Silent movies were never silent; they were always accompanied by some manner of music, sometimes a full symphony orchestra led by white-tied and usually white-haired conductors, but more often the celebrated theater organist.
For Chippy and me, this has been the summer of silents – excuse me – “pre-dialogue movies” more accurately describes the genre.
Imagine, I have a 13-year old son who asks, “Dad, can we watch another Chaplin movie tonight, can we watch “The Circus” again?”
It’s true — I’m not making it up.
You ask, “What movies?” Since I was showing them to Chippy, I chose the great comedians, Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy. Once they were in front of his eyes, they sold themselves very quickly as our laughter started to roll.
Chaplin’s “The Kid,” “City Lights,” and “The Circus” had us roaring, and had me getting more than a little teary eyed. I defy anyone to watch the first two and not turn a bit blubbery.
Chippy is used to my crying at movies – after all, I won’t be able to hold it back when Jerry Lewis starts singing, “When you walk through a storm” on Monday evening.
Chaplin was obviously aware of his power to create emotionally overwhelming moments. In the famous last scene in “City Lights,” he cuts away almost too quickly, as if he fears crossing the boundary into sentimentality.
One thing about Chaplin’s films – there is no fat. Every scene is choreographed for maximum impact; his camera never lingers for too long. If anything, Chaplin seems to be thinking, “less is more.”
There’s always a moment, or two, in his films where he uses a close-up on the Tramp’s face, usually at the moment of falling in love or the realization his love is returned. His eyes seem to glow from the tinted frames and the effect is mesmerizing.
When asked the other day why I was so infatuated with Chaplin, I answered, “Because there is such a reservoir of human goodness in those stories.”
Whether that’s true of Chaplin’s entire corpus, I don’t know, but it fits the three above. All his characters, including the Tramp himself, suffer only from venial sins, never mortal, and every bad turn in life’s journey is redeemable.
My remedy for bad culture has always been good culture, or as Matthew Arnold put it, “to know the best which has been thought and said in the world.”
Thus my daughter Hannah, as a youngster, didn’t watch pre-dialogue films but she often stood between the stereo speakers conducting the film music of Ennio Morricone or a Mahler symphony.
Did the exposure to good music drive out the bad? The jury’s still out on that one! OK, so the remedy is not foolproof, but it beats thinking you can protect your children from cultural decadence by throwing out your TV or never darkening the dark hall of a movie theater.
Arnold’s goal extends naturally to all the arts, including the art of film-making. Now, only just over a century old, the movies have finally earned a place of intellectual respectability. A man or woman who cultivates good music and literature is no longer viewed as “selling out” or “slumming in pop culture” by trying to learn the history of moviemaking, its greatest artists, and its various grammars.
Given the dominance of film in popular culture, applying Arnold’s dictum to our taste in film is especially valuable. Once your teenager gets an eyeful of true comedy, the rollicking genius of Chaplin and Keaton, the nasty, foul-mouthed “teen flick” may no longer be so interesting.
Or at least that’s the hope….
Over the weekend, we are going to watch the first two great vampire movies — Murnau’s “Vampyr” and Dreyer’s “Nosferatu” at Chippy’s request.