Chasing the Phantom: An Afternoon At the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo, CA

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I must confess that until yesterday, I had never seen the famous Lon Chaney Sr. version of Phantom of the Opera (1925) in its entirety.  Well, I finally got to experience it…..with all the bells and whistles that organist/accompanist Bill Field could muster.  What a treat!

The Old Town Music Hall was created during the 1960’s when organists Bill Coffman and Bill Field bought a 1925 Wurlitzer organ and reinstalled it at the El Segundo State Theater, which had opened in 1921 as a silent movie theater.  The “Two Bills” were determined to continue that cinematic tradition, and opened what became the Old Town Music Hall in 1968.

Bill Coffman has since passed away.  But Bill Field, who is in his mid 70’s, dutifully rolls down the main theatre aisle on his electric wheelchair Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays to provide a one-of-a kind entertainment on the 2,600 pipe Wurlitzer.  Yesterday, the 1925 silent film Phantom of the Opera was shown, and Field provided the accompaniment–without sheet music–for the entire movie.

But first, there was a preview!

I love the description used in a 2013 article from Off-Ramp:  “The Old Town Music Hall’s Mighty Wurlitzer is like the fun uncle of the music world.”  That’s an understatement!  Before the main feature, Field began his show with a demonstration of the Wurlitzer.  The movie curtain opened to reveal the mechanics decorated with glow-in-the-dark paint.  Turn on the black lights, and the fun began!

 

Afterwards, the audience was treated to some bouncing ball singalongs projected onto the screen, including an old Halloween cartoon called Boos in the Night (pun intended).

Then came the main attraction, The Phantom.  (By the way, the uncut 1925 version is the one to watch.  It includes a glorious colorized set piece where The Phantom shows up at a costume party in a crimson Red Death outfit.)

With every scene, Field provided both music and sound effects.  When a doorbell sounded in the depths of the Phantom’s caverns, the organist would ring a bell.  When the famous scene with the falling chandelier came up, sparklers set up along the walls of the theater went off.  It was better than the Rocky Horror Picture Show!  So much fun, and I would definitely go again.

The Old Town Music Hall shows both silent and talking classic movies.  Offerings for the remainder of 2016 will include:

  • November 11-12, Holiday Inn (Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire)
  • November 18, 19, 20, Girl Shy (silent, Harold Lloyd)
  • December 2, 3, Miracle on 34th Street (Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, Natalie Wood)

The theater is located on 140 Richmond Street, El Segundo, CA 90245.  Phone number 310.322.2592.  Film admission $10, $8 for seniors 62+.  You can get more information about the theater and its offerings at http://www.OldTownMusicHall.org.

Here are some photos I took yesterday:

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A chandelier inside the main theater.

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Art deco hanging on main theater wall.

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The organ console.

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Hey, I met an old friend in the lobby!

The Golem (1920, silent film)

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Long before author Mary Shelley thought up the infamous Frankenstein monster, there existed a legend in Jewish folklore concerning an inanimate lump of clay brought to life in order to save the Jews.  This was the legend of the Golem.

The most famous version of this tale comes from medieval Prague:  The Jewish population is in danger of banishment by local Christian authorities.  In response, the head rabbi of Prague creates the Golem for protection against the oppressors.  The plan works, and the Jews are safe…for a while.  Unfortunately, the rabbi loses control of his creation, and the Golem goes on a murderous rampage.

The story of the Golem was first brought to the screen in 1915 by German director Paul Wegener, who also played the title role.  Although the 1915 film was lost, Wegener made another Golem film in 1920 which survives today.

The Golem essentially follows the old Prague legend, and is photographed in German expressionist style.  All of the scenes, especially the interiors, emphasize sharp angles and exaggerated form.  For example, in an early scene we see a spiral staircase descending within what looks like a cutaway of a conch shell.  Buildings and towers are vertically elongated to the point of surrealism.  The lighting in each scene is done in chiaroscuro, thus heightening the eeriness of the tale.  Even without subtitles or plot, each section in this film is fascinating to look at.

