Sunday, March 30, 2008

Jason goes to the Niles Film Museum and sees a night of Chic Sales movies

Here I've been running all over the bay area watching movies at different film festivals all over the place, and I've been neglecting my own backyard. Right here in Fremont, in the historic Niles district (site of the Niles Essenay film studio), we have a silent film museum and the only theater in the country that plays silent films every week (Saturdays, 7:30 pm, at the old Edison Theater). I've been meaning to get over and check it out for a while, and I finally did last night.

So they tell me it's unusual for them to do a program devoted to just one performer, but that's exactly what they did yesterday. A program on Charles "Chic" Sale, with three generations of his descendants in attendance.

I'd heard the name before, but didn't really know who Chic Sale was. In a nutshell, he was a vaudeville comedian and "quick-change" artist who was famous for playing many characters on stage and at rotary clubs around the country (more on that later). When he broke into movies, he again capitalized on his talent for playing multiple characters, often playing the majority of the characters in a movie.

Now back to the rotary club. He toured the country as Lem Putt, entertaining rotary club dinners with a detailed description of his specialty. He was a carpenter, specializing in building privies. And this monologue was transcribed in a book called "The Specialist" and a sequel "I'll Tell You Why". The first of these was put on film and was the first film of the night. Chic, as Lem Putt, expounds on the philosophy of design, construction, and maintenance of you basic privy. He brags about the 8-holer he built for a union workhouse, he discusses the merits of inward-swinging doors vs. outward swinging. He even expounds upon the proper paint schemes (red with white trim, or white with red trim, for better visibility at night). Very funny. Oh yeah, this was a "talkie".

We then were treated to a silent showcase of his chameleon talents, as he played all the characters in "The Rural Sunday School Benefit". Not much of a story, just a collection of characters, introduced with the explanation that he did not use facial makeup to play characters from children to the elderly, it's all in his extraordinary face muscles. Pretty talented.

Then we saw perhaps the last sample of Chic Sale on film ever. A screen test where he played a schoolteacher in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer". Another talkie, and he hams it up wonderfully as the prim schoolteacher expounding on the scientific names for the common dandelion, scolding Tom Sawyer for talking to Huckleberry Finn, and drunkenly drawing the Great Lakes and Mississippi River on his birthday (that last one was odd and kinda out of place).

So then we had an intermission, and I got to tour the original projection booth that was used in 1913-1923 (As best I can remember from the talk, it was at least close to those dates), and is used again today. That was freakin' cool! I wanna hand-crank an antique film projector one day!

So then it was time for the main event, "His Nibs". This is another movie with Chic Sale in multiple roles, including a movie-within a movie. Sale plays Theodore Bender (nicknamed, "His Nibs"), an old codger who owns the Slippery Elm nickelodeon theater. He also plays many members of the audience, an uptight censorious newspaper publisher, a lousy singer, the emcee, and even the female piano player. In his theater, he plays "He Fooled Them All", a comedy about scammers, starring...Chic Sale (hey, I thought my generation invented meta-comedy!) A pretty weird movie, with gags like His Nibs didn't like the intertitles of the movie, so he cut them out and shouts out what's happening himself (which, being a silent movie, shows up as intertitles with a picture of him cranking the projector). Or one real falls out of his projection booth and down the street, so he has to have an intermission while he chases it down. Pretty cool.

And that was the night with Chic Sale. Pretty fun, and I think I'll be back to the Saturday night movies in Niles many times.

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