Serge Bromberg Films Review - A One Night Treat at Music Box Theatre

Serge Bromberg’s infectious enthusiasm was as much an accompaniment as his piano playing to the dozen plus films and film excerpts he introduced Saturday night, June 6th in his happy return to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. His show, “Retour des flammes”, (Return from the flames) consisted of a dozen short films and film clips, most in black and white, and all silent, culled from his 20,000 piece repository at Lobster Films, Paris.


Serge at the Piano


Bromberg has been working with film almost all of his life, and founded Lobster in 1985. The company has been involved in film research and preservation and restoration of films and film pieces. Since 1995, Lobster has also produced a daily program for French television, in which Bromberg introduces animated films. Lobster also produces magazines, television documentaries and feature films…but “Retour des Flammes” was essentially comprised of old images from the turn of the twentieth century through the beginning of the 1960’s.



The films were silent, many only one minute or several moments long, and the whole show was actually comprised of bits and pieces of films interspersed with Bromberg’s revealing, intimate and clever commentary and bursts of piano music, the entire set designed to illustrate the history of early silent films.


Serge working the Crowd


The show opened with a piece of footage of Market Street three days before the Great San Francisco Earthquake, and there followed another very short clip of the same portion of that famous street the day after. The contrast was poignant and shattering…the thoroughfare violently reduced to rubble.



Another memorable short movie, which received a lot of appreciative audience laughter, was seemingly a troupe of gymnasts –both male and female- performing nearly impossible feats with each other as a group. Set against an all-black background, they appeared to be climbing upon one another and balancing to seemingly terrific heights, or leaning out three or four abreast, clearly very pleased with themselves. In actuality, there was no great gymnastic prowess…they were simply (but not all that obviously) lying on the floor.

Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films

As Bromberg enthusiastically explained, he had selected and was showing us films and film clips which demonstrated the history of film as it developed over time, illustrating various techniques used in early film. One of the most interesting of these involved the application of color by hand. The entire film negative had to be meticulously and laboriously painted over frame by frame as no color film was in existence at the time. The restored hand-colored negatives reveal a surreal beauty entirely lacking in the original black and white. Several of the brief film clips featured insects and moths; there was no original hand-colored copy of the moth film, but after Bromberg found this fragment, his sister colored it in! This piece was particularly stunning.



Two other charming short films enchanted this reviewer. One was hilarious.  The star was supposed to be pretending to be the great opera tenor Enrico Caruso, and was hopelessly lost trying to “lip-synch” to a 78 record! His abashed facial expressions cracked up the Music Box audience. There was also a touching example of a very early erotic film…a short flirtation with longing glances is followed by a blackout. The action resumes with the couple shyly buttoning up. It was heartwarming and reminds us how very often less is more.

Serge in Paris



“Retour des Flammes” was a not–to-be-missed experience for every film historian or student; we are fortunate that Serge Bromberg with Lobster has made a career of the preservation and restoration of these gems which can so easily be lost forever due to the volatility of the original silver nitrate negatives. This review was written with the assistance of Chicago artist and film expert, Joycelyn Merchant.


More about Lobster Films, a fascinating company.


Photos: Courtesy of Lobster Films






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