Monday, October 28, 2013

A 2013 Nosferatu Marathon update:
Sprinting to the finish, in more ways than one

German actor Max Schreck climbs to the top of the back bleachers at Fenway Park.

Last spring, when I worked out a schedule for multiple showings of 'Nosferatu' (1922) leading up to Halloween this year, I didn't expect the Boston Red Sox to be in the World Series. After a disastrous last-place finish in 2012, I don't even think the Red Sox expected to be the World Series.

But they are, and as luck would have it, the game schedule against the St. Louis Cardinals almost exactly matches this latest batch of screenings. Really! Out of five screenings, all five have been (or will be) on game dates. (The first, on Saturday, Oct. 19, was prior to the World Series, but coincided with a Red Sox/Tigers game in the American League Championship Series.)

And yes, as of this writing (Monday, Oct. 28), there will be a Game 6 in Boston, and it'll be Wednesday, Oct. 30—the same night as 'Nosferatu' at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. And if there's a Game 7, it's Thursday, Oct. 31—the same night as 'Nosferatu' at the Flying Monkey Theater in Plymouth, N.H.

You'd think that deep in the heart of Red Sox Nation, this would cut into attendance. But I'm pleased to report that so far it's been the opposite! Of the three 'Nosferatu' screenings I've done, each has drawn capacity crowds, or nearly so. The owner of the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine said our screening on Saturday, Oct. 26 was the highest-attended event he'd had this entire season.

To me, it's a testament to the drawing power of this film, which I think grows creepier and more other-worldly as more time passes. Or maybe it's just that after two World Series championships in the past decade, Red Sox fans aren't as worked up about this. (Yeah, right!) If nothing else, it's given me fodder to include dumb jokes in my intros, such as "Hey, isn't there some kind of sporting match tonight?" or "If you really wanted to be scared, just watch the Red Sox," and so on.

Well, I'm delighted at the full houses and doing my best to bring 'Nosferatu' to life. The one special effect in this score has been a little bell I use for the chime on the small clock that is shown striking midnight at two points in the film. It's tricky, because the clock is only shown chiming a couple of times, but clearly the hands are pointing straight up to 12. So the purist in me, which wants the chime to sound exactly 12 times, needs to start them before the visual, and keep them going after (and keep count, too) to get all dozen in.

I haven't messed up too badly with this. But yesterday's screening at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. marked the second time this year that I've had to do the unthinkable: leave the keyboard in mid-screening to answer the call of nature. It took only a moment, but was very embarrassing and broke the spell that film had cast, at least for a moment.

It's my own fault, of course, for not addressing this inevitability prior to the screening, but I was so caught up in talking with people and then warming up at the keyboard that it just didn't happen. And I thought I could make it, but then the vampire decides to travel by ship, and so we get endless images of waves crashing and water flying and it was all just too much.

So I had to sprint to the theater's employee bathroom. (Either that or borrow someone's popcorn bucket.) It all happened quickly, and I was worried about the effect on the audience. But afterwards, several people told me they were glad I had to go, because the silence pointed out to them how important the music was to the film maintaining their interest. "Without the music, it was like staring at a brick wall," one woman said.

Among the crowds are many "newbies" to silent film, and it's gratifying to hear from a few afterwards who say they the experience was surprising (not just because of my mid-film sprint, presumably) and enjoyable.

For this round of screenings, I decided it was important to point out how fresh and unfamiliar the whole vampire story was to the film's original audience. And I figured the best way to do this was to bring in an example of how the Dracula legend over the years has been cheapened and commercialized.

I first tried to find a hand puppet in the shape of 'The Count,' the Muppet character on Sesame Street who introduced legions of youngsters to the joy of numbers. But when that proved elusive, I got something possibly better: a box of 'Count Chocula' breakfast cereal. It's actually a discontinued product, but I lucked out in that General Mills did a special "retro-run" of the cereal for this Halloween.

So I hold up my box of Count Chocula prior to the screening, and everyone laughs, and I say, "Look what's happened to Dracula! This isn't scary—unless you read the ingredients!"

The point, of course, is to help audiences see 'Nosferatu' as director F.W. Murnau might have expected them to experience it: without a head full of commercialized clutter and images of Bela Lugosi saying "I vant to bite your neck!" and so on. 'Nosferatu' would have been shown without any of the baggage that we bring to the theater today after a lifetime of monster films.

