I have much to learn about the history of Seattle and habitation of the area prior to the arrival of pioneer settlers in 1851, but one thing is that evident just walking around the city is that for the wealthy in the early 1900s it must have been an exciting place to be. Unaware of the depression that would hit in the 1930s, and boyant with the exuberance of hosting the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition international fair it was a time of enormous city development. Although Seattle was already building a reputation for radicalism, as the ship builders started off what turned in to a general strike in 1919, the longest such strike in American history. What a great time architecturally for a city to be growing up. Whilst too many of the beautiful art deco buildings are well gone it is still completely evident as you walk the streets and see both commercial and residential buildings of the time that this was a boom period in Seattle – which interestingly has a history of booms and busts.
In amongst of all of this movie palaces were key entertainment sites, with Seattle having more than 50. 1928 saw Paramount Pictures building their own – The Paramount, on the edge of the then entertainment area in the city. To make up for its location the building shone with an opulence and grandeur the city had not seen before – the cinema’s website recounts the Seattle Times reporting:
“Never has such a magnificent cathedral of entertainment been given over to the public. Indescribable beauty! Incomparable art! The stage productions will be of the most lavish design, brilliant in their lighting effects and gorgeous in their settings.”
It is still gorgeous in its faded glory, and very exciting to be in. Especially when it is to see films also created in that period – silents accompanied by a skilled performer on the theatre’s original Wurlitizer Theatre Pipe Organ. It is so tempting to don a flapper dress and start dancing… The place is fantastic – mostly thanks to Ida Cole an ex Microsoft Chief Exec (their first female Vice President) who invested much time and $30 million in its restoration and updating. The history is well covered in this great write up, which includes some wonderful memories of Seattle residents. There are free tours of the building the first Saturday of every month – I’m really keen to sign up for one (perhaps that is when I get to wear the frock???).
The theatre is run by Seattle Theatre Group (STG) and their annual programme includes a winter season of ‘Silent Movie Mondays.’ You won’t be surprised to hear that we have tickets for all four (there are three more in June that I’m already excited about). We are half way through, having seen the 1927 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and 1929 Pandora’s Box. This season STG have invited curation from a number of Seattle film community sources.
Sunrise was selected by house organist Jim Riggs. I hadn’t seen it before and loved it. In introducing it film critic Robert Horton spoke of its poetic, lyric, expressionistic and sometimes dreamlike qualities. Jim also highlighted the advanced cinematography for the time – there were certainly plenty of daring and delightful film techniques. He also spoke of the colour in the shades of grey – I think this is one of the many things that draws me to these films, given my practice in Japanese Zen calligraphy where again grey is the only ‘colour’ and is able to represent so much variation and colour.
This week we saw Pandora’s Box, selected by Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) linking with their current Women in Cinema Festival. The 1920s didn’t see women with significant roles making films, but in front of the camera they were central. Louise Brooks who stars is seen as helping to create the whole flapper girl movement, along with the reputation that went along with it – Beth Barrett from SIFF described her as living a very “active” life!! Her career was significant but short, she never moved in to talking movies and remains a true silent era star. Interestingly, she left Hollywood for the East Coast and reinvented herself in later life as a film critic, writer and film historian. In Pandora’s Box she is able to compel men with a single look, and the cloud of tragedy which follows her captures and destroys them. Googling afterwards I learnt that Pandora’s Box includes probably the first explicitly lesbian character in film, Alice Walters wonderfully playing the Countess Geschwitz. At the time she was cut out of many releases in many counties by censors though – although so were a number of other scenes. It is an altogether very risqué take on relationships for the 1920s society, hetro-sexual ones included.
Next Monday we get to see the 1924 Peter Pan – this will be accompanied by both organ and harp, how wonderful. Jim Riggs being joined by Leslie McMichael. Selected by Northwest Film Forum, link it with their internationally famous Children’s Film Festival. The season ends with The General (1926) a Buster Keaton classic chosen by The Paramount’s long time film projectionist Mile McRae. It contains the most expensive stunt of the silent era in its portrayal of a train on a burning bridge. Shot in Oregon, remains of the train and track can still be seen in Row River when the water is low!
The series is called Adored and Restored – it so fantastic that we can still see these movies, many more are long or more recently lost. It is estimated that only 14% of the films made between 1912 -1930 remain in their original format. In the USA the National Film Preservation Foundation is core to keeping these films alive, but many other bodies are helping – including The Film Foundation founded by Martin Scorese.
I am deeply grateful to STG for enabling me to see them here in Seattle, in the the most appropriate setting I could imagine. From arriving in the grand foyer – taking your seat accompanied by pre-feature organ music – munching through the free bags of pop-corn, peanut cups and other sugar hits from sponsors Trader Joe’s – to the audience applause at the end – it is just magical. Oh and talking of magic – we are paying $8 (£4.85) for each ticket. You have to love Seattle.
Now – back to looking for that frock…