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Sunday
Jan232011

Silent Usher

Last Friday's Edgar Poe/Ben Franklin birthday celebration was an outstanding event.  Edgar and Ben greeted the crowd as we arrived in the Underground Franklin Museum, then we all headed into the auditorium for a real treat, a screening of a 1928 silent film version of "The Fall of the House of Usher", accompanied by Carolinn Skyler on the glass armonica, an instrument invented by Franklin. 

I thought I had already seen "La chute de la maison Usher," but as it unfolded, I realized I had only seen stills of it.  The title cards in the film were in French, so Edgar translated them to the crowd as they appeared.  Directed by Jean Epstein (with Luis Buñuel as an assistant), the film is gorgeously haunting, grim and surreal.  The plot is a combination of "Usher" and "The Oval Portrait." 

Madeleine is Roderick's wife and as he paints her portrait, she wastes away.  I wonder if Orson Welles had seen this movie, as the cavernous, sparsely furnished halls of the house look a lot like Kane's haunted Xanadu.  Roderick and Madeleine wander the halls in their lonely desolation, until finally Madeleine collapses (beautifully rendered in slow motion) and is buried (alive, of course) by Roderick.  There are lots of little touches that reference other Poe stories: "The Black Cat," "Valdemar," "Pit and the Pendulum."  You could probably make a case for several of the poems, as well. 

Skyler's accompanying armonica was the perfect instrument for this strange, beautiful film.  The  armonica makes a kind of ghostly wailing tone.  Here's Thomas Bloch playing some Mozart on one and here's Skyler (in colonial costume) performing.

You can download or watch the film at the Internet Archive, although that copy is a bit blurry and the musical score is dreadful (just mute it). 

Combining Philadelphia's two greatest writers was enlightening.  Franklin's life and works represent the American Dream come true and Poe's, the Nightmare.  Inventors both, they also represent the hard-working genius of the American artist.  And the silent film masterpiece was a unique touch to the evening.  All in all, this was a great Philly Poe event and I look forward to many more. 

The event was so great that even Baltimore Poe Czar Jeff Jerome cam to see it.

(All photographs by Herb Moscovitz.)

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