When It Girl meant something

Laurel and Hardy, John Barrymore and Clara Bow will soon be competing for your attention in Pritchard Park.

No, the ghosts of these great cinema luminaries haven’t fallen on hard times — just the opposite, in fact. They’ll be seen in larger-than-life glory, in the movies they made at the height of their creative powers.

The popular Cinema in the Park series returns with a spring lineup starting Saturday April 20.

This year’s series kicks off with a laugh: the short Laurel and Hardy film Liberty and the Harold Lloyd classic Safety Last. Even people who aren’t silent-movie buffs are likely to be familiar with Safety Last’s spectacle of Lloyd — the architect of movie “thrill comedy” — dangling from the face of a clock on a skyscraper far above a busy street. It’s one of the iconic images of 1920s comedy. And pairing this with Liberty is the kind of savvy move the series seems to excel at, since this fairly obscure Stan and Ollie outing is an atypical — and very funny — example of the boys in a Lloyd-like thrill comedy of their own.

Comedy is followed on April 27 with adventure, as personified by legendary movie swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in one of his most popular films (and the only one to spawn a sequel), The Mark of Zorro, which will be accompanied by the 1903 short The Great Train Robbery, often credited with being the first film to tell a story. That accolade isn’t entirely accurate — but this New Jersey-made “Western” was, indeed, the film that first caught the public’s imagination with the idea of movies as a narrative medium.

On May 4, the series takes on the horror genre, serving up John Robertson’s classic 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which stars the great John Barrymore. It isn’t the best version of the Robert Louis Stevenson story (that claim probably belongs to the 1931 Rouben Mamoulian film), but even 80-plus years later, it’s certainly still in the running, if only for Barrymore’s performance and his amazing, before-your-eyes transformation from Jekyll to Hyde. Next up, on May 11, is animation: 1925’s The Lost World, which definitely is the classic version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel about an expedition to a land where dinosaurs still hold sway. The effects work by animation pioneer Willis O’Brien — who went on to make King Kong — is still a marvel, while Wallace Beery makes an appropriately gruff Professor Challenger. Plus, it’s not every movie that can claim the classic line (via intertitle), “My brontosaurus has escaped!” It’s the granddaddy of all giant-monster movies — and still one of the best.

Romance will be exemplified by Clara Bow, who’s got “it” in It, showing May 18. “It” was a 1920s term that coyly referenced “S.A.” — or sex appeal. Clara Bow had a surfeit of “it,” and was known as the “It Girl” long before today’s fashionistas so dubbed Gwyneth Paltrow. Bow’s most famous film illustrates why. (Anyone whose list of boyfriends included Gary Cooper, Eddie Cantor and Bela Lugosi must have had something going for her — not to mention eclectic taste.)

“I’m very excited about giving our audience a chance to learn about Clara Bow,” notes Rupa Vickers, who founded the silent-movie series. “I think this standard modern heroine role we have in film, played most often by Julia Roberts and the like, can be seen to go back to Bow. And I think this will be very eye-opening to our audience.”

The season’s grand finale is science fiction — Fritz Lang’s German masterpiece Metropolis, a futuristic tale of a “Utopian” city complete with a mad scientist, a singularly sexy robot, and a workers’ uprising. It is spectacle on a truly grand scale. The effects and the design of the film are as breathtaking today as they were in 1927. Even the most advanced CGI work can’t touch the robot Maria, an astonishing creation. “Everybody’s looking forward to that one,” Vickers says. “Last year, when I announced that we’d have Metropolis this year, there was immediate applause. I should add that we are using the hand-colored version — the original was hand-tinted as well — which has also been remastered and boasts more-artistic titles and intertitles.”

The sound of silence

Of course, as with last season, it’s not just the movies — or even their unusual venue — that makes the series unique among local entertainment opportunities. “This is a revitalization project and an arts project,” explains Vickers. “We’re going back in history and presenting the films with live musical accompaniment, and we’re giving the musicians a real challenge because they’re all improvising on the spot. We’ve got a variety of music this year. The Manic Pianic [Jake Hollifield] is coming back and doing his standard, which is never really standard … and we’ve got Robot, featuring Tyler Ramsey of the Tyler Ramsey Trio and Bill Reynolds and Mike Rhodes. … They’re going to take advantage of many different genres of music for their accompaniment of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Metropolis. The score is going to be electronicized. It’s going to be a very interesting fusion experience, musically speaking.”

The approach to the music may be somewhat unorthodox, but the idea of musical accompaniment for silent movies is anything but. They may not have talked, but silent movies were never really silent. Even the smallest, humblest movie house had its own pianist to accompany the films, while larger theaters usually boasted an organ. The great “picture palaces” would even employ a full orchestra to accompany special films, and many movies were issued with prepared musical cues to be followed by the theaters’ musicians.

In bringing live music to the films in the park, the series is drawing on a long history of matching image and sound — and offering the audience something closer to the moviegoing experience as originally enjoyed in the 1920s.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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