In the early days of movie-going, when silent films reigned supreme, there were no snack bars, reclining seats, or disclaimers discouraging cellphone use (although friendly title-cards kindly asked ladies to remove their hats); coming attractions were projected on glass slides and hand-painted posters graced sandwich boards placed outside the street-front cinemas.
When talkies arrived in Toronto in late 1928, silent films disappeared, replaced by the chatter of jazz-babies and tough-talking heavies as theatres were quickly wired for sound. While several groups, including the Toronto Film Society, have kept the art of silent film alive throughout the years, the genre has seen a broader revival of late, taking centre stage at the Reel Asian Film Festival, Luminato, and as part of TIFF Cinematheque’s contribution to Nuit Blanche.
The first annual Toronto Silent Film Festival, running April 6 to 15, is the ambitious undertaking of Shirley Hughes, a life-long admirer of classic films who is also the vice-president of the Toronto Film Society.
A five-screening lineup, all accompanied by traditional piano or theatre organ, aims to highlight all that was great about silent pictures: slapstick comedy with Seven Chances (1925); swashbuckling adventure and early Technicolor in The Black Pirate (1926); intimate examinations of the urban metropolis in Man With a Movie Camera (1929) and Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927); and Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), now the world’s oldest surviving animated feature.
The films, some of which are newly restored, will be screened in settings that can approximate the earlier conditions of Toronto’s numerous silent houses, such as the Fox and the Revue, which opened in 1913 and 1912, respectively.
“Too often, festivals want people to make a trip to them. This gives the east, west, central and north each their own chance. It’s also a great opportunity to realize that their nabes are great places to see a flick,” says Hughes, who blames her infatuation with silents partly on Elwy Yost, after the former host of TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies presented The Phantom of the Opera.
The other venues are the University of Toronto’s Innis Town Hall and Casa Loma, where Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances opens the festival. The Wurlitzer, a giant chamber-sized organ, will faithfully reproduce the sounds of a full orchestra as it rumbles along to the hilariously absurd chase sequence.
But this organ is no stranger to Keaton’s farce — it was in use at Shea’s Hippodrome when the film premiered in October 1925. It was saved when Shea’s was demolished in 1957 in order to build Nathan Phillips Square. Moved to Maple Leaf Gardens, it provided music for radio broadcasts and in 1964, it was purchased by the Toronto Theatre & Organ Society. It has been housed at Casa Loma since.
While the majority of Toronto’s silent movie houses no longer exist, approximately 80 per cent of the silent films that flickered on their screens are also lost. Hughes sees film preservation and restoration as an important mandate; one of the long-term goals of the festival is to raise funds for grants to students who wish to pursue a career in film restoration.
“The danger with early films,” she says, “is that they can often become museum pieces, or locked away somewhere where few can see them. Films were designed to be shown to an audience and without them, they cannot compel or engage — you might as well lose them. And seeing films on the big screen with the audience is really the only way to go. YouTube or television viewing is like looking at postcards of paintings instead of actually seeing them.”
Rob King, University of Toronto professor and author of The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture, says that the unavailability of so many silents is a great part of their appeal.
“There’s always a silent comedian more obscure than the last; and if some of a given director’s films are no longer extant, then that only adds to the mystery. You could watch every Michelangelo Antonioni movie in a single day if you so wanted, but you can’t do that with F.W. Murnau, whose Four Devils remains one of the most famous lost films of all time.”
While the spotlight will be on big cities as well as two of the silent era’s biggest stars, Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks, the festival aims to showcase lesser-known actors with A Thousand Laughs: The Forgotten Clowns of Silent Comedy, a collection of six shorts from the likes of Larry Semon, Fatty Arbuckle, Stan Laurel, Snub Pollard and Charley Chase. Their work is largely forgotten due to the scarcity of their films.
Hughes hopes the festival’s inaugural year will appeal to ardent film fans as well as introduce the movies to a new audience. “I think because they are seeing it for the first time, they almost see it like early audiences did: with a lot of wonder involved. I think they see the possibilities that silent films present, and not so much the limitations of old technologies.”
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on March 26, 2010.