‘Underworld’ transports audience through history

By Erica Yuenger

Entering the Virginia Theatre on Friday afternoon was like going back in time eighty years. The historic atmosphere was not due to just the ornate decoration of the walls and ceiling, the balconies or the red velvet curtain that veiled the movie screen. An organist was playing old-timey tunes as guests arrived and took their seats, and the film shown was a silent, black and white film titled “Underworld”.

“Underworld” was one of the 13 movies Roger Ebert chose to be a part of Ebertfest, the overlooked film festival started by Ebert 10 years ago.

Originally shown in 1927, “Underworld” is known as the first gangster movie that set the stage for later mobster classics such as “Scarface.”

Although the film was silent, the Alloy Orchestra provided live accompaniment. The three members of the orchestra, Terry Donahue, Roger Miller and Ken Winokur, wrote an original score for the movie.

Following the film, a panel discussed the movie and answered questions from the audience. The panel included two members of the Alloy Orchestra, historian Kristen Thompson from the University of Wisconsin, and Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips.

“A score can make or break a film,” Phillips said.

In this case, the score by the Alloy Orchestra made it, Phillips said.

The members of the orchestra said writing the score was a challenge, but something about the film, directed by Josef von Sternberg, made it easy to put music to it.

“The pacing of the film is very musical,” Winokur said. “Either that, or our music is very cinematic.”

Although almost no one in the theatre had seen “Underworld” besides the panelists, the audience received the film very well. As the curtain closed on the screen, there was a standing ovation for the film and the orchestra.

Mira Dahlheim, junior in LAS, and self-acclaimed movie lover, came to see the film for the experience.

“It is awesome that Roger Ebert would want to do something that could liven up Champaign, a place that he loves too, and bring out people from all over the place,” Dahlheim said.

John Nichols came from Little Rock, Ark. to support his son, Jeff Nichols, who directed Shotgun Stories, another film featured in the festival.

Although he said his son’s movie is naturally his favorite, Nichols said he has found himself enjoying the other movies as well. He said he especially enjoyed the cinematography of “Underworld.”

“It was fantastic,” Nichols said. “Each frame was like a piece of art.”