Classic films to be seen, not heard, in Bath

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BATH — While surround sound now rocks movie theaters, the Chocolate Church Arts Center is taking audiences back to the silence of films that pioneered it all.

The 804 Washington St. arts center hosts “Flicks and Floats,” featuring two films by Buster Keaton, at 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 9.

Jeff Barnhart, a renowned pianist and humorist, will accompany the films on piano, and tell stories about silent films and the process behind them. Ice cream floats will be offered in keeping with the vintage feel. Tickets cost $12 in advance, $15 at the door and $8 for children younger than 12.

The event allows the center to bring back Barnhart, who, with his wife Anne, was featured at the arts center as the musical duo Ivory & Gold. Flicks and Floats will also help Chocolate Church show off recent technological improvements, which include projection and camera capability, Executive Director Jennifer DeChant said May 26.

The silent film era launched in 1895, with movies that had no synchronized recorded sound or spoken dialogue. Storytelling was dependant on title cards and body language from the screen actors, the Chocolate Church noted in a May 8 press release.

The swan song came in 1927, when Al Jolson’s voice crackled out of the speakers in “The Jazz Singer,” heralding the “talkies” era.

Barnhart’s interest in silent movies was born when he was about 5 or 6, and his grandfather took him to a showing of two Charlie Chaplin short films.

“I was already interested in piano, and they put on recordings of ragtime piano during the film,” he said May 24. “I became a huge fan from that day forward and, as I’ve grown older and found the time, have begun a crusade to bring silent film comedy back to a wider audience.”

Asked what relevance silent films retain in a 21st-century society where high-definition graphics and crisp, powerful sound is prized by many, Barnhart said the movies he chooses appeal to people with an interest in history, film’s development as a form of art and social commentary, and early American comedy.

“Quite a lot of what is available on higher end equipment may look good, but will it stand the test of time,” he asked, noting that the films he showcases have been mastered in high quality, weeding out much of the graininess of lower-rung versions.

“Showing silent comedies is a way to bring a community together,” Barnhart added. “Just as with music, the silent film as an art form requires no language. So, I’ve played these films in Switzerland, Rwanda and many other countries where English is not necessarily spoken to great effect as the images are universal.”

In his commentary, Barnhart will briefly discuss silent film’s replacement of vaudeville and burlesque entertainment in theaters, how the accompanying musician had a role in the movie being a success, and the changes that came with the talkies.

The event will be in two segments of approximately 50 minutes each, with a 15-20-minute break in between. Barnhart will show “The Scarecrow” (1920) and “One Week” (1920) in the first half, and “Sherlock, Jr.” (1924) in the second.

He will also talk about disasters that struck during filming, such as “one where Keaton actually fractured his neck during a stunt and did not learn about it until over a decade later when a doctor pointed out the break.”

Barnhart said he hopes the audience will gain “an appreciation of the timeless quality of the best humor, and a better awareness of Buster Keaton and the impacts he had on the film industry … which are still felt today.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Jeff Barnhart, a renowned and humorist, will accompany Buster Keaton silent films on piano, and tell stories about the films, at the Chocolate Church Arts Center’s “Flicks and Floats” event in Bath Friday, June 9.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.