Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Coming up: Chaplin in Ogunquit, Maine
and then more animals in Wilton, N.H.

Happy birthday, Charlie! The "Little Tramp" character turns 100 this year.

It's the last week of summer before Labor Day weekend, and two screenings beckon:

• On Thursday, Aug. 28, I'm accompanying a Charlie Chaplin program at the historic Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine. Showtime is at 8 p.m.; tickets are $10 each.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Chaplin's entry in the movie biz, as well as the centennial of his iconic "tramp" character. So we thought it was high time to do a program of the short comedies that first established Chaplin's worldwide fame.

Still deciding which titles to include in the mix. But the program promises to be a fun one for newbies and long-time fans alike. For many, Chaplin continues to be the "gateway drug," leading people to an interest in other personalities and films of the silent era.

As the for the music, for Chaplin films I try to mimic the style of music he used in his later films, when he actually was able to supervised recorded scores that accompanied his work.

Chaplin's own music seems to draw from the traditions of English Music Hall pantomime, which makes sense because that's the environment in which he grew up.

So although most of Chaplin's early short comedies have no "official" soundtrack, I think they too lend themselves to this style of accompaniment, which Chaplin probably had in mind all along. So that's what I try to do.

• Sunday, Aug. 31 will see another "all animal" silent film program at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. In this case, it's a triple feature, with two films starring dogs and one with a horse. The show starts at 4:30 p.m.; admission is free, but a $5 donation is requested to defay expenses.

The films? 'His Master's Voice' (1925) finds Thunder the Dog helping human co-star George Hackathorne overcome his cowardice on the battlefield; in 'The Return of the Grey Wolf' (1923), Leader the Dog comes to the aid of his master, a fur trapper blinded in an accident; and in 'Guardians of the Wild' (1928), Rex the Wonder Horse helps the good guys fight the bad guys over the fate of a pristine patch of wilderness that he calls home.

Of the three, 'The Return of Grey Wolf' (1923) is perhaps the loopiest, and therefore my personal favorite. It comes with titles that at times tell us when Leader opens his mouth, he's saying "Woof Woof!" To be fair, these utterances are then translated into more detailed human thoughts. But still, that's something I'd never seen before.

All three are crackerjack entertainment and superb examples of why people first fell in love with the movies.

They're not recognized as classics. But to me, their value as popcorn entertainment (and as cultural artifacts, too) shows how even little-known "program fillers" from the silent era still really packed a punch.

After this, our animal series finishes up in a big way, with a finale of films starring elephants. On Sunday, Sept. 7, we're screening 'Soul of the Beast' (1923) starring Oscar the Elephant, and 'Chang' (1927), a film shot on location in the jungles of Siam.

Madge Bellamy co-stars with Oscar the Elephant in 'Soul of the Beast' (1923).

Of the two, 'Soul of the Beast' is hands-down the most outlandish silent drama I've ever encountered. I don't want to give away too much, but this is one strange flick, and I'm looking forward to seeing how an audience reacts.

In contrast, 'Chang' is the moving story of a rural family forced to battle the jungle for survival. Filmed documentary-style on location, the film is a remarkable record of a way of life that has long since vanished.

In the directors' own words, Chang is a "melodrama with man, the jungle, and wild animals as its cast." Kru, the farmer depicted in the film, battles leopards, tigers, and even a herd of elephants, all of which pose a constant threat to his livelihood.

'Chang' was good enough to be nominated for the Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Production at the very first Academy Awards in 1929, the only year when that award was presented.

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