CHAMPAIGN – "Silent" and "symphony orchestra" don't often go together, but for "Sadie Thompson," Friday's opening movie at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, the coexistence was bliss.
"This is a rare opportunity for an orchestra and a 35mm film ... as it's supposed to be," festival panelist and film scholar Kristen Thompson said.
The 1928 film, starring Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore, centers around a "scarlet woman" who leaves San Francisco seeking a new life (and a way out of a prison sentence) and ends up stuck on the island of Pago-Pago, where the boys in the U.S. Marines are friendly, the Christian reformer who controls the island is anything but, and it just can't stop raining.
The film, scholar and festival panelist David Bordwell said, illustrates an "irresistible clash of debauchery and righteousness."
As the characters use expressive faces and expansive gestures to show love, vengeance, humor and anger – interspersed with occasional dialogue cards – the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra joined them, playing a score by Joseph Turrin.
The film, part over-the-top romantic and part dark and sad, came near the end of the silent movie era, "a mature accomplishment of American silent film," said Michael Phillips, a critic for the Chicago Tribune and a panelist who joined the post-movie discussion.
Only somewhat restored, the film itself showed its age with glints of light sometimes replacing actors onscreen and photos spliced together where the last reel could not be recovered.
Despite the flaws, the movie won fans.
"I liked it a lot, and I actually didn't expect to," said Vera Ward of Chicago. "The dialogue was a riot."
Her friend, Pam Fernandez of Urbana, said the two have been coming to Ebertfest "since the beginning, when there was nobody here."
Turrin joined Phillips onstage, commenting that his late-'80s score "is the first piece I've ever written that was 92 minutes long.
"I thought of it as a narrating, a musical narration."
Steve Larsen, who conducted the orchestra as they brought Turrin's score to life, said conducting such a long piece was also a first. He watched the movie as it played above his head while he led the musicians, trying to keep the pace exact to the film.
"If we screw up, (the movie) ain't gonna stop," he said. "Sometimes we got behind, sometimes we got ahead, but we finished, anyway."
Larson said the orchestra had three practices, and their first – and only – time practicing alongside the movie happened the morning of the show.
"I'm anxious to do it again," he said, "but not today."
For people attending "Sadie Thompson," Ebertfest has helped them make friends and learn about the history of film.
Micki Hallam of Champaign celebrated her birthday Friday and has been to every Ebertfest show since the festival began nine years ago. For her, the silent movie has helped educate her about that era of film.
"For me anyway, I wasn't very exposed to it before coming to this festival," she said.
Champaign film teacher Stacey Gross gets professional development at the festival and likes that a silent film is included in each year's selections.
"It really is a genre that doesn't get its due respect," she said. "You just have to be really open to it."
Paul Knight of Princeton, N.J., bonded with friends he made last year during his first time at Ebertfest.
"I tend to be a little introverted, and I made a point of ... saying hello," he said.
But no matter other reasons for arrival, everything came back to the man on the marquee.
Ward and Fernandez missed Ebert's in-jokes and references to previous years' films, as well as his knowledge and joy of movies, though they felt that people like Ebert's wife, Chaz, had done very well subbing for him.
"This is a very different festival," Fernandez said. "He is what we come to see as well."
Said Hallam: "Nobody's quite Roger."