Today, more than a century after the first silent films were made, we’re used to seeing blockbuster movies created with intense camerawork and editing techniques that exactly replicate the world we live in. Given these advances, one might suspect that most audiences would look past silent films, but not Spoleto Festival attendees. In fact, when the 2015 Festival presented Charlie Chaplin’s silent film masterpiece, City Lights, set to music played by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra the production was so well received that another showing was added. Festival-goers, it seems, like to give credit where credit is due when it comes to the artistic innovators of the past.
This season, the Festival presents the world premiere of Cinema and Sound, a perfect marriage of the magic of silent film and the splendor of a live soundtrack. The program features three silent shorts—The Cameraman’s Revenge, Suspense, and Mighty Like a Moose—set to original scores composed by acclaimed pianist Stephen Prutsman. A long time Festival-favorite for his performances during the Bank of America Chamber Music series, Prutsman hand-selected the films that he and members of the SFUSA Orchestra will accompany. Not familiar with them? You’re not alone. In advance of Cinema and Sound‘s June debut at the Woolfe Street Playhouse, let’s peel back the curtain and take a closer look at these films, shall we?
(The Cameraman’s Revenge, 1912)
The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) is a marital comedy the likes of which you’ve never seen. Written by Ladislas Starevitch in Moscow, it takes place in a world inhabited by insects living as humans. We watch as Mr. and Mrs. Zhukov try to escape their boring marriage through jealousy, voyeurism, and adultery. The bugs are incredibly lifelike; some audience members even believed that insects had been trained to perform on a set! In fact, Starevitch was one of the first and most creative stop motion animators. His childhood interest in entomology influenced his career of puppetry and filmmaking, and he often used anthropomorphism as a common theme: Starevitch’s first shorts starred animated dead animals while his later films featured handmade puppets. Although many of his films were lost and those that do exist are rarely screened, Starevitch’s work is still clearly influential today—think, James and the Giant Peach and Fantastic Mr. Fox, which Wes Anderson created as an homage to Starevitch.
Looking for a little edge-of-your-seat action? Suspense (1913) was created by American directors Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber; a perfect example of a simple storyline executed expertly: As an intruder surveys a family’s home, the father races home to a frightened wife and child. This true thriller keeps the stakes steadily increasing, especially as the intruder gets closer and closer. Suspense was ahead of its time. The directors used numerous techniques that were then rarely used all at once: closeups, off-kilter angles, split screens, mirrors, inventive point of view shots, and bold compositions. Additionally, Lois Weber was one of the first and most influential women filmmakers in America. She had a clear understanding of human nature; the subtle but crucial emotional cues that she included in this film made the characters truly realistic.
(Mighty Like a Moose, 1926)
Mighty Like a Moose, entertains audiences with awkward comedy and romantic deceit. It follows a homely couple that get plastic surgery to spruce up their appearances and end up having affairs. What may sound like a tale of infidelity that has been told countless times before is really one of hijinks. McCarey’s work isn’t only wildly entertaining, its content also speak to larger themes: mentions of Mussolini and the Polka pepper the title cards, for instance, and the plot jabs at the double standard of cheating when it comes to men and women. Considered by many critics to be one of actor Charley Chase’s best films with his use of farce and gags, Mighty Like a Moose delivers in antics and hilarity.
CLICK HERE for tickets to Cinema and Sound.
Photo (at top) behind the scenes of Suspense, 1913