By Eric Veillette, originally published April 12, 2010
Toronto has a rich past in silent film.
With the inaugural Toronto Silent Film Festival currently underway, it’s safe to say that a healthy silent film renaissance is underway in Toronto the Good. The last year has been rife with various celebrations of silent celluloid: Nuit Blanche, Luminato, the Danforth Music Hall’s 90th anniversary, outdoor screenings during TIFF, the Cinematheque’s various offerings — not to mention the semi-monthly Silent Sundays retrospective I run at the Revue Cinema – have all contributed to an amazing revival of the genre.
For the TSFF, whose programming varies from Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (accompanied by Clark Wilson on Casa Loma’s roaring Wurlitzer!) to a lense-eye view of the urban Metropolis with Berlin: Symphony of a City, the long-term focus is on film preservation. As I wrote in the Toronto Star a few weeks ago, we’re lucky we can appreciate what still exists, since over 80% of the films made during the silent era are now gone.
The Lost Art
In their heydey, there was no after-market for silent films. Once a film ran its initial circuit — playing the large premiere houses like the Loew’s and then working through to the neighbourhood theatres — they were largely forgotten. Unlike today, where a studio picture will play ad nauseum to an empty house for weeks on end, in the 1920s, (unless it was a major hit) the single screen cinemas had something new to present every Monday.
When talkies came around, many of the original negatives and prints were discarded by the studios. Some had to clear space in their vaults or saw more value in the silver nitrate — a hot commodity at the time — than the emulsions themselves; who would want to book a silent film now that every movie-goer wanted them raucous talkies? Also, due to the volatile nature of the nitrate film that was used until the introduction of improved Kodak safety film in the 1940s, many films met a fiery end; some simply disintegrated over time.
While the majority of the films have disappeared, so have most of the theatres in which they played. By the 1920s, Toronto boasted hundreds of theatres, from grand palaces to smaller ‘nabes.
As readers of this blog already know, some of them still exist. The Revue on Roncesvalles has kept the same name since it opened in 1912; the Fox, which originally opened as the ‘Theatre Without A Name’ in 1913; as did the Madison, now the Bloor, which premiered on December 23, 1913 with the Edison Production’s Alexia’s Strategy, now lost. The Regent on Mount Pleasant Ave. was another silent house, one which still retains its original charm, even featuring Clara Bow lobby cards. The Runnymede, now a moth-balled museum of sorts which houses a Chapters bookstore, arrived to the era late, in 1927, and played silents until it converted to sound a few years later.
The big premieres belonged to the grand palaces, which included the Pantages, Uptown and Loew’s on Yonge St.; the Tivoli at Richmond and Victoria Sts. The Loew’s now operates as the Elgin Theatre, a live theatre venue which occasionally screens film. Over the years, stories have surfaced about some rather paranormal happenings — all hearsay of course — but it makes for a great yarn.
Despite the fact that the upstairs Winter Garden was sealed off for sixty years — itself a creepy visual — the true ghosts of the Elgin and Winter Garden theatres are the lost silent films that played there once the lower theatre opened in 1913 until it was wired for sound in 1929.
Most of Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin’s work, which often played there, has survived, as have many of Lon Chaney’s films, but not all; London After Midnight, which premiered at the Loews on Dec 26, 1927, is often regarded as the Holy Grail of all lost films because of Chaney’s iconic vampire character.
But of all the phantom films to have flickered on the silver screens of the Loews and Winter Garden, it has been said that Theda Bara, widely regarded as the screen’s first sex symbol, is perhaps the greatest victim of lost celluloid. Her features were regular attractions at Loews’ flagship Canadian theatre, but a 1937 fire in Fox’s nitrate storage facility in Little Ferry, New Jersey ensured that modern-day audiences would never get to appreciate them (or most other Fox silents, for that matter). Only four of her features exist today: A Fool There Was, The Stain, East Lynne, The Unchastened Woman, and two shorts made for Hal Roach. Approximately 40 seconds of the epic Cleopatra remain preserved at George Eastman House.
In her films, Bara often played seductive vamps. The elusiveness of her films most likely add to her mystique; studio stills often showed her in exotic, risque gowns — which during the silent era weren’t as uncommon as the uninitiated might think – and she never made a sound film, having retired altogether in 1926, without having to succumb to the censorship of the Production Code.
Perhaps some of the lost silents in the graphic above will someday resurface. Recent years have uncovered the Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino feature Beyond The Rocks; a nearly complete print of Metropolis (screened in Berlin last month); and late last year, a random Ebay purchase turned out to be a short Chaplin film which had escaped the history books altogether. But for now, all we know is that the thousands of sequential images that made these films once flickered in the dark auditoriums of Yonge St. theatres.
The top graphic was made using various Theda Bara ads from the Toronto Daily Star, 1914-1921 .
The Madison’s opening night ad ran in the Toronto Star Weekly, Dec. 20, 1913. The building had been in construction for several months, with the original building permit assigned on April 29, 1913.
Eric Veillette is a Toronto-based journalist and film programmer. A regular Arts and Insight contributor to the Toronto Star, he often examines our city’s dearly departed movie houses and how they helped shape much of our urban landscape. In the world of film, he runs Silent Sundays, Creepy Classics and other special events at the Revue Cinema and Fox Theatre and has programmed outdoor silent film retrospectives for TIFF. His musings can be found at SilentToronto.com.