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After Pandemic Lull, The Chautauqua Silent Film Series Is Back

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After its 2020 break due to the pandemic, the Chautauqua Silent Film Series is back in its drafty and wonderful home in the Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, the series has breadth and depth, and a lineup of films that's satisfying to see.

In his brilliant comedy Steamboat Bill, Jr., Buster Keaton plays a Boston-raised, prissy, inept son visiting his tough and combative steamboat captain father somewhere in the South. Buster’s mincing ways get his father thrown in jail, so Buster goes to visit him with a very long loaf of bread, which only convinces the father that his son is a wuss. It gets worse as Buster makes odd hand gestures about the bread, trying to communicate something to his disgusted father while not letting the confused sheriff in on what’s happening. But Buster’s father understands only that the kid is an idiot.

Buster Keaton often based his comedy on how the surface of something does not reveal its essence, meaning what’s inside. And inside this too-long loaf of bread are tools for his pop to break out of jail. That too is an idiotic idea, but it’s a gesture.

So contained within this classic hilarious sequence is the relationship between father and son, as well as the developing character of the boy and, when the bread falls apart because Buster carried it through a rainstorm, you understand that the physical world is unpredictable and not always helpful.

Buster Keaton, a nearly illiterate man, turns out to be one of the most complex artists of the 20th century — and also one of the funniest.

Silent films may have been mostly black and white and also silent, but they’re as sophisticated in character, story, visual texture and emotion as any films made now. Plus, they’re silent. No talking, which in our too-loud world is a blessing. In silent movies, the pictures do the talking, and the good makers of silent films understood how to put pictures together to — sometimes — make extraordinary art.

The Chautauqua Silent Film Series has been running for years — although not last year, because of the pandemic. But for many of those years, the films were chosen by people who didn’t know much about silent film, and in some cases, didn’t care. This year’s films, though, have been picked by two of America’s finest silent film music accompanists, Hank Troy and Rodney Sauer. Together, they have a good handle on the world of silent film, but more than that, they know the films as musicians. They understand the movements of the films and the rhythms. They have chosen films that are beautiful and interesting, and in two cases, not often seen.

The recently restored Zander the Great is a typical movie melodrama of the 1920s that’s sometimes silly and far-fetched. It starts with a young girl in an Ohio orphanage and about 20 minutes in, the picture’s become a Western with desperadoes roaming the Arizona-Mexico border, and a beautifully silly rabbit joke that runs through the movie. It’s all perfectly inoffensive viewing, and kids will love the rabbits, but what’s exceptional is Marion Davies in the lead. Davies got infamous as the girlfriend of newspaper tyrant William Randolph Hearst, and Orson Welles mocked her in Citizen Kane. But Davies is a fine actor. Her character here is spontaneous and surprising. She shows up in a gleeful tumble of laundry and doesn’t let up even when the film turns to melodrama. She’s a joy to watch, and she lifts the whole film with her bright energy.

The 1929 German film Hound of the Baskervilles, on the other hand, is an accomplished film. It comes from the famous Sherlock Holmes story, and it’s made in the potent, threatening style of German Expressionism. Darkness dominates the film as grisly killings take place on the infamous moors at night, although off-screen. Light feels elusive and temporary and partial. Sherlock Holmes needs his flashlight to light up even part of the Baskerville estate. It’s creepy and also exhilarating.

And the Chautauqua series includes the elegant anti-war film All Quiet On The Western Front, which should be required of all of us.

The Chautauqua Auditorium Silent Film Series runs through Aug. 4.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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