I also point out how director Murnau changed aspects of Bram Stoker's iconic 'Dracula' novel in part to avoid having to get permission from Bram Stoker's widow to use the story. (She sued and won, anyway.) Today, long after the legal issues have been settled, the result of Murnau's decision to disguise the story is a film that does differ enough from Stoker's novel so that it seems seperate and apart from the main run of Dracula kitsch. And that's a good thing, at least in terms of 'Nosferatu' standing as a singular achievement.

Anyway, it's been a fun run so far. One result of yesterday's screening at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre was this very unusual double bill on the main screening room, which we packed for 'Nosferatu.' Really—so many people showed up that owner Dennis Markaverich had to rustle up extra chairs, and about half-way through the show he had to open side doors to balance out the accumulated body heat.

I was particularly pleased to have old friend Ron Duvernay on hand at Sunday's screening. A high school classmate and incredibly gifted pianist, Ron took music a whole lot more seriously than I ever did, and had talent enough to pursue it at Harvard University.

I can't imagine what someone with Ron's background and abilities would make of my musical doodlings, which I've lately taken to describing as "public therapy sessions." But Ron was very generous afterwards, and it was a huge thrill to have him on hand.

Hey, who needs Facebook to track down old friends when I've got silent film screenings?

All this and Count Chocula, too. I'm a blessed man.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Five screenings in four states:
It's a Halloween Nosferatu-a-thon!

Actor Max Schreck would have a hard time accompanying 'Nosferatu' with those fingernails.

Tomorrow I embark on a daunting adventure: doing live music for five separate screenings of 'Nosferatu' (1922) in less than two weeks. And a screening of 'The Phantom of the Opera' (1925) is mixed in there for good measure. Can you tell Halloween is coming up?

First, here's a round-up of the where and when, if only to help ME keep track of where I'm supposed to be...

• Saturday, Oct. 19, 7 p.m.: "Nosferatu" (1922); Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Main Street/Route 7, Brandon, Vt.; Our annual "Chiller Theater" presentation in the as-yet-unheated Brandon Town Hall. Admission free, donations accepted, with proceeds to help continuing preservation work.

• Thursday, Oct. 24, 7 p.m.: "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925), starring Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin; the Putnam Arts Lecture Hall, Keene State College, Keene, N.H. Free and open to the public. Long before Andrew Lloyd Webber created the hit stage musical, this silent film adaptation starring Lon Chaney helped place 'Phantom' firmly in the pantheon of both horror and romance.

• Saturday, Oct. 26, 8 p.m.: "Nosferatu" (1922); Leavitt Theatre, 259 Main St. Route 1, Ogunquit, Maine; (207) 646-3123; Admission $10 per person. Another unheated "chiller theater" screening, if only because it's a summer-only cinema in a seaside resort.

• Sunday, Oct. 27, 4:30 p.m.: "Nosferatu" (1922); Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456; Admission free, donations of $5 per person encouraged. Movies since 1912!

• Wednesday, Oct. 30, 7 p.m.: "Nosferatu" (1922); Rogers Center for the Arts, Merrimack College, 315 North Turnpike St., North Andover, Mass. (978) 837-5355. Free admission. Nice modern arts center on college campus north of Boston.

• Thursday, Oct. 31, 6:30 p.m.: "Nosferatu" (1922); The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; Admission $10 per person. Hoping for a good turnout from students at Plymouth State University, who usually ignore these screenings.

Wow, that's 'Nosferatu' in four different states! The vampire sure gets around. If anyone makes it to all five screenings (besides me), I'll donate a pint of blood to the American Red Cross in your honor.

This will be interesting, and not just in terms of finding my way to theaters all over New England. Because I improvise the score live each time, it'll be intriguing to see how the accompaniment evolves during the performances.

Yes, I do have a few musical ideas in my head that I'll use when I sit down for the first performance, which is tomorrow night up in Brandon, Vt. I've done 'Nosferatu' before, and I have a "vampire" chord sequence that is versatile enough to power most of the score.

But inevitably, new ideas will happen along the way. And those ideas may get carried over to the next screening, where they'll evolve a bit further, and so on. So by the time of the fifth performance in Plymouth, N.H. (on Halloween night!), the score might be totally different from what I did in Brandon 12 days earlier.

