A Film Buff Cheers the Oldies, Calling for Silents, Please!

Garbo, Chaplin, Keaton yesteryear’s screen giants dazzle audiences anew at Pordenone, the world’s most pretigious silent-film festival

Scene from Broken Blossoms starring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess
Scene from Broken Blossoms starring Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess Wikimedia Commons

Silent films have outwitted history: long considered dead and buried, the old movies are going through an unexpected revival that is showcasing their accomplishments to a new generation. Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan, an ardent fan of the silents, tells how he first experienced the medium by watching abbreviated versions on a TV series called "Silents, Please." He is delighted that there are now many more opportunities for modern moviegoers to see for themselves that "silent films have magic."

Turan discusses the crucial importance of musical accompaniment (it accounts "for nearly half of a film's impact") and projection speed (in the old days, cinematographers hand-cranked the cameras), and the fact that new attention being paid to these aspects of old movies is contributing dramatically to the burgeoning popularity of the silents.

As silent-film festivals in expected places like Hollywood and unexpected ones like Saginaw, Michigan continue to grow in number in the United States, it's becoming easier than ever for new audiences to meet the original screen personae of film giants Garbo, Chaplin, Pickford, Valentino and Keaton, as well as lesser-known American and foreign actors.

There has been an eruption of silent film on video and cable, including a six-cassette series entitled The Origins of American Film, jointly produced by the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress.

"The non-pareil event of the silent-film year," Turan writes, has come to be Pordenone, the world's most prestigious silent-film festival, now in its 14th year. Held in the little-known Italian city of Pordenone, an hour northeast of Venice, the event attracts silent-film collectors, archivists, academics, preservationists and just plain fans from all over the world. Countless "new" films have been rescued from decades-long "storage" in such unlikely places as an abandoned swimming pool in the Yukon as a result of the interest generated at Pordenone. The range of rescued films, both American and foreign, being screened for the first time in decades has been astonishing.

Ken Turan takes readers along to the 13th Pordenone festival, his favorite of all the film festivals he attends, and spreads his infectious enthusiasm for an old art medium that is finding new audiences.

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