I once took a film appreciation class while attending Purdue University. The class focused on silent films, which included Lillian Gish's “Way Down East” (1920); “Battleship Potemkin” (1925), which featured the famous Odessa Steps sequence; Charlie Chaplin's “The Gold Rush” (1925); “Intolerance” (1916); and Buster Keaton's “The General” (1926).
The teaching assistant was a Keaton fan, and she probably knew as much about him as I knew about Chaplin, one of my all-time favorites. One of our assignments was to write about Keaton or Chaplin's filmmaking style, and she certainly favored Keaton's. Everyone who wrote about Keaton received an A on their paper. I dared to be different and chose instead to write about Chaplin's techniques while filming “The Gold Rush,” and received a D.
Thanks to Embassy Theatre's Black & White Series, you can decide whether you like Keaton's or Chaplin's film style better. Or maybe you will like Harold Lloyd's even better. These three men arguably were masters of their medium.
The series begins Sunday with the silent short “Trip to the Moon” (1902), based on Jules Verne's “From the Earth to the Moon” and H.G. Wells' “The First Men in the Moon.”
Keaton's “The General” is the feature film about a man who must save his train (called The General) and his love interest when Union spies capture the train with his love on board.
This film became Keaton's proudest cinematic achievement, though audiences did not like a comedic film about the Civil War. United Artists (ironically co-founded by Chaplin in 1919) never again entrusted Keaton with total control over his films.
Paired with the advent of the “talkie” and the deterioration of his marriage, Keaton soon descended into alcoholism. It took years for him to recover and regain his reputation in Hollywood.
Both films are accompanied by Clark Wilson on the Embassy's Grande Page Theatre Pipe Organ. Afterward, University of Saint Francis professor Jane Martin will participate in a question-and-answer session about silent films.
The series continues March 10 with the silent short “Palace of the Arabian Knights,” a 1905 film about a man who faces a series of adventures to win the hand of a princess. The feature film is Chaplin's “The Kid,” the 1921 comedy in which the Tramp cares for an abandoned child (Jackie Coogan).
Chaplin's making of this film was greatly influenced by the death of his 3-day-old son. His marriage had deteriorated, and he was under pressure by First National to complete his film contract.
“The Kid” was a whopping 68 minutes long, Chaplin's longest film to date, and maybe even the longest film by any filmmaker at that time. It mirrored Chaplin's childhood — a life of poverty and parent-child separation as his mother was often confined to mental wards as Chaplin grew up on the streets of London.
Like Keaton's “The General,” Chaplin's “The Kid” combined comedy and drama (it was the first to do so); however, “The Kid” was a critical success and defined Chaplin's filmmaking abilities. He later made “The Gold Rush,” “Modern Times” and “City Lights,” and transitioned well into talkies with “The Great Dictator,” “Monsieur Verdoux” and “Limelight,” in which he and Keaton perform a duet.
“Palace of the Arabian Knights” and “The Kid” also are accompanied by Wilson on the organ, and Martin participates in another question-and-answer session afterward.
“Impossible Voyage,” a 1904 silent short based on a Jules Verne play about a trip to the sun, is shown April 14. Harold Lloyd's 1923 comedy, “Safety Last!” is about a store clerk who climbs the outside of a tall building to win his girl.
The segment in which Lloyd climbs the outside of the building and dangles from a large clock is a classic scene of ingenuity Lloyd imagined when he saw Bill Strother, the Human Spider, climb an office building in downtown Los Angeles during the early 1920s. Watching Strother climb higher and higher made Lloyd anxious, and thought he could create that same feeling for movie audiences.
The amazing part of this film segment in “Safety Last!” is Lloyd only had one hand — his left — while scaling the building. Most of his right hand was literally blown away by a prop bomb that exploded in that hand in 1919.
He wore a specially crafted glove on his right hand in every film after that accident because he did not want moviegoers to feel sorry for him. Watch the film and you will swear he has a right hand, and he certainly had no stuntman double.
Steven Ball plays the organ and hosts the question-and-answer session afterward.
The series concludes with the Buddy Nolan tribute concert May 12. Jelani Eddington performs on the Grande Page in memory of Nolan, who was the Embassy house organist for 20 years and one of the six original founders of the Embassy Theatre Foundation.
Attend part or all of this film series to gain a greater appreciation for those filmmakers who dared to be different. I promise I will give you an A.