People are often surprised to hear that W.C. Fields was quite successful in silent films. How could his character's charm, so dependent on the distinctive nasal twang of his voice and the inimitable sting of his quips, work without sound?
Well, long before Fields was the lovable ne'er-do-well character we got to know later in his life, he was a vaudeville veteran and headliner specializing in juggling, pantomime, and other forms of visual comedy. He was an all-around actor and performer, and actually quite agile in his younger days.
For Fields, taking roles in silent films of the 1920s was entirely natural, especially if the role called for a middle-aged "frustrated father" figure type. Fields did fine work in several of these pictures.
To get a taste of the "no-talking" Fields, we're running 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), a comedy/melodrama in which he's paired with starlet Carol Dempster. The film was directed by D.W. Griffith, of all people. 'Sally of the Sawdust,' to be shown on Thursday, Jan, 10, 2013, will be our first feature of the New Year at The Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.
Not sure how I'll score this, but we'll see. It'll be interesting to find a theme that works for Fields, a con man in a circus environment. I'm also curious to see if the Griffith touch, seen so strongly in pictures such as 'Way Down East' (1920) and 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921), remains in evidence.
The only way to know for sure is to screen the picture with an audience, which is what we intend to do. Hope you can join us!
Here's the press release with more info.
FRIDAY, DEC. 28, 2012 / FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 • firstname.lastname@example.org
Flying Monkey to screen rare silent film starring W.C. Fields
'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), comedy/drama to be screened Thursday, Jan. 10, shows legendary comedian in his earlier prime
PLYMOUTH, N.H.—He was a performer who could be recognized just by the sound of his voice. But prior to reaching iconic fame in talking pictures, comedian W.C. Fields starred successfully in a popular series of silent feature films for Paramount Pictures and other studios in the 1920s.
See the non-talking W.C. Fields for yourself in 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), one of Fields' most highly regarded silent pictures, in a screening on Thursday, Jan. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. General admission is $10 per person.
Live music will be provided by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis, a resident of Bedford, N.H. and one of the nation's leading silent film musicians.
W.C. Fields remains famous for his comic persona as a misanthropic and hard-drinking egotist who remained a sympathetic character despite his snarling contempt for dogs, children and women. Although Fields achieved lasting fame as a movie star in talking pictures of the 1930s, his long career encompassed decades on the vaudeville stage as well as a series of silent film roles.
"People find it hard to think of W.C. Fields in silent films, but he was actually quite successful in them," Rapsis said. "As a vaudeville performer and juggler, Fields cultivated a form of visual comedy and pantomime that transferred well to the silent screen. Also, as a middle-aged man, he was able to play a family father figure—the kind of role that wasn't open to younger comic stars such as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.
In all, Fields starred in 10 silent features in the mid-1920s. Several of these films are lost; in those that survive, Fields sports a thick mustache, part of his vaudeville costume as a "vagabond juggler" which he dropped in later years.
In 'Sally of the Sawdust,' Fields plays Professor Eustache McGargle, a good-natured circus juggler and con man who finds himself responsible for Sally (Carol Dempster), an orphaned girl whose mother is dead. Raised by McGargle, Sally grows up to become a popular performer in the rough-and-tumble world of the circus. But when the shows arrives in the town where her mother's family now lives, Sally is forced to choose between the man who raised her and the wealthy family that wants to reclaim her as their own.
'Sally of the Sawdust,' based on the 1923 stage musical 'Poppy,' gives Fields ample opportunity to display his juggling talents, a staple of his vaudeville act. The film was directed by D.W. Griffith, a rare detour into light comedy from a filmmaker known for pioneering epic dramas such as 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) and 'Orphans of the Storm' (1921).
The Flying Monkey's silent film series aims to recreate the full silent film experience, with restored prints projected on the big screen, live music, and the presence of an audience. All these elements are essential to seeing silent films they way they were intended, Rapsis said.
"If you can put it all together again, these films still contain a tremendous amount of excitement," Rapsis said. "By staging these screenings of features from Hollywood's early days, you can see why people first fell in love with the movies."
Upcoming movies include a love story starring silent screen romantic idol Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille's massive original 1923 version of 'The Ten Commandments,' and a spy thriller that was a forunner of all espionage movies to come.
The Flying Monkey originally opened a silent film moviehouse in the 1920s, and showed first-run Hollywood films to generations of area residents until closing several years ago. The theater has since been renovated by Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man restaurants, who created a performance space that hosts a wide variety of music acts.
Movies of all types, however, are still a big part of the Flying Monkey's offerings, and the silent film series is a way for the theater to remain connected to its roots.
Live music is a key element of each silent film screening, Rapsis said. Silent movies were never shown in silence, but were accompanied by live music made right in each theater. Most films were not released with official scores, so it was up to local musicians to provide the soundtrack, which could vary greatly from theater to theater.
"Because there's no set soundtrack for most silent films, musicians are free to create new music as they see fit, even today," Rapsis said. "In bringing a film to life, I try to create original 'movie score' music that sounds like what you might expect in a theater today, which helps bridge the gap between today's audiences and silent films that are in some cases nearly 100 years old."
Other upcoming features in the Flying Monkey's silent film series include:
• Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Eagle' (1925). Just in time for Valentine' Day, see silent screen romantic idol Rudolph Valentino put the moves on Vilma Banky in this racy costume drama set in Imperial Russia. An intense romantic drama that heralded Valentino's comeback one year before his untimely death.
• Thursday, March 28, 2013, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Ten Commandments' (1923). Long before he directed Charlton Heston as Moses, filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille's original silent version wowed audiences the world over. The film that showed Hollywood how to tell stories from scripture on a grand scale, and a great way to celebrate Easter!
• Thursday, April 11, 2013, 6:30 p.m.: 'Dr. Jack' (1922), starring Harold Lloyd. A sparkling comedy starring Harold Lloyd as a country doctor with unorthodox methods that get results! But now comes his toughest case yet: a poor little rich girl (Mildred Davis), bed-ridden with a mysterious condition. Harold's cure is sure to make you smile!
• Thursday, May 9, 2013, 6:30 p.m.: 'Spies' (1928). Director Fritz Lang's tale of espionage was the forerunner of all movie spy sagas, packed with double agents, hi-tech gadgets, beautiful (and dangerous) women, and an evil genius with a plan to take over the world, mwah-ha-ha-ha! A terrificly paced film that set the stage for James Bond and beyond.
• Thursday, June 13, 2013, 6:30 p.m.: 'The Gaucho' (1927) starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr. The leader of a band of outlaws in Argentina must help save a religious shrine from being taken over and closed by a corrupt general. Entertaining action-adventure film widely regarded as Fairbanks' darkest role; made at the height of his 1920s stardom.
The next installment in the Flying Monkey's silent film series will be 'Sally of the Sawdust' (1925), to be screened with live music by Jeff Rapsis on Thursday, Jan. 10 at 6:30 p.m. at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H. Tickets are $10 per person. For more information, call (603) 536-2551 or visit www.flyingmonkeynh.com. For more information about the music, visit www.jeffrapsis.com.