Posted by Susan Doll on July 28, 2008
I spent last Friday night with Clara Bow and Gary Cooper at the historic Portage Theater in Chicago. They were appearing in the silent film Children of Divorce, and I was . . . well . . . sitting in the audience watching them. Because the evening was so much more than just watching a movie, I guess I felt that Clara, Gary, and I were all in it together. The film is part of the Silent Film Festival, an annual series hosted by the Silent Film Society of Chicago in which movies are screened each Friday night for six weeks. The series offers a rare opportunity to see silent films as they were meant to be seen – in 35mm projected onto a large screen with an audience who cheers and applauds out of appreciation for an entire evening’s worth of entertainment.
The evening began with a sing-along. The words to several old tunes, including “Toot-Toot Tootise,” “Harrigan, That’s Me,” and “Abba Dabba Dabba,” were projected onto the screen and those who weren’t too embarrassed sang along to the organ music by professional silent-film organist Jay Warren. The movie was introduced by a film historian who revealed that Children of Divorce has never been available on VHS, DVD, or even shown on television. The George Eastman House had restored the film in 2001, and the 35mm print we saw was in excellent shape except for a couple of shots. The contrast between lights and darks was perfect, with the blacks as soft as velvet and the grays rich and varied. The idea that we were watching a film rarely seen since its 1927 release was like stepping back in time, and watching a pristine 35mm print reminded me that no other format can compete with the beauty of film.
Unfortunately, the story of Children of Divorce was like stepping back in time as well. The plot revolved around the sin of divorce and the unfortunate consequences on the children. The film opens in Paris, where an “American divorce colony” has sprung up in the wake of so many irresponsible couples marrying and then quickly divorcing. Divorcees reside in the colony, whooping it up at parties, brunches, and other social activities, while they shuffle off their children to the nearby convent. While residing at the convent, young Kitty and Jean become lifelong best friends, growing up to be young women played by Clara Bow and Esther Ralston. Both vie for the affections of rich boy Teddy Larrabee, played by drop-dead handsome Gary Cooper. After a night of speakeasies and bootleg liquor, Teddy and Kitty end up married, though Teddy loves Jean. In the meantime, penniless royalty Vico de Sfax (that’s right, it is spelled “Sfax), carries a torch for Kitty. After Kitty realizes she has destroyed several lives because of her foolish night with Teddy, she knows she must do something about the situation. Yet, she cannot divorce Teddy because she won’t let her daughter be one of those “children of divorce.”Divorce must be a fate worse than death, because Kitty kills herself to “correct” her mistake. That way, Jean and Teddy can be together, and her daughter can be raised by Jean. I guess Count Vico, who was supposed to marry Jean, gets left out in the cold, but at least no one got divorced!!
The plot of Children of Divorce may have been hopelessly outdated and disappointing, but plots for melodramas generally don’t stand the test of time. The key to melodramas are the larger-than-life stars and their chemistry together. Feisty Clara Bow and handsome Gary Cooper commanded the audience’s attention with their acting skills, including powerful facial expressions and carefully created gestures. The music by Jay Warren on a bona fide silent-film organ worked in tandem with the movie to cue the audience to the emotional thread of the scene. No one missed spoken dialogue. According to the Silent Film Society of Chicago (SFSOC), silents are special because of their ability to communicate to everyone. They are not bound by the restraints of spoken dialogue; they are liberated by the lack of it.
This was certainly true of last week’s film, which was Speedy - Harold Lloyd’s last silent comedy. Fast paced, with thrilling stunt work, Speedy was a perfect family movie. I looked around the theater and saw people of all ages laughing out loud – from kids to teens to adults to senior citizens. I go to a lot of movies in all types of venues, but in general, I seldom see such a cross-section of ages like I do at the Silent Film Festival, especially when they show a silent comedy.
Founded in 1998, the SFSOC is dedicated to bringing silent films to the attention of the public for the purposes of preservation. The more that people watch and appreciate silent films, the greater the demand to see them, and the more likely it is that they will be preserved. Children of Divorce and its restoration by the George Eastman House is a case in point. And, to the best of their ability, the SFSOC recreates the original silent-film experience. The home base for the Society is the historic Portage Theater, which houses a theater pipe organ. Though it is played by a single musician, the organ can produce the sound of an entire orchestra as well as sound effects, such as bells ringing, doorbells chiming, etc. Three organists – Jay Warren, Dennis Scott, and Dennis James – rotate playing for the silent films, and occasionally, an entire orchestra will appear to provide musical accompaniment for a major classic.
