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The silent film series in Boulder is a glorious visual experience — and a treat for your ears

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Courtesy of Rodney Sauer
Colorado-born Lon Chaney, front, portrays the hunchback in the silent film classic "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," released in 1923. Nigel de Brulio is the cleric in the back. The silent film plays on Wednesday, July 13, at the Chautauqua Auditorium as part of a series of silent movies at the venue this summer.

The Boulder Chautauqua has run a summer silent film series for years. KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz — who also directs the Denver Silent Film Festival — said that while the schedule is sadly limited this year, both the films and the live musical accompaniment are terrific.

First thing: Silent movies were never really shown silent. They don’t use speech, but almost from the very beginning of the movies in the 1890s, silent films played with live music. That made for dynamic screenings. The story is complicated, but much of the time, silent film audiences heard music that the musicians themselves created, not a pre-set score. So every time a film showed it was a different film for the audience, just like live concerts. Even with the same score, the performance is never the same twice, and so silent movies shows with live musicians are always unique.

Another thing: Human speech is overrated. In a noisy world like our own, some not-talk sounds pretty good. And beyond that, good silent films are tremendously articulate. There’s no lack of feeling or thought in silent film, and the absence of speech leaves extra room for the audience to react and understand — and think and feel.

For decades, Boulder’s Chautauqua Auditorium has run a weekly summer silent film series. Often there were eight weeks of film; now, sadly, it’s been cut to four, but the three remaining films are lovely and touching, surprising and smart.

The actor Lon Chaney — from Colorado Springs, by the way — was called “the man of a thousand faces” for his range of bizarre characters and makeup. That’s a cliche, but Chaney had astonishing ability to play characters who lived on the margins of life, who stretched the idea of what human life could be. As Quasimodo in the 1923 The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Chaney looks and moves like a being outside our definition of person, and through his impossible love for a gypsy woman, also despised, Chaney takes us beyond our revulsion to understand the humanity that lies beneath appearances.

Douglas Fairbanks — born at 15th and Franklin in Denver in 1883 — was the first great action star in the movies. He may not have been a fine actor, but he was a glorious presence on screen. He made grand, sweeping gestures with his arms, and after many stunts — and he did them himself — it can feel as if he pauses for a bow. Fairbanks, though, was good-looking, incredibly agile and acrobatic. And he obviously had fun — there’s joy in his performances.

The Black Pirate is the third film made in an early Technicolor process, so while the color in the film is limited, it’s still surprising.

The final picture in this short series is one of the most brilliant films ever made — Buster Keaton’s 1924 Sherlock Jr. It’s funny, of course, but it’s also a genuinely profound movie about is what this then-newish phenomenon of film. Buster Keaton was not an intellectual; he never spoke about the nature or philosophy of the cinema. He would figure out a story and then go out with his buddies and make up gags. But those gags are mind-boggling smart and they show a brilliant understanding of the physical world and how a movie camera sees that world.

Keaton makes jokes about lenses — what the camera lens can see and what it can’t. He makes jokes about whether two trains in the distance will hit or miss each other. In Sherlock Jr, Buster plays a movie projectionist sad that the girl he loves has rejected him. In one mind-boggling sequence, Buster falls asleep in the projection booth. His dream self leaves his body and climbs into the film on screen. And that film does what film does. It’s edited, so the scene keeps changing, from a house to the ocean to a jungle and so on. Buster then has to adjust with each cut because he’s now subject to the laws of movies, as opposed to the laws of the actual world. Keaton’s work is pure genius.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture orchestra will accompany The Hunchback of Notre Dame; pianist Hank Troy both The Black Pirate and Sherlock Jr. It’s world-class music.

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.