The idea that I sit down without any sheet music and create a movie score in real time seems a bit strange to people, but it's really nothing magical. Even if I don't have a idea in my head, all I have to do it play one note, and the score sometimes creates itself from there.

Just play one note and hold it, and you can go in so many directions, depending on what the movie seems to want.

One note, so many possibilities! Just in terms of the mechanics of music, there are so many ways to go. Is it the root of a chord? If not the root, which part of the chord is it? Either way gives it a certain character.

And if not part of a chord,will it want to resolve somehow? Each direction carries its own relevance to what might be happening on screen.

I'm kind of reminded of what I remember reading once in Vonnegut (probably from 'Bluebeard' (1987), one of his later novels), where an abstract artist explained his method by saying that he started by making one mark on a blank canvas, and the canvas would then do at least half the work.

I had a nice guy come up to after a recent screening, a musician who wanted to know if I took on students, as he wanted to know if he could learn more about what I do.

I'm not really part of any school or traditional academic setting, so I don't have pupils, although I'm glad to share anything I can. And I thought about this, and most of what I do can be taught: the methods, the way to transform melodies, the way to create a certain kind of music to bring a film to life.

The only thing that I would be at a loss to teach would be where the melodies come from in the first place. I can make some observations, such as people tend to be attracted to melodies with notes that skip around in a small area, such as the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

But where does a melody come from in the first place?

With me, it just seems to flow naturally out of some place in my brain where scraps of old music (pop songs, cartoon scores, Broadway overtures, brass band marches) are continually playing. Sometimes it seems like several pieces are running at once, all colliding deep down below, like tectonic plates below the earth's surface, breaking up and recombining into something new.

That's where the tunes come from, I think. And we'll see if any keepers emerge during the upcoming Nosferatu-a-thon. It's been my experience that the state of mind I get into when accompanying a film seems to allow me to tap into this inner music more readily.

My self-editing and critical filtering gets turned down, and new melodies of all different types seems to flow more readily. Many times, I'll be sitting there accompanying a movie, and I'll be as surprised as anyone at the music flowing out of my keyboard. Geez, where did that come from?

But then afterwards, sometimes the audience tells me. This past March, after improvising a completely made-up-on-the-spot piano score to Mary Pickford's drama 'The Foundling' (1915) at Cinefest in Syracuse, N.Y., a guy came up and said he especially appreciated how I was able to use a melody from Schubert's 'Trout' Quintet.

My witty reply was to say that I thought something sounded fishy. Wow, from channeling Schubert to channeling Henny Youngman!

Well, to channel Groucho Marx: "They can't all be gems, folks."

Monday, October 14, 2013

Scoring Pickford's 'Their First Misunderstanding'
and joining in the first-ever 'Terror-Thon'

My God, what a weekend for silent film in my part of the world! Not one but two special (and high profile) events to which I had the privilege of contributing music.

So, before we begin sprinting to Halloween with multiple screenings of 'Nosferatu' (1922) all over New England, let me take a moment to set down the highlights.

This run of good silent film karma actually began on Sunday, Oct. 5 with a packed screening of 'Safety Last' (1923) in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre just outside Boston. Here's a photo borrowed from Raquel Stecher, who blogs about vintage film at

The Somerville's main house prior to 'Safety Last.' Hey, is the accompanist (at far left) sporting a bald spot?

Look at that turnout! I was especially impressed because we had gotten a big goose egg in term of local publicity for this screening. So perhaps we've built up the series to the point where it has critical mass to continue on its own, more or less. We'll see.

Raquel was kind enough to write a detailed blog post that had a lot of nice things to say about the experience. I'm grateful for people who have such a passion for cinema as it should be experienced. Without them and their enthusiasm, none of this would be possible: the big screen, the live music, and (most importantly to me) the shared experience of silent cinema.

Also on hand was Annette D'Agostino Lloyd, who helped out with a brief introduction and had some Harold books for sale afterwards. Her willingness to join in on these escapades at the Somerville Theatre adds a nice touch of respectability to our efforts.

A follow-up screening of 'Safety Last' on Thursday, Oct. 10 at one of my monthly series (in this case, the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.) drew a much smaller but no less enthusiastic crowd.

I was especially psyched by an older couple from Meredith, N.H., first-timers who brought a friend to the screening on a "mystery ride." The friend was a keyboard player and church organist from the old school, and they all came down afterwards to swap stories, ask questions, and just plain revel in that now-familiar 'Safety Last' afterglow.

