A Note on Music for Silent Films

A Blackhawk film in all its low-tech glory is for sale on EBay with bids starting at $9.99. Note the lack of a ZIP Code in the address, which would peg the film as dating from the 1950s or early 1960s.

Many, many years ago, when I was a mere lad, I had a young friend who lived around the corner and was a fan of horror/monster films. Because his parents had money, they bought him a small library of Blackhawk’s prints of silent movies.

(Note to the millennial generation: Blackhawk was a film distributor based in Iowa that sold 8-millimeter dupes of many of the most popular silent films. This is what people did in the ancient days before VCRs and DVDs).

My friend and I and sometimes a few other chums would entertain ourselves in the basement watching “Hunchback of Notre Dame” while I provided a sort of musical accompaniment on their clunky old upright piano.

Seven or eight years later, I encountered my first Shakey’s Pizza Parlor, a chain restaurant which was then the rage. (I occasionally pass them in Los Angeles, so I know they are still around, but I haven’t been to one since the Nixon administration).

In the 1960s, the decor at a Shakey’s included an old, upright piano, with the front removed to show the hammers and strings, painted strange colors that glowed under a black light (I said it was the 1960s) and they would hire a piano player and a banjo player to entertain the crowd. (Yes, they wore straw hats and the whole bit).

There was also a changing lineup of – wait for it – silent movies, all early comedies. I dimly recall one that involved a gag about “Angels Flight” and another one that was purportedly by “Thrillem Films” or “Thrillum Filums” or something like that. (Undoubtedly the Daily Mirror brain trust can supply the names of both films based on those faint recollections).

To me, a silent movie with a “rinky-tink” piano and banjo accompaniment always evokes thoughts of Shakey’s Pizza Parlor – and they are not good thoughts.

I mention all of this because of the dreadful scores that were added to the Harold Lloyd films that recently aired on TCM.

One had music by Carl Davis and I realize, no, he can’t possibly score every silent film ever made. A couple were scored by the prolific Robert Israel, who does passable work, relying heavily  on snippets from the classics. (Truly, Israel does lots of work but I’m always disappointed when I see his name in the credits – as a film composer, I rate him a “meh.” Better than the awful music done on a synthesizer but not much).

At the bottom of the pile is the junk that has been slapped on some of the Harold Lloyd shorts that aired on TCM, like  “Lonesome Luke, Messenger Boy,” “By the Sad Sea Waves,” “A Gasoline Wedding,” etc. The music by an unidentified composer and musicians is the worst sort of generic pseudo-ragtime, with banjo (yes really), slide whistle and every other silent movie cliche you can think of – except, perhaps, a cowbell. This is generic, off the shelf music that has nothing to do with the action and nothing to do with anything, really.

I realize these early Lloyd movies aren’t subtle films, but I would rather watch them without any sound rather than listen to what has been done to them. It’s an insult to these movies to accompany them with this garbage.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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10 Responses to A Note on Music for Silent Films

  1. aryedirect says:

    Blackhawk prints would often be copies of mutilated sixteen millimeter ones, with lots of deterioration of image. The very thought of printing off thirty-five millimeter must have been anethma to them. Restoration would have been an unspeakable horror.


  2. Harold Lloyd said he thought all his films should be scored with Wurlitzer organ music (this quote is supposed to be from an interview with the American Film Institute–more info, and a bit of organ-accompaniment discussion here, particularly as relates to Lloyd: http://www.organforum.com/forums/archive/index.php?t-3078.html ). I think to modern ears the organ sound can be heavy. Mr. Harnisch, we find in this column what you don’t like for this job, but what DO you like? Do you prefer organ to piano? I think banjo can actually work well in a good combo (e.g., the Baker-Mehling Hot Five’s score for “Chicago,” at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival a few years ago).

    This reminds me of Steve Martin’s old joke (while playing the banjo), “When you’re with me it’s like being at Shakey’s pizza, all the time!”


    • lmharnisch says:

      I think some of the music Carl Davis wrote for “Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow” is some of the best for silent films.

      Banjo works well in “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Deliverance.”

      And I really like Chaplin’s score for “Modern Times” (and yes I know he had lots of assistance).


  3. Sam Flowers says:

    Larry, as a fan of silents, I sometimes get irritated with the music also but not always. The beauty of having the silents on a home TV is that you can turn the volume way down and maybe even play your own music from a CD. Charley Chase is my favorite by the way, his theme music is Gangway Charley and I have it as a ringtone.


  4. RJ says:

    A few years ago I watched the silent movie entitled “The Peach Girl” on TCM. The music score was so beautiful that I contacted the composer Donald Sosin and ended up with the CD. Creating new music for silent films is what he does and he does it wonderfully.


  5. Bruce says:

    I’ve got over a hundred 16mm Blackhawk prints in my collection. Blackhawk made many of their printing negatives from 35mm originals. They also released their most popular silent films (Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, cartoons) with music scores that ranged from stock music (edited to match the action), piano scores, organ scores and occasionally an orchestral score especially for a big silent feature. Other distributors like Niles Films were notorious for just slapping a stock jazz music score on their silent films. Many times the film ended but the music continued for a while.

    Blackhawk also restored plenty of films, translating the titles back into English, or assembling the scenes back into their original order. Many times they would combine several different prints into one with the best looking and most complete shots in the final edit.


    • lmharnisch says:

      I never had enough money to indulge in buying 16-millimeter prints, except for a couple of Fleischer Superman cartoons, which at the time were incredibly rare and exotic. Of course, now they are on YouTube.


      • Bruce says:

        I collected Super 8mm as a kid, but when I was 17 I got a used 16mm projector and switched to that format. I stopped collecting for about 10 years when I bought laserdiscs instead, but kept my collection. I still buy prints on eBay or from other collectors. They are great for showing for church and civic groups and for our local Dallas classic film group. Blackhawk films are usually the best quality, although there are exceptions for some titles.


      • lmharnisch says:

        I could never afford the 16-millimeter prints but I used to get the catalogs. There used to be lots and lots of westerns for sale. And trailers. And prints of “Ecstasy!”


    • aryedirect says:

      Happy to be corrected. I now know more. Thanks.


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