Send in the clowns

Chautauqua Summer Silent Series returns with plenty of laughs

'College' with Buster Keaton

Another summer is upon us, and that means it’s time for another season of silent film at Chautauqua.

For those unfamiliar with the silent era, a quick primer: Movies didn’t always talk. True, we now call them silent movies, but they were never silent. Always accompanied by music — often in the form of improvisational piano — these films were free from the tyranny of spoken language. Their language was a universal one: images. And because of that, they were loved all over the world and by every walk of life. Millions across the globe saw the faces of Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, and claimed them as their own.

All movies have the remarkable ability to transport us back in time but silent cinema, in particular, has the ability to transport us to a magical time. Not a simpler time, but maybe a more comforting one. One where the pictures didn’t talk, they danced.

And with live music and Chautauqua’s barn-like auditorium, the 32nd summer of silents is just the place you’ll want to be. From swashbuckling action with Douglas Fairbanks, The Three Musketeers (June 28), to the famous house at 221B Baker Street with Sherlock Holmes (August 9), to a classic piece of American literature, The Scarlet Letter (July 26), there are plenty of discoveries awaiting moviegoers this summer.

‘The Idle Class’ with Charlie Chaplin

The greatest discoveries always seem to belong to the clowns, particularly the three silent comedians whose stars burn eternal: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

None burned brighter than Charlie Chaplin and his Little Tramp character — at one time the most recognized figure in the world. The Tramp was always poor in wealth but rich in life, making him a character loved by the poorest of the poor, the richest of the rich and everyone in between.

The three shorts featured on Chautauqua’s Charlie Chaplin Comedy Night (July 5) all come from the comedian’s least prolific but most refined period. With the Little Tramp achieving iconic status, Chaplin was afforded the luxury to refine his style by adding healthy dollops of pathos to the comedy. The results catapulted Chaplin not just to comedic legend but top-tier filmmaker as well.

This is evident in the films featured on Chautauqua’s program, especially 1918’s Shoulder Arms with the Tramp finding himself as a hero, or the clown, in the trenches of World War I. Also featured are 1921’s The Idle Class, with Chaplin playing a dual role of the Tramp and a rich drunk, and 1922’s Pay Day, with Chaplin trying to finance his wife and fund a night in the bar.

All three of these shorts show that a good story should be no longer or shorter than necessary, and none of these films feel bloated or exhausted. They are exactly as they should be, as are the two films featured on Harold Lloyd Comedy Night (July 19): 1922’s Grandma’s Boy and 1921’s A Sailor-Made Man.

‘A Sailor-Made Man’ with Harold Lloyd

Though history has often pitted Chaplin’s Tramp against Buster Keaton’s Great Stone Face in a battle for silent supremacy, it was actually Harold Lloyd’s popular Glasses character that gave Chaplin his only real box office contention. Both Chaplin and Lloyd are similar in their use of comedic gags to develop character, while also mining their well-known characters for laughs. But due to a lack of available prints in circulation during the mid-to-late 20th century, Lloyd’s star dimmed in the shuffle of cinema history. Thankfully, Lloyd’s films have been restored to their proper glory and are in regular rotation at places like Chautauqua, where crowds can once again experience their excitement, hilarity and invention.

But no series of silents is ever complete without Keaton, and Chautauqua has a double-dose programmed this summer: 1929’s Spite Marriage (Aug. 2) and 1927’s College (Aug. 17). Both movies were made during the advent of sound (Keaton actually wanted Spite Marriage to be his first talkie) and to compete with the latest craze in moviegoing, Keaton ups the physicality of his gags, proving that the true power of cinema is the ability to show, not tell.

While the summer cinema scene has no shortage of whiz-bang effects, dazzling lights and sounds, and plenty of bombast, few movies at the multiplex have the level of visual storytelling that these silents bring to the table. Audiences of all ages have been enjoying them for generations. It’s a tradition worth passing down.

On the Bill: Chautauqua’s 32nd Silent Film Series. 900 Baseline Road, Boulder, 303-441-3440. For full schedule, visit


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