Monday, March 26, 2012

Sound vs. silence in 'Noah's Ark' (1928) on Sunday, March 25

Me with the handy improvised on/off switch at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre.

The first cold and rainy day we've had in awhile was good weather for a screening of 'Noah's Ark' (1928), the part-talkie World War I/Biblical hybrid epic starring Dolores Costello, George O'Brien, and a cast of thousands, most of them washed away in the climax.

It's a whale of a film (I know, different Biblical tale), but presented an unusual challenge for our screening at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. As a part-talkie with two sequences of synchronized dialogue, how could we rig it to hear the soundtrack but still do live music?

The answer came in the form of an improvised on/off switch hooked up by Dennis Markevarich, long-time owner/operator of the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. Dennis spliced the switch into the power feed for his on-screen sound system so that the film's soundtrack could be turned on or off at will.

The result was a household light switch held together with duct tape that I could control from the keyboard. When it was time to hear dialogue, all I had to do was flip the switch. (Dennis had helpfully written ON in red ink on some masking tape.)

I got to the theater a little early to test it out and it worked like a charm! We just had to check the levels and then were good to go. During the actual performance, the only thing left to chance was me knowing when the dialogue sequences started and stopped. Fortunately, I didn't suffer any brain cramps, and managed to flip the switch at the right moments.

Well, almost. The only transition that was a little messy was after the first dialogue sequence, where the scene shifts to exteriors of Paris, with U.S. troops marching in the streets. Even before the title comes up, the soundtrack carries a blaring brass band rendition of 'You're In The Army Now,' which then continues underneath the scene.

I didn't get to the switch until after the brass band made its entrance, so how to avoid an abrupt cut-off? Thinking uncharacteristically quickly, I borrowed a page from fellow accompanist Andrew Simpson (from the recent Cinefest confab) and started playing underneath the recorded sound, by some luck matching the key. (It's a pretty simple tune.) Add in some crashing percussion, and it quickly covered the mono sound track, which I then turned off. Voila!

One of the hallmarks of silent film is how it allows audience members to fantasize about elements such as voices, which is all part of the deeply personal and emotional experience a silent film can create. So in 'Noah's Ark,' I was interested to see what the effect of suddenly hearing voices on screen would be.

Well, it didn't completely shatter the spell. But the dialogue, and the way it was delivered, didn't help. Right off the bat, Dolores Costello declaims a doozy: "Oh Travis, isn't it wonderful that train wreck brought us together?" This attempt at romance remains distinctly earth-bound, with Costello and O'Brien speaking like they're students in an elocution class and then unintentionally comic French soldiers ("Oooh la la!") getting in on zee act.

Alas, it drew laughs from our audience of about 100, but not enough to completely ruin the film's dramatic energy. Before long, we were back in silent film land, with a powerful dramatic scene similar to the "taking leave" sequence in 'The Big Parade' (1925), in which O'Brien impulsively joins his countrymen marching through Paris, leaving Costello and emotional wreck as she searches for a glimpse of him among the hordes of soldiers rushing through the streets.

The other dialogue sequence involved heavy use of Noah Beery (with a name like that...), the film's heavy, who has a remarkably effective voice (deep and rich, almost like Boris Karloff in 'The Grinch Who Stole Christmas') that comes through splendidly, considering the limits of early talkie mono sound. And the key scene in which he threatens Costello lends itself to dialogue, even if takes place in a loud dancing hall and involves a little too much raucous music for my taste.

And then the film shifts back to silence, as Costello plans her escape in lieu of a rendezvous with Beery, a scene that worked really well, I thought. I don't know why, but it didn't seem jarring at all to see Beery suddenly appear again (a few moments after hearing him speak) and see his renewed threats repeated via intertitle, with only his acting and my music to amplify them appropriately.

Somehow, it jacked up things to another level, making me think there might be some kind of dramatic energy in part-silent/part-sound films, along the same lines that Buster Keaton once imagined using sound: as a partner in telling the story, but not a constant companion.

This dual-status might have been more effective overall in 'Noah's Ark' if the dialogue was done a little more naturally. My guess is that they just didn't know how to do movie dialogue at that point, just like some theater actors at first didn't know how to act for the screen. It seems like they were striving for the "cultured enunciation" mocked so effectively many years later in 'Singin' in the Rain.' Moses supposes his toeses are roses. In 'Noah's Ark,' there's one moment where George O'Brien seems to forget a line and then laughs it off, and it's the most spontaneous and natural thing in the sound sequences.

