Thanks for the Magic

On the most recent February 11th, if you were in the VCU Grace Street Theater’s cozy auditorium you may have sensed a touch of magic in the air. From being there, what I detected was a particular brand of magic I recognized as an old friend.

The occasion was the Biograph Theatre’s 40th anniversary celebration, as presented by the James River Film Society. A 1960’s black and white double feature was screened. More about that night’s revelry later. To understand what is meant by “magic” the reader may need a little background … fade out.

Fade in … the contributions that filmmaker/film historian Kevin Brownlow has made to my cinematic education have been significant. For his role in rescuing Abel Gance’s all-but-lost masterpiece, “Napoleon” (1927), and bringing it back to the screen in 1981, he became a hero in my book. It’s a beautiful story.

In 1981 I saw the version of “Napoleon” that resulted from Brownlow’s mighty restoration effort. It was at New York City’s famous Radio City Music Hall. A full orchestra accompanied the light being thrown from three synchronized projectors onto three huge screens, side by side.

In 1983 I was in Manhattan again. A friend (whose name escapes me) asked me if I wanted to see a special limited presentation of a 163-minute British documentary at the Museum of Broadcast. After I said, “sure,” I got to see “Unknown Chaplin” three years before its American premiere as a three-part series on PBS in 1986.

It was a gas watching the presentation. The screening room was slick, but there were less than 100 seats. Dustin Hoffman was seated a few rows behind me.

Hoffman ran his mouth incessantly. He was talking to a couple of other guys about a Chaplin biography project, one with him as Charlie. At first it seemed cool. Then it got obnoxious. Fortunately, Hoffman left after a couple of hours.

Having gotten the name-dropping out of the way, now about that magic thing: What Brownlow’s documentary revealed was that Charlie Chaplin saw filmmaking as a form of showmanship tantamount to magic. After all, it is an illusion that pictures move; what moves is the strip of film going through the projector.

With Chaplin’s stage background he was an accomplished magician before he started making movies in 1914. And, once he understood the power of the illusion of motion, like a magician, Chaplin went to great pains to guard his secrets of his craft.

So, Chaplin might shoot a scene 500 or 600 times and splice pieces of different takes together. He might run the camera backwards, and so forth. Then he would systematically destroy the evidence of how he got the finished results.

We know about the lengths Chaplin went to in order to hide his tricks because some of the footage survived, in spite of his efforts. Some of it was smuggled out of the workplace and hidden for decades. Brownlow found the missing outtakes, etc. He used them to help tell the story of Chaplin’s unusual methods.

Another of my favorite filmmakers, Orson Welles, was a magician and also saw movies as a form of magic.

During my stint as manager of the Biograph Theatre (1972-83), I eventually came to see that all of us who produced and presented films to audiences were dabbling in magic.

In putting together double features and film festivals, in a way, we at the Biograph were conjuring up something out of nothing. With an invented title and theme for our film festivals we were creating new opportunities for appreciating what certain movies had in common … something the director never intended.

On top of that, as the manager, I never grew tired of standing in the back of a packed auditorium, appreciating the vibes in the air, because all those people were taking in a great movie at the same time. It was a sweet magic. That I had a hand in providing such experiences to those audiences was satisfying in a way I still miss. And, I miss the wonderful post-screening conversations in the Biograph’s lobby, or perhaps in nearby watering holes.

So, I want to thank the nearly-100 people who watched the “Breathless” (1960) and “Lonely Are the Brave” (1962) screenings with me on February 11th. It was heartwarming to see the familiar faces from when the Biograph was open. It was uplifting to see the younger, unfamiliar faces. My gratitude goes out to all of them for shelling out $20 to support the James River Film Society, its annual film festival, and the dream of establishing a storefront repertory cinema.

Regarding the benefit, James Parrish, the film society’s vice president, volunteered that once expenses were paid the special event raised nearly $1,000 over what it cost to stage it. That’s called success in this old show biz promoter’s view. Fade out…

Fade in … speaking of that storefront cinema concept, following the success of the Biograph’s 40th celebration, Parrish said, “I really believe we can make a strong case that a 100-seat cinema in a well chosen location with good projection and solid programming can be supported by our community.”

(Actually, it was sometime-cineaste Ted Salins who got me in to the 1983 “Unknown Chaplin” screening. While I’ll always be grateful for his role in providing that experience, after his boasting in a recent magazine article that he never missed an important film at the Biograph in the old days — which was no small reach for Ted to say — he missed the 40th party. So, Ted had a little elbow to the ribs coming to him.)

Bottom line: Thanks again for providing me yet another taste of the magic that motion pictures can work on a roomful of film buffs.

— 30 —

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