"The Summer of Silents," currently mid-way through its eight weeks series at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, has been an incredible success. The public programs at the Academy are always impeccably curated, but screening the Photoplay Best Film award-winners from 1920 to 1928 was risky during a summer of 3-D Transformers and the last Harry Potter. Yet every Monday, around 1,000 people have filled the Goldwyn auditorium on Wilshire to be entranced by classics accompanied by music, usually live and always elevating. (A trove of music for silents was recently unearthed.)Randy Haberkamp, the Academy's head of educational programs and special projects, opens the shows with short films from Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy or Charley Chase and "surprises" such last week's 3-D pictures taken on the set of silent films (yes, the technology has been around that long) and a delightful interview with Faye MacKenzie who at the age of five had appeared in The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln, the Photoplay Award Winner of 1924 of which only 20 minutes has not been lost. The fragments that were shown provided both a glimpse into what an epic achievement it must have been and a reminder of the need to preserve what films we have left. (An estimated 80 percent of all silent films are "lost," an understated euphemism that really means they were sold for scrap, tossed to make room in vaults, dumped at sea or left to rot on the shelf.)
The only reason the bit of Abraham Lincoln was available was that Kevin Brownlow (renowned film historian, documentarian and Honorary Academy Award-winner) found it at a yard sale in England decades ago and preserved it. Brownlow will be the Academy's special guest when he introduces King Vidor's The Big Parade starring Jack Gilbert on Monday, July 18 and Buster Keaton's The General on Wednesday, July 20. Both films will be shown with a recorded stereo orchestral score composed by Carl Davis.
And current filmmakers can learn so much from these classics. Allan Dwan, whose directorial career spanned the teens through the early 1960s, said he always ran his talkies without sound when he was editing to assure himself that the visual effect of each scene was all that it could be. As the director John Landis, a big fan of The Covered Wagon points out, "The great silent films represent the motion picture at its purest because it is storytelling with images. "
So if you are in the L.A. area, take advantage of the final five screenings: Mon. July 18: The Big Parade; Wednesday, July 20, The General; Monday, July 25, Beau Geste; Monday, August 1, 7th Heaven, Monday August 8, Four Sons. Tickets are available at Oscars.org for $5 or less per screening. And check out the Oscars website for film clips as well as interviews with Brownlow and other historians and series participants.