The Portage is one of those grand theaters often called movie palaces, though it was actually built in 1920 before the advent of the movie-palace age. Designed by Henry Newhouse, the theater was built with a megaphone-shaped auditorium and a beaux-arts opera house design. It was taken over by the famous Balaban and Katz movie-theater chain in 1940 and streamlined with an art-deco-like look. I live in the Portage Park neighborhood, and during the 1990s, I watched the theater steadily decline. At some point, one of the theater’s owners divided the Portage into two theaters – a disastrous idea – and used it to show second-run Hollywood movies at discount prices. When it finally closed as a theater, it was briefly used as a church, which made changes to it without benefit of getting a permit from the city. You can’t do anything in Chicago without the approval of about 40 committees and 10 aldermen, so who knows what they were thinking. The Portage then closed its doors for five years, and I thought the next step would be its demolition. Dozens of beautiful movie palaces have been demolished or reworked into other businesses in Chicago, and the future did not look bright for the Portage. Thankfully, the SFSOC restored the theater, returning it to its former glory and moving its annual Silent Film Festival there in 2006.
In addition to hosting the Silent Film Festival, the Portage Theater shows old horror films a couple of times a month, which are hosted by the Horrorbles, a group of fans devoted to classic and not-so-classic horror movies. Coming up on August 9 is a showing of Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Ricou Browning, who played the Creature in the water, will be on hand to greet the fans. And, on Wednesday afternoons, the Portage shows classic movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood. The Portage Theater is truly a gift to the neighborhood, and judging by attendance to many of these events, residents appreciate its comeback from the brink of demolition. (Those who don’t live in Chicago can view the Portage’s interior in the upcoming gangster film Public Enemy, in which Johnny Depp plays John Dillinger. The inside of the Portage stands in for the interior of the BIograph, where Dillinger attended his last movie.)
In addition to showing 35mm silents on a big screen with proper musical accompaniment in a bona fide palace theater, the Silent Film Soicety also likes to recreate other aspects of the movie-going experience from the past – like the sing-along from last Friday. Though I have a phobia against hearing non-singers sing, I made it through the sing-along with my sanity intact. Other attempts to turn back the clock include pre-show music by the West End Jazz Band, a 1920s-style jazz band that specializes in the type of music that Woody Allen plays with his little band. Next week’s film is Our Hospitality with Buster Keaton, and the audience has been invited to participate in a pork-pie hat contest in honor of Buster’s famous head gear. On August 8, Metropolis will be accompanied not only by Jay Warren on the pipe organ but also by Professor Pierce on the theremin, the instrument that produces that eerie sound often used to represent flying saucers in old sci-fi movies. On August 15, Sadie Thompson, starring Gloria Swanson, will be shown, and the evening’s festivities begin with a “What’s Behind the Curtain Contest?” Finally, the series closes out with a collection of comedy shorts titled Kings of Comedy 2. The shorts include Harry Langdon in Lucky Stars, Buster Keaton in Out West, and Douglas Fairbanks in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish. I showed the latter in one of my film classes once; it is an oddball spoof of detective stories in which Fairbanks plays a detective named “Coke Ennyday.” I will let you draw your own conclusions there.
The Silent Film Series is one of Chicago’s best summertime experiences. It is dedicated to preserving and showcasing an important part of film history, and it has brought a Chicago landmark back to life. Most important, it proves that there is no substitute for seeing film on a big screen in a theater, and it reminds audiences of the unique pleasures of that. Comedies are funnier and tragedies more emotional when you watch them with an audience; stunt-driven films are more exciting on a big screen; and black and white movies look rich and beautiful on film.
Anyone living in the Chicago area who has not been to the Silent Film Festival is missing a unique experience. In a perfect world, all cities would have their own silent film societies.
[The 2008 Silent Summer Film Festival runs Fridays at 8pm at the Portage Theater in Chicago, 4050 N. Milwaukee. The Fest ends on Aug. 22.]
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