Festivals salute the art of silent cinema


Given the sound focus of the September edition of Film Journal International, it seems appropriate to take a look at several events that celebrate the time when movies were “silent” and/or beginning to talk.

June 28 to July 5 marked the XXVIII edition of the world-renowned “Il Cinema Ritrovato” festival in Bologna, Italy. Organizers at the Cineteca offered “eight fulfilling and memorable days to dive into the pleasure of unique screenings, to discover the best prints and digital restorations from the most important film archives and institutions all over the world.” And indeed, 360 “rediscovered” films from 1895 until closer to today were presented at five theatres “from dawn till dusk” and shown open-air in Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore and the Cineteca’s Piazzetta Pasolini courtyard. Leading up to the main event, Association Chaplin/Roy Export Company organized the “Birth of the Tramp” celebration and conference to mark the 100th anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s iconic character.

Of the many unique films and programs, including a comparison of digital restoration and original print hosted by restoration experts from 20th Century Fox, Sony-Columbia and Warner Bros., we picked out just one. Long considered lost, Why Be Good? (1929) perfectly exemplifies the changing times with no dialogue spoken, but featuring a Vitaphone soundtrack with synchronized music and sound effects. Warner Bros. (rights holders) restored the film at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory after joining forces with Cineteca Italiana di Milano (storing a nitrate dupe negative) and New York-based Vitaphone Project, a fan group that has devoted themselves to preserving the phonograph-disc soundtracks used by Warner and sister studio First National for all of their early sound films (including The Jazz Singer).

Meanwhile, in the United States the Library of Congress had a Silent Film Workshop at its Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, a home to more than seven million collection items. For three days in July, archivists, scholars and silent-film buffs participated in “a kind of cinematic treasure hunt,” organizers noted. The goal was to find out more about films that have been unidentified, under-identified or misidentified by tapping “the collective knowledge of the participants to obtain as much information as possible.” Unlike what one would expect from such a scholarly endeavor, “during the screenings, attendees are encouraged to talk in the theatre, calling out names of actors, locations, car models, production companies or anything else they recognize about each film.”

“A Talk/Demo on Silent Film Accompaniment” asked “Where the Music Comes from” and had the official silent-film accompanists—Philip Carli, Ben Model and Andrew Simpson utilizing the theatre’s piano and Walker organ—on hand to explain. Another seminar focused on “Failed Film Formats.” No, this did not feature Sensurround (as celebrated in our September issue), but the likes of 28mm as “the first film gauge to gain wide acceptance as a nonflammable stock for home use,” as well as “a nontheatrical home version” of 16mm Vitaphone sound-on-disc.

In addition to the Library’s own collections, “all genres of films” had been submitted by other archives and institutions such as George Eastman House, UCLA Film & Television Archive, the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive, the EYE Film Institute Netherlands (Amsterdam) and Royal Belgian Film Archive (Brussels).

Not to be outdone by Europe or the nation, Hollywood has its own Cinecon Classic Film Festival booked for Labor Day weekend. The 50th anniversary presents the tried-and-true mix of “rare and rarely seen movies, silents and early talkies,” writes Janet Hoffmann of WBSF Ranch Operations at Warner Bros. in Burbank, Calif. “The movies are mostly 35mm film, not digital films, shown on the big screen at the historic Egyptian Theater…with an appreciative audience.”

Continuing the connections of this column, we selected to highlight East Is West in the program. Starring Constance Talmadge and produced by Joseph M. Schenck (husband of her sister Norma and partner with Marcus Loew in Consolidated Enterprises and president of Loew’s Inc.; chairman of United Artists and 20th Century Fox), the film will be shown “for the first time on any American screen since its 1922 release” in a restoration by the EYE Institute. (For a preview, click here.)

MK2 Ventures to Spain
MK2 Group, for 40 years based in Paris and exclusively fêted in our September issue, is taking its first step abroad and acquired nine cinemas (two in Malaga will close), 120 screens and some 20,000 seats from Cinesur in southern Spain. Located in the cities of Bajadoz, Cádiz, Córdoba, Málaga, Seville and Toledo, the chain, founded by the Sanchez-Ramade family in 1932, ranks number three and accounts for 6.5% of the country’s theatrical box office.

MK2 has plans to export its best exhibition practices, as well as building synergies with its programming and cultural events that enjoy much success across Paris. The timing feels fortuitous, given the fact that Spain looks to be on the road to recovery from a five-year downward trend that was only aggravated by the VAT hike on cinema tickets in 2012 (8% to 21%). During the first five-and-a-half months of 2014, Rentrak reported a 31% gain in admissions in the country and, given the introduction of flexible pricing and reductions, 13% on revenue, IHS ScreenDigest tell us.