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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Banish The "S" Word!

I’ve stopped using the word "silent" before an audience as 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 the was 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 the mess I made thirty-five years ago, but with resources limited as they were, what chance did we have of winning converts to the cause?

It’s a given that people will show up for live orchestral screenings. They are an occasion beyond plain moviegoing and audiences will be respectful of musicians there to accompany the show. They can also come away satisfied for 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 and fans 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 just ahead (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 that early all-talkies could not duplicate. You actually hear more in Our Modern Maidens than 100% dialogue films of the same year. Audiences seeing it in the wake of Madame X, The Idle Rich, and The Last Of Mrs. Cheyney (three chat-fests released in months just prior to Our Modern Maidens) might have thought MGM was going backwards rather than 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 a 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 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 that 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.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Thanks for a nice post. OUR MODERN MAIDENS is available online, so I will do my best to get it (I'm about to finish downloading the two silent versions of RAFFLES after more than a month of patience).

Today, I received CONFESSIONS OF A QUEEN, which survived in an incomplete form. The film had no soundtrack, but a friend used tangos to create a sort of score in order to watch it. I did it myself for two films: HUMORESQUE and LUCKY STAR. While we are not experts doing this, certain scenes work extremely fine.

I still don't understand the issue with FOUR SONS. I don't swallow that Fox couldn't pay to use a soundtrack when they do pay a lot of money to produce lousy TV shows and films that I have no intention to watch. Fortunately, copies of the original version will always be available even if they are not legal editions.

And for THE IRON HORSE, I still miss William Perry's much better score and the orginal tints that for no reason were removed for the DVD.

12:59 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

My daughter's favorite Laurel & Hardy movie is "Liberty" with the original Vitaphone score & sound effects, so there's at least one 11 year-old who has no problem with dialogueless movies.

Odd that Fox didn't (couldn't?) release "Four Sons" with the original score/FX. The BBC documentary from the 1980s, "Hollywood," featured a nice chunk of that movie with its track. In fact, it had a key piece of off-screen dialogue essential to the scene.

7:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My group runs silents often in a historic theatre with accompaniment by a 1927 theatre pipe organ...that's the way do do it right!!

10:59 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I've got Blackhawk 16mm prints of several Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd comedies, as well as others. Usually they have appropriate musical soundtracks, and sometimes the L & H films have Vitaphone soundtracks.

I've also screened silents in the McKinney, Texas performing arts center with live Wurlitzer organ music, and that really gets the audience involved.

4:53 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Looking at that Phantom of the Opera sign... isn't that the same handwriting as the Zodiac? :)

Believe me, I resemble these remarks-- I doubt today, with my DVD and archival-35mm-raised standards, i could sit through half the programs I presented in the 80s.

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to see some appreciation for Chaplin's soundtracks, he's just not fashionable at the moment and doesn't get the nods that he deserves at times.

8:39 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Don't be so tough on yourself, John -- at least you tried to add some appropriate music to your presentations. How many of us have seen silents with TERRIBLE tracks?

Two particularly horrendous ones come to mind: one 16mm distributor's version of Chaplin's THE GOLD RUSH had what was described as a "synchronized musical score" but was actually someone noodling on an organ keyboard for 80 minutes, never getting anywhere near a melody. (Lots of "howling wind" noises with the organist running his hands up and down the keys.) Maybe it was a music-clearance thing where the distributor didn't want to pay for actual songs!

I also recall a 16mm Max Davidson short with a piano track. Unfortunately it consisted of Joshua RIfkin's commercial recordings of Scott Joplin rags -- but only the slo-o-o-o-ow ones, and Rifkin's recital-hall performances were more appropriate to a sedate symphony concert than a brisk two-reel comedy.

For sheer warhorse service, someone should recognize that familiar collection of dance-band instrumentals used by Wilf Anderson's "Wonderland" company, to accompany his silent offerings. No matter what the visual action was, the "Wonderland Studio Orchestra" always played the same handful of tunes: "Just a Little Thing Called Rhythm," "Meadowlark," "Where'd You Get Those Eyes?", etc. Wonderland is long gone, but that stock track is still making the rounds!

Has anyone seen both "sound" versions of SHOW PEOPLE? One has a Carl Davis orchestral score (incorporating themes from the "Hollywood" series), while the other has a Movietone track of snatches from pop songs of the day. Ordinarily I vote a straight Vitaphone-Movietone ticket, but I was very disappointed in the "original" 1928 score.

