Silent films have never seemed like a dead art to me, even though pictures began talking in 1929 and I was born in 1960.
When I was a kid, silent films was what were shown at the public library to kids on Saturday afternoons, because Super8 projectors were the standard apparatus for such events and couldn’t handle sound. Throughout my youth, I also saw certain silent films over and over because of their subject matter: whenever my father would take me to a model railroad convention, I could count on seeing The General again.
Meanwhile, many of the great silent film stars lived into the '60s, '70s, and in the case of Lillian Gish, 1993 (when she died at age 99, 81 years after making her first movie). The silent survivors were churning out scores of memoirs, which were followed by oodles of books by the new breed of film scholar who revised accepted Hollywood history and proclaimed underappreciated artists such as Buster Keaton to be geniuses.
Here in New Haven, several times a year, you can stroll into the Lyric Hall Stage in Westville, an actual renovated silent moviehouse, and see silent movies more or less as they were seen a century ago—projected on a smallish screen in an intimate theater, with a band of local musicians providing musical accompaniment.
My daughters and I biked from downtown to Westville on Sunday afternoon for a triple- feature of Buster Keaton shorts at Lyric Hall. It had the casual air of what going out to the movies must have been like in the 1920s.
The program isn't what you would have expected back in the day, however. Then, for your hard earned nickel or dime, you'd have gotten several hours of entertainment-- one or two shorts, a newsreel, perhaps two features. A festival of just one artist—whether it was Keaton or Chaplin or Lloyd or Gish—would be extremely unlikely, and might invite a variety-craving audience to riot.
This past weekend's screening also had a theme within a theme: Buster Keaton running around crazily constructed houses.
In other respects, Lyric Hall silent film series is very respectful. The musicians' scores reference songs from the time the film was made, not present-day pop. When a dog upset Buster, the accompaniment was "How Much is That Doggy in the Window?" and not, say, "Who Let the Dogs Out?" There are some fine modernist groups creating fresh scores to silent films (among the very best are Keystone, led by jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, and the Alloy Orchestra led by Roger Miller of Mission of Burma), but Lyric Hall's is on the trad side. In a number of cases, this ensemble takes its cues from piano scores laid over the DVDs of Keaton's films which were reissued by the KINO company a decade or so ago. When Buster gets married at the beginning of the brilliant One Week, a wedding march plays. (“What else?” you might ask.) In any case, the Lyric Hall band—onstage but unobtrusive, concentrating on the music sheets in front of them, take care to enhance, not distract from what's on the screen. A percussionist occasionally provides sound effects—a knock at a door, a ringing bell—in a way that doesn't draw attention to the effects.
What is distinctive about the Lyric Hall band is how brass- heavy it is. There' s a saxophone, a tuba, a trumpet and a baritone horn on top of the accustomed piano and percussion. The brass decidedly dominates, giving a Kurt Weill punch to the proceedings. The jazz standard "Tiger Rag" came up more than once in Sunday's hour- long presentation, and got a rowdy, hooking rendition that boosted Keaton's antics practically into punk rock hooligan territory-- while still remaining true to the style and spirit of classic silent movie scoring.
The films? Well, they speak for themselves. Rent 'em if you don't know 'em. One Week has newlywed Buster putting together a prefab house, unaware that a rival has misnumbered the parts. In The High Sign, Keaton's a carnival trick shooter who's forced by a street gang,The Blinking Buzzards, to kill a prosperous gentlemen in his mansion, only to have the intended victim also hire Keaton to be his bodyguard. In The Playhouse, Keaton pays tribute to vaudeville and minstrel shows, at one point (through trick photography) portraying every person in the theater. In all the films, a house or theater is a major character, trapdoors and escape routes and water tanks providing much of the momentum and suspense and hiliarity.
The most remarkable thing about seeing these three tricked- out building comedies back to back is how all use different gags... even if the stage orchestra might be leaning on the same popular songs.
The Lyric Hall silent movie events have been going on for nearly as long as the elegantly renovated Lyric Stage has been open, a couple of years now. The project is an ideal fit for the room, obviously, but it’s also gained a wondrous familiarity and informality of its own that. Families come, not just cineastes. Folks relax, tap their toes, laugh and cheer. A tradition of communal moviewatching has returned to Westville after a century, a tradition which never should have left.
Lyric Hall is at 827 Whalley Ave., New Haven, (203) 389-8885, http://www.facebook.com/LyricHall
There won’t likely be another silent film event at Lyric Hall until late summer or early fall, but if you want to catch a different sort of communal filmgoing experience, there’s a free outdoor screening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—a film partly made in New Haven—8 p.m. June 1 at the basketball courts on the Westville side of Edgewood Park.