Ben-Hur to The Big Heat

Film classics invade Chico screens

Fritz Lang’s <i>Destiny</i> (1921)

Fritz Lang’s Destiny (1921)

Chico Silent Film Festival
Saturday-Sunday, Feb. 6-7, at Chico Women’s Club. Call 228-2860 or visit for tickets and schedule.
Film Noir Festival
Saturdays & Sundays in February, at the Pageant Theatre. Call 343-0663 or visit for info and schedule.

There are three Fritz Lang films coming Chico’s way this weekend. I’m mentioning this, of course, because Lang is a great director and a major figure in film history, but also because this weekend’s screenings provide a rare opportunity to see these black-and-white classics on a big screen, with an audience, in a theater setting.

Lang’s first major success, Destiny (Germany, 1921), is part of the sterling lineup for the fifth annual Chico Silent Film Festival, which will showcase two days’ worth of 16mm films at the Chico Women’s Club. And two of Lang’s ferociously dramatic American films, The Big Heat (1953) and Scarlet Street (1945), are the opening items in another sterling lineup, the Film Noir Festival at the Pageant Theatre, which will feature newly remastered noir classics on weekends throughout the month of February.

Destiny, an early landmark of Gothic fantasy in film, is one of the silent festival’s prestige items, along with the two featured evening showpieces, The Iron Horse (1924) and the original Ben-Hur (1925). Each of those three films is a great showcase for the spectacular excitements and artistry of silent cinema, and all the more so when given the delightful, astute musical support of Frederick Hodges, the festival’s world-class piano accompanist, who will perform the original score alongside the showing of The Iron Horse (Saturday, 7:30 p.m.).

But the undying appeal and flair of silent movies is no less apparent in lighter fare. The festival’s Hal Roach comic shorts, its centennial program of Charlie Chaplin shorts from 1916, and its double-bill of comic features (Are Parents People? and Hands Up!) all bear witness to the undiminished vitality of silent comedy at its best. The Chaplin shorts and the program of early shorts by D. W. Griffith provide glimpses of the astonishing artistry coming into play in the pre-Hollywood days of American movie-making.

My personal favorites here are two entries in the Hal Roach program, His Wooden Wedding with Charley Chase and Bacon Grabbers with Laurel and Hardy. And I’m looking forward to reacquainting myself with two of the lesser-known entries, Hands Up! (starring Raymond Griffith) and the Mary Pickford vehicle, Sparrows.

The eight films in the Pageant’s noir festival are all, to varying extents, first-rate. After this weekend’s Lang selections, there’s a double bill of films directed by and starring Orson Welles the following weekend: The Lady From Shanghai (1948) and The Stranger (1946). Later in the month it’s The Big Combo (1955) and The Naked Kiss (1964), followed by the final weekend’s showings of Out of the Past (1947) and The Hitch-hiker (1953), an all-male suspense film directed by Ida Lupino.

Out of the Past, with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas, is probably the most revered film in this particular bunch. I’d rate it along with The Lady From Shanghai and Scarlet Street as this group’s perennials—the films that stay fresh and vital and intense even with repeat viewings.

The great curiosities in the group are The Big Combo, a baroque noir spectacle from Gun Crazy director Joseph H. Lewis, and The Naked Kiss, a gonzo psychodrama from the fiercely iconoclastic Samuel Fuller.