For those interested in early examples of cinematographer Karl Freund’s work, as well as examples of German expressionist film style, I would strongly recommend this picture.  Although I found a free copy on youtube.com, I must say that the print looked somewhat worn.  I checked out amazon.com and found that there is a restored version of the film on DVD.  Either way, it’s worth a view.

Note:  Karl Freund, who shot The Golem, was also known for photographing director Fritz Lang’s science fiction movie Metropolis (1927) and Todd Browning’s Dracula (1931).  He left Europe for America in 1929.  Freund, who was Jewish, returned to Germany in 1937 and brought his daughter Gerda back to the U.S.  By doing so, he almost certainly saved her from death in the Nazi concentration camps.

Pluses:  Magnificent cinematography, unique plot

Minus:  YouTube version not good.  Look for DVD on amazon.com

Cast:  Paul Wegener, Albert Steinruck, Lyda Salmonova, Ernst Deutsch, Lothar Muthel

Director:  Paul Wegener

Rating:  Unrated

Black and White

Length:  91 minutes

Sources:

“Karl Freund”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  8 October 2016.  Web.  28 October 2016.

“Golem” Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  28 October 2016.  Web.  28 October 2016.

Image obtained through Bing Public Domain.

 

 

 

 

 

Technical Audacity: Action Scenes in 1925’s “Ben-Hur”

 

Ben Hur 1925 director and Navarro

Actor Ramon Navarro (Ben-Hur) with a camera man.

In an earlier post, I focused on facts concerning the most famous film version of Ben-Hur, the 1959 blockbuster starring Charlton Heston in the title role.

Today’s article concerns action scenes in the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur.  Why would this be of interest to us?  Because the technicians’ achievements in shooting these scenes teach us about inventiveness and creativity in an era when conveniences like computer enhancement did not exist.

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By 1900, Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur was one of the best-sellers of the 19th century.  It was an epic written on a grand scale, and included plots and subplots replete with murder, romance, lust, betrayal, chariot races, and a full-scale sea battle.

Anyone wishing to produce a faithful visual rendition of the novel had their hands full.  The first stage production in 1899 featured a chariot race with horses running on treadmills while a painted Circus Maximus rotated behind them.  With the addition of crowd scenes, choruses, complicated lighting effects and the like, production costs totaled $71,000 before the first performance.  Nevertheless, Ben-Hur on stage proved to be a hit, and made lots of money on the road for several years.

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Poster of 1899 stage production of “Ben-Hur”

The next step was to film the story, and the first version was completed in 1907.  It was a relatively slender production, composed of 16 scenes.  The chariot race was filmed at a racetrack at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.

By the 1920’s, Hollywood had produced several epics, including Intolerance, Birth of a Nation, and Quo Vadis.   All were eaten up by the public…and the public wanted more!  In 1922, the Goldwyn company bought the rights to Ben-Hur.  Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman were cast as Judah Ben-Hur and archrival Messala, respectively.  After some deliberation, it was decided that the two big action sequences, the sea battle and the chariot race, would be filmed in Italy.

The sea battle.    This sequence can be summarized as follows:  Ben-Hur is a galley slave on one of a flotilla of Roman ships.  The flotilla is attacked by pirates, who ram the Romans with their own ships.  The enemy take the vessels, hand-to-hand combat ensues, and finally the Roman ships are set on fire.

The filming of the 1925 Ben-Hur sea battle could itself provide the basis of an exciting documentary.  Several full-sized sea vessels were built over a span of several months under the supervision of director Charles Brabin.  After attempts to film the sea battle proved to be unsuccessful, Brabin was replaced by Fred Niblo, who ultimately finished the picture.  Niblo felt the ships were all too small…so he had a separate group of full-sized vessels built.  Construction and filming of the battle were completed in Italy.

One of the most impressive segments involves the pirates’ ramming of the Roman ships.  This was accomplished by attaching the enemy vessels to off-camera motor boats which sent the prows hurtling into the sides of the Roman battleships.  In the finished film, the camera immediately cuts to the interior of the galley, where a large chunk of wood meant to depict the enemy prow comes through the galley wall.  The effect is quite startling.

