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Reel Life: the sounds of silents


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Obsessed with authenticity during the making of his original version of The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. De Mille reportedly dispatched an assistant on a 20,000-mile journey from California to Egypt to the Malay Peninsula to do research on jewels, costumes, and sabers. To calibrate the cosmetic burnish of the slave extras, he sent two men to a California beach for a few days to get sunburns. De Mille also recruited troops from the U.S. Army to man the chariots chasing Moses and the Israelites to the Red Sea. In the finished film, he segues from Moses receiving the lightning-inscribed tablets to a prim mother in the modern era reading the Bible to her two sons: one will break all ten commandments in his deliciously despicable career as an unscrupulous contractor who builds a shoddy church while consorting with a "Eurasian" temptress; the other will uphold the laws of God and family in his humble calling as a carpenter--and get the Caucasian girl.

At its Christmas release in New York City in 1923, De Mille's epic garnered praise from the New York Times for "some eye-smiting shots," but the modern melodrama struck his critics and colleagues alike as less exalted. In 1930 film historian Paul Rotha called the king of biblical blockbusters a "pseudo artist" with "a shrewd sense of the bad taste of the lower type of the general public to which he panders." Director King Vidor lamented, "When I saw one of his pictures, I wanted to quit the business." Another Hollywood pro, William Wellman, stated, "Directorially I think his pictures were the most horrible things I've ever seen in my life."

Undeterred by the naysayers of old, the Fourth Presbyterian Church will kick off its annual concert series this weekend by screening a restored 35-millimeter print of De Mille's nearly two-and-a-half-hour epic. For musical accompaniment, the church's organ--the largest in the city--will be played by Dennis James, an itinerant organist and silent-movie historian.

"Silent film is a live medium," says James, who runs his company, Silent Film Concerts, out of Pasadena. "It's not meant for reproduction, which is what the motion-picture arts became in the sound era. I am so immersed in the notion of film as a viable, vital, living art that to me even a reproduced musical score is alive." James compares the experience of watching a properly presented silent movie to listening to a radio show, where "in your mind, there's a complete picture.

"When this works, I have people come up to me and tell me, 'You told us this was a silent movie, and I heard Gary Cooper speaking.' When I do a good job, I'm creating the conditions so they actually fill in the gap. The other thing that happens quite often is people say, 'I thought this movie was in black and white'--they fill in the color. When the two are wedded--the graven image of the silver screen, plus the live music of a capable and trained musician--you end up with a true theatrical experience on par with opera, ballet, and theater."

The 48-year-old James traces his passion for the silent screen to his TV-viewing habits as a boy growing up in the 50s. "In the early days of television, especially on the weekends, they would fill time with old silent movies, unfortunately shown at the wrong speed and never with the proper music," he says. "I would turn off the volume." Somehow he sensed the old-time tunes that pianist Jo Ann Castle played on The Lawrence Welk Show were better suited to the vintage titles he saw mangled on shows like Silents Please, where classics were crudely condensed, and Fractured Flickers, a precursor to Mystery Science Theater 3000, where a host furnished satirical commentary over the sound track.

In those days, "the whole neighborhood would come and watch The Dinah Shore Show and Bonanza, which were among the first color TV shows," James recalls. "One of the things symbolic of my career that seems lost in this technology age is that sense of wonder, that sense that something new is actually all-encompassing and totally unbelievable. Now too many people believe in virtually anything. It's just 'What's next?'"

Originally trained in accordion, James switched to the organ, an instrument his friends would actually listen to, and played in garage bands, including one called Vicious Omelette. An audition for Atlantic Records went nowhere; he scored better on his own in a variety show at his New Jersey high school, where he played along with a silent comedy short. He went on to study concert and church organ at Indiana University. His senior-year recital at New York's Saint Patrick's Cathedral drew fewer than 30 listeners, but back on campus a week later he sold out a 3,800-seat hall for a Halloween screening of The Phantom of the Opera, which he'd booked as a benefit for the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists. "They were ecstatic, and I made lots of money." That night sealed his fate. "I knew what I wanted to do. It was a no-brainer."

The Ten Commandments will be screened Friday at 7:30 at the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, 126 E. Chestnut. Admisssion is $12 in advance, $15 at the door, or $10 in advance and $12 at the door for students. Call 312-787-4570 for information, 312-559-1212 for tickets. --Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dennis James photo/ film still from "The Ten Commandments".

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