Of course when 'Noah's Ark' was released, it would not have been shown the way we presented it. If a theater was wired for sound, it would have played the whole Vitaphone score and dispensed with live music altogether. And if a theater wasn't wired for sound, it would have played the silent version, with live music but no dialogue. So we may have invented something new here.

In any case, the last 20 minutes of the picture, when we finally get to the Noah's Ark story, are flat-out amazing, with all the contemporary characters assuming Biblical roles, something like a Simpsons parody. Though it was hard to take George O'Brien seriously in his Tarzan costume, and the stock footage of elephants and warthogs and other creature making their way to the ark is a little hard to take, the whole thing works marvelously in a theater with an audience.

For music, the flood sequence built nicely, from small stirrings (it's mostly wind at the start) to incredible scenes of people being literally washed away by gigantic columns of water crashing down from all directions. Even a few obvious "process shots" and some dicey superimposition at the climax don't take away from what we actually see happening right before our eyes: destruction, panic, and enough water to fill Lake Erie. It's a grand few minutes, some of the biggest in all of silent film, and a wonderful send-off to a medium that itself was in its dying days.

Perhaps because of its status as a transition film (rather than a pure silent), Noah's Ark hasn't really been known as one of the classic silents, even though it was a success for Warner Bros. at the time of its release. Well, whatever the reason for its obscurity, 'Noah's Ark' seems to contain the DNA of a lot of iconic Hollywood moments to come. Afterwards, a group of us picked out everything from Dolores Costello on a platform in heavy chains anticipating 'King Kong' to the villain in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' suffering a hand injury, which is what happens to Beery both in contemporary times and in the Biblical flash-back.

How ironic that this ambitious picture was released at a time when silent pictures were being swept away just like...well, you know.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Preparing 'Noah's Ark' (1928) on Sunday, March 25

George O'Brien and Dolores Costello get to know one another in 'Noah's Ark' (1928)

Tomorrow brings a new adventure: For the first time, I'm attempting to do live music for a part-talkie. The film is 'Noah's Ark' (1928), a silent picture that was released with two dialogue sequences during the silent/sound switchover period. With Easter on its way, it's our entry this year in the "Hollywood Biblical Epic" sweepstakes.

So how are we going to coordinate the dialogue scenes with the silent sequences that require live music? At first I thought we could do it by me signaling the projection booth to turn the sound up or down, perhaps by coughing. (Three short coughs to turn it up, two long throat-clears to turn it down.)

But Dennis Markevarich, owner of the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre, came up with a better solution. He's wired the sound through a switch that's been placed down below the screen, where I usually set up my keyboard. When the sound needs to come up, I just flip the switch! Simple -- in fact, so simple that I'm worried that something has to go wrong. We'll see. (Or hear, at least.)

As for the film, it's a doozy! It has everything from massive spectacle taken from scripture to Louis Fazenda playing the guitar. Looking forward to seeing it on the big screen, and I hope you'll join me at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre on Sunday, March 25 at 4:30 p.m.

I'm hoping it rains, if only to get everyone in the right mood.

- Also, this afternoon (Saturday, March 24) I did a film program at the Courville, an assisted living center in Nashua, N.H. Interesting because every time I played a big passage, silverware in the nearby dining room would audibly rattle! Nice audience of about 20 folks, and the activities director on duty happened to be the daughter of my godfather. What a small world it is!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Saturday, March 17: Cinefest, Day 3

The Palace Theatre in Syracuse, N.Y., gradually fills with Cinefest attendees.

Today brought the grand finalé: an off-site trip to the Palace Theatre for a day-long program of 35mm film. It was also my first chance for "quality time" with legendary accompanist Phil Carli, who'd been suffering a cold all weekend and spending a lot of time resting, but still tackling films with a "show must go on" attitude.

But first we had to get to the theater. Phil knew where it was, so I followed him in his big blue Olds Ninety-Eight as we hopped on Interstate 81, then through neighborhood streets until reaching the Palace.

Despite the name, the theater is no movie palace from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Rather, it's a very homey one-screen neighborhood film house with about 500 seats and a modest balcony. As a throwback to the days when movie theaters were part of any urban streetscape, I loved the place immediately. The projectionist late told me it's one of only three theaters in all of Syracuse that can still run 35mm film.

We came early (before Cinefest attendees began arriving by school bus) to check out the keyboard (a Yamaha clavinova) and sound arrangements. Inside, we found the house sound tech setting up a microphone to rest on the keyboard. Phil surprised me by aggressively ordering the tech to not mike the piano and not feed it through the house sound. "I don't want it to sound like it's a recorded score," Phil said loudly, and in a tone that indicated he wasn't fooling around.

