Friday, May 7, 2010

'The Last Command' (1928) on Sunday, May 23

I'm really looking forward to our screening of 'The Last Command' (1928), set for Sunday, May 23 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. Why? Because this film, as far as I can tell from watching it alone, is one of those great silent dramas with the potential to completely sweep an audience away. Plus, it has one of the great endings in silent film, I think, with Emil Jannings turning in an amazing performance. It's no surprise he won the first-ever "Best Actor" award for this role. With the still we had for the ad (below), I couldn't resist the headline: "SEE EMIL JANNINGS GO BERSERK IN..."

As for the music, the film offers a lot of opportunities for a score to heighten the experience. And because it's so heavily Russian flavored, it seems to naturally lend itself to certain touches. The print I've been looking at makes extensive use of Tchaikovsky's 'March Slav' played in a fairly straight-forward fashion, which works okay, but seems a little obvious. I think music can also help communicate the difference between the "contemporary" 1928 Hollywood scenes and the extensive "flashback" scenes from the Russian Revolution of 1917. (That's only 11 years in the past, which is analogous to a film of 2010 referring to something as recent as, say, the 9/11 terrorist attacks.)

A couple of moments call for specific music: near the end, a pianist is asked to play "The Russian National Anthem," and you can see from what's played on the keyboard that it must be the old "God Save the Czar" melody, still an iconic tune thanks in part, I think, to its inclusion in Tchaikovsky's 1812 overture. So I looked up the music, which I'd never encountered outside of Tchaikovsky's reference, and it's a sturdy thing that I think I can make a lot of use of, in fragments in some places, but then played straight in a few key moments, such as at the film's big ending.

So yes, this is one of those silents that I think can have a surprisingly powerful effect on an audience if everything comes together. I'll do my best with the music and report back after the screening, which takes place the weekend before Memorial Day weekend.

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