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Arts and Entertainment

Night At the Movies: Chaplin's Mutual Films at the Silent Movie Theater

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In an era of comedic atrocities like "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" it is important to go to the source of film comedy for a refresher on the fundamentals of on-screen hilarity. Hands down, the best place to get a taste of where comedy came from is the Silent Movie Theater. With screenings featuring film greats like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton it is a wellspring for classic cinema.

There is an inherent magic and novelty in seeing a silent movie. It's like dusting off an old Atari to play "Pong". Despite its basic, out-of-date nature you're struck by how much fun it is. Without the Atari we wouldn't have the Playstation3. Without Chaplin and his silent, lovable little tramp, we wouldn't have the likes of Seth Rogen or Steve Carell (playing updated versions of the tramp, endearing everymen in unfortunate circumstances). Just like a soft hiss and gentle crackle lend authenticity to the experience of listening to an album on vinyl, the accidental cuts and grainy filmstock make these films feel more genuine. Add to that the in-person musical stylings of Bob Mitchell and you have a night of magic with nary a line of dialogue.

In 1916, Chaplin was contracted by the Mutual film company to direct and star in a series of 12 short films. At age 27, this was the first time Chaplin was in complete creative control of his movies, and he's referred to it as the happiest time of his career. He shared the screen with his legendary "heavy" Eric Campbell for the films. Campbell was Chaplin's classic opposition, the perfect antagonist to the Little Tramp. His hulking size and massive build led to him being nicknamed "Chaplin's Goliath." The two were so close that they lived next door to each other at the LA Athletic Club at the beginning of their careers.

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The films are your standard "Tramp gets in trouble" fare, but the characters are so wonderfully simple that you can't help but love them. Whether playing "The Inebriate", hankering for booze in a "sanitarium" (an early 1900's version of Promises, Malibu) or running from the coppers, Chaplin's brilliant sense of physical comedy leads to out-loud laughs from even the most cynical film-goer. But part of the real magic in these films, and what makes it worth going to the Silent Movie Theater to see them, is the score. This is where Bob Mitchell comes in.

At the beginning of the evening, Bob Mitchell slowly shuffled toward the piano, one foot sliding in front of the other. At 94 years-old, this is how you would expect him to move, deliberately and with caution. It is only after Mitchell slides into the chair behind the keys that you realize his age and physical nature belie his talent and skill. His legs may have lost their spring, but his fingers have every bit the spark they did 70 years ago. He plays with the vibrancy of a twenty-something and the musical wisdom of his age.

What Mitchell does is an art form in its own right, part improvisation, part well choreographed performance. Mitchell forgoes sheet music and takes his cues from the screen, seamlessly integrating hidden musical themes you'll recognize from old Copeland tunes and classical favorites. He perfectly expresses the mood of a scene and somehow manages to end each film in the way you would expect from only a well rehearsed orchestra.

The Silent Movie Theater at Melrose and Fairfax is the only screen of its kind left in the country. With a schedule of films highlighting the stars of old, old Hollywood and a wealth of movies to choose from, it is hard to have a bad screening. In August they'll be having "Silent Sirens" month showcasing the gorgeous women of the era. Please go check it out, you'll have an great time and keep legends alive in the process.

Contact the box office:
The Silent Movie Theater
611 N. Fairfax Avenue
Los Angeles, California 90036

And for good measure, here's a quick video of what's in store if you go:

Image courtesy of BFI.