Chapel Hosts Annual Silent-Film Screening

Silent-film accompanist Michael Britt returned to Princeton for an Oct. 11 performance. Britt first played at the University Chapel in 2005, when he accompanied the silent version of Phantom of the Opera. Since then, his organ accompaniment has become an annual event.

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A publicity still from the 1923 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (Photo: MGM Studios/Wikipedia)

Many of the Chapel’s pews were occupied as an audience of about 50 came to hear the organist perform for this year’s film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in a pitch-black setting. The lack of light perfectly complemented the absence of sound, creating an environment suited for introversion and reflection. Britt took full advantage of the Chapel’s rich acoustics, creating a powerful emotional journey throughout the film.

The organ and the silent film’s intertitles brought the audience back to another era, one in which the narrative was dictated by music, not spoken dialogue. Together, they guided the narrative and triggered suspense, tragedy, and comic relief. The event offered a return to the fundamentals of storytelling and an escape from flashy Hollywood gimmicks.

Britt, whose interest in silent film came from his grandmother, played for an hour and 47 minutes. At the end of the performance, he received a well-deserved standing ovation from students, parents, faculty, and others.

“It’s a labor of love,” Britt said of playing the extensive scores. “You have to lose yourself in the film, and not think about what you’re doing, because then that’s when you get tired.”

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