Experts speak on best silent films to watch in ‘Artist' afterglow

"The Artist" will go down as the silent film that got everyone talking, especially after it took the big prize at Sunday night's Academy Awards ceremony.

Count Emory University film professor Matthew Bernstein as one viewer who is pleased the French import went from buzz-maker to best picture winner. "I find it wonderful that a film in this age of digital technology can demonstrate to audiences the potential richness and overwhelming experience watching a silent film can be," Bernstein said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked Bernstein and Ron Carter, who accompanies silent films as house organist at Marietta's Earl Smith Strand Theatre and Atlanta's Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, to recommend the best of these vintage movies in the wake of "The Artist." (The titles they suggested are available on DVD in original or restored prints, with musical accompaniment.)

Professor Bernstein's picks

Charlie Chaplin films: "Chaplin was the movies' greatest, most expressive performer and the easiest of silent stars to relate to," said Bernstein, who recommends "City Lights" (1931), "The Gold Rush" (1925), "The Circus" (1928) or "Modern Times" (1936).

Buster Keaton comedies: Bernstein favors Keaton's comedies to Chaplin's and suggests "Steamboat Bill, Jr." (1928), "Sherlock, Jr." (1924), "Our Hospitality" (1923) and "The General" (1926). He calls these "films of stunning ingenuity as well as humor, for Keaton used all the resources of filmmaking to create absurd and often surreal fictional worlds that continue to speak to us today."

An early Ernst Lubitsch gem: Bernstein picks "The Marriage Circle" (1924) as a sophisticated comedy of marital stress "that anticipates the classic screwball and romantic comedies of the 1930s."

A trio of dramas: Fritz Lang's "Dr. Mabuse" (1922) is "a two-part, four-hour stunner of international crime." Carl Theodor-Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" (1928) is "celebrated for its powerful account this saint's ordeal, and can be viewed with a moving score by the Anonymous Four." Jacques Feyder's "Faces of Children" (1925) "may be the most moving portrayal of a child in grief after the death of his parents ever committed to film."

Organist Carter's picks

"Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans" (1927): Carter has accompanied this F.W. Murnau drama about a married farmer who falls for a city woman a half-dozen times and watched it at least a dozen more, still amazed at its "visual and emotional impact. ... So many patrons have come up to me afterwards and said they had gotten completely lost in the film."

"Wings" (1927): William A. Wellman' s "action-packed" epic was the first silent feature Carter saw, in 1986, "an experience I will never forget," Carter said. "At the end of the film, when Jack (Buddy Rogers) goes to the home of his deceased friend (Richard Arlen) to return [a lucky childhood] teddy bear to the parents, I looked around the theater and saw grown men sobbing, including myself."

"Flesh and the Devil" (1926): Greta Garbo plays an "irresistible vixen" who pits lifelong friends (John Gilbert, Lars Hanson) against each other. Carter calls the scenes in which Garbo lights Gilbert's cigarette and, shortly, asks him to run away with her "some of the most passionate in movie history." Added the organist: "The last 10 minutes keep you guessing about what could happen, and you are shocked at the outcome!"

Silent movie showings

  • Callanwolde Fine Arts Center screens "Pandora's Box" at 6 p.m. March 25, with Ron Carter accompanying the film on the 60-rank Aeolian pipe organ. $10 advance, $13 door. 980 Briarcliff Road N.E., Atlanta. 404-872-5338, www.callanwolde.org.
  • The Earl Smith Strand Theatre continues it silent film series, with Carter on the Allen GW4 digital organ ...

"The General," 8 p.m. April 13-14, shown as part of Marietta’s celebration of the Great Locomotive Chase's 150th anniversary.

"The Eagle" starring Rudolph Valentino, 3 p.m. May 20.

Comedy shorts (Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin), 3 p.m. Aug. 26.

Tickets: $10; students, seniors, military, $8.75. 117 N. Park Square, Marietta. 770-293-0080; www.earlsmithstrand.org.

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