I recently had the good fortune to be able to attend a screening of the 1927 version of "Chicago" with live accompaniment by silent film composer extraordinaire, Ben Model. Yes - this is the same story that most of us know because of the musical. But "Chicago" has been around for quite some time.
"Chicago" - the story of one Roxie Hart, a 1920s gal who shoots her lover, gains notoriety and gets away with murder, was originally a play by Maurine Dallas Watkins that ran on Broadway from 1926-1927. First filmed in 1927, it was remade in 1944 as "Roxie Hart" (starring Ginger Rogers). It was then reworked as the musical we are all familiar with (the original Broadway show premiered in 1975 and ran for 936 performances. The current revival has been running for 15 years), culminating in the Academy Award winning film starring Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
The original 1927 film has been recently been made available by the UCLA Film Archive and it is as pristine and vivid as though it were made yesterday. The film is purportedly directed by Frank Urson, but the buzz is that it was really directed by C.B. DeMille (who had his name removed from this sin-soaked trifle because his "King of Kings," a story of Christ, was playing at the same time). DeMille retained producer credits and whether he directed it or not, it sure looks like he had a big influence on the production.
Phyllis Haver stars as Roxie. I am not very familiar with Phyllis Haver's work, so it was great fun to see her. As Roxie, she was bleached, brassy, sassy and crude (but cute). Roxie was not a classy gal by any means, and Phyllis portrays her as a hard-boiled dame who uses her feminine bag of tricks to get what she wants (lots of silk teddies and underwear, it seems).
Phyllis Haver, who early on earned a living as a silent film accompanist, is primarily known as a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, as well as a Buster Keaton's co-star in his short film, "The Ballonatic." She had a robust career in the silents before her marriage and retirement.
Victor Varconi stars as her betrayed (and stupid) husband, Amos. Victor was a revelation to me, as I had only seen him in "Roberta" and didn't know how popular he had been in silents. Isn't he quite the heart throb?
Before coming to Hollywood, Varconi was successful film actor in his native Hungary.
Robert Edeson plays lawyer Billy Flynn. Hmmm.... no Richard Gere here, but very believable as a shifty and slimy mouthpiece.
Richard Edeson appeared in many of Cecil B. DeMille's films, lending further credence that this film was actually directed by CB himself.
In a smaller role, Eugene Pallette appears as the lover who is shot by Roxie.
You can't hear his famous froggy voice, but he is still fun to watch!
The part of Velma Kelly, very prominent in the musical, is almost a throw-away in the film and was played by Julia Faye. While the part was small, she did get to have a fun jail house cat-fight and hair-pulling contest with Roxie.
"Chicago" was a fun film. While the story deals with a lot of unsavory characters, it makes sport the notion of the public's thirst for notorious scandals. Roxie's fame is brief, and while she does lose her dumbbell husband and ends up seemingly homeless and friendless, she does get away with murder (and you know she'll land on her feet - or back). The pace zipped along, all of the acting was top-notch and it was a well-made entertaining film. Not a classic, but an example of what kind of fare a viewer could expect on a typical Saturday night at the movies in 1927.
A Night at the Theater and the Silent Film "Experience"
The pure joy of watching a beautifully restored film on a big screen with others is a rare treat. Viewing a silent film is a deeply personal experience. Every viewer interprets the action and emotion as the story unfolds in a unique, individualized manner. Even rarer is watching the action and listening to live accompaniment by a superb musician. As anyone who loves silents knows, without music the film is incomplete. Like a dance, the movement lacks real meaning without the music.
An Interview with Ben Model
Any music is good, but the right music is best. Ben Model is one the foremost composers of music for silent films. He has been the silent film pianist for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and is the co-founder of the Silent Clown series. Ben travels the country and the world sharing his talent and his passion for the art of the silent film. I was most fortunate to be able to chat with Ben about his work and his love for silents, which are one in the same.
FC: As a movie goer, it is such a magical experience to view a silent film with live accompaniment and a live audience. As the accompanist, what do you get from the audience?Ben: What I get is satisfaction and excitement. I feel that I am representing the filmmaker in wanting to entertain the audience. If I can help bring the film to life that is very exciting. It is me, the film and the audience in those 3 overlapping circles. That's where silent film "happens." It is a personal yet shared experience that involves the audience in a much greater way than (current) films.
FC: While the silents represented a stylized version of reality, the emotions they evoke seem more honest than films that are supposedly realistic. Can you share some memorable audience experiences that touched you or tickled you?
Ben: I've played DeMille's "King of Kings" in churches during Lent and you can hear the audience sniffling. And I don't know why this is, but Harold Lloyd's films don't work if you view them by yourself if you've never seen them before. We recently did a screening of "Safety Last" for a group of 'tweens and the reaction was tremendous. There is something about his films that is designed to work with an audience. Watching silent films is not a passive experience, like watching current films. Every year I see more and more silent film shows and events taking place. Interest in silent films is growing.
FC: I was very interested in the instrument you play. What is it?
Ben: Glad you asked! The instrument I played for "Chicago" is called a Miditzer Virtual Theatre Organ. The most prevalent sound in silent movies was either a live orchestra or a theatre organ. Pianos were only used in small town theaters.
Ben noted that there are very few theatre organs available and that the Miditzer emulates the sound of a Mighty Wurlitzer while being portable. I can attest that the sound from what looks like a keyboard and a laptop is amazing and, if I didn't see Ben paying it, I would have sworn he was playing a theatre organ.
FC: You've played all around the country and all over the world. Are there any universal "truths" about silents that you've seen?
Ben: Kids love silents. It's fun to see their reaction and what's more fun is the parents expect them not to like the silents. Kids respond to the humor because it is something they've never seen before.
Ben said that it is especially gratifying for him to see how "first-timers" enjoy the silent films.
FC: How many times do you watch a film in order to complete a score?
Ben: Usually once, and sometimes it is improvised, but it is something that is constantly evolving based on audience reaction and the things I learn about the film. I am going on a journey with that film.
Finally, I asked Ben if he has any personal favorite silent films
Ben: "Modern Times," although that's a film I'll never get to play to and don't need to. There are new things I'm discovering, especially rare comedy shorts by comedians such artists as Lloyd Hamilton, Hank Mann and Marcel Perez. It's rare to see these films, so it's fun to discover them.
Audiences, he said, are longing for silents to be a part of the movie landscape. Amen to that!
"Chicago" was shown at the Huntington Cinema Arts Centre, an oasis of film culture and variety located in the suburbs of Long Island. Next month, as part of their "Anything But Silent" series, The Huntington Cinema Arts Centre will be showing "Her Night of Romance," starring Constance Talmadge and Ronald Colman. Ben will again be on the keyboard. I can't wait to see it! I will be talking more with Ben and about the wonderful place that is the Huntington Cinema Arts Centre. They are a blessing for all of us wonderful people out there in the dark!