An Open Love Letter to
I still remember the night we first met. I was 21; you were dead. In spite of our differences, it was love at first sight.
It was February 1977, at a revival of your films at the Art Institute of Chicago. The first time I saw you struggling up the side of a building in Feet First, you seemed so familiar that I was struck with a rush of deja-vu. There was something about your mild-mannered voice, straw boater, summer suit, glasses, that struck a chord of memory.
Oh, I’d seen you from afar before. Like everybody else, I knew you as a man forever frozen in time – literally – clinging to the hands of a clock face far above a manic 1920s Los Angeles. I knew you from pictures in books of the era, but nothing more. You were just another icon, like FDR and his cigarette holder, Betty Grable’s gams, Marilyn with her skirt blowing up – a relic of another time.
But still pictures don’t show who you really are. That night in the darkened theater, when I saw the icon move, speak, smile – ah, the smile! – I fell back under a long-forgotten spell. It’s no exaggeration to say I fell in love with you. And who wouldn’t? Your face, your stance, your speed – you were always a fast worker! – all showed such a skillful blend of self-assurance and vulnerability. And to me, you were physically beautiful, too, with your athlete’s body constantly in motion, your thatch of black hair, your expressive eyes that could go from dejected to delighted in a blink, and that vulnerable mouth. No woman with a heart could resist your sincerity.
I became a woman possessed. I searched the alternative newspapers for screenings of your films, and ran out to meet you wherever you were. And I waited and waited, weeks, months, sometimes years between our meetings. Gradually, I saw you in virtually all your silent features, and my passion for you really began in earnest.
We were forced to rendevous at some strange places: obscure community colleges, dumpy revival houses, midnight shows in auditoriums filled with noisy college kids more accustomed to Pink Flamingos than silent comedy. Sometimes there was only rudimentary music that didn’t match the action on the screen; in a few cases, there was none. In those days before VCRs, DVDs and home entertainment centers, this was the only way to see you.
It didn’t matter. In my mind, I committed every movie to my own internal film, playing over and over in my fevered brain. Your cheeky, insouciant grin in Speedy, when the traffic cop pulls you over and asks you where you learned to drive, and you grin, “I didn’t – it’s a gift.” The magnificent moment in Girl Shy as you hang from the overhead electrical pole of the streetcar, legs dangling, swinging out over the traffic as gracefully as a finish-line flag. Your delicate courtship of sweet Joby Ralston in The Kid Brother as you climb the tree to watch her walk up that hill.
You made me feel for you – when everyone laughed at your awkward attempts to fit into college in The Freshman, when the office girls laughed at you in Girl Shy, when you couldn’t keep a job to save your life in Speedy. It made the victory that followed that much sweeter.
I could never love a man who couldn’t make me laugh, and you always did that. But more than that, your characters made me root for you, anxious to see you succeed, no matter how insurmountable the odds might seem. You personified humankind’s basic spark of life – the will to carry on.
I guess it’s only appropriate that technology like the Internet and home entertainment should be giving you a new life. After all, in your movies and your life, you always loved the latest bells and whistles. You’d be the first to understand and appreciate how technology like cyberspace, cable TV and home video is flashing your cheerful smile to generations who are totally unfamiliar with you, as well as old lovers like me. In other words, the world is beginning to catch up with you again.
Welcome back, Sweetheart.
* * *