Fellow accompanist Andrew Simpson had arrived by then, and we both stood by as Phil asked for adjustments, deferring to his "senior" status. Eventually, yes, the microphone was shut off and we just used the Yahama's built-in output. What Phil was after, of course, was what a genuine acoustic piano would sound like, with the music definitely coming from it rather than from speakers around the room.

This was at odds with my general desire to aim for sound that does approximate a movie score effect, meaning I generally like to hook up the synthesizer output to house sound whenever possible. But for the solo piano sound in a modest theater, Phil was right, I think: coming from the house sound system would have been too much, or at least a disorientating distraction.

A pre-show visit of critic/author Leonard Maltin at the keyboard prompted photos of the accompanists, including this one of all three. Phil, a big guy, joked that in any photo, he's always the one looming in from the side. This prompted Maltin to recall something that Milton Berle once told him: in any photo, make sure you're standing on the left. Why?

"Because that way, you'll always be the first name in the caption," Maltin said. Wow! I told him that in 25 years of the newspaper business, I'd never heard that little pearl of wisdom, as practical as it is true. I guess that's one reason to go to an event such as Cinefest. Here's Mr. Maltin with yours truly:

The day-long program opened with a series of comedy shorts, and once again I elected to go first, in part because later in the morning, I'd play the first feature, and also because my style is "thinner" than what both Andrew and Phil do with comedies, and I didn't want my work to seem like a let-down after their work.

Well, luck was with me, as 'No Children' (1929) was a wonderful film that got a big audience reaction. It took awhile for me to find the melody, but once that happened, I kept up with the film and things seemed to hold together. After that, I sat back in astonishment as Andrew and Phil tackled short comedies starring Hank Mann, Stan Laurel, and Ford Sterling, the latter of which made extensive use of an electric chair. I continue to be amazed at what these guys can do on the fly to bring these films to life: Andrew's jazzed-up treatment of "La Marseillaise" for Stan Laurel's attempts to sell a book on Napoleon, and Phil crashing all over the keyboard during the frantic Sterling film.

I later asked Phil about his approach, and he told me something very illuminating. When accompanying a film, he doesn't play the piano. Rather, he's imagining the varied timbres of the entire orchestra, conjuring them up through the keyboard. And hearing him play, that really was true: you could hear a shrill E flat clarinet line climbing out of the dense harmonies, followed sudden string tremolos, then the crash of percussion in abrupt bass discords. It made me think of how Liszt did the same thing in transcribing the Beethoven symphonies — evoking the whole orchestra through the keyboard. It's a level of musicianship that I don't think I could ever hope to reach, but knowing that will help me do more with my own attempts, I think.

Phil is the nicest person you could imagine, but he has very definite opinions about certain things, and does not hesitate to share them. Don't get him started on Charles Ives, for instance, whom Carli immediately branded a "complete charlatan" in conversation with Andrew. (Phil went on to say he despised the music of Copland, Bernstein, and basically all 20th century American composers, and that the best U.S. composer was George Whitefield Chadwick.) But somehow, I found this refreshing, harking back to a time when people could have opinions and completely disagree but still be agreeable, which Phil always was.

If 'No Children' went well, then the Clara Bow feature 'Get Your Man' (1927) was a romp. Started strong with a bluesy-Gershwiny thing I sometimes pull out, and all seemed to go smoothly after that, even with an in-progress restoration print that had something like 200 splices in it. Most interesting for me was a six-minute sequence of titles inserted in place of two missing reels — for some reason, I could do music for these that seemed to really click, and it all came across very effectively, I thought.

In doing music for 'Get Your Man,' two other old themes bubbled up: a "love" theme created for 'The Mask of Zorro' (1920) that was a nice contrast to the bouncy Gershwinish main theme, and also a minuet that was originally a tune I found myself singing to my dogs. Thankfully, none of the splices let go, and I felt the whole score really held together and supported the picture effectively. Afterwards, I received many kind comments from people, including noted film preservationist David Shepard, who was in attendance.

Alas, things went a little less smoothly for Andrew in 'Mr. Fix-It' (1918), a fun early comedy from Douglas Fairbanks. Andrew was doing a great job with the music, but the film broke during a reel change, causing the screen to go dark. Andrew was in the middle of a busy passage at the time, and he just kept playing, even when the house lights came up. With no sense of how long the interlude would be, Andrew kept up the energy, and then started notching it up little by little, until finally the audience began applauding. Andrew then switched to something lighter, but augmented it with some "shooting the keyboard" moves in fine Chico Marx style. It was a superb example of how to fill time!