This takes us to Friday, Oct. 11, and the first-ever modern-day screening of 'Their First Misunderstanding' (1911), an early one-reel drama starring Mary Pickford thought lost until a print surfaced in a New Hampshire barn back in 2006.

The film has since been restored, and Friday's re-premiere at Keene State College in Keene, N.H. (which is shepherding all the discovered films through restoration) was an evening-long event featuring Pickford and also author Christel Schmidt, who hosted the program.

I'd never met Christel before but I'm glad our paths crossed. She's a worthy keeper of the Pickford flame, and perhaps just as much of a hot ticket as Pickford herself must have been.

Our schedules didn't allow for much social time, and she was there to sell books, not chat with yet another silent film musician.

But I stole a few moments with her after the crowds had dispersed, and found a woman with a wonderfully wry sense of humor. And, once she gets talking, she displays the rare gift of being able to take a "tell it like it is" approach to everything and everyone, but somehow make it seem refreshing and even endearing.

Sometimes I think that working in the vintage film community, with its out-sized personalities and fragile egos and no shortage of passionate people with any number of agendas, would make good training for the diplomatic corps. If that were true, then Christel might just be our next Secretary of State.

She did a great job introducing Pickford and her achievements, and from what I see on Facebook, she sold out of copies of her book, "Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies." It's an excellent piece of work and I encourage you to check it out—meaning actually buy it, although checking it out from a library is a worthy alternative.

Christel also gave me another nudge to try swimming more in the Facebook ocean. We'll see.

The program was, for me, one of the highlights of the year. Big crowd, lots of newbies, nice facility, all crackling with the special kind of electricity you get at a one-of-a-kind event. I'm so grateful to Ben Model (the New York-based accompanist who works a lot with Christel) for recommending me for this one. It was a great chance to do my stuff in front of a lot of big names right in my home state, all in the service of making silent film come alive —and silent film with a Granite State connection at that!

Congrats to Larry Benaquist and Peter Condon and everyone at Keene State who played a role in rescuing this film, preserving it, and arranging this event.

The program opened with not one but two Pickford one-reelers from 1911: the long-lost 'Their First Misunderstanding' as well as 'The Dream.' Knowing that we had the heavyweight feature 'Sparrows' (1926) still to come in the second half, I went with straight piano accompaniment for the shorts.

The more I do this, the more I find that shorter silent films of any kind (comedies, dramas, whatever) really don't lend themselves to the palette of the full orchestra. It bogs them down, makes them fraught with consequence, sets expectations maybe a little too high for modern audiences.

Piano for 'Their First Misunderstanding' was light and breezy: starting with scale-like figures drawn from the old Hanon technical exercises to show we're just starting out, and a brief explosion of Mendelssohn's wedding march to set the tone for the couple's departure.

And then there were scenes with a poet/pianist playing grandly away, for which I kept my foot down on the sustain pedal and worked through some portentious arpeggios of the type that I hoped would make Mary swoon. (It worked!)

And the action just went from there. Before I knew it, Mary was alone in a dark room, a fairly daring scene in terms of the technical limitations of early cinema, and which seemed to call for a delicate touch to round things out. Less is more.

So an emerging rule for my approach: save the big stuff for the bigger films—in this case, 'Sparrows.'

'Sparrows' is a GREAT film for music because it's loaded with atmosphere as well as a variety of scenes (including a lot of comedy) that lend themselves to musical settings that can build underneath to create some powerful stuff if it all works.

A great example is the 'baby death' scene, in which the wall of a grim barn attic disappears to reveal Christ tending a flock of sheep in a sunny pasture. Christ enters the barn, takes the expired child, then steps back and the barn wall reappears.

Okay, it's pretty simple-minded imagery. But my job as accompanist, I think, is to help connect the scene to Mary Pickford's character, teenage Molly, who is experiencing (or hallucinating) it. By that point in the film, we've seen enough of Pickford's character to know how important her faith his, even if she gets a lot of the details comically garbled.

But comic details be damned. The core belief underpinning everything, and how important it is and how central it is to her character, comes through so strongly and powerfully in that scene, in one sense it can be regarded as the film's climax, at least spiritually.

And so the music has to show reverence, awe, and respect, but not in a way that parodies religious music, with all trumpets blaring like the opening titles in a Monty Python sequence. Instead, it has to show the strength of Pickford's character, which to me transcends any particular religious iconography.