BEN HUR 1925 sea battle

A 30-foot deep swimming pool was built underneath the slave galley.  When it came time to film the interior filling up with sea water as the vessel sank, tons of water were poured over the extras.  The water flowed into the unseen pool below.

The hand-to-hand combat in this sequence is exciting.  Because full-sized ships were used (unlike the 1959 version, where models were used), both long- and medium-shots could be focused on the bloody fighting on deck.

Ben Hur 1925 sea battle A

 

At the end of the battle, ships are set on fire and we see people jumping into the sea.  This was how the scene was meant to be executed, except that several Italian extras failed to notify the management that they did not know how to swim!  To this day, no one knows how many casualties there were on account of the Ben-Hur sea battle.  All that is known for sure is that some of the costumes came up missing from inventory.

ben-hur 1925 sea battle C

The potential drowning of some extras, as well as several other legal issues, forced the producers to return to America and film the chariot race in Culver City.

The chariot race.  Although many remember the thrilling footage from the 1959 movie, the sequence shot in 1925 was in its own way just as exciting.  Second unit director Reese Eason, who oversaw the filming of the race, utilized 42 cameramen.  They were placed in statues on or near the racetrack, on derricks above the track, and on mobile platforms for moving shots.  During one exciting scene, chariots dash over a camera buried in a pit below the track.

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Ben Hur, directed by Fred Niblo in 1925 Starring Ramon Novarro Production Still Camera car filming Messala’s chariot

As in 1959, the 1925 filming of the chariot race was not without mishap.  The most serious accident occurred when a couple of chariots piled up at a turn in the racetrack.  Despite an assistant director’s attempts to warn the rest of the drivers, a few more chariots collided with the wreckage, thus adding to the pile.

Ben Hur 1925 chariot crash

Goldwyn Studios did not have the funds to build a full-sized Circus Maximus complete with upper tiers.  So the directors hit upon an ingenious solution:  They created a “hanging miniature” of the upper bleachers which they placed a few feet from the camera, just above the full-sized lower tier which was hundreds of feet away.  From the len’s point of view, the two sections looked like one uninterrupted piece.

Small dolls were attached to wooden dowels slipped underneath the “benches” of the hanging miniature.  When a scene called for people to stand up and cheer, the dowels were moved up and down, simulating crowd movement.

The finished result can be seen below.  It is almost impossible to discern the dividing line between the full-sized lower tier and track, and the miniature section above it.

Ben Hur 1925 hanging miniature

The directors’ efforts were rewarded on December 30, 1925, when the first audience to see Ben-Hur cheered wildly during the chariot race.  In general, audiences loved the film, and American and foreign reviews were very positive.  This was no doubt edifying to Goldwyn Studios, which had spent over four million dollars in production costs.

With the advent of talking pictures a few years later, Ben-Hur became an anachronism as far as Hollywood and the audiences were concerned.  However, it is still considered by film aficionados to be a milestone in the history of film technique.

Incidently, one of the assistant directors assigned to the chariot sequence was William Wyler.  Wyler went on to direct several celebrated movies, including 1959’s Ben-Hur.

The 1925 version can be rented or purchased on amazon.com.  It is also sometimes shown on Turner Classic Movies.  I would also highly recommend the Brownlow sources listed below for further information on 1925’s Ben-Hur.

Sources:

Wallace, Lew.  Ben-Hur:  A Tale of the Christ.  Harper & Brothers.  1880.

Ben-Hur:  A Tale of the Christ.  Prod. Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg.  Dir. Fred Niblo.  Perf. Ramon Navarro, Francis X. Bushman, May McAvoy.  Goldwyn Studios.  Film.  1925.

“Ben-Hur:  A Tale of the Christ.”  Wikipedia:  The Free Encyclopedia.  Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.  27 August 2016.  Web.  31 August 2016.

Brownlow, Kevin.  The Parade’s Gone By.  Alfred A. Knopf.  1968.

Hollywood:  A Celebration of the American Silent Film.  Prod. Thames Television.  Dir. Kevin Brownlow, David Gill. Narr. James Mason. Thames Television.  TV documentary.  1980. 

All images obtained through Bing Public Domain or Wikimedia.