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Volume 26, Number 2 — February 2019

Silent Film Screening is a Rare Opportunity

"Stark Love," a silent film filmed in 1926 in the remote mountains of Robbinsville, N.C., depicts a rare view of primitive and harsh Appalachian life. The film stars Helen Mundy, left, and Forrest James and features a cast that included dozens of locals. Also to be shown is a preview of "Lost Masterpiece: Karl Brown's "Stark Love,' " a documentary in progress which means the cameras will be rolling during the screening.


*** Published: October 18, 2009 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***

Chances are most people reading this have never seen a silent film.

Chances are greater that not one of you has seen the 1927 silent film "Stark Love."

Now's your chance.

"Stark Love" will enliven a large screen at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tenn., on Oct. 22. The film kicks off and is presented by the Southern Appalachian International Film Festival in addition to East Tennessee State University's Center for Appalachian Studies and Services.

"It's a beautiful film," said Keith Pilky, festival coordinator for the SAIFF.

The world premiere preview of the hour-long documentary "Lost Masterpiece: Karl Brown's "Stark Love' " will accompany the exceedingly rare, nearly 70-minute silent film. A panel discussion of film scholars, including Dr. John White, who wrote and co-produced the documentary, will follow the two films.

" "Stark Love' has never been on video or DVD," White said by phone on Thursday from his home in Atlanta, Ga. "The only way you can see this movie is through a screening like this one, which are rare screenings."

"Stark Love" depicts primitive and harsh Appalachian life and culture of the early 20th century. Filmed for about $50,000 in 1926 on location in the remote western mountains of Graham County's Robbinsville, N.C., the film stars Helen Mundy and Forrest James and features a cast that included dozens of locals.

"Historically, it's an important film in its depiction of Appalachian culture," Pilky said. "The filmmakers took an almost documentary approach."

Directed by Karl Brown and released by Paramount Pictures, "Stark Love" debuted in 1927. Critical acclaim ensued. The New York Times selected it as one of the top 10 best films of 1927.

"The first time I got a chance to see the movie," White said, "... it just blew me away."

Local resident Rex Ward will assist in blowing folks away when "Stark Love" screens at the Paramount. He will provide live musical accompaniment by playing the Paramount's enormous mighty Wurtlitzer theater pipe organ.

To prepare the music, Ward will have seen the movie "15-20 times" by show time.

"It blew my mind that it was filmed in 1926 and first shown in 1927," Ward said. "The movie is intriguing."

The film was screened in February 1927 in Knoxville, Tenn., but evidence is scant as to if "Stark Love" was shown in Bristol. However, Bristol's longtime historian and author V.N. "Bud" Phillips said he believes it likely that the film was shown here.

He named several theaters in existence in Bristol during the era as potential sites inside which the film could have been shown. They included the Columbia Theatre on Fifth Street in Bristol, Tenn., and on the Virginia side, the Isis Theatre at 505 State St. and next door at 503 State St. at the Eagle Theatre.

"They showed silent pictures," Phillips said. "I've heard old timers talk about seeing silent pictures there."

But what were the odds that "Stark Love" was shown in Bristol in 1927?

"I'd say a fairly good chance," Phillips said. "Bristol is a good-sized city. It was a big railroad center."


Shortly after "Stark Love" debuted "talkies," movies made with sound, emerged and thus killed the silent film era. Paramount ordered prints of their silent films destroyed for their silver nitrate content. For decades, "Stark Love" was thought gone forever.

Then, in 1968, a copy turned up in Czechoslovakia. Soon thereafter, the film made its way to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Prints now exist in the Library of Congress and a handful of academic institutions.

"You can only see this movie from a rare screening or if you have a "dee are dot' (Dr.) in front of your name," White said, who years ago befriended Cal James, a son of "Stark Love" co-star Forrest James.
"I can see the movie," White said, "but Cal could not see it and died without having seen this film."

White painstakingly conducted research into "Stark Love."

"He's the man," Pilky said. "He knows that film better than anyone. He's pretty passionate about it."

White located dozens of descendents of people connected with "Stark Love" during the making of his documentary "Lost Masterpiece: Karl Brown's "Stark Love.' " About 25 of them, including co-star Helen Mundy's grandson, will attend the screening at the Paramount.

Many of them will be seeing "Stark Love" for the first time.

"A lot of the descendents are in their 80s," White said. "So this may be their only chance to see the film. I'm real proud of my film. We've got a really beautiful movie."

Bear in mind that White's documentary is not complete, thus the screening at the Paramount is its world premiere preview. Keep an eye out for cameras.

"We will be filming at the movie," White said. "We want to interview people after they have seen "Stark Love' for the first time. We will incorporate it into the finished [documentary] film."

Don't wait for "Stark Love" to appear commercially on DVD. Wait a month, week or day to see it, and you will miss it.

"We make the point in the movie that essentially "Stark Love' is still lost," White said. "You'll get a chance to experience something that you just can't experience every day."

No special effects. No course dialogue. No sound from on screen.

One might imagine that a silent film equals a boring film. Not at all and not in the least, White said.
"You get drawn into the movie and you forget that it's silent," White said. "You will be knocked out."

What: 1927 silent film "Stark Love," documentary "Lost Masterpiece: Karl Brown's "Stark Love' " and a panel discussion
When: Oct. 22, pre-show music by Rex Ward at 6 p.m., films at 6:30 p.m.
Where: Paramount Center for the Arts, 518 State St., Bristol, Tenn.
Admission: Free, though donations of non-perishable food are requested
Info: (423) 274-8920

A! ExtraTopics: Film