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A stellar event took place at Edenton Street United Methodist Church on the last Friday of July. The occasion was a screening of three great Charles Chaplin silent films in the sanctuary, accompanied by world-class organist Dorothy Papadakos at the Létourneau Op. 112. The event merited at least three cheers, for there were in fact at least three stars – the films, of course, the visiting soloist, and the church’s magnificent organ, surely one of the finest hereabouts. That ESUMC has seen fit to offer ongoing series of free programs featuring this magnificent instrument is yet another example of the music ministry’s consistent outreach to the community.
Although Papadakos is fairly well known in North Carolina, due to her frequent appearances here (and because she is responsible for a musical premiered in Wilmington, her home town, in 2005, too), William J. Weisser, the church’s minister of music, introduced the evening, emphasizing that this opportunity – to see three classic films, accompanied by live music, improvised on the spot, in the manner of the great theatres of the silent era – was not to be missed. A large crowd of spectators, eager and curious, seemed to agree.
Papadakos, done up as a sort of refined Little Tramp, spoke briefly about her affection for Chaplin (whose work has provided a fine living for her!). She noted that the films she shows were sourced from the Chaplin family, in Paris – and indeed the quality of the DVD was for the most part very high. (As a long-time Chaplin fan and collector of his movies – mostly on DVD – I am not absolutely convinced that in every case the speeds were correct – the issue is a frames-per-second conversion factor that, if off even slightly, makes the films look either a shade too fast or a shade too slow…*; but she’s the specialist, so I’ll take her word for the accuracy of these transfers.) There was a technical glitch, apparently with the player, at the start of the third film, but a replacement machine was found fairly quickly; while that change was being made, Papadakos came forward to speak a bit and to take questions from the audience.
The films – the last three of a dozen made in 1917 or so for Mutual Comedy – were “The Cure” (about goings-on at a retreat where the wealthy went to take the “water cure,” although thanks to Chaplin the spring winds up polluted with booze…), “The Immigrant” (one of the master’s most moving films, thanks to its sensitive and poignant portrayal of the challenges of relocating, often penniless, to America…), and “The Adventurer” (a truly ridiculous escaped-con-flirting-with-high-society romp that in many ways reminds one of Keystone Kops flicks…).
Papadakos made the elegant organ sound like one conceived for one of the great theatres, ripping into “The Cure” with a vengeance and never letting up. The music, which varied with changes of scene, must at some point have been improvised, but in no way was the performance unplanned, for these things must be carefully charted, and of course she’s presented these films many times. This in no way diminishes the power of the overall effect, which was considerable. She has world-class organ chops – she was for over a decade the organist of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York – and her improvisatory skills are clearly world-class, too. All that said, what we saw, what we savored, was a triple-play of excellence – classic films and music that seemed totally in keeping with the comedies – and in perfect synch, too – realized on one of the great organs of the southeast. There was no surprise that all the stars of this memorable evening got big ovations at the end!
(For more information about these films, see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0007832/, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0008133/, and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0007613/.)
Edenton Street United Methodist Church will offer ongoing programs on its fine organ in the 2010-11 season. For details, check our calendars as the season begins in September.
*For a discussion of the issue of speed in early films, see http://www.cinemaweb.com/silentfilm/bookshelf/18_car_1.htm.