Banish The "S" Word!
I’ve stopped using the word "silent" before an audience as I submit it’s been a dreaded utterance since about 1929. Mention silents to young people and right away they’ll take you literally, and who among their number are willing to sit in a perfectly quiet room on any account? There are purists who think we should watch all silents in silence, which amounts to more quiet time than most of us are ready to submit to. Actually, silent movies are better than ever, thanks to digital technology that would seem their antithesis. Gone are days when so many presentations were bungled with lousy 16mm prints and needles jumping track upon turntables manned by distracted projectionists. Often that was me, and I owe mea culpas yet to patient groups who suffered through my clumsy recitals. When last I played Phantom Of The Opera to a college audience, we worried not about print or accompaniment, for this was a DVD of surpassing quality with stereo accompaniment I’d not have dreamed of years before when I unspooled my Blackhawk 8mm version against a sheet hung on a gymnasium wall. That was 1973 and a Dark Age for those venturing forth to watch (let alone show) silent movies. Prints were so often chewed. They almost never looked good. Blackhawk tried, but their features were expensive. I paid $55.98 for Phantom Of The Opera as a senior in high school and that was the bankroll. We charged fifty cents admission the night of our show at Cline Gym on Lenoir-Rhyne College’s campus. I blew that show as surely as though I’d been a Vitaphone projectionist. First rule of exhibition: Never attempt to throw light from an 8mm Eumig across twenty feet of floor space, and do see that your bedsheet is moderately pressed, even for that barely visible image you’re casting upon it. We started with The Dentist and Helpmates to warm up the crowd. Little of that was needed, as this was a bring-your-own-bottle affair and they were all pretty well lit by the time Lon Chaney showed up. My friend Dan Mercer was posted aloft in a scorekeeper crow’s nest with his portable record player. He thought it would be a swell idea to spin J.S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor to accompany the Phantom. Trouble was he didn’t bring anything but that platter, and Bach’s welcome was well worn out inside of ten minutes. By then, I’d have played Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream album if we’d had it. Being alone on that basketball court changing four hundred-foot reels was hell itself with just one projector. Try that sometime with three hundred inebriates cursing you in the dark. It seemed at the time I was striking a blow for silent film appreciation. From today’s perspective, I realize more harm than good came out of that mess I made thirty-five years ago, but with resources limited as they were, what (realistic) chance did we have of winning converts to the cause?
It’s a given people will show up for live orchestral screenings. That’s an occasion beyond plain moviegoing and audiences are at least respectful of musicians there to accompany the show. They can also come away satisfied with having attended a cultural event, albeit one where screen content is secondary to onsite performers. The quality of digital projection and an admirable variety of classic titles finally make it possible to offer shows nearly the equal of such happenings. DVD reincarnations being what they are, referring to anything as a silent film becomes a misnomer. I always introduce them as music and effects films. It’s less off-putting and even suggests something fresh and new, which these digital wonders certainly are. You won’t mislead your crowd ducking the dreaded "S" word. Shows like Metropolis, Peter Pan, and The Man Who Laughs pulsate with soundtracks for decades denied us. No longer do we play classical albums at random; hoping one out of half a dozen might sync up with the mood of whatever we're running. After years of closing eyes and ears to silents, audiences are listening again. Given proper DVD presentation, college viewers are fascinated beyond mere novelty seeking. You’re giving them everything except dialogue, and based on shows I’ve been involved with, they don’t appear to miss spoken words. No vintage category benefits so richly as one that for so many years wandered about in tatters and rags. Some programmers are still inhibited by memories of the bad old days. They needn’t be. Audiences rejected silents for good reason back then. Human error spoiled the experience so much of the time. I once ran The General at eighteen frames per second and confirmed the uselessness of silents for an art gallery crowd that presumably arrived with open minds. I closed them that night, probably for good, and the fact I was seventeen doesn’t excuse it. Most of us just weren’t good enough to put on a silent show, despite every right intention. With digital projection, margins for error are reduced, if not eliminated. Silents on DVD seldom put a foot wrong, due certainly to veteran archivists and collectors in charge of restoring them. Nit-picking over scores persist in some quarters, but it’s got to be music really dreadful like that which accompanies the disc of Sherlock Jr. to make me turn off my sound. Writers, fans, and collectors long espoused the need to evangelize on behalf of silent films. Finally, we have resources to do just that, and opportunity to present them in such a way as not to embarrass ourselves or those who have entrusted their evening’s entertainment to us. The pleasure of watching silents with proper music and effects reminded me of that brief period when similar tracks accompanied many 1928-29 features and shorts. These weren’t talkies, but neither were they silent. They were a new thing offered along the path to an even newer thing. Dialogue wiped out an extraordinarily creative variation on screen storytelling before it had a chance to flourish. Only Charlie Chaplin had tenacity enough to stay with it, and with Modern Times, he would raise music and effects to a level of high art.