As Molly, Mary Pickford comically garbles the scriptures, but her underlying beliefs are dead serious.

She could be a Buddhist or a Unitarian Universalist or a complete atheist, but the moment would still be the same. It's not about religion. It's about her own personal experience of witnessing life moving from the now into the eternal.

Am I overthinking this? Maybe while I sit here typing, but not at the time the film was being screened.

During the film, my sense of what works just happens naturally. I felt the need to switch from full orchestra to just low brass to underscore that this was a special moment, and then built up some chords that lent weight to the scene. And yes, there was a bit of a blaze of glory when Christ receded and the wall was restored, but I immediately drew back to give Mary (and the audience) space to let it all sink in.

What follows is about 20 seconds of just Pickford's face (the baby, still in her arms, is out of camera range) reacting to what's happened. I almost didn't want to play any music at all here, because she communicates so much with the smallest gestures: the tilt of her head, her eventual glance upwards.

Is she grateful that the child has been delivered from a terrible situation, that the suffering is ceased? Is it the basis for the resolve she needs to engineer the escape? Something else? Whatever an audience takes away, it's a key moment, and a rich one, and too much music would sufficate it, I think.

So just an example of what goes on underneath the surface of playing music along a silent film, at least in the way I do it. I also had a lot of fun with a special effect: in this case, using an old brass school bell that belonged to my grandmother to make the sound of the bell used to gain entry to the dismal Grimes homestead.

Judging from comments afterwards, the bell was a memorable addition. Usually I wouldn't want to draw that much attention to the "soundtrack," such as it is. But the bell happens only twice, and early in the film, so I felt it was worth doing, especially because the synthesizer just wouldn't have been able to do as good a job, and I knew I wanted underscoring at the same time as the bell. So what the heck?

What was really satisfying for me was the feeling that I'd paced it right, holding back for most of the film and only getting truly frantic for the climactic post-swamps gun fight and then boat chase. It was a fun ride, with things amping up at just the right time, I felt.

And in the final scenes, I even managed to switch back to the low brass for the brief appearance of the hymn 'Shall We Gather at the River,' complete with sheet music on screen! No faking allowed on that one, as it's right at the end and anything else would have spoiled the moment.

I was gratified to find that the blogger (bloggess?) known as "Nitrate Diva" was on hand for the event. I continue to be impressed by her observations, which often give me fresh insight into films that I've known for years. I encourage you to check out her account of the Pickford program.

And then, after all this, come next morning, it was time for me to hightail it down to Somerville, Mass. for a noon-time screening of 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1920) at the Somerville Theatre. Too much of a good thing? Well, you know what Mae West said about that. :)

'Cabinet' was the opening flick of the inaugural 'Terror-Thon,' a 12-hour marathon of vintage sci/fi horror flicks, one from each decade from the 1920s to the 1990s, all screened in 35mm in the Somerville's main theater.

This first-ever event, held Saturday, Oct. 12, coincided with 'Honkfest,' a sprawling festival of activist street bands in progress all around Davis Square. So it was quite a different environment from that of the Pickford program the night before.

And the audience was different, too. Rather than the usual silent film fans, it was more of a crowd of hard-core sci-fi geeks, which is another species altogether.

A face only a somnambulist could love.

And 'Caligari,' though a famous and ground-breaking picture, is not an easy go in terms of pacing or story-telling or many other things that die-hard sci-fi fans expect or demand when they're paying $35 per ticket. (One ticket for the whole marathon.)

So I had to really work to hold them and to help this film connect. What I came up with was more bombastic that I usually do, and more angular and arhythmic, in keeping with the film's visual design. Apologies to Mr. Igor Stravinsky for the shameless borrowing of figures and scraps from his immortal ballet score 'Le Sacre du Printemps.' And also to Mr. Bernard Herrmann for any number of purloined film music innovations.

Hey, if you're going to steal, steal from the best!

But I think it worked. I could tell the audience was into the picture, and it got a big hand at the end. So mission accomplished.

By the way, I got to use that same bell in 'Caligari,' as early in the movie, the Dr. rings just such a bell to attract attention to his carnival act. It happens three times, so it wasn't too much to be annoying.

