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Are Silent Films Making a Comeback?
Will Sloan previews the Toronto Silent Film Festival and explores the challenges of screening silents in the post-celluloid era

Still from The Artist

Not unlike the little tramp who rushed headlong down an upwards escalator, Shirley Hughes has seen the silent film world moving in two opposing directions since her Toronto Silent Film Festival began in 2010.

The Artist really was, in a lot of ways, a culmination of what we had been seeing building up for a number of years — more and more recognition for the art of silent film all over the world,” says Hughes. “Certainly more and more younger people are starting to discover them, because they’re becoming more and more accessible via the Internet, which is great.”

The TSFF is just one of a string of recent silent film initiatives with mainstream reach. There have been high-profile restorations and theatrical re-releases of Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and Turner Classic Movies has shown restorations of 125 short comedies from the Keystone studio, dating from 1912. Janus/Criterion and Kino International have given full restorations to the major works of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, for traveling art-house retrospectives and DVD/Blu-Ray release. And The Artist, along with the Tabu and the upcoming Blancanieves, has formed part of an unlikely trifecta of modern-day silent films, all rapturously received on the festival circuit.

And yet the earnest nostalgia of The Artist has an elegiac dimension: its Oscar bonanza in 2012 came at almost the exact moment when digital projection decisively rang the death knell to 35mm film as the dominant mode of movie projection. With the transition, preservation and exhibition of the earliest films is in an uncertain place. The apparent durability of digital might seem a reasonable corrective to the notorious fragility of celluloid, but Hughes says it brings an entirely different set of challenges.

“Everybody thinks that digital is the ultimate answer, but it’s not,” says Hughes. “A film, properly preserved, has the same technical shelf life as paper, which is 200 years. Digital, at this point, has no preservation life at all, because hard drives, you can’t just stick ‘em on a shelf like a film. They’ve got to be inputted constantly, they’ve got to be migrated to the next level of software when that comes up or it basically becomes lost information.”

None of which even matters if the film elements are in such deteriorated condition that immediate and costly restoration is necessary. “There are a lot of films that are down to last-copies-of, so there’s no use making a duplicate of it unless you’ve done some restoration on it, you’re just compounding the whole issue of what’s wrong with it — whether it’s scratches or dust, whether it’s physical deterioration, the emulsions, or anything like that.”

It seems unlikely that restorations like the one that brought Metropolis to a wide theatrical audience in 2010 will come from major studios. Last year, Warner Brothers shuttered its archive of 35mm prints — including hundreds of important silents acquired from MGM — and advised repertory cinemas to project DVDs instead. Independent theatres have been encouraged to adopt DCP digital projection systems, which would theoretically allow easier access to many popular library titles. That’s fine if a theatre wants to book Casablanca, but how soon will studios spend the resources to create digital copies of, say, the complete oeuvre of Ben Turpin, or some other non-consensus-favourite?

Still from Metropolis

Adventurous programmers can look to other sources, like the Library of Congress and its large collection of rare prints, but that doesn’t make things easy. “Warner Brothers owns the copyright on those films, so if they don’t want them out, they don’t go out,” says Hughes. “There’s a lot of paperwork involved. To get a 35mm print out of the Academy archives in Los Angeles, a friend of mine told me you start the process eleven months in advance, because that might be the length of time we’d need.”

The unfortunate reality is that financial viability is the main reason why films are preserved at all. Charlie Chaplin’s popularity was so high in the ‘10s and ‘20s that all but one of his 80-plus films apparently survived — there was always demand for new prints. But how alarming to consider that more than 50 per cent of films made before 1950 are lost, and how distressing to realize that the losses include films by Lon Chaney Sr., Oscar Micheaux, Harold Lloyd, Joseph von Sternberg among them. And how amazing to think that without collectors like David Shepherd, Kevin Brownlow, Raymond Rohauer, and Blackhawk Films, who picked prints sometimes literally out of the trash, this number would be even lower.

The Toronto Silent Film Festival will open on April 4 with one of the modern miracles of film preservation: a restored version of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), featuring missing scenes that were discovered in a closet at a mental institution. (One of the employees was reportedly a silent film buff who screened movies for the patients; why he thought The Passion of Joan of Arc would appeal to the mentally disabled is a mystery for the ages).

Other selections are further off the beaten path, exhibited in either digital or 16mm prints. Tokyo Chorus (1931), playing April 5, was the moment that Yasujiro Ozu graduated from a journeyman to an auteur, defining a style of intimate family drama that would lead to Tokyo Story and Floating Weeds. On April 6 is King Vidor’s ambitious and influential The Crowd (1928) — so frequently namedropped by scholars, so frustratingly difficult to see. And on April 8, My Best Girl (1927) will showcase America’s Canadian sweetheart, Mary Pickford, in her final silent role.

Most people’s point of entry into silent film comes through Chaplin and Keaton. This year, the festival will offer a Keaton double feature on its closing night, pairing his most beloved film — The General (1927) — with The Railrodder (1965), a peculiar NFB short in which the elderly comedian travels across Canada on a railcar. 

Of Keaton and Chaplin’s central role in the public perception of silent cinema, Hughes is ambivalent. “I don’t feel an overwhelming need to have them in … You can fall into the trap of, ‘Let’s just show Keaton, and make everybody happy,’ but there’s more to silent film than Buster Keaton, and certainly more to comedy than Buster Keaton.”

April 7’s “Slapstick Smorgasbord” offers a broader perspective, with a lineup of shorts starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Charley Chase, Harold Lloyd, Max Davidson, and the Vladimir and Estragon of cinema, Laurel and Hardy. This annual program has proven to be one of the festival’s most consistently popular programs. “Kids go nuts,” says Hughes. “They would get so excited they actually started to stand up on their chairs, just howling … They’re the best audiences to have, because it’s this pure reaction.”

The best thing about home video is that it has given a modest financial incentive for studios to preserve and distribute their archives. But a communal experience of the kind Hughes describes signals the biggest reason why preservation and exhibition are important: more than most films, silents are best appreciated in a theatrical context. 

“Every movie’s going to look better on a big screen, and I find that especially with silent films, because you are asking the audience to watch this film differently,” says Hughes. “I think we rely an awful lot on dialogue in films — more than we actually realize, and with silent films, we’re asking them to actually watch the film.

“Seeing it bigger works a lot better because your eyes can take in a lot more detail, and there’s an amazing amount of detail in silent comedies. You think of the broad details, but there are an awful lot of incredibly subtle gestures which are missed on YouTube.”


Will Sloan is a freelance arts journalist and a regular contributor to NPR. His work has also appeared in The Grid, Exclaim, Sharp, Dork Shelf, and AV Club Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @WillSloanEsq.

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