There are those who’d say music, any music, interferes with the silent filmmaker’s intent. Unless a director composed or chose an accompaniment himself, it is suspect. On that basis, you could say the only legitimate scores for silents are Charlie Chaplin’s. There’s a recent DVD release of the John Ford silent Four Sons, but missing is the well-liked music and effects that accompanied the film in 1928. Reviewers have noted and deplored its absence. Word is that Fox couldn’t clear some of the music. Did John Ford participate in the creation of this score? Considering the fact he’d later leave editing of his features to Darryl Zanuck, I’m betting Ford heard not a note of the Movietone score until completion of same, and maybe not then. Adhering to director intent becomes less of an issue when the likes of Our Modern Maidens are considered. This was but three months short (August 1929) of MGM’s last silent release in November. Music and effects scoring had come far but all-talkies were overtaking them. Our Modern Maidens waves goodbye to fluid silent technique gone on hiatus thanks to restricted camera movement and energies redirected toward proper (or at least acceptable) sound recording. The picture begins with Joan Crawford and flaming youth companions racing roadsters just behind the camera car. It’s a dynamic sort of opener talkies of that year couldn’t duplicate. You actually hear more in Our Modern Maidens than all-talkies of the same year. Audiences seeing it in the wake of Madame X, The Idle Rich, and The Last Of Mrs. Cheyney (three all-talkers released in months just prior to Our Modern Maidens) might have thought MGM was going backwards instead of forwards. Notwithstanding dialogue, Maidens' music and effects represent the more creative use of sound. So much movement we associate with jazz age themes would be replaced in early talkies by microphone imposed stillness. Even musicals required performers to sing at attention or dance in close formation. Our Modern Maidens spots Joan Crawford on a balcony overlooking art deco mansion revelers and the camera zooms up to meet her. A first reel party takes pause when a radio announcer supplies helpful exposition, then segues into music to accompany dancing that follows. Human voices in music-effects scores originated from electronic sources. You only heard someone speak when receivers, phonographs, and public address systems engaged. Sound was everywhere except in dialogue, as that was the silent era’s only barricade left to defend. Having someone sing or whistle pushed ever closer to surrender. Part-talkies would do the rest. Music and effect scores largely disappeared by 1930, but looking at DVD’s in circulation today, it would appear they’re back, at least in spirit. It was an ideal way to accompany silent films then, and happily remains so.
Try to imagine City Lights and Modern Times without Chaplin’s scores. His estate won’t allow either to be shown without them. I remember bootlegged prints being available on silent 8mm, but stayed clear of them. Sound is as essential to these as image. Chaplin decried the industry’s transition out of silents, but he’d learn quickly how to best utilize music and effects. If others had been as capable, we might have retained scores like his as an ongoing adjunct to dialogue features. Modern Times is still identified as a silent film when it is anything but. Few talkies made such innovative use of sound. Voices are contained as before. Chaplin had obviously studied previous music and effects scores, abiding more or less by rules set down in Our Modern Maidens and other 1928-29 releases. Spoken words in Modern Times represent some character’s idea of progress, but never Charlie's. They are remote, as in a recorded appeal on behalf of the disastrous Billow’s Feeding Machine. The factory owner on large screen monitor discovers Charlie smoking in the lavatory and shouts him back to work. It’s no good --- it isn’t practical, says the boss when machinery and electronic devices go haywire and wreak havoc, a subtitled line that sums up Chaplin’s own attitude toward all-talking movies. Why embrace these when Modern Times offers something as good, if not better? Sound nevertheless became essential to putting over gags the comedian was working out, and even if his commitment to it was less than complete, it was clear his mind was headed in audible directions. A tea break with the minister’s wife specifically revolves around noises designed to enable the comedy. Without them, the sequence could not play. Here Chaplin structures an entire routine around sounds his Tramp, and the audience, will hear. Charlie shares laughs with a barking dog, radio announcers, and stomach gurglings he experiences while sipping tea. Chaplin himself created the sound of gastric distress for this highlight, as well as other aural effects used throughout Modern Times. He even shot dialogue sequences for the Tramp, later abandoned. Chaplin realized he didn’t need these to realize the values he wanted out of combining silent expression with sound emphasis. Limitations he imposed upon himself challenged this producer/director/star to explore avenues in sound that would exclude none of his worldwide audience. No American feature before or after Modern Times combined the universal language of silent film with sound resources so expertly applied. Chaplin’s achievement here is yet to be fully appreciated.