This is similar to 'Sparrows,' a film that was supposedly created with the school of German Expressionism in mind. Up until now, I don't think anyone has identified the "bell" angle. Doctoral thesis, anyone? (I will resist the urge to make some pun about how this should ring a bell.)

Now I get to resume my regular life for a short while, at least until this Saturday, which brings the first of five (count 'em) screenings of 'Nosferatu' (1922) in various venues around New England.

Well, I often joke that I collaborate with dead people. So it shouldn't be surprising that things get especially busy around Halloween.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Some thoughts on creating new music for a
newly discovered Mary Pickford film

Silent film superstar Mary Pickford leads her fellow orphans through a perilous swamp in a highlight from 'Sparrows' (1926).

Greetings! If you're new to this site and checking it out in connection with the recent world "re-premiere" of Mary Pickford's 'Their First Misunderstanding' (1911), I want to say welcome, and thank you for your interest.

I'm the guy doing the music for 'Their First Misunderstanding' and the other films on the program, which is Friday, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. at Keene State College in Keene, N.H. Hosted by Pickford expert and biographer Christel Schmidt, this event is a fairly big deal in the vintage film community, and I'm honored to be a part of it.

For me, the program is special not only because it features a rediscovered Pickford film. It's also exciting because the whole experience is designed to demonstrate the power of silent film when shown as it was intended: on the big screen, in good-looking prints, with live music, and (most importantly) with a large audience on hand.

In doing live music for silent film programs around New England and elsewhere, I've found again and again that if you can "put Humpty Dumpty back together" and recreate the conditions under which the films were shown, then movies from the peak of the silent era (roughly 1914 to 1929) can come to life in ways that can be surprising.

At their best, when everything's working and an audience is under the spell of a film from the silent era, you get a real sense of why people first fell in love with the movies.

For me, there's nothing like the communal experience of running a well-made silent film to a receptive audience. It's a real rush. And silent films are often about the big emotions: Love, Hate, Revenge, Joy, Anger, and so on. I really respond to that, so much so that I'm eager to share the films with others.

And as an accompanist, it's my privilege (and challenge) to try to create music that helps the films have their intended effect, as best I can. As I sometimes joke, my artistic niche is that I collaborate with dead people!

My method is to create original music that uses the vocabulary and technique of today's film scores to help bridge the gap between a contemporary audience and a film from another era. I improvise the music as the movie plays, either on a digital synthesizer (which can evoke the texture of a full orchestra) or on a traditional acoustic piano.

It's a bit of a high wire act, sort of like a "Who's Line Is It, Anyway?" for film scoring. But I find that improvising in real time (rather than trying to follow sheet music) allows me to get inside the movie more effectively, and also to work better with any audience reaction. (Sometimes I think I accompany the audience as much as the film.)

In the case of 'Their First Misunderstanding,' I haven't yet seen the film as of this writing, and the program is tomorrow night. I may get a chance to preview it prior to the show at Keene State College, but if not, I'm prepared to play it "cold," as they say, without a chance to preview.

How do you do that? Well, you just sit down and watch the film with everyone else, except you have a keyboard in front of you and you get to react by playing music. The goal is to help the film come to life, even if you've never seen it before. Sometimes it all falls together perfectly; other times, the film goes in unexpected directions and you do your best to keep up.

All that aside, I want to welcome you to the world of silent film, which finds itself right now in a kind of golden age. Thanks to digital restoration and DVD releases, it's now possible to see hundreds of great films from the silent era that were previously unavailable. So there's a renewed interest in the period.

However, there's no substitute for seeing the films as they were intended: on the big screen, with live music, and with an audience. So I encourage you to seek out screenings in theaters and with live music whenever possible.

If you're new to silent film and enjoyed the Pickford program, it's my pleasure to welcome you to other screenings that I do all around New England and beyond. A complete list (regularly updated) is on this blog; just click on the Upcoming Silent Film Screenings link.

Thanks again for your interest in silent film, and hope to see you at an upcoming screening!

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The challenge of scoring
Harold Lloyd's 'Safety Last' (1923)

'Safety Last' (1923) is a film I have a long history with. So, as I prepare to do music for a pair of screenings (in Somerville, Mass. on Sunday, Oct. 6, and then in Plymouth, N.H. on Thursday, Oct. 10), let me try to get my thoughts in order.

Growing up, I had read about Harold Lloyd's famous building climb and other stunts, but had never seen any of them because his films weren't available anywhere. So it was a real revelation to me in 1980 when our local PBS station began running edited versions of the Time-Life editions of Harold's films, which were produced in 1974.

