Silent films weren’t actually silent. True, the acetate didn’t have sound attached, but even in the smallest of cinemas, someone banged along on a pianny. That’s why the free upcoming screening of Harold Lloyd’s 1923 comedy classic Safety Last! at the Granada Theatre is a must-see: You know that image of a guy hanging from a clock face high above the roadway? That started here. Even better, it’s getting accompanied live by noted pianist Michael Mortilla on a concert grand. “There’s an elevator, but if I’m going to make a grand entrance playing up from the bowels of hell, I don’t know,” Mortilla joked during a recent phone call.
“They’re inaugurating the most advanced technology we can have in a theater to date [a 4K digital projector], and to do it they’re going to project one of the oldest films,” Mortilla says. “It’s a very bold and brave move on the part of Roman Baratiak, associate director of UCSB Arts & Lectures. But it’s free, so it might help build an audience for not just silent films but old black-and-white films. There’s a gold mine there.”
Mortilla knows of what he speaks — he’s one of the foremost accompanists of silent cinema, working regularly with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles for events. Previously he’d worked as the composer for the Martha Graham Dance Company, and for over a decade he was the resident composer for UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Theater and Dance.
Just this summer, Mortilla accompanied Safety Last! for Oscars Outdoors in L.A. “When I played for the Academy, it was outside, and there was traffic going by and food trucks, and I had just my electric piano,” he recalled. “There were probably 400 at the Academy screening, while in Santa Barbara we’re hoping to get close to 1,500. You can play off the audience to a certain degree.”
He does completely improvise, continuously, for the full 67 minutes of the film. “I don’t know what I’m going to play. I can’t tell you the key I’m going to start in,” he asserts. “It keeps it fresh for me, but it also keeps it dangerous.” But not too dangerous for the kids: “I absolutely love when you hear a 4- or 5-year-old kid laughing at a 90-year-old film. They get it. There’s the connect you need, a line from history to the future.”
When all of Harold Lloyd’s misadventures and scarifying scrapes conclude and the audience claps, Mortilla says, “I like to think I can accept the applause, but I’m 10 percent of that. The audience’s appreciation is that we were able to pull this thing off.”
Enjoy a free and far-from-silent screening of Safety Last! with live piano accompaniment by Michael Mortilla at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Sunday, January 19, at 3 p.m. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.