It’s appropriate that when the lights go down on Wednesday for the start of the thirtieth annual Chautauqua Silent Film Series, they'll do so in an auditorium that’s been screening movies longer than any other venue in Colorado.
On July 21, 1898, the Chautauqua Auditorium hosted a traveling exhibitor displaying Edison’s Genuine Projectoscope. These days, an amazing wave of discovery and restoration has made many marvels of the silent era newly available, says Tom Hart, program development coordinator and series curator for the past four years, who's come up with a schedule that includes such popular gems as Buster Keaton’s last masterwork, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and edgier work like People on Sunday, a New Wave film thirty years ahead of its time. “We are always looking for a balance between the popular and the educational but still entertaining,” he explains. “The more obscure films, though very worthy in quality and content, are supported by the popular and highly recognized films.”
Working with renowned archivist and restoration specialist David Shepard, Hart keeps on top of titles that resurface decades after they were considered lost. Other such films on the roster this year are the 1916 screen adaptation of the Broadway play Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, reportedly the first movie that Walt Disney ever saw and the inspiration for his own animated 1937 masterpiece of the same name, and The Trail of ‘98, an Alaskan Gold Rush saga filmed in 1928, starring early Western star Harry Carey and exotic screen goddess Dolores del Rio – and filmed in part on Colorado’s Rollins Pass.
The auditorium's wooden construction creates heavenly acoustics for the musicians who provide traditional live accompaniment for the flicks. The series features many of the top silent-film musicians in the country, including pianist Hank Troy, and Rodney Sauer and his Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Flamenco guitarist Steve Mullins will sit in with Troy for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which made Rudolph Valentino a household name in 1921. Trail of ’98 will team Troy, Sauer on accordion and percussionist Ed Contreras.
The last generation of those whose first film-watching experiences were silent is almost gone, yet the Chautauqua series still draws a steady stream of fans of all ages. "It is a joy to watch a film in which talking does not convey the plot and emotions of the story but uses a director’s and actor’s skill set that could tell a story via movement, expressions, camerawork and sets that are not present in today’s movies,” says Hart.
The schedule adroitly mixes genres. Horror is represented by F.W. Murnau’s original Nosferatu, and suspense by Hitchcock’s first true thriller, 1927's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog. Work by Keaton, Chaplin, Charley Chase and Harold Lloyd rounds out the comedy roster. Of special interest is a rare showing of a new print of the Cecil B. DeMille-produced 1927 film adaptation of Chicago, the cynical saga of murderous celebrity Roxie Hart later made famous by Kander and Ebb.
People on Sunday will feature Mont Alto playing the score commissioned by the Telluride Film Festival in 2006 and preserved on the recent Criterion issue of the film. This 1930 breath of fresh air was filmed in Berlin. Half-documentary and half-narrative fiction, loose and improvisational, the film is absolutely unique and features the input of no fewer than six aspiring filmmakers who later fled Hitler's Germany and became Hollywood legends: Billy Wilder, Kurt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer, Eugene Schufftan and Fred Zinneman.
In an expansion of its mission, the series is even bracketing this summer's schedule with two sound films, the 1948 neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves that will show on Wednesday, june 3, and Chaplin's anti-Nazi satire from 1940, The Great Dictator, that will close the season on August 25. Both exhibit visual techniques that ally them far more closely with silent than with sound film.
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Like many a young film addict, Hart got his start watching 16- and 8-millimeter silent-film prints released by Blackhawk Films, for decades the only point of access for many early-film enthusiasts. “My grandfather had a projector, and I would screen them over and over,” he remembers. “We had a copy of Chaplin’s Easy Street – or at least most of it, anyway.”
Now Hart can make sure that these classics are seen as they were meant to be: in their entirety, in the best possible condition, and set to music. It’s a testament to the efforts of all involved in the series, as well as the enduring power of the films themselves, that so many people still sit entranced by the silence on a summer’s night.
The Boulder Chautauqua Silent Film Series runs place from Wednesday, June 3 through August 25 in Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 West Baseline Road, Boulder. For a complete schedule and tickets, visit chautauqua.com.