Football And Fun At Duck Soup’s 31st Annual Inaugural Event

For 31 seasons, Madison, Wisconsin’s Overture Center for the Arts (formerly Madison Civic Center) has offered 2 – 5 showings per year of silent movies in its historic Capitol Theater (formerly Oscar Mayer Theater, rededicated in 2005 under its original 1928 venue name) as accompanied on the theater’s Grand Barton Organ, one of the last theater organs of its kind in the country. Originally known, from 1986 to 1998, as Sounds of Silents, the series was renamed Duck Soup Cinema in 1999, and has since incorporated live vaudeville-style performance along with the live organ-accompanied movie. Recreating the movie theatrical experience of 90 years ago, Duck Soup Cinema is now one of the longest-running, continuous silent movie series in the Midwest. Duck Soup Diary is my attempt to both document and advertise this fun and unique combination of live performance and historical revival.

Historical photo of Madison’s Capitol Theater, showing Harold Lloyd’s “first all talking laugh riot” WELCOME DANGER! (1929).

Two showings of Harold Lloyd’s most popular feature The Freshman (1925) opened the 2017-18 season of Duck Soup Cinema at 2 PM and 7 PM on Saturday, October 7th. Attending the 2 PM show, football season officially kicked off in the Capitol Theater with the popular silent comedian’s ode to “large football stadium[s] with a college attached”. The city of Madison, its centrally-located University of Wisconsin, and the fall season frequently invite such comparisons, so the 92-year-old jibe at college towns across the country hit with belly-busting force equal to body damage sustained by underdog hero Harold Lamb when used later in the film as substitute for a straw tackle dummy. Though there’s not a single scene set in a classroom, Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman continues to reverberate for audiences familiar with the customs, crazes, and culture of college-going.

Captiol Theater interior

The college football theme found advantageous reflection both in the pre-show musical selections of Grand Barton organist Jelani Eddington and the jokes, puns, and patter of co-hosts Joe Thompson and Fletcher Keyes. Continuing that theme, the energetic young cloggers of Gotta Dance Academy stomped their way through dance celebrations of Monday Night Football and the NFL, while singer-songwriter Andy Austin set a mellower tone risen to a slightly higher pitch by 13-year-old Elijah Edwards’ impressive vocal range and infectious R&B inflections.

theater ushers at Madison’s Capitol Theater, 1931

Wandering at will through the Capitol lobby after the pre-show intermission, Jim “Doc the Rube” Carter quick-twisted some impressive balloon animals for some equally impressed kids, providing some corner-of-the-eye amusement for older lookers-on contemplating the lobby’s ornate furnishings and historical photos. (My favorite of the latter: a 5-person crew moving the massive Grand Barton Organ circa 1980.) Alas, one’s luck continues to fail every number combination of the mid-show raffle drawing – which included theater-sponsored tickets and assorted goodies from local businesses – but a movie-lover’s heart is soon lifted, fortunately, by the raising of the curtain, the roar of the organ, and the stream of projected light through a pristine 35mm print of Harold Lloyd’s career-masterpiece, The Freshman.

photo credit: DVDBeaver

From its earliest scenes invoking the romance and ridiculousness of 1920s college attendance – with a sweater and beanie-wearing Harold Lamb (Lloyd) practicing “college yells and songs” through a megaphone – Duck Soup Cinema’s flawless showing of the great silent classic captured the matinee audience’s attention with a time-tested effect proven by the film’s opening intertitle reminding us, nearly a century later, of “those boyhood days when going to college was greater than going to Congress”. And yes, one further doubts that very few of the laughing attendees would argue with the preference of the film’s young hero to “rather be Right Tackle than President”.

photo credit: DVDBeaver

Since 1922’s Grandma’s Boy, Harold Lloyd had increasingly distanced himself from the gag-driven story-lines of the countless two-reelers that had made him one of the country’s top box-office draws towards a more plot-nuanced and character-based refinement of both his comedy style and glasses-wearing, nebbish screen persona. With Doctor Jack (1922), Safety Last!, Why Worry? (both 1923), and especially Girl Shy and Hot Water (both 1924), one can clearly see the development in Harold Lloyd’s comedies that resulted in the mastery of comedic pacing, character, and plot in The Freshman.

photo credit: DVDBeaver

And with collaborators Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, credited as co-directors, along with a team of writers that included future Lloyd director Ted Wilde (1927’s Kid Brother and 1928’s Speedy), the romantic travails and comic pursuit of campus popularity are as keenly felt for an appreciative audience as they are gaspingly hilarious. Whether meeting-cute with winsome leading lady Jobyna Ralston (as boarding-room girl Peggy) aboard the dining car of the college-bound train, bonding over innocently suggestive clues to the then emerging national fad of crossword puzzles, or forced to make an impromptu speech to the entire campus body, the curtain drawing on-stage to reveal poor Harold Lamb perched on a pedestal with several impossibly cute kittens tearing through his sweater, the comedy’s build-up to climactic gridiron glory contains as many forceful impacts as spontaneous laughs derived from Lloyd’s quick-sped and under-cranked, hand-shaking jig and flourish. (The latter, once seen, is certainly never forgotten.)

photo credit: DVDBeaver

Organist Jelani Eddington’s wonderful original score for the film marvelously rose to the comic variety of the material, with its rousing football finish, where Harold leads Tate University to an improbable 6 – 3 victory in the Big College game, practically having the matinee audience on its feet, but a close listener would like to reserve the most fulsome praise for his masterful rendering of the film’s comic centerpiece, in which Harold attempts to host a wild “Fall Frolic” dance while his cheap suit literally falls apart in its loose stitching. Capturing the embarrassment of the situation through quick, sound effects-driven musical cues, courtesy of the Grand Barton’s toy counter, even as the failing suit’s fainting tailor vainly attempts to sew yet another unraveling seam around corners and between passageways, Eddington’s vigorous and infectious fox trot melody all the while musically conveys the Jazz Age with the immediacy of hip flasks, fur coats, and draped evening gowns. Reminding this viewer that the silents were never really “silent”, a great musical score such as that delivered on the Capitol Theater’s Grand Barton really adds to and reinforces the comic zip of the visual material.

Finally, though this viewer has again seen Harold Lloyd’s films multiple times on various home video formats, this was the first time viewing The Freshman in a theater with an audience. And of course this is the way the silent film is meant to be seen. Lloyd famously introduced the test screening before his comedies reached wide release – some sources, including film historian Richard W. Bann, claiming the filmmaker would sit in back of the audience with a stop-watch to tally the number of laughs his films were getting per minute – and the more scientific approach to spectators’ collective enjoyment is readily apparent when, say, the gruff football coach (Pat Harmon) himself dances Harold’s little jig in the film’s final moments. As perfectly set by Jelani Eddington’s octave-lower musical prompt, the moment not only earned possibly the matinee audience’s biggest laugh, but also thematically drives the point home that our college outsider has finally gained real acceptance from his peers. Mixing hilarity with total audience identification, Duck Soup Cinema’s big screen and bigger organ presentation of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman once again reminded a downtown Madison audience of those halcyon days of thrills and laughter from 90 years before.

Duck Soup Cinema will return with a special evening showing of the pioneering aviation and African American production The Flying Ace (1926), again accompanied by organist Jelani Eddington on the Capitol Theater’s Grand Barton, on Saturday, November 4th at 7 PM.