Films without sound still speak to modern audiences By [Cullen Gallagher]
While the silent era may have ended in 1927 with the introduction of sound, for the next three months, this form of cinema will live again in Downtown Manhattan. Now through Feb. 6, Film Forum pays homage to that bygone epoch?and the most glamorous and extravagant of classic Hollywood studios?with The Silent Roar: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1924-1929. As an added treat, each film will feature live music by leading accompanist Steve Sterner. From adulterous lovers (The Kiss, Jan. 30) to malformed murderers (The Unknown, Jan. 16), everyman soldiers (The Big Parade, Dec. 12) to debauched royalty (The Merry Widow, Dec. 19), there's plenty in these movies to surprise, delight and even shock modern audiences. They may be over 90 years old, but these silent movies still have a lot to say, and they've lost none of their rapturous command. Screening Nov. 28, Flesh and the Devil (1926) was Greta Garbo's second American film, and it cemented her popularity as the preeminent silver screen siren. Is there anything in theaters right now to rival the raw sensuality of that unforgettable close-up of Garbo and John Gilbert nestled beneath the moonlight, passing a cigarette between their lips? As famous for its magnificence as for its troubled backstory is Erich von Stroheim's would-be masterpiece Greed (1924) (Jan. 2). Based on Frank Norris' McTeague, Greed tells the story of a dentist (Gibson Gowland) and his wife (ZaSu Pitts) whose desire for wealth ultimately leads to their demise. Outraged with von Stroheim's excess, MGM took control and cut the film down from its original 10 hours to just 90 minutes. What remains, however, is a stunningly grim portrayal of obsession and corruption. Considering the current financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street, von Stroheim's film is just as relevant as ever. Also not to be missed are two films starring the first lady of the silent screen, Lillian Gish. In the 1910s she was the embodiment of Victorian purity, but in the 1920s, Gish recast her persona through a series of complex roles, the best of which are The Scarlet Letter (1927) and The Wind (1928), both directed by Swedish émigré Victor Sjöström. In The Scarlet Letter (Jan. 9), Gish brings intense spiritual strength and poetic grace to American literature's most famous adulteress, Hester Prynne. Gish's greatest performance, however, is in The Wind (Dec. 5), a psychosexual cyclone set in the Mojave Desert that still astonishes with its surreal imagery and dreamlike structure. Gish plays an eastern transplant who moves west to live with her cousin only to find herself unwelcomed by his suspicious wife. After reluctantly accepting a local farmer's proposal, Gish is increasingly tormented by his sexual advances and goes insane under the hypnotic powers of "the wind." The real hidden gems of the series, however, are two films starring the criminally underrated Marion Davies, an immensely talented actress equally adept at slapstick comedy and subtle characterization. Her spirited portrayal of the "ugly duckling" younger sister hopelessly in love with her older sister's beau in The Patsy (1928) (Feb. 6) is utterly delightful, and the film's unpretentious charm is a surefire bet even for those new to silent cinema. Davies' parodic expertise it at its peak in Show People (1928) (Jan. 23), a backstage satire about an aspiring actress trying to break into movies. Released in the middle of Hollywood's transition to sound, Show People is a final glimpse at the silent empire at its height. Within a year, the talkies would have permanently conquered the industry. This series, however, is proof that sound didn't fully kill silent cinema; these talk-less pictures continue to entertain new generations of filmgoers. Film Forum is located at 209 W. Houston St. (betw. 6th Ave. & Varick St.).
Greta Garbo and John Gilbert in Clarence Brown's Flesh and the Devil (1926), playing Nov. 28 at Film Forum. Photo Courtesy of Photofest