Saturday, August 20, 2011

Mirthquake 2011: Two days down, one to go

Here's a progress report on 'Mirthquake,' the annual multi-day festival of obscure comedy films we do here in southern New Hampshire. We've screened some interesting cinema, both silent and sound, but attendance so far has been pretty pitiful.

For me, the highlight has been doing music for feature films that rarely get screened anywhere. On Thursday night at UNH-Manchester, we ran 'Exit Smiling' (1926), the sole silent film of stage star Beatrice Lillie.

I didn't have a chance to preview the film so played it cold, which was something I wanted to do to help prepare for Cinefest in Syracuse next March, where I'll do a lot of that. It was an interesting challenge because the movie, a backstage story about a troupe taking a tired melodrama on tour, turned out have rich musical possibilities. One minute they're on stage doing the melodrama (a certain kind of overblown music worked well for that), and the next minute, they're off-stage and acting like real humans, so I tried for a more, well, human texture.

Funny how things progress. You need to start somewhere, and so for the main theme of the movie (associated with the Beatrice Lillie character) I used a mild ragtime-y tune I made up last year for Clara Bow in 'It' (1927). It's actually quite an extended melody, with a bridge and a final cadence and spins on an on, so once you introduce it you've got plenty to work with right there. So I stubbornly stuck with it all through the film, even though it turned out to not be exactly right for Beatrice Lillie and her adventures, I thought, until right at the end. (It's just a little too sunny, and doesn't express the vulnerability of her character as I got to know it in the film.)

But you have to hang your hat on something or an improvised score isn't going to hang together at all, so I did the best I could to adapt the tune to the film's story. I kind of lost track of who was doing what to regarding the Jack Pickford character, so it was hard to do really dramatically effective scoring for parts of the film, but you keep going and hope for the best.

One issue with this one was the piano, a Yamaha grand I know well, and it's a killer to play -- very tough action, not a lot of delicacy or "give." After about an hour, my hands were fatigued and the playing starting getting noticeably sloppy. But what can you do? It's just one of those things you deal with as the film continues to run and hope for the best.

For 'Exit Smiling,' though, I'd love to plan out a score that has aggressively cheesy music for the on-stage melodrama, and keep repeating it as scenes are repeated on the stage, to emphasize the "otherness" of the stage action, and have a more coherent package of material for the off-stage stuff. And then, as the film progresses to its climax, and only then, start mixing the two together as the actions off-stage begin to resemble more and more the melodrama that the company acts out night after night. I think I got about 40 percent of the way there playing the film cold, and I'd love another shot.

Ain't that always the case, though?

And then last night, on Friday, Aug. 20, I got to play for 'Two Arabian Knights' (1927), the World War I buddy comedy-adventure that seems like the ancestor of all the Hope-and-Crosby "Road" movies that would come not long after. (The formula: Take two American wise guys, add in a beautiful dame for them to fight over, and put them in an exotic setting.) I had previewed this film, but only once and without playing, partly because I wanted to see it and partly because the Friday night screening was the only one that had an admission charge. I'm glad I did because the progression of exotic settings (a German prison camp, a Russian cargo steamer, an unspecified "Arab" country) really demands that the music be front and center, and the film ranges so widely there's really no way to anticipate what's going to happen next. (Though the title offers a big clue.)

I was surprised at what I think of as the "love music" that I came up with on the spot for the princess character. One thing I like about Mirthquake is that I'm required to play a lot of things cold over several days, and by the end it all seems to flow so naturally. That was happening last night with the love music, which somehow started well and gradually soared as the big "unveiling" scene (in which Mary Astor removes her face mask) progressed. It's a very effective scene, done in close-up, and to see her until-them shrouded face has the same kind of dramatic impact as the unveiling of Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera. (With a very different kind of face, though.) The music came together very effectively, as I took a short melodic phrase over arpeggiated accompaniment and modulated through a cycle of keys, upping the intensity each time. And at just the right moment, I thought (the first kiss, of surprising intensity), I wound up with a pedal tone on the dominant note of the scale, and then held it there as the right hand worked through a rising series of chords that all worked wonderfully. Sometimes it happens!

For the "Arab" scenes, I switched to an exotic setting I have that I sometimes use for films set in foreign lands. And I knew that a key element of the story involves a gong being struck three times, and I wanted to be ready for that. But you know what? I was way too early with the exotic stuff, which didn't fit the many scenes with just the two Americans in them, so I switched back to standard orchestra and it worked much better. (For the gong, I just used the bass drum and cymbal crash.)

Attendance, frankly, has been disappointing. For 'Exit Smiling,' besides the regular crew, we had exactly two members of the public attend, and for 'Two Arabian Knights' it was a total of four paid admissions. We'll see if things pick up for today's screenings at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, which start in about two hours, so I better get going. More later!

Also a Felix the Cat cartoon and 'Broke in China,' a Mack Sennett short starring Ben Turpin.

attendance, alas, was two people, other than Dave Stevenson, Mark Johnson, and the small group of local regulars.

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