An Evening at the 18th Annual Silent Film Gala
with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Every year in early June since 1990, nestled in the lush foothills of Bel Air, something wonderful happens in Royce Hall on the beautiful UCLA campus: The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra holds their annual silent movie night.
To have an opportunity to see your favorite silent films on a big screen is a rare pleasure indeed. To see your favorite films with live orchestral accompaniment is something that goes beyond words. It is something to be savored, for it is a fleeting moment that exists only for the time that you are witness to it. With the superb instrumental perfection, precision and timing of the Chamber Orchestra, it is always nothing less than pure magic.
I first discovered this affair in 1991 and witnessed Chaplin’s City Lights on the big screen for the first time. With the orchestra being conducted by Carl Davis, I was so excited about the evening that I quickly forked over the $150 to attend the gala dinner after the film. It turned out to be worth every penny—priceless, actually.
On that evening I had the chance to meet Chaplin’s eldest living son Sydney and his daughter Jane. Also on hand were Jack and David Totheroh, the son and grandson of Rollie Totheroh, Chaplin’s long time cameraman. It was a fantastic evening! I was so at a loss for words upon meeting Jack Totheroh that I quipped something along the lines of, “Wow, to think that when you were a child, your dad would come home upset because he had a bad day working for Charlie Chaplin…” With a twinkle in his eye and an obviously clear memory in his mind, he paused, laughed and said, “You got that right.”
That evening brought me as close to Chaplin the man that I have ever been or most likely ever will be. Sadly, so few people remain from that era.
I know that Chaplin would be a great fan of these live orchestral screenings himself. So it goes without saying that after such an evening, the annual event has become something of a ritual with me.
This year, Saturday, June the 2nd was the Chamber Orchestra’s 18th annual silent movie night and they chose Chaplin’s The Pilgrim (1923) and Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. (1924) to dazzle the audience. Conducted by Timothy Brock, it was another performance to be remembered. I am always excited for those in attendance who have never witnessed such a thing as this.
The Pilgrim is one of my favorite Chaplin films. As in all of his films, only the essentials are given to tell the story. While most writers and critics focus on Chaplin’s brilliant pantomime of the story of David and Goliath, for me there are other moments in the film that I love: Chaplin’s encounter on the train with the sheriff and the escalating look of panic and horror on his face, Chaplin throwing the broken bottle of booze on the sidewalk behind Mack Swain, and the night time antics with Charlie trying to stop his old prison pal from getting to the mortgage money he wants to steal. These moments had the audience in stitches. While this film is often remembered for being banned in some states because of its apparent mockery of the clergy, one cannot help but note the irony of Chaplin weighing the collection boxes and the thankful look he gives to one side of the room and the accusatory look he gives to the side of the chapel that hasn’t given enough. After all, he intends to steal it. This prescient vignette is a wonderful parable that strikes at the heart of future events in some of the mega-churches that America has produced over the years. In retrospect, he got it right. This moment is far more insightful and more predictive of the future than Chaplin’s wandering off into the sunset, straddling the US/Mexico border. That was just Chaplin being funny. For me, the most intriguing moment in this film is when Chaplin transformshimself from Parson into a slick gambler-cum-Buffalo Bill character by merely manipulating his existing costume. When he yanks a concho off of a passing cowboy’s chaps and sticks it to his chin to complete the look, his persona immediately changes into the character that he has almost instantly created. He is no longer the tramp, but a slick, confident cowboy outlaw. Setting aside the hilarity of the moment, it makes me wish that Chaplin had taken on roles other than the tramp when he was at the height of his fame. He would have been brilliant.
Speaking of brilliance, in 1959 Chaplin wrote a score for this film and the Chamber Orchestra reproduced and performed it perfectly. They dispensed with Matt Munro’s singing of “Bound forTexas” written by Chaplin, and played the song without the vocal track. The score was played so perfectly that one often forgets that he is witnessing two brilliant performances at the same time. Experiencing a Chaplin film with orchestral accompaniment is always worth the price of admission and is an experience that stays with you for a life time.
This year the Chamber Orchestra commissioned Timothy Brock to write a score for Sherlock, Jr. Last year he wrote the score for Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last. Clearly Mr. Brock has taken over the reins as the loving caretaker of these brilliants films of the past that have been handed down to us without music. It must be a Herculean task to write a score of that length, but Brock has come into his own as writer of silent film music, and his score for Sherlock, Jr. proved it again.
Sherlock, Jr. stands on its own as wholly unique in the silent era. Not since the early 1900’s when Georges Méliès created movie magic by simple film edits had a film been taken to such innovative heights as this one. Many of the specialeffects still leave me baffled.
In this film the premise is simple; a lovelorn theater projectionist who aspires to be a detective, has lost his girl, because he is wrongly accused of stealing a watch to pay for a gift. The watch was actually stolen by his love rival who has set up Buster to take the blame. Keaton falls asleep in the projection booth and dreams himself into the movie he is showing. He steps right into the screen, where he becomes the most famous detective in the world. His “Watson” style sidekick in the dream film is hilarious as he appears out of nowhere in new disguises and at the most opportune moments. The edge-of-your-seat pool table scene in which one of the balls is a bomb had the audience in roars of laughter, as well as the scene in which Buster finds himself riding on the handlebars of a motorcycle sans a driver. Mr. Brock’s intense score during this scene must have sent a few of the musician home a little sore that evening. For its strange premise, innovative effects, brutal “Buster” slapstick comedy and non-stop hilarity, this film is a must see for any silent film aficionado. I hope that this film will be re-issued in the near future with Timothy Brock’s score.
I have found over the years that there are those who would compare Chaplin and Keaton. I prefer not to engage in comparing these artists, because one cannot compare apples and oranges. True, they are both comedians, but that is where the comparison stops. No one could tug at the heart strings like Chaplin, no one revolutionized story telling on film as Chaplin did, and no one portrayed humanity on film like Chaplin did. Keaton was unique in his ability to make us laugh out loud, make us cringe with his physicality and be completely in awe of the images he stuffed into a frame of film. Cinema would not have been the same without them, so it was a fitting tribute to show them side by side on this extraordinary evening.
About the author:
Carl Wilson is a professional magician and lives in Southern California with his wife and son. Carl has had an abiding interest in Chaplin and his films since the age of 8. In his spare time he enjoys 3D photography and introducing younger generations to Chaplin by sponsoring movie nights in his community.