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Silky & Charlie

Lady Sylvia Ashley dancing with Charlie Chaplin in NYC, 1944

It seems everywhere I turn I bump into Silky. Last week was the first of the UCSB Arts & Lectures free movie screenings in the sunken gardens of the Santa Barbara courthouse. Each year the films have a theme and this time it’s Silent Comedies. My Friday nights from now through August will be spent with Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.

My friend’s pre-teen daughter loves to perform. While I attempted to convince her to attend next week’s screening, I heard myself speak a truth I didn’t consciously realize I understood: that silent films provide an amazing lession in acting. I’d always considered them melodramatic and silly, outdated. But last week, it was a revelation to watch scenes build and climax with no dialogue, only the occasional printed lines. The expressions on the actor’s faces, the gestures and body language, the physicality of it was phenomenal. They were able to tell a complete story without language! As a writer, the written word is my currency and my comfort (as well as my torture and pain) but here were fully developed characters and scenarios being told with only the face and body, props and costumes. It was positively delightful.

Chaplin, Keaton & Lloyd were not only talented comedians, they were pioneers, adventurers discovering new realms in entertainment and storytelling. In equally original approaches, colleagues Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, Rudolph Valentino and Louis Brooks were among the first storytellers of the burgeoning motion pictures.

I have a new appreciation for these inventive performers and a new love of silent films. Chaplin is legend and I’ve always been partial to Buster Keaton, but after watching The Freshman, I have a new admiration for Harold Lloyd’s work. I’d only known about him through Silky until now. He and his wife Mildred were one of three couples on the night in 1931 when Sylvia and Fairbanks were paired to attend the ballet in London. It may have been the beginning of the end for ‘America’s Sweethearts’ but it was the dazzling start of Sylvia’s greatest romance.