition to cable-casting "Silent Sunday Night," TCM has commissioned young musicians and professionals to write music for the silent films, and has created documentaries about some of the silent stars, including Lon Chaney, Clara Bow and Louise Brooks.

"I'm really jazzed about our ability to bring some of these films back into circulation," said Tom Karsch, executive vice president and general manager of Turner Classic Movies. "It's important to make sure [the public] understands how much of the rich product is out there."

Numerous Web sites devoted to silent films have sprung up in the last several years.

Diane MacIntyre, president of an online journal called the Silents Majority, said that when that site went up in 1996, there were just five or six such sites. Today, there are more than 100, she said.

"We couldn't put the pages up fast enough. We have consistently gotten over 300,000 page views a month for nearly three years," she said.

Between 1893, when Thomas Alva Edison built his first moving picture studio, the Black Mariah, in New Jersey, and 1927, when "The Jazz Singer" with Al Jolson was released as the world's first talkie, silent films grew quickly, in popularity and sophistication.

Early silents were short and jerky. But by the time such classics as F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" (1922), Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" (1925) and Sergei Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin" (1925) came along, silents had grown to full-length majestic cinematic masterpieces.

"All the technical developments of the cinema were developed by the end of the silent days," said Kevin Brownlow of London, who has dedicated his life to silent film and has written the definitive history, "The Parade's Gone By."

Zoom, quick cutting, camera movement: "They'd done it all by 1929," he said.

But when talking films emerged, many studios intentionally played down silent films because they figured the two media could not coexist, Brownlow said.

Many silents were deliberately reissued at the wrong speed to undermine their popularity, he said.

"People got the impression they were idiotically antique, something ludicrous. That's still in the minds of people in their 50s and 60s," he said.

To be fully appreciated, silent films should be shown at the right speed, with live music and in a "palace" setting. Today's audiences seem to love the comedies most.

"They laugh. They can boo and hiss at the villain, and they can clap and cheer the hero. People get so involved," said Rick Parks, a 39-year-old organist who accompanies many films at the Elsinore Theater in Salem, Ore., and elsewhere.

Many of the silent films have decomposed over time, said Warner's May. Before 1951, all films were nitrate-based. Those that have been preserved are transferred to polyester-based film.

"At the time of the changeover to sound, many, many films had absolutely no [commercial] value," May said. "There were thousands of films made, and nobody kept them."

MGM was a forerunner in preservation, May said.

"The production quality was first class, and if the film was preserved properly, the production quality shows still today," he said.

At the Bijou here, manager Matias Bombal, who has promoted silents at various West Coast theaters since 1989, said the showing of "Forbidden Hours" was a symbolic first.

It disappeared from theaters soon after its release, pushed aside by the talkies.

The film was kept in MGM's vaults for decades and recently was rediscovered by an author working on a biography of Novarro, a Mexican-born actor who was the star of the 1925 classic "Ben Hur."

"This film was forgotten even in its own time," Bombal said.

Bombal believes silent films, combining film with live music in pomp and bombast, are unlike any other theatrical offering.

"Silent films require total attention from the viewer," Bombal said. "You cannot look away, or you will miss key elements of what is happening on the screen.

"It becomes a very intimate, personal thing."

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