“The Silent Roar” – At Film Forum, through February 6

Roman Novarro in "Ben Hur" 1925

On Monday, November 21, I attended a screening of the 1925 silent movie version of “Ben Hur” at Film Forum.  The screening was part of “The Silent Roar,” Film Forum’s Monday night series, now through February 6. The series highlights films produced by Metro Goldwyn Meyer (MGM) during the studio’s first five years,1924 – 1929, during which it had a string of hits.

MGM claimed to have “more stars than there are in heaven.”  John Gilbert, Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, Lon Chaney, Buster Keaton, Marion Davies and Joan Crawford all starred in MGM’s silent movies.  Directors included Erich von Stroheim, Victor Sjostrom, King Vidor and Fred Niblo.

A point that should be made is that silent movies were never actually silent.  In their first run engagements they were accompanied by full orchestras.  In smaller venues, they had piano accompaniment.  All 13 films in “The Silent Roar” will have live piano accompaniment by Film Forum’s truly talented, resident silent movie pianist Steve Sterner.  In fact the “Ben Hur” screening featured Sterner playing his own original score.  An interesting aspect, for me, regarding music and silent movies, is that whenever I see a silent movie there comes a point where I forget that there is a person, or persons, playing music.  The image and music then become one and, in so doing, create a unique experience not attainable with “talkies.”

There are many cases where contemporary movies were first made as silent movies: “The Three Musketeers,” “Zoro,” “Hamlet,” “Les Miserables” and others.  From this point of view it was particularly interesting for me to see the 1925 “Ben Hur.”  Last month, at the New York Film Festival, I attended a screening of the digitally restored 1959 version of “Ben Hur,” starring Charlton Heston and directed by William Wyler.  This terrific, road show, cast of thousands epic is better known than its silent predecessor.  The three hour Wyler version had the advantage of full color, a wide screen aspect ratio, 70mm film, sound effects and a great score.

What struck me about the 1925 “Ben Hur” was how 34 years before the Wyler version, with less advanced technology, these film makers, actors, designers and technicians were able to pull off an epic of this size.  Not only that, but they were able to hit the same story points and do it all in less than two and a half hours.  The film even contains very effective color sequences created with an early version of Technicolor.  The 1925 chariot race sequence is exciting and terrific while Ramon Novarro in the title role is quite compelling.

Upcoming films in “The Silent Roar” include the anti-war movie “The Big Parade,” popular enough to be considered to be the “Star Wars” of its day and Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed,” one of my favorite films, silent or talking.  All films will be shown in 35mm and, I am sure, will be the best prints available.  For more information please go to http://www.filmforum.com.

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on November 27, 2011, in Feature Articles, Film Forum and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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