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Silent Movies

My mother’s choice of birthday treat was an afternoon outing to the Musical Museum at Brentford ( to see two films starring (and when I say ‘starring’, I should really say written, directed and produced by andstarring), Buster Keaton, accompanied by a 1929 Wurlitzer which was manufactured for a private home in the USA and then spent 30 years in use at the Kingston Regal. I had never experienced the joy of watching the Wurlitzer rise up from the depths of hell before, or to see one demonstrated at close hand. It is of joyful art deco design, with an illuminated console that continuously changes colour.  Designed to take the place of a 27 piece  orchestra, the organ (originally named the Wurlitzer Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra) became known, quite simply, as the Mighty Wurlitzer. Although intended for silent movies, they had their heyday in the 30s, after the arrival of speakies, used to provide musical interludes and to accompany the stage acts that formed part of the cinema programme. Three sets of keyboards, a multitude of sound effects, and foot pedals for the bass clef mean that playing the Wurlitzer is an energeticaffair. Add to that the fact that there was no sheet music in use and the need to keep an eye on the film while improvising both music and sound effects and you begin to understand what an incredible skill it is.

First up was a short film called The Playhouse where Keatonplayed the majority of characters both on stage and in the  audience. Probably my favourite part was to see him take the place of an orang-o-tang after he accidentally set the animal free, but he also made a marvellous tight-lipped woman. Sherlock Jr followed, a story of a young man who is working in a film house while studying to become a detective. He is set up for a crime he didn’t commit by a competitive suitor who is trying to win the affections of Keaton’s girlfriend. Keaton never used stunt doubles and there were no special effects. His camera men were instructed to keep shooting until he yelled ‘cut’ or was killed. The film contains an amazing sequence with the greatest number of near misses I have ever seen when Keaton, travelling on the handlebars of a motorbike, doesn’t realise that his driver has fallen off. We also see Keaton perform a forward dive into a dress and come out dressed as a little old lady. This felt like proper cinema and I was spellbound. Add to the equation a drive through Richmond Park to see this year’s newly hatched deer and tea with carrot cake, and you have yourself a very fine Sunday afternoon. Happy Birthday, Mum.

Jane visited the Musical Museum in Brentford. The next silent movie to be shown at the venue is on 25th September at 3.00pm when Donald MacKenzie will accompany The Hunchback of Notre Dame on the Mighty Wurlitzer.