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The Art Of Silent Film

Hopkins Center to Feature Greats from Italian Film Fest

  • Evelyn Brent, left, and Clive Brook in a scene from the 1927 film "Underworld," part of Pordenone Silent Film Festival at the Hopkins Center from Feb. 1-3.  (Courtesy photograph)

    Evelyn Brent, left, and Clive Brook in a scene from the 1927 film "Underworld," part of Pordenone Silent Film Festival at the Hopkins Center from Feb. 1-3. (Courtesy photograph)

  • The 1928 Harold Lloyd film "Speedy" is part of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival at the Hopkins Center from Feb. 1-3. (Courtesy Harold Lloyd Entertainment)

    The 1928 Harold Lloyd film "Speedy" is part of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival at the Hopkins Center from Feb. 1-3. (Courtesy Harold Lloyd Entertainment)

  • Evelyn Brent, left, and Clive Brook in a scene from the 1927 film "Underworld," part of Pordenone Silent Film Festival at the Hopkins Center from Feb. 1-3.  (Courtesy photograph)
  • The 1928 Harold Lloyd film "Speedy" is part of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival at the Hopkins Center from Feb. 1-3. (Courtesy Harold Lloyd Entertainment)

There’s a presumption, said Bill Pence, director of film at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College, that the silent movies of the 1920s represent the art of cinema still in its infancy, and that it took the coming of sound, after an awkward adjustment to the new technology, to realize film’s full potential.

This doesn’t square with Pence’s vision of silent film, and it’s certainly not the organizing principle behind the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, which, since 1982, has attracted film lovers and historians from around the world every autumn to see new prints of old master works and to discover films long thought lost.

“I think you have to recognize it is a different art form. Most people think sound films grew out of the silent era. The people I’ve talked to felt that talkies were the end of films; they felt silent films were rich and beautiful,” Pence said.

Next weekend, as part of the Hop’s year-long Best in Show tribute to the world’s most innovative and eclectic film festivals, a slate of five films from Pordenone will be screened from Feb. 1 through Feb. 3 at the Loew Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center.

The films will be introduced by the Pordenone Festival’s co-founder Paolo Cherchi Usai, who is also a curator at the George Eastman House, an international museum of photography and film in Rochester, N.Y. There will also be musical accompaniment at every screening, which is the way, Pence said, they were meant to be seen. In fact, silent movies weren’t really silent at all, but visual and musical tone poems.

The movies include a Josef von Sternberg film from 1927, Underworld; a compilation of shorter films, Pure Pordenone, which will feature a film by a relatively unknown Russian master, Yevgeni Bauer, that is a precursor of sorts to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Pence said; and Speedy, a 1928 Harold Lloyd comedy shot on location in New York City.

One of the films Pence is anticipating with pleasure is Beggars of Life, directed by William Wellman and starring Louise Brooks, the sloe-eyed American actress with the lacquered black bob who went on to great fame in German Expressionist films. Here, Brooks plays a young woman disguised as a boy who escapes a dismal home life and heads out on the road. “She’s incredibly charismatic in this film and you can see why she would be noticed,” Pence said. “She is luminous.” The film will be shown in a new print.

Brooks disappeared from American screens in any major roles after the end of the silent era, but her cult reputation in this country was resurrected in the 1970s, courtesy of the George Eastman House. Her revival was cemented by the publication of her book of essays about film, Lulu in Hollywood.

Also of note is the Harold Lloyd comedy Speedy. While Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton are perhaps better known today, Pence said, Lloyd was the all-American go-getter who was wildly popular during his heyday. “Lloyd was Everyman,” Pence said. “One might compare him to Mickey Mouse, in a way.”

In Speedy, Lloyd loses his job as a soda jerk, gets another job as a cab driver, meets Babe Ruth and delivers him to Yankee Stadium, and also takes his best girl to Coney Island.

Last up is the comedy Show People, starring Marion Davies, who’s better known as William Randolph Hearst’s mistress, an association that did her no favors as she tried to establish a reputation as an actor, Pence said. “If it hadn’t been for William Randolph Hearst, her career might have done better. He felt she should be in serious costume drama but she really had a knack for comedy.”

The films being screened, said Pence, show how “the greatness of the silent film became paramount in the years 1927 and 1928.”

e_STnSFor tickets and information, call the Hopkins Center Box Office at 603-646-2422 or go to http://hop.dartmouth.edu/films. A movie “Passport” to all the films is available for $30.

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e_STnSNicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.