Second Time Around

Silents at the Stanford
One of the nicer attributes of Palo Alto's Stanford Theater is its insistence on reviving the lost art form of silent cinema. On the far side of the sound barrier films had to make a direct appeal to the emotions, be they robust, sentimental, pathetic, or broadly humorous. No more affecting films were ever made than silents, and no funnier ones either. The Stanford has been playing silent films every Wednesday this summer, with virtuoso organ accompaniment by Dennis James. This Wednesday (Aug. 20) the Stanford screens Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow, fresh from its triumphal screening in the Silent Film Festival at the Castro last month. This was the legendary director's most commercially successful film, a blending of MGM schmaltz and Stroheim's own peculiar brand of Viennese bitters. A fair amount of downright corny melodrama weighs down the film's first half, flattering American Puritanism with an insistently virginal heroine (Mae Murray, an acquired taste) in the company of men -- two rapacious, shaved, and leering officers in a Ruritanian army. The less twisted one (John Gilbert) reforms for love, and the film miraculously becomes genuinely adult in its emotions in its second half, with some very believable bitterness in its later scenes. One leaves the theater wrung out from the pity of it all -- just as one leaves the theater wrung out with laughter from the best silent comedies. Next Wednesday's offering (Aug. 27) is Harold Lloyd's last silent, the spry Speedy of 1928. No one contrived comic sequences better than Lloyd, the key word being "contrived," since his gags were created for Lloyd's character (an archetypal nice young man) rather than growing organically from some inner place, as with Chaplin and Keaton. Speedy, which has something to do with trolley cars, is still a continuous yell of delight.

-- Gregg Rickman

The Merry Widow screens at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 20; Speedy screens at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 27. Both shows are at the Stanford, 221 University (at Emerson), Palo Alto. Tickets are $6; call 324-3700.

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