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Astoria’s AMMI celebrates dual-mode films

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After the introduction of sound in the late 1920s, and before all movie theaters were converted for sound, many films were made in both silent and sound versions. Consisting of six double-feature programs of important films shown in both their silent and sound versions, this retrospective is the first of its kind. Peter Dowd, the Museum’s Curator of Film, tracked down restored and preserved prints from archives around the world.

The series opens with the first double-feature presentation of Hitchcock’s masterful “Blackmail” in its silent and sound versions. The simultaneously filmed versions will be screened back-to-back, both in archival 35mm copies. The rarely screened silent version will be presented in a pristine 35mm print from the vaults of the British Film Institute.

As Hitchcock biographer John Russell Taylor noted, “The sensational effect of the sound version (of ‘Blackmail’) has distracted attention from the completed silent version.”

“Blackmail” may be a classic of the early sound cinema, but for Taylor its “self-conscious, isolated effects” are not yet integrated into a coherent new style. In his view, it’s the silent version that remains a more fully realized Hitchcock picture.

All films will be screened in the finest extant copies, including several archival 35mm prints, specially loaned for this unique series. The Library of Congress has struck a new 35mm print of the silent version of Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” in addition to providing archival 35mm prints of “Blackmail” (sound version), “Coquette” (both versions), “Broadway” (sound version), and “Ladies of Leisure” (both versions). The Danish Film Institute is lending a 35mm print of the silent version of Paul Fejos’ “Broadway,” which contains a dazzling Technicolor sequence.

The series is made possible in part with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“Despite Al Jolson’s raucous triumph in ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927), silent movies did not simply roll over and die,” said Koszarski. While Hollywood converted to talkies relatively quickly, it took five years before every theater in America was wired for sound. Until that happened, producers could hardly ignore the millions of customers whose neighborhood picture palaces still accompanied their films with piano and orchestra.

It became obvious very quickly that silent films — unless Charlie Chaplin was making them — could not withstand head-to-head competition with the new talkies, but by the end of 1929 there were still only 800 movie theaters in the United States equipped for sound. That left 22,000 theaters incapable of even running Hollywood’s highly publicized “All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing” extravaganzas.

According to the 1930 Film Daily Yearbook, nearly every talking film then in release was also available in a completely silent version designed for these “unwired” theaters. But with the entire industry focused on the next new thing, first-run critics simply ignored these slightly embarrassing relics of an obsolete medium. Over the years, even historians forgot about them. If remembered at all, they were dismissed as mere technical aberrations, mute editions of films originally intended to celebrate dialogue, now burdened with great numbers of chatty intertitles.

It’s true that some were like this, especially towards the end. But most were designed from the start as silent alternatives, assembled by cutters far more experienced with that style than with the new technique of talkies. Silent film audiences have recently been thrilled by showings of Frank Borzage’s “Lucky Star” and William Wyler’s “The Shakedown,” hailed as late triumphs of the silent cinema. How could critics of the time have overlooked these masterworks? In fact, the critics probably never saw those films. Both of the newly discovered prints were “only” the silent versions of films made and marketed as talkies.

Film preservation being what it is, archivists can expect that if the silent version survives, the talkie version probably will not. And vice versa. Today there are only a handful of titles for which both editions still exist. Scattered around the world in various archives, these rivals were never intended to be seen back-to-back, and never have been. Until now.

In this series the museum will look at two different versions of six major films, all produced during the chaotic “transition to sound” that followed in the wake of Al Jolson. There was no common strategy for addressing this problem. Sometimes the silent version was shot first, sometimes the talkie version. Sometimes both simultaneously. Sometimes the silent version was assembled from alternate takes. Seen now, head-to-head for the first time, will the talkies still overwhelm their silent cousins? Or will the fascination of the microphone prove less compelling than one last chance to get silent movies right?

Schedule

(All silent films will be shown with live music by Donald Sosin.)

Saturday, Feb. 8

2 p.m. Silent version 73 mins.

4 p.m. Sound version 84 mins.

“Marianne”

MGM, 1929. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. With Marion Davies. Imagine “The Big Parade” redone as a romantic comedy, with silent star Marion Davies in the lead. Then imagine the entire film being sent back into production, with a different supporting cast, eventually emerging as a musical. While language problems may have bothered imported stars like Emil Jannings and Vilma Banky, Davies launches into her first talkie with a remarkable accent of her own.

Sunday, Feb. 9

2 p.m. Silent version 85 mins.

4 p.m. Sound version 102 mins.

“Broadway”

Universal, 1929. Directed by Paul Fejos. With Glenn Tryon and Evelyn Brent. Gangsters and hoofers frolic in a New York nightspot, shot from a gigantic camera crane built for the occasion. Fejos, who had been making experimental films, finds imaginative ways to cope with this early musical in both sound and silent formats. The talkie version lacks the final musical number, but the silent is complete and includes the Technicolor footage. Archival prints from Danish Film Institute (silent) and Library of Congress (sound).

Saturday, Feb. 15

1:30 p.m. Silent version 130 mins.

4 p.m. Sound version 130 mins

“All Quiet on the Western Front”

Universal, 1929. Directed by Lewis Milestone. With Lew Ayres. Widely acclaimed as the best film of the year, and even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, “All Quiet on the Western Front” demonstrated how sound could be used effectively even on an ambitious military epic. But the dialogue, and dialogue delivery, were never this film’s strong point. Library of Congress restored (sound) and archival (silent) prints.

Sunday, Feb. 16

2:00 p.m. Silent version 84 mins.

4:00 p.m. Sound version 106 mins.

“Ladies of Leisure”

Columbia, 1930. Directed by Frank Capra. With Barbara Stanwyck. As late as 1930, low-end studios like Columbia were still doing most of their business in small towns that had yet to see their first talkie. In this unusually sensitive early example of the “fallen woman” genre, Capra shows why Columbia would not be on poverty row much longer. Library of Congress archival prints.

Made possible in part with support from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Museum Information

Gallery Hours: Tues. through Fri., noon - 5 p.m. Sat. and Sun., 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. Group tours by appointment, Tues. through Fri., 9:30 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Museum Admission: $8.50 adults; $5.50 over 65 and students with ID; $4.50 children 5-18. Children 4 and under and museum members are admitted free.

Location: 35 Avenue at 36 Street in Astoria.

Subway: R or V trains (R or G on weekends) to Steinway Street. N train to Broadway.

Call 718-784-0077 or go to www.movingimage.us

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