From Rio to Reading: the art of the silent movie prologue

It’s an article of faith in these parts that silent cinema is live cinema. We’re talking about the magic of live musical accompaniment, for the most part, but also, if we go right back to the early film period, narration, as well as the timing and skill involved in the projectionist changing reels, and perhaps the odd audience member reading the intertitles out loud.

There’s more discover in this vein though, and a project at the University of Reading aims to revive the art of the movie prologue. Not just any silent movie prologues, but Brazilian silent movie prologues. It’s an international project then, part of a wider quest to explore intermediality in Brazilian cinema, and connecting Reading to Rio de Janeiro, specifically that stretch of the coast that was once known as Cinelandia, because there were so many cinemas there.

The prologues are short dramatic scenes, to be performed live in the cinema before the film screens and would always be thematically linked to the picture. Film prologues were performed in the UK during the silent era as well as elsewhere around the world. You may have see the film Footlight Parade (1933) in which James Cagney plays an out-of-work Broadway director who begins creating ever more elaborate prologues for film screenings.

The point of this post however, is to let you know that you can watch a couple of silent movie prologues, next month in Reading. Students from the Department of Film, Theatre and Television at the University of reading will revive a silent-era tradition in front of your very eyes. The two prologues are the ones previously revived in Rio and are designed to precede Beggar on Horseback (James Cruze, 1925), of which only a fragment appears to survive today, and Go West (Buster Keaton, 1925). The prologues have names too: Doing it the Pirandello Way and The Stylised Cowboy, respectively. And they will be followed by screenings of the films concerned (just a fragment in the case of Beggar on Horseback) so you will be able to see how the prologue and the film speak to each other.

This is a rare chance to experience an aspect of silent film exhibition that we don’t encounter very often, so if you can get to Reading, do go along and support the project. I am sure the organisers would like to know what you make of the prologues afterwards too. Here’s a glimpse of the audience reaction in São Paulo.

  • The Brazilian Silent Movie Prologues will be performed at the Minghella Studios, University of Reading, on 6 and 7 December 2018. For more information and to book visit the website. Tickets cost £8 each and £5 for concessions.
  • Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
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