Home Events Silence of the golden oldies, except for the mighty Wurtlitzer

Silence of the golden oldies, except for the mighty Wurtlitzer

On an earlier occasion: Donald MacKenzie at the Brenford Wurlitzer before a silent-movie presentation in September 2014 (taken with the Mk I Leica Monochrom and 50mm APO-Summicron)

Silent films were definitely in the doldrums when I was a boy. After three decades of “talkies”, silent footage was unloved and unappreciated — at least by me and all my friends. The jerky movements and intrusive caption frames were decidedly dated and old hat. Whoever took them seriously, I used to wonder.

In the past few years, I’ve enjoyed something of a conversion. Thanks to a revival of pre-1930 films (shown at the correct speed which seemed impossible when I was young) and a newfound fondness for the Wurlitzer and its friends, a new generation is now being introduced to hitherto abandoned footage.

The General, 1926

Last Sunday was a rare treat for me: A showing of Buster Keaton’s The General at the wonderful Musical Museum in the West London suburb of Brentford. The great Donald MacKenzie, who can usually be found pressing the keys at the Odeon in Leicester Square — one of London’s premier theatres — had taken an afternoon off to accompany the film on the Museum’s early thirties Wurlitzer.

The above video, produced by the Royal College of Organists, features an interview with Donald MacKenzie at the Odeon, Leicester Square.

This was the first full-length Keaton film I have seen. Previously, I’ve viewed his slapstick comedy shorts. But The General impressed me immensely. The stunts, all performed by Buster Keaton himself, are fascinating and frighteningly dangerous. There were no stunt doubles in this 1926 feature film. And, since it involved wrecking an entire train and bridge, it was the costliest film made to that date.

Donald produced a vast range of special effects from the organ and his musical score included a medley of American Civil War themes that added great drama to the screening. All round, this was a masterful performance.

Looking back

I find it fascinating that we are now able to see performances of this nature after nearly 100 years. All the participants must be long gone by now — Keaton himself died in 1966 at the age of 70. The period of the US Civil War was much more recent in the memory of the actors in The General, just sixty years, than the span between the film and now. For future generations, seeing their ancestors in cine footage (not to mention digital shots) will be commonplace. Imagine if we were able to see the Tudors or the Georgians on celluloid. For all these reasons, I found this film absolutely gripping.

I left with a new respect for Keaton and for the abilities of cinematographers of the 1920s. I managed to grab a few shots with the Leica M11 (and resident 50mm APO-Summicron-M) but they are not the best because of the poor lighting conditions and the distance from the screen. I could only shoot over the heads of the audience and I was sitting at the back of the upper gallery. Not ideal. But as photographs of record, they capture the sense of an entertaining afternoon in the Musical Museum’s theatre.

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  1. I once saw 6 (out of 9) silent movies that Alfred Hitchcock made with live piano, very impressive, the movies were dated but the talent, the storytelling and the suspense unmistakably were already there, that was a while ago already, I honestly cannot recall the last time I saw a silent movie…

  2. “This was the first full-length Keaton film I have seen…”

    As a follow-up, would recommend, rather appropriately, The Cameraman (which was also shown as the gala event for this year’s Slapstick Festival.

  3. Vic Emerson – not of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, but of ‘Sad Café’ – used to (..as a boy..) come rising out of the floor hammering away at the huge organ (Wurlitzer?) of the Gaumont cinema in Manchester (..or was it the Oxford?..) smiling and swivelling in his seat, and enjoying all the admiration ..and the music!

    ..That’s when the usherettes appeared, daintily tripping down the aisles with Lyons Maid ice lollies, vanilla tubs, and ‘Butterkist’ popcorn, and the projectionist put up the slide “Would the owner of car number RND 487 [..or whatever..] please remove it as it is causing an obstruction”. Happy days!

    • Now we’ve started. In my local cinema (in a very small town in South Lancashire), the rear two rows consisted of double seats “fer them as’r courtin’” which cost sixpence per bum. An aunt of mine, of extremely large proportions which are now indelicate to allude to, used to buy a full double seat for a shilling because she couldn’t fit into the standard offering. She would tell us she’d “bin to’t picshures”. Then there were the Saturday matinees for us kids, featuring Flash Gordon constantly in peril at the end of every episode at the hands of Emperor Ming. Or was it the Mekon? No, that was Dan Dare in the Eagle.

      • “..the rear two rows consisted of double seats “fer them as’r courtin’”..”

        We-ell, funny you should say that; at my cinema (Ciné City) that’s what we had upstairs in Screen 1 (..pity I can’t post a picture here ..but here’s a photo from when we had some record launch, and a pop group onstage.. oh; it’s going to take me a while to get it, upload it, then give you the link to it, so I’ll do that later today when I’ve got more than just a moment..)

        • Ah, here we are – though it’s not all that evident: top rear row (upper-right of the photo) ..that top row was double-width ‘Love Seats’ ..essentially, lots more room to stick used chewing gum to the seat!


  4. Thanks, Mike,

    for sharing this experience. In my nearby parish church, a very big and high class organ was installed some years ago. Shortly after the ceremonies, they were showing Fritz Lang‘s „Metropolis“ with an excellent organist improvising to it. It was a massive experience. I hope the tradition of the silent film will not get extinct but the younger generations seem to be quite interested. So it will happen to film photography too, I think.


  5. When I had a cinema in Manchester (..ooh-er ..here ‘e goes again!..) we had a plaque which said that Violet Carson (..much, much later ‘Ena Sharples’ of ‘Coronation Street’ ..after about 25 years of ‘Nursery Sing-Song’ on radio’s North Region ‘Children’s Hour’..) used to accompany silent films there – the cinema was built in 1912 – and so did ‘John Bob O’Reilly’ ..really John Barbirolli, later Sir John, conductor of Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra.

    (In parentheses, Robert Donat had lived across the road from the cinema, as a little boy, and seeing films there had made him want to be a film actor ..as he later was, in ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ and ‘The Seven Samurai’ – just kidding; I mean – what’s that film of Chinese children tramping over the hills..? – ‘Inn of the Sixth Happiness’.)

    For a really touching image of silent films, in ‘The Smallest Show on Earth’ – a poor title, though! – Virginia McKenna and (her husband) Bill Travers inherit an old cinema – the ‘Bijou’ – and have an awful time with it, so go for an evening out, and when they come back home (they live in the cinema) they find the projectionist (Peter Sellers) and the commissionaire – remember them? – (Bernard Miles) and the ticket-desk lady (Margaret Rutherford) are quietly watching silent (sob) movies.

    The Cinema Museum – cinemamuseum.org.uk – in what used to be the Lambeth or Kennington Workhouse ..just south of central London.. where Charlie Chaplin and his mother – and brother – lived and worked when they were a penniless family, there are regular showings of silent films ..with accompaniment, of course. DVDs of silent movies are available from the BFI (British Film Institute).

  6. That is a great film! To me the masterpiece is a decade earlier, 1915 , D W Griffith, The Birth of a Nation! Civil war period and people still feel this was a call to join the KKK! Silents are always enjoyable, and here in US TCM CHANNEL , Turner Classic Movies does magnificent job showing to current audience, and local movie theater shows Silents at different times in year!

    • I suppose there are many films on YouTube. I must have a look. I’ve seen extracts from Birth of a Nation but don’t think I have seen it through to the end. I will have a search.


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