Carl Davis conducts a live orchestra in his score for “Why Worry?” at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Photograph by Tyler Golden / Turner Entertainment Networks.
Just as the TCM Classic Film Festival offers a diverse selection of film genres spanning the history of American film, it also provides a diverse cross-section of accompanying music for silent films screening in the festival. This year’s silent film accompanists represented most of the ways typical silent film audiences would have heard music played with films at theaters.
There was no typical form of accompaniment for silent films, as location and size of theatre dictated what type of music would be appropriate. Movie palaces lavished rich accompaniment and presentation on films, while smaller local theaters provided bare, basic music. Accompaniment spanned everything from full orchestras, to chamber groups, bands, organ, photoplayer, piano, and guitar.
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The 2014 TCM Festival opening silent film, Harold Lloyd’s “Why Worry?,” screened at theater impresario Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, his first knockout show palace in Hollywood. During Grauman’s day, the Egyptian premiered films accompanied by large, sometimes 50-piece orchestras, under the direction of Constantin Bakaleinikoff, former Los Angeles Philharmonic member and Hollywoodland resident. Many of these premieres introduced original scores created by such legendary composers as Erno Rapee, Hugo Riesenfeld and Dr. William Axt, while others featured compiled music.
“Why Worry?” introduced the world premiere of renowned film composer Carl Davis’ new score. The maestro himself conducted the small orchestra, members of Hollywood Local No. 47. Davis’ rich and descriptive score offered great Mexican and Spanish flair to the film, featuring plenty of paso dobles, marches, guitar and tango music. He included several rousing marches featuring trumpets and percussions, with small riffs of his “Napoleon” theme running throughout the “Why Worry?” theme.
Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” played Saturday morning, in a TCM Chinese interior theater. Like many latter-day silent films, “City Lights” screened with a recorded score, similar to Warner Bros.’ Vitaphone or Fox’s Movietone sound processes, and featured a strictly music soundtrack. Chaplin himself composed the music to accompany the film, orchestrated by a young Alfred Newman, with a comic, festive theme helping jazz up the comedy moments and sweetly sentimental scoring underneath the romantic sections.
During Hollywood’s Home Movies, talented pianist Michael Mortilla added appealing and thematic music under the clips that often commented on the action, or provided nice counterpoint to images. Mortilla accompanies silent films as did many musicians during the period, completely ad-libbing a score while the film rolls.
Sunday night’s screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lodger” at the Egyptian closed out the silent film presentations, accompanied by the warm, dulcet tones of chamber group Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Rodney Sauer, Mont Alto’s leader, creates gorgeous, effective scores as did most of the smaller orchestras or bands of the period: pulling original and classical song cues from an organized library of sheet music composed for such a purpose. Most studios provided a suggested sheet of score music that groups could follow, with many instead compiling their own cues into original scores.
Mont Alto provided an intimate, luscious score featuring piano, strings, trumpet and clarinet for “The Lodger.” Their rich orchestration gave great emotional texture to the film, along with added dollops of melancholy and menace. The music enhanced and reiterated the emotional arcs established by Hitchcock in the film.
Though TCM presented only a few silent films during its recently concluded festival, they wisely stressed the range of accompanying music provided to typical audiences of the period, helping place the films in correct context for modern audiences.
So sad to see no theatre organ accompaniments listed. There is a gorgeous WurliTzer pipe organ just down the street from the Egyptian at the El Capitan Theatre, and the Egyptian itself has brought in electronic reproduction instruments for presentations in the past.
It would have been nice to have had organ for one film at the El Cap. I was told at least the audience for “Mary Poppins” received a small concert before the film screened.
The “most typical form of accompaniment for silent films” was NOT represented: improvised pipe organ score. The Carl Davis score for Why Worry? was good, and very well played, but any written orchestral score lacks the flexibility to sync to fast action or adjust to each audience on a visceral level, and often must settle for mere background music.