A silent film in the Opera House? That's what we'll have Feb. 9 to 21 when Abel Gance's four-hour epic, "Napoleon," comes to town. The Opera House is the right place for the 1927 film, which is now touring the country under the auspices of Francis Ford Coppola, because the 62-piece orchestra needs a pit to play in.
"Napoleon" never ran commercially in this country in its original form, though MGM did distribute an 80-minute version in the 1930s. The picture's length was a problem, and it came on the scene silently at the worst possible moment, just as talking pictures were being born. The original print was lost, but has been largely reconstituted by Kevin Brownlow, an English film historian, from various partial prints that he tracked down in a worldwide search. Coppola, enthusiastic about the result, commissioned music from his father, composer Carmine Coppola, who is now touring with the film as conductor. Arthur Honnegger composed a score for "Napoleon's" long-ago premiere in Paris, but that music has been lost except for a few fragments.
Unlike most films, which can be shown everywhere simultaneously, this one can play only in one city at a time because of its musical requirements. There has been talk about setting up a second touring company with another conductor, and it has been tried experimentally, but the presence of Coppola pe re conducting his "soundtrack" seems to be a substantial part of the show's attraction.
Audiences have been enthusiastic in Chicago and Los Angeles, where the show had to be held over, and its success is complicating life for organist Dennis James, a virtuoso of the theater pipe organ, who is traveling with it. Reached recently at his home in Ohio, James lamented that the film is complicating his career as a concert artist. "I had a full concert season booked when they hired me," he said, "and I've had to shuffle all my solo concerts around. This is the first time I've been home since September."