3:44 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Scott, I just got "Show People" off TCM yesterday, and was in suspense as to which track they'd present, hoping it would be the Metrotone version. Fortunately, it was. Those Wonderland prints were the bane of my collecting existance for years. Problem with these was that every one, as you said, sounded the same. The fact that the prints were usually substandard didn't help matters.

Radiotelefonia, I'm with you in being disappointed over Fox's failure to include the original "Four Sons". It was one of my main reasons for looking forward to the release of the DVD.

5:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, never underestimate the power of a well-chosen collection of "library music." One of my favorite silent film "scores" ever is the one that accompanied the old commercial video for Victor Sjostrem's HE WHO GETS SLAPPED. The individual who selected those pieces will likely remain anonymous forever but my hat is off to him/her. I've seen SLAPPED with live piano accompaniment and it was nice ... but I really missed that "original" soundtrack ...

8:38 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

At some point, either tonight or tomorrow, I will be able to finally receive a TV Rip version of the orginal film version of PEG O' MY HEART with Laurette Taylor and directed by King Vidor.

I will handle it to a friend in order to add an acceptable soundtrack ot it. The video was taped from the French TCM and has no soundtrack. I don't know if that is the way it was telecast or if they didn't capture the soundtrack... or if it was a bad one.

I have received a new version of SMOULDERING FIRES, with contemporary tangos used as soundtrack. Surprisingly, those recordings work notably well with silents and I am sure that I will be able to see many more silents in this fashion... and not from Argentina! (And now I am also restoring contemporary American popular recordings as well!)

12:12 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

Great post, and a very funny picture you paint of fumbling in the dark with 300 silent drunks ready to raise the roof! lol

i became a silent film fan in quite a backward way, through the music scores of Carl Davis - they made me see the beauty of the films he was accompanying. Now I can see what you mean about the original scores, but I was happy to finally have a silent that was watchable sans 80s synth pop...

By the way, if anyone reads this comment in the UK, Carl Davis is touring again with Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Just like you say John, live music draws a bigger crowd, but at least they leave remembering the film!

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Back in 1975, I was in awe when my Grandfather who was 70 at the time recounted to me, seeing "The Phantom Of The Opera" on its initial release fifty years earlier at the Chicago Theater. He told me that woman did indeed scream durring the unmasking sequence and that he made it a point to see all Chaneys pictures. Two years later I bought Blackhawks Super 8 offering with the Technicolor sequence and the excellent Gaylor Carter score. I had a special showing at the house and was especially anxious for my Grandfather to attend so the he could once again (I thought) be thrilled by one of his favorite actors. He agreed to attend. I think I made the mistake of running it at 18fps and noticed durring the first reel that my Grandfather sat with his arms crossed seemingly unimpressed. Around about the second reel change which are always awkward anyways, he anounced that it was getting late and he was going to go. Everyone implored him to stay and so he did, but as soon as the movie was over, he got up, said his goodbyes and left. Several days later I saw my Aunt who was living with him at the time and I told her that I had showed him "The Phantom" and she said that he told her that that was not the same "Phantom Of The Opera" that he had seen in 1925. At the time this upset me a great deal as I knew that it indeed was the same film. Or was it? Looking back now some 30 years later I can only imagine what an event it must have been to see the newly released "The Phantom Of The Opera" in 35mm nitrate with perhaps an extra Technocolor sequence or two and with a full live orchestral score, and all this no less at one of the greatest atmospheric theaters in the world with over 3000 seats and an army of ushers. No, it wasn't the same film that he had seen. Also, on the subject of scores for silents, I had the good fortune to have seen a good number of Silents at The Tampa Theater when it was first reopened and they had a silent film series with live organ acompanyment by a vetern silent film organist. He alway was dead on with his scores. Once though durring a screening of "The Gold Rush" he had done his usual bang up job when right at the end when Chaplin finds Georgia Hale on the ship the title card reads "Georgia!" and he broke into the 60's POP tune "Georgie Girl" and it just killed it for me!

8:05 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Rented a Vhs of METROPOLIS years ago that had the most awful soundtrack. consisted of 5 or 6 unrelated bits just played in order, over and over for what seemed like hours,with no dynamic relation to the screen was timed at nearly 3 hours as well,which turned out to be randomly repeated montages from elsewhere in the film....

5:22 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Maybe they were trying to convey misery of the workers by inflicting the audience with torturous and repetitive themes. A scoring masterstroke!

5:29 PM  

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