Cecille B. DeMille’s 1917 piece presents a classic silent film, enhanced by live organ music at the local theater.
Local independent theatre Circle Cinema has a showing of a classic silent film every second Saturday of the month. The film is accompanied by a live organ performance on the fully acoustic 1928 pipe organ.
This month, the film shown was Cecille B. DeMille’s 1917 movie “A Romance of the Redwoods.” The film is a simple drama involving a criminal (Elliot Dexter) who takes the identity of a young woman’s (Mary Pickford) uncle. Predictably, they fall in love by the end of the film in a romantic twist ending.
A lot of the comedy of the film comes from the unlikely meeting between Pickford, a ladylike character, and Dexter, a rough-and-tumble bandit. A particularly hilarious scene involves Dexter eating a disgusting-looking dinner with his bare hands while Pickford looks on with wide eyes. Typical of silent films, this comedy is done through body acting and visual gags as opposed to spoken punchlines.
Of course, the live organ music also helped to make this an incredibly enjoyable experience. It makes you almost nostalgic for a time you never lived in: the time when people would enjoy the latest film as a sort of live performance. The joyous energy and positive this kind of experience exudes is impossible to deny.
While the film itself may not be an incredibly notable work artistically, it is an incredibly interesting historical artifact. Mary Pickford was one of the greatest Hollywood stars of the day. In 1919, she joined Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith to form United Artists. This production company was created in response to other companies like Metro Pictures not allowing the artists much control over their movies. Pickford starred in her last film in 1933 with “Secrets.” However, she did continue to produce films into the 1940s.
DeMille was the first Hollywood director and is generally considered the father of American cinema. He won two Academy Awards, a Golden Globe and the Palme d’Or. He continued making movies into the era of sound and color. His most well known film, 1956s “The Ten Commandments,” is now the eighth-highest grossing film of all time (when adjusting for inflation).
DeMille’s films have experienced mixed reception by critics and fellow directors. However, they frequently received positive audience reviews and sold many tickets. In many ways, his films are an earlier version of modern action and superhero movies. These types of movies may draw scorn from more elitist filmgoers, but I think there is a special place for them in the history of film. They serve as a representation of common culture and a grand spectacle for all people. As long as a movie is the vision of a passionate director and invokes a similar passion in the audience, a film is always art.
Circle Cinema’s next silent film will be the 1922 movie “The Prisoner of Zenda,” which was originally distributed by United Artists. It will be shown on Dec. 14. It also stars Douglas Fairbanks, one of the founding members of the United Artists. The star performance combined with the authentic live organ music should make it an excellent show.