And there it was: 'Safety Last,' preceded by an excerpt from 'Hot Water' (1924) and also a title card describing Harold's climb of a 12-story building, done without trick photography, as a milestone in motion picture history.

Watching the movie alone in the basement in my pajamas on a Saturday morning, I was bowled over. To me, 'Safety Last' was like Beethoven's 5th Symphony. Everyone knows the four opening notes, just like everyone knows the picture of Harold hanging from the clock. But just as I was amazed to discover that Beethoven's opening notes are only the beginning of 40 minutes of dramatic and exciting and exhilarating music, I was also thrilled to find that 'Safety Last' was so much more than Harold clinging to a minute hand.

No! It was a whole world in which Harold was forced to jump from one crazy situation to another, all of it leading inexorably, even logically, to the need to climb that building. The way it was laid out in the movie, it could happen to anyone. It could happen to me! (Though I hoped not.)

Most surprising was the music, which I instantly loved! It was a kind of Dixieland jazz, with other more dramatic stuff when needed, and it really seemed to make Harold's world compete. To me, it was like what Woody Allen had done in 'Sleeper' (1974), which I saw on TV a few years before in its network premiere. Dixieland jazz pumped everything up in a way I really responded to, and in a way that made silent comedy strut in a way that no other music could.

If you're interested, here's a YouTube clip that uses some of the music, starting with what was supposed to be Harold's "theme song":

At the time, all I remembered was the music was credited to the "Crescent City Jazz Band." For some reason, I concluded that the "Crescent City" was Kansas City, and so for years I was on the lookout for other albums or recordings of this nifty Dixieland jazz band from the heartland.

Well, turns out there's no such thing, in Kansas City or anywhere. And yes, I now realize that New Orleans is the Crescent City, so I was more off than I realized. I also know the "Crescent City Jazz Band" was a made-up name for a group of studio musicians in London, where the tracks were recorded in 1974.

The music for these Time-Life releases was actually created by two people: the bouncy theme song was written by Neal Hefti, a heavyweight composer/arranger of the era whose credits include the iconic "na-na-na-na-na-na-na" theme for the 1960s Batman TV show. How's that for an impressive pedigree?

But all the other music, done in a style that followed Hefti's lead, was created by an obscure film composer and pianist named Don Hulette, who was active in Los Angeles in the 1970s, doing music for pictures such as 'Breaker Breaker' (1978), a Chuck Norris action/adventure flick. He then seems to have faded from the scene.

Alas, Hulette died in 2008 at the age of 70. But it was his music that presided over my first encounter with Harold Lloyd, and at the time, it couldn't have seemed more ideal. Even before I was doing film music, I regarded the Lloyd Time-Life releases to be a perfect match of music to visual.

So I was surprised later to find that a lot of people actually despise the Time-Life editions of Harold's work, including the music. What?!

But it's true—among knowledgeable film people, the Time-Life editions are regarded as unfortunate desicrations. A lot of this stems from the fact that Time-Life chopped the Lloyd features into half-hour segments to run on TV, and also made them into a kind of "old-timey nostalgia" package, complete with corny narration.

I've never seen any of these episodes, but they do sound awful.

However, the Time-Life project also produced full scores for reissues of most of the big Lloyd features, and all of them were done with Hulette's jazzy tracks. These are what I responded strongly too, and I still regard as some of the best silent film scoring ever done.

True, Hulette (who played piano on the tracks) and the London studio players recorded only maybe a dozen segments, which were then used over and over again in scoring the different features, with some custom stuff for sequences such as the 'Safety Last' building climb. But to me, that familiarity sort of helped Harold's world hold together, and still does. Just as Lloyd's glasses were an essential part of his character and were carried over from film to film, so was Hulette's music, at least to me.

Of course there's no one right way to score a film. But what feels "right" to us is often influenced, consciously or not, by the first music we hear with a film. It's the same principle as the "first-mover advantage" in business: whoever's first in the market usually has a leg up on the me-too competition that follows.

So for Harold, with me it was the Hulette scores. They're just perfect, it seems to me, in capturing the mood of Lloyd's stories and sequences, with their buoyant optimism tinged with just a little terror or sometimes melancholy. And, most importantly, they really help the comedy come across.

