The silent artists

The rich history of silent films on display at two-day silent-film fest

Providing the soundtrack to silent classics like <i>The Unholy Three</i> and Alfred Hitchcock’s <i>Blackmail</i> will be renowned silent-film pianist Dr. Frederick Hodges.

Providing the soundtrack to silent classics like The Unholy Three and Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail will be renowned silent-film pianist Dr. Frederick Hodges.

The Chico Silent Film Festival, a benefit for Bidwell Mansion, takes place Friday & Saturday, March 9 & 10, at the Chico Women's Club. Call or visit site for a full schedule and more information.
Tickets: $8 per film ($10 at door); $8 for Laugh Show combo; $45 for all-festival pass. Children 12-younger: $2.
Chico Women's Club
592 E. Third St.

The last thing attendees of this weekend’s Chico Silent Film Festival should expect, according to organizer Jon Hildreth, is silence.

“These movies were never meant to be shown silently, and the musical accompaniment, whether by a piano or orchestra, is what really makes them come alive,” he explained. “It’s nice to see a silent movie on television, but some of the magic is missing. You have to see them in a big room, projected on a big screen, with live music to get the full effect. When it’s done like that, nothing compares.”

Hildreth has organized the Redding Silent Film Festival for the last six years and said he felt Chico was ripe for the event, “especially since The Artist won the big Oscar and Hugo won the rest.” Hildreth contacted local arts advocate Debra Lucero of Friends of the Arts, and they decided the festival would benefit the Bidwell Mansion Community Project’s efforts to keep the mansion open to the public.

Supplying the soundtrack for the two-day festival showcasing nearly a dozen films is Berkeley professor/ragtime pianist Dr. Frederick Hodges.

“He knows more than a thousand different tunes, and he’s one of the rare people who can see a film on the screen for the first time and improvise a score,” said Hildreth. “In other words, he’s a genius.”

The festival, to be held at the Chico Women’s Club, kicks off Friday at 6 p.m. with a four-film “Laugh Show Combo” featuring Buster Keaton’s Cops; Charlie Chaplin’s Behind the Screen; Wrong Again, starring Laurel and Hardy; and a Keystone Cops flick called Lizzies of the Field.

Behind the Screen is fun because it shows studio life the way it used to be,” Hildreth said of the Laugh Show lineup. “Buster Keaton is simply the master, and the Keystone Cops film is what everyone thinks about when they think of silent film. The ‘Lizzies’ refer to old Fords, which were kind of cheap and disposable back then, and they use that to the utmost advantage in this film. There are lots of crashes and it’s fast and furious.”

After the comedy opening, there will be a presentation of the silent version of Alfred Hitchcok’s Blackmail: “Hitchcock became the biggest guy in the British film industry by the 1920s,” Hildreth said of the thriller. “He’d just finished making a silent film called Blackmail, and the studio contacted him and said they had sound equipment and wanted to make it with sound, so he redid it. They only showed the silent one out in the boonies in theaters that didn’t have sound equipment yet, so it’s a mostly forgotten film.”

Hildreth noted the history of Blackmail, which premiered in 1928, is analogous to the history of silent film: “It’s from the very end of the silent era. The form had only been born about 30 years before, just reached its summit, and then three or four years later it was no more. It’s an amazing story about a thing that came into being and grew to be the dominant art form in the world, and then it was gone.”

Films shown throughout the day Saturday include a Rin Tin Tin movie called The Night Cry (preceded by a live K-9 demo by Chico Police Department), The Canadian, Storm Over Asia, Cecil B. DeMille’s original Chicago, Lon Chaney in The Unholy Three and a D.W. Griffith short called For His Son.

Hildreth said The Canadian, about a spoiled English woman who has to move to a farm in Canada, is the festival’s rarest film.

“It’s a gorgeous film, and it’s not conveyed in what we think of as silent-movie acting, with people shooting their hands up and grimaces and insane gestures, but very subtly.

“That’s part of the beauty of silent film—the flicker of an eyelash or a slight hand movement can mean so much.

“These are films that formed the vocabulary of the movies, and we want to show people that, and show them that silent films can be more absorbing,” Hildreth said. “They suck you in better and make you watch every second, whereas talkies kind of dominate your thinking.”