Silent films that express an era


Warner Bros. caused a seismic sensation Oct. 6, 1927, when the studio premiered “The Jazz Singer,” the first feature that included sound using synchronized dialogue sequences. But while the Al Jolson drama proved to be the death knell of silent movies, some of the most artistic silent films were released in 1928 as studios were beginning the transition to talkies.

Two of MGM’s masterworks from 1928 — King Vidor’s heartbreaking “The Crowd” and Ernst Lubitsch’s lushly romantic “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg” — are screening this week at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

The programs mark the second “Mary Pickford Celebration of Silent Film,” a collaboration between the academy and the Mary Pickford Foundation to showcase classics of the era.


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“Mary Pickford is the perfect name to have on a celebration of silent film,” said Randy Haberkamp, the academy’s managing director, programming, education and preservation.

Pickford, who was one of cinema’s first international superstars, “represents the pinnacle of the silent-film art in the way she was able to produce, star and craft her own films with her company,” Haberkamp said.

The screenings of “The Crowd” and “The Student Prince” will be introduced by Kevin Brownlow, the 2010 honorary Oscar recipient who is the author of the acclaimed history of silent film, “The Parade’s Gone By... .” The renowned British preservationist and documentarian (“Unknown Chaplin”) will be presenting his own restored prints of these classics, which feature Carl Davis’ musical scores.

“Both of the films were from 1928 and point out so vividly what makes silent films such a special medium,” Haberkamp noted. “Both of them really emphasize the unlimited communication of the human face.”

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The gritty and haunting “Crowd” chronicles the ups and downs of a young married couple (Eleanor Boardman, who was married to Vidor, and James Murray). Instead of finding happiness in New York City, though, they encounter the harsh realities of life in big metropolis. “The Crowd” also holds the distinction of being the first feature to show a toilet on screen.

Though shepherded by MGM’s “Boy Wonder” producer Irving Thalberg, studio head Louis B. Mayer hated the film. “He said, I’m not going to let that toilet picture win the Academy Award,” Brownlow said. And Mayer got his wish. F.W. Murnau’s “Sunrise,” which was released by Fox, took home the Oscar.

“The Crowd” has influenced many directors, including neo-realist Italian master Vittorio De Sica, who was inspired to make his landmark 1948 “Bicycle Thieves” after seeing the drama, as well as Billy Wilder in his 1960 Oscar-winning “The Apartment.”

Wilder’s scenes of Jack Lemmon toiling in a office filled with countless desks lined up in parallel rows is a homage to the scenes in “The Crowd,” in which Murray is shown as just another faceless worker in a large, impersonal corporation.

“It is my favorite American silent film of all,” said Brownlow of “The Crowd.” “It anticipates the Crash before the Crash happened. It’s one of those social-problem films that silent pictures didn’t do all that often, and it’s done so superbly.”

The German-born Lubitsch, whose deft hand at romantic comedy was called “The Lubitsch Touch,” brings a freshness, charm and enchantment to “The Student Prince,” which premiered in late 1927 before opening in theaters in 1928. Two of MGM’s biggest stars, Ramon Novarro (“Ben-Hur”) and Thalberg’s wife, Norma Shearer, star in this tale of a carefree young prince who falls in love with an innkeeper’s daughter.

Though the Mexican-born Novarro struggled in talkies, “Student Prince” beautifully demonstrates why he was a silent-screen superstar. “He’s so self-effacing in this,” Brownlow said. “You don’t really think of him as an actor.”


Mary Pickford Celebration of Silent Film

Where: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills

What: “The Crowd”

When: Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

What: “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg”

When: Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

Admission: $3 and $5