A great example of how effective they are is how the opening of 'Safety Last' is scored. Opening scene: Harold behind bars, a noose hanging in the distance, is accompanied by a plaintive dirge straight out of a Tchaikovsky slow movement. It's a great set-up for what follows: a quick cut shows Harold at a busy train station, at which Hulette's music launches into a raucous high-stepping Dixieland strut.

But what happens next is very instructive. Even as Harold bids goodbye to Mildred, and she pleads with him to send "nothing but GOOD news," and mother and minister trade knowing nods, the music just keeps cranking along. No shift to drama. No nod to the significance of Mildred's words that will lead to the mess that Harold will find himself in. Instead, the music carries us along, just like Harold's optimism carries him along to what will certainly be trouble, but we don't quite know now.

Somehow that works to set up this comedy in a way that more detailed scoring wouldn't, I think. It's another example of less being more. Let the film do its work, especially at the beginning.

Also, the texture is important. Hulette's scoring uses a small Dixieland ensemble of maybe eight or ten musicians, tops. It ain't no symphony orchestra. But somehow it's exactly enough to give a comedy—either Lloyd's or anyone else's, really—a certain kind of lift without weighing it down.

I think this is an important principle. It's my impression that comedies don't do so well with audiences when accompanied by large traditional orchestras. There's a temptation to want to do too much, when it's more important to provide a kind of rhythmic framework that supports to comedy and otherwise takes a back seat, I think. Hulette's scores offer a great balance in this regard.

A few years later, I brought my appreciation for 'Safety Last' to Fordham University, where I became a member of Cinevents, the campus film society. There I became known for my continuing advocacy of silent film and 'Safety Last' in particular, which I'm pleased to say we showed via a 16mm print of the Time-Life edition, complete with Hulette's music, which was one of the high points of my undergraduate years.

(One of the low points was when we got a 16mm print of Keaton's 'The General' (1926) with no soundtrack. This was before I did live music for films, and so the solution was to play a cassette tape of Vivaldi's 'The Seasons' during the film, since so much of Vivaldi sounds like a train chugging along. It worked great until the big battle seasons, which were accompanied by 'Spring.')

Some years later, 'Safety Last' played a big role in my trying my hand at silent film accompaniment. What happened was that the film was showing at an area revival house (no names, please), and so I went with a couple of friends, preparing to renew my acquaintance with one of the great thrill rides of cinema.

We were surprised to find that the print had no soundtrack (shades of 'The General' above) and further surprised that the management had elected to have the film accompanied by a CD of Scott Joplin piano rags played endlessly, one after another.

And guess what? It killed most of the comedy, and completely robbed the film of any of its intended dramatic impact. It just flattened it!

"Geez," I thought. "Even I could do better than this." And so it was another little push in the direction of taking up the art of live film accompaniment.

And yes, within a few years I had done just that. And then it was time for me to tackle 'Safety Last' with my own music, at a screening at the historic Palace Theatre in Manchester, N.H., the grand finale to our multi-day "Mirthquake" vintage film festival of 2008.

This show was coming at the end of four days of continuous screening of films, most of them silent and all of them accompanied by me. And my synthesizer, which I'd been carting from place to place, finally had enough. Just before showtime at the Palace, it died. And that was that.

Turned out my power adapted had somehow burned out, and there was no getting a replacement on a Sunday afternoon. So we went with an improvised Plan B: we brought the Palace's old Steinway grand out of cubbyhole backstage, dusted it off, and suddenly it was time to do a piano score to Lloyd's iconic film.

Unfortunately, the screen (hung from a fly) was positioned so far downstage that the piano had to be perched right at the edge for me to be able to see the image, even in a highly distorted way. It was like watching a movie from the most comically bad seat imaginable! Even worse, however, was that no light from the screen was bouncing down to the piano's keyboard, and I had no light of my own. So, after the lights went down, I suddenly found myself flying blind.

How did it work? Harold's films always work, even when the score is a little more dissonant than expected. And the publicity value alone made the stunt worth it—there's a small group of people who continue to bring up that screening, with its last-minute piano substitute, as an exciting movie experience unlike any other.

I guess in terms of 'Safety Last,' Harold's not the only one who learns how to benefit from a publicity stunt. So maybe my synthesizer might just fail at the last minute prior to these two upcoming screenings. What will we do?

Come to the screenings and find out! :)