First Silent Film Festival Kicks Off in Pittsburgh 

by Matthew Benusa

The Pittsburgh Silent Film Society is having their very first silent film festival, and whether you’re a silent film neophyte or a dedicated silent moviegoer, there’s something to watch. The festival runs for a week, starting today and running through next Sunday, October 1, with a variety of films shown at different locations. 

“We chose films that we thought people would come out to see. While a few are more obscure, there are a number of more well-known movies,” said Chad Hunter, a film archivist and director of the Pittsburgh Silent Film Society. 

Row House Cinema in Lawrenceville will show the William Hellman film “Wings,” the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture in 1927. “Wings” is a dramatic pre-code romance packed with wartime action scenes. There are films by some legendary filmmakers, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and a very early entry by Alfred Hitchcock. 

Hunter worked with theaters around the city to develop programming for the festival, saying that each theater knows their audience better than he could. 

“We wanted venues to be successful this year, so we chose a number of films that would be successful for the theaters,” Hunter said.

There will also be live scores played by local artists with the Pittsburgh Area Theater Organ Society and the Pittsburgh Composers Quartet to accompany Keaton’s “Our Hospitality” and the 1920 classic, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” 

“Silent film is an art in and of itself. It’s a marriage of moving picture and sound, preferably with live music. It’s a heightened effect working with a live audience in a theater with live music,” Hunter said. 

Having live musicians in house provides for an authentic and dynamic viewing experience. Other live music accompaniments are featured at Eberle Studios in Homestead, which is showing a series of 16mm experimental pictures directed by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and more, and at The Frick Pittsburgh, which is showing a series of early Shakespeare productions. 

“We really wanted to support local cinemas and musicians so we ended up with seven to eight days of programming. We had a desire to support different artists, and we’d been doing one-off screenings in the past so it was time to make it into a full week,” Hunter said. 

Hunter also mentioned continuing one-off screenings that he’s worked on in the past, and in particular, he’s hoping to work on new restorations, like the new restoration of “The Johnstown Flood.” This restored version of the 1926 film will have it’s Pittsburgh debut at the Harris Theater.

With a series of unique institutions in Pittsburgh that have preserved film history, from 35mm multi-reel celluloid projectors to a Wurlitzer theater organ, Pittsburgh has a unique eco-system for appreciating silent films. 

“Initially, I worried are there enough silent fans to come to these events, but people are turning out and buying tickets,” Hunter said. So far, the experimental showing at Eberle Studios and the screening of Chaplin’s “Safety Last” are already sold out. Don’t fret, though, as there are a number of other screenings with tickets still available. You can visit the Pittsburgh Silent Film Society website to see a full list.

And Hunter says there is more to come. “This is the first year, so I’m not married to a particular formula with it. We may pare things down, and people farther afield can attend.” 

photo, Lili Dagover and Conrad Veigt in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” (1920)