The Brooklyn Public Library’s second-floor lecture room may not seem like the ideal venue for resurrecting Hollywood’s silent screen glories, but to hear Ken Gordon describe it, the space is nothing less than a portal through which contemporary audiences can experience these films the way their first viewers did.
“We’re recreating what the earliest shows would have been like,” Gordon said. “In the original Nickelodeons, there was no projection booth. There was just a piano player to block out the noise of the projector; that’s part of the reason they were used.”
On April 15 and 22, the lecture room will play host to the last two installments of the Silent Screen series, the fifth Brooklyn Public Library collaboration between Gordon, a film curator, and Stuart Oderman, a pianist who has been accompanying silent films since the Eisenhower years.
On April 15, Gordon will screen four short slapstick films, including “Snub” Pollard’s “Sold at Auction!” and Harry Langdon’s “Fiddlesticks.” On April 22, the series will feature Charlie Chaplin’s “The Immigrant” and Anzia Yezierska’s long-lost “Hungry Hearts.”
A filmmaker turned film programmer, Gordon joined the film division of the Brooklyn Museum in the mid-1990s.
“I hated the idea that everyone runs to Manhattan to get culture,” Gordon recalled of his efforts to expand the Museum’s film program. He had his first opportunity to organize a silent film series in 1997. In collaboration with Oderman, whom he had met at the Museum of Modern Art two years earlier, Gordon screened an evening of short comedies.
The feedback was immediate, and gratifying.
“We killed,” Gordon said. “It was the most successful film show in the history of the museum.” Another show, in conjunction with the museum’s first official First Saturday, followed, and screened to a similarly appreciative audience.
Hoping to replicate his success, Gordon approached the Brooklyn Public Library in 2001 about doing a similar series.
“The library had almost no films, and was ripe for culture with a small ‘c,’” he said. “Most institutions are scared of entertainment — it’s seen as low-brow — but silent films are great art. They’re not something off the TV, or made five years ago. They’re pure lost art ... We get families and oldsters.”
The presence of children, he continued, was a large part of what made the films so much fun. “One-third of the experience was watching the movies, and one-third was watching kids watching the movies,” he explained. “And the other third was Stuart Oderman.”
Oderman, the senior silent piano accompanist for MoMA, can trace the beginning of his career to none other than Lillian Gish, whom he met when was 14 years old and skipping school to attend a screening of “Broken Blossoms.” Gish introduced him to her friend Arthur Kleiner, the legendary silent screen pianist, and Oderman found his life-long calling.
If Oderman is one of an increasingly rare breed, so are the films he accompanies. According to Gordon, 80 percent of silent films have been lost, victims of neglect or a lack of historical perspective. The surviving titles tend to belong to studios that keep prints for rental, distribution companies and private collectors. Occasionally, lost silent films surface in attics or basements.
Such was the case of “Hungry Hearts,” which closes this month’s series. Made in 1922, it was re-discovered in 1978 in a house in England. Although some frames are missing, the film is an invaluable chronicle of Jewish immigrant life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Its authenticity is in no small part due to its screenwriter, Anzia Yezierska, whose short stories provided the basis for the film. Yezierska was a Russian-Polish immigrant who left home at 17 to become a writer — and soon went from Hester Street to Hollywood.
When the rights to “Hungry Hearts” were bought by Samuel Goldwyn — himself a Polish Jewish immigrant — Yezierska went was to work on the film. Disgusted by her experiences there, she returned to the Lower East Side to write, only to be denied approval of her film’s final script. The studio, unsurprisingly, had turned Yezierska’s somewhat tragic story into a fairy tale, complete with a happy ending.
But Yezierska got the last laugh — albeit posthumously: the studio’s re-written happy ending are among the missing frames from “Hungry Hearts.”
“It’s Anzia’s revenge,” Gordon said.
“The Silent Screen: April Fools and Hungry Hearts — Family Ties, Slapstick-Wise” will take place at the Brooklyn Public Library’s central branch (on Grand Army Plaza at Eastern Parkway) at 2 pm on April 15. For information call (718) 230-2100 or visit www.brooklynpublicli....