SOMERVILLE, Mass. — We mortals tend not to celebrate our birthdays with 100 days of parties, but leave it to a movie theater with a long and storied history like the Somerville Theatre to orchestrate an extravagant affair featuring rarely screened films, live musical acts, four film festivals, and even a local high school play ("Annie") for its 100th anniversary.
Festivities kick off Jan. 31 with an evening dedicated to the “Queen of the movies,” Mary Pickford. Starting in the silent era with Pickford’s movie “Sparrows” and two of her shorts, the Centennial Series will work its way through the sound era to the blockbuster, spanning genres from Westerns to musicals. If the list of some of the greatest films in history doesn’t get you excited, all shows will be shown the way the Somerville has projected movies for the majority of the last hundred years: on 35mm prints. Both single shows and double features are only $10 a ticket. For ambitious cinephiles, a $300 Centennial Pass will grant you a ticket for every screening.
Following the Mary Pickford program, the next evening will feature the D.W. Griffith drama "Way Down East" starring Lillian Gish, and closes the weekend with the first ever Oscar winner from 1927, William A. Wellman's "Wings," on Sunday afternoon. If you’ve yet to see a “live” silent film, have no fear about sitting awkwardly in the dark with nary a sound in the air. The talented Jeff Rapsis will sit in the front row on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to play live music for the silents. It’s two shows for the price of one.
Alongside the live performances throughout the calendar, the Somerville’s musical heritage will be celebrated on celluloid as well. There’s an Elvis double feature of “Viva Las Vegas” and “Elvis: That’s The Way It Is.” More traditional musical stalwarts “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Meet Me in St. Louis” are on deck after the Fred and Ginger number, “Top Hat.” “Grease” is followed by the dance-centric “Saturday Night Fever,” and you can get your fill of rock documentaries on May 9 with the triple feature of “Gimme Shelter,” “The Last Waltz” and “Stop Making Sense.”
Chief Projectionist David Kornfeld has his eye on a few prints people should trek out to see. He favors the silent features running this weekend but also promises a very good print for Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd." Rarely screened gems "A Thousand Clowns" and "Arabesque" are scheduled later in the series. But what Kornfeld is really excited about are the prized Technicolor prints of "The Wizard of Oz," "Arabesque," "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Klute."
Why is Technicolor so special? It’s the color quality the director envisioned decades ago, not dulled or muddied by the pixelating process of digital. The hues are healthily varied and the highs and lows of saturation paint an entirely different picture than what you might have seen on your TV. I caught the Somerville Theatre's October movie marathon and re-watched the original "Planet of the Apes" for the umpteenth time. The print was in near mint condition, and when brightly projected on the big screen, the movie’s mountainsides were a deeper shade of foreboding red, the crevasses of rocks were crisp, and the dark waters from where our protagonists start their journey filled the auditorium with its navy hue. I was in awe, despite having seen the movie dozens of times before on cable reruns. It was as if I were watching the 1968 film for the first time.
Incidentally, the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation was founded in Boston in 1914, the same year the Somerville Theatre opened, and owes half its name to its Cambridge neighbor, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where co-founder Herbert Kalmus graduated.
But if you’re looking for more screenings to fill your evenings in the coming months, here are a few other highlights to to look out for:
5. “On the Waterfront”/ “A Face in the Crowd” double feature: Timely, yet timeless, March 15 is Elia Kazan’s night for two of his most famous works. Marlon Brando dominates as the brooding young man trying to rise above his environment in “On the Waterfront.” Then Patricia Neal discovers the dark side of the power of the media with Andy Griffith in “A Face in the Crowd.”
4. “Seven Samurai”: March 13. The series is heavily populated by American films, but this entry by Akira Kurosawa is one of the film school staples worth catching. Shown on 35mm, this screening will give audiences the chance to enjoy the iconic black and white cinematography on the big screen.
3. “It Happened One Night”/ “His Girl Friday” double feature: March 30. Frank Capra and Howard Hawks are two of the most influential directors of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Working within the confines of the studio system, they hired some of the biggest stars of the day, like Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell, and Cary Grant. These witty, fast-paced comedies are not to be missed.
2. “Sunset Boulevard”/ “Singin’ in the Rain” double feature: March 9. Yes, we movie lovers tend to like movies about the movies, but Billy Wilder’s scathing “Sunset Boulevard” is filled with cameos of old silent stars and critiques the era of decadence that traps its leading lady played by Gloria Swanson. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s bubbly “Singin’ in the Rain” is a rosy musical look back at the sound revolution of the late 20s. The companion pieces are a testament to both film history and Hollywood’s ruthless business model.
1. “The Wizard of Oz” The grand finale on Sunday May 11 promises to give you a grand old fashioned theater experience with a vaudevillian preshow, short films, and live music. Send the Somerville Theatre off for another 100 years in style (formal wear encouraged) with one of the famed Technicolor prints of this classic film.
Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic and writer based in Boston. You can usually find her outside any of the area’s movie theaters excitedly talking about the film she just saw or on Twitter @mcastimovies.