Silent Film Wednesdays at The Stanford Theatre

The Stanford Theatre is one of my favorite places in the world. This independent movie theater, which opened in 1925, is located in downtown Palo Alto, about 25 miles from my apartment, and is one of the only places around to see classic films on the big screen. Every few months, they have a new calendar of films, typically with a connecting theme. Recent festivals have included Marx Brothers + Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, and Fred Astaire.

The current festival, here: Stanford Theatre Movie Guide. is very diverse, but the thing that caught my eye when the calendar came out was Silent Film Wednesdays. Every Wednesday for ten weeks, the Stanford is showing a feature film plus various short features, all accompanied by Dennis James on “The Mighty Wurlitzer”. Mr. James is one of four organists that perform at the Stanford, and concentrates on accompanying the silent films on the calendar. The other three alternate performances during intermissions on Saturday and Sunday nights.

Mr. James also provides some commentary about the history of silent film and the Stanford’s active involvement in film history. He frequently creates the accompaniment score for the films. If you have never seen a silent film on the big screen with live accompaniment, I highly recommend it, especially if Mr. James is the organist.

I missed the first two weeks of the silent film festival, but went to Palo Alto after work last night to see the program.

The feature was 1923’s The Bright Shawl, a historical drama concerning Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain. I must confess that it was a little dull for my taste, but worth it for the cast: William Powell in one of his first film roles, Dorothy Gish, Mary Astor, Richard Barthelmess, and the first credited role of Edward G. Robinson (I was never able to pick him out). Some of the film was shot on location in Cuba, many years before location shooting became common practice. For modern viewers, there were a few cringeworthy moments regarding race, including seriously over-the-top eye makeup to make Dutch actress Jetta Goudal look Chinese.

I preferred the short subjects that were shown after the intermission. The first, Lightn’in (sic) Wins, one of Gary Cooper’s earliest films, released in 1926. Cooper, rocking some fabulous guyliner, played an LA Harbor police officer with a dog named Lightnin’, the real hero of the film. I can only hope that the person responsible for the title cards was summarily shot by the LA Harbor Grammar Police Squad for egregious apostrophe abuse that did not end with the name of the movie. Other than the twitch I developed reading the cards, this was a fun short, full of car chases (Lightnin’ was doing the chasing, of course), fisticuffs, and 1920s fashions. The second short, The Dancing Town (1928), was delightfully cornball, with punny title cards, bizarre 1920s dance moves, and a lot of mugging. The cast of The Dancing Town was mostly unknown to me, apart from Helen Hayes. In a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it (seriously) moment was Humphrey Bogart in a doorway.

The Stanford Theatre works in close conjunction with The UCLA Film & Television Archive, which is the reason we have the privilege of seeing the films in this series. So many old films were destroyed or lost before film was recognized as a serious art form. I’m actually thrilled to have to stand in line to see a double feature (for $7.00!)in the balcony, surrounded by other film lovers, applauding, laughing, recalling old memories, and creating new ones.




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