Silent films rich with sound

This scene from “Mabel’s Dramatic Career” (1913) depicts early silent film theaters. (IMAGE: Orange County Archives, Flickr CC).
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The history of movies, like the history of the world, begins with light and shadows. At first, people recreated reality with shadows on the wall. Film made it possible to capture real images. You saw yourself, or your friend, or a famous celebrity, captured during a moment in time. The past reflected into the present on a screen in your hometown. This was mind-blowing to a degree we can no longer comprehend. Film represented a time machine, a portal to another dimension.

Like any new medium it took time for audiences to trust what they were seeing. In 1913 many in old North Hibbing believed that the motion pictures shown at one of five popular theaters might utterly corrupt the youth of the village. The city council even strongly considered hiring a motion picture censor to preview all films shown in town, rejecting those that did not meet the highest standards of decency and taste.

It occurs to me that as a kid I purchased a ticket to “Dumb and Dumber” in the great city of Hibbing. I wonder what the city mothers and fathers would have said about that. Never mind what I saw as an adult when I attended “Borat” here years later, featuring an elaborate chase and wrestling scene between two very nude, very hairy men.

Constitutional arguments aside, there was widespread recognition that motion pictures held a hypnotic power that many feared. Church leaders worried aloud in the Hibbing Daily Tribune and Mesaba Ore that preachers might be replaced by film projectors, spiritually bankrupting the human race.

Walter “W.J.” Power ran the Power Theatre, in 1915 the most splendid opera house on the Iron Range. Power was a former Hibbing village president, older brother to the “Little Giant” Vic Power. As motion pictures came into high demand, the old pioneer lamented the loss of vaudeville, but made creative efforts to combine live features with the new motion pictures.

These early films are now more than 100 years old. If you’re looking for sex, violence and general debauchery within them you will be very disappointed. You would find a lot of racism and sexism but remember that those were hallmarks of decency in the good old days. You might be most struck by the silence. These old films were captioned. You will not hear any foley sound or voices.

That’s why they’re called silent films, but that’s not really what they were. The term “silent film” implies that people sat in hushed reverence as the light flashed before their eyes. In truth these films were presented with rich musical accompaniment performed on instruments played right in front of the audience.

Next weekend you can see what the experience was all about for yourself. That’s when organist Andrew Galuska, a young and well-decorated concert musician and recording artist, comes to town.

You can see Galuska perform the original Barton pipe organ for a presentation of the silent film “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at 7 p.m. this Saturday, Oct. 19, at the Hibbing High School auditorium. This free presentation is made possible by the Hibbing Foundation and Hibbing Community Education.

Even though movies only cost a nickel in the early 1900s, no one then would have hesitated to take in one for free. If you go you’ll get to sit in a time machine, traveling to when sound and pictures mixed at the horizon between past and present. 

NOTE: As some of you might remember I’m writing a book about Victor Power and old Hibbing. I again plead with anyone reading this to share with me any information or family stories about Victor, Walter or Walter’s wife Dottie Power, who ran the Itasca Bazaar, at Good, bad or indifferent, anything you know helps me better understand these historical figures. Perhaps your ancestor and their experiences merit mention the story as well.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 13, 2019 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

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