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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Proctor’s Golden Silents

From the Vault Dept.: They drew audiences of varying size, these silent movies at Proctor’s in Schenectady, and the series limped along for a few years before giving way to the olla podrida of titles that continues to liven the theater’s dark nights. But here is my 1986 preview of what I consider the best series of all: a Harold Lloyd festival.


HERE’S S. J. PERELMAN describing himself at the 1919 premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s “Male and Female,” starring Thomas Meighan and Gloria Swanson: “(I) was hanging out of a balcony seat at the Victory in a catatonic state, impervious to everything but the photoplay dancing on the screen. My absorption was fortunate, for at regular intervals the ushers circulated through the aisles, spraying the audience with an orange scent that practically ate away the mucous membrane.”
Harold Lloyd

There was nothing like it. Audiences accustomed to the variety bill of vaudeville found that they could pay far less to watch the travails of incredibly handsome, colorless faces enlarged to Brobdingnagian proportions while an invisible orchestra or organist provided a musical counterpoint to the action.

Of course the “pictures” were lambasted as criminal, sinful, immoral – what fun thing isn’t? But they sure caught on. Palaces were built to house the showings, structures larger and more ornate than any live-performance theater. Blind worship of these black-and-white stars made them the most popular (and recognizable) figures on earth.

We’ve all seen a few of those silents on TV. They suffer freakish fates of being shown at the wrong speed or being made asinine with stupid musical accompaniment. So I went to the silent movies at Proctor’s in Schenectady two summers ago with reluctance. And I was astonished.

Forget what you’ve seen on TV. It doesn’t work on the little box. Forget canned rinky-dink music and gratuitous “boings.” Proctor’s has the Wurlitzer, the same kind of Mighty Wurlitzer used in the ‘20s, to accompany the pictures, and a variety of artists, from organist-in-residence Allen Mills to guests like Lee Irwin and Dennis James, to provide authentic musical scores.

The effect is magical. Without dialogue, with just the abstraction of music in live performance, the old movies get right to the heart. They’re funnier: they’re more tragic.

For the first time I understood what made Lillian Gish such a great star – who could forget her terrifying plight in “The Wind”? Chaplin’s antics were clearly the work of a genius when shown at the right speed.

And this summer’s series is devoted to the work of one of his few rivals, Harold Lloyd. This is how film historian Kevin Brownlow describes the real-life Lloyd. “A likeable young man makes good, marries his leading lady, crowns success with success, becomes the world’s 10th-richest entertainer, buys a 16-acre estate, and withdraws from motion pictures. At this point, catastrophe is usually imminent. But not in the case of Lloyd. He remained extremely wealthy, he remained married to his original wife, he retained his estate, and, even more surprisingly, he stayed the same likeable man he was before, his personality unchanged by the ultimate in success.”

Lloyd in "Safety Last"
Lloyd was one of a number of Chaplin imitators when a photo of a pious clergyman inspired him to create a different character: a bespectacled fellow, an average Joe, no different from the man in the street. And this “glass character,” as Lloyd termed him, was featured in close to 300 comedies.

He also knew how to jazz up a comedy with suspense, and became best known for his “thrill pictures,” that put the glass character in death-defying predicaments. With no trick photography, either: “The illusion lay in deceptive camera angles of drop and height,” wrote Lloyd.

“Safety Last” is the best-remembered of them, inspired by a stunt Lloyd witnessed in which a “human fly” climbed a 12-story building. And so we find Lloyd high above Los Angeles at the film’s climax. “I threw my shoulder out of joint in the scene,” he recalled, “probably the loudest scream of the picture, where I grab frantically at the minute hand of the building clock, many stories up, and the face of the clock is pulled out and down by my weight.”

Be assured that “although you saw the city’s traffic crawling many stories below, at no time could I have fallen more than three stories, but who wants to fall three stories?”

The Harold Lloyd Festival will take place on Thursdays in July and August, with two shows a day. The 2 PM showings will use the soundtrack recording provided by the releasing company: the 8 PM showings feature Allen Mills at the organ.

• July 17: Grandmas Boy (1922) and A Sailor-Made Man (1921).
• July 24: Why Worry (1923) and Never Weaken (1921).
• July 31: Safety Last (1924) and Hot Water (1924).
• August 7: The Freshman (1925).
• August 14: For Heaven’s Sake (1926) and Dr. Jack (1922).
• August 21: The Kid Brother (1927).
• August 28: Speedy (1928).

Metroland Magazine, 17 July 1986

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