Weird: At one point during 'Mr. Fix-It,' I felt a tingling on my wrist. "This film is really affecting me," I thought, briefly scratching the spot. But then it happened again, and again. Whatever. However, after the lights came up, I found I had been sitting where someone had spilled a soda, and little red ants were swarming at my feet! Yeesh! Ah, the glamorous life of silent film accompaniment.

And then it was lunchtime, so I wandered around the theater to take some pictures. Here's the projection booth, with the twin Century machines already loaded with the opening afternoon feature, 'Hail the Woman' (1920).

And here's a shot of the theater's vintage lobby:

I then go check on Phil, who had gone back to his car to get some rest. Finding him resting comfortably in the passenger seat with a blindfold on, I moseyed down the street to explore not one but two local bookstores, making this part of Syracuse a good candidate for the land that time forgot.

In one, I found a couple of older paperback Vonneguts that I scooped up for my collection, and had a long chat with Cinfest regular Rick Scheckman, who's on the staff of "Late Show With David Letterman" and a real knowledgeable film guy. In another, I found a pile of interesting railroad publications, including a copy of "36 Miles of Trouble," a book about the West River Railroad, a long-gone shortline that linked the Vermont communities of Brattleboro and Londonderry. I bought it for Phil, a railroad buff, thinking he might enjoy it.

I missed the afternoon's films as I had mid-term exams to read and wanted to get in my New York State run, too. (Ended up doing 8.3 miles.) After the others came back, I joined Phil and his family and Andrew and Rob Stone for dinner at The Mission, a terrific Tex-Mex restaurant housed in an ex-church in downtown Syracuse. Hey, what better way to spend St. Patrick's Day?

And that was it for film accompaniment, or so I thought. That evening, Andrew was to do the only silent: the recent color restoration of 'A Trip To The Moon' (1903), with David Shepard narrating. (I suggested using the synthesizer to add some weirdness to the moon scenes, but Andrew wisely demurred due to lack of rehearsal.) Below, here's a picture of Andrew prior to 'A Trip To The Moon' as he might have been rendered by one of the French Impressionists of the period.

But afterwards, a reel of recently recovered Clara Bow silent material was screening, and I wound up at the keyboard in what turned into a disjointed scramble to keep up with the rapidly shifting images. Well, you do the best you can and hope it helped people enjoy the clips.

And that was it. I fell asleep in my room after that, missing out on any Saturday night fun in the Hospitality Room on the 6th floor. Oh well! The next morning was higlighted by breakfast with Andrew and Rob at Carl's Kountry Kitchen, a place that looked like it hadn't been altered since Lyndon B. Johnson was in the White House.

I liked everything about it, especially this curious message:

Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday, March 16: Cinefest, Day 2

• Played for two features today. In the afternoon, I found 'Partners Three' (1918), a sorta-Western drama starring Enid Bennett, a tough film to do effective music for. One issue was the condition of the print: missing the main titles, and many of the intertitles were "flash" versions (single-frame placeholders) that either went by too quickly to read or were so degraded as to be illegible. Also, the story was hard for me to follow, which made for some tentative passages, and also led to moments where I'd commit to something only to find I was going in the wrong direction and have to switch course.

• Equally disjointed, it seemed to me, was the one surviving reel from 'Tillie's Tomato Surprise' (1915), a six-reel follow-up to the more well-known 'Tillie's Punctured Romance' (1914). I couldn't make any sense of this film as it unreeled - first there's a man in a kilt operating a meat grinder that produced live dogs, then a guy is flying through the air, and then who knows what? Not sure how much work should be done to uncover the rest of this film.

• An evening screening of 'The Dark Mirror' (1920), a surrealistic crime drama about a woman whose sense of reality becomes blurred by her dreams, was much more satisfying in terms of music. I had a few melodies ready for this and it all seemed to hold together. Good complete print, easy to watch and follow. Preceded by 'Food and Growth,' a strange silent educational film about rats.

• Fellow accompanists Phil Carli and Andrew Simpson tackled a bouquet of short slapstick comedies this afternoon, and I continue to be in awe of what they can do with this kind of film. Andrew comes up with bouncy stuff with spiky harmonies and has a gift for finding ways to punctuate big moments without breaking stride. And Phil is just phenomenal at underscoring comedy with music that just roars out of the keyboard at times. What a treat to be able to be in their presence, and an inspiration as well.

• I had a nice conversation in the hall today with David Shepard, the noted film restoration expert who once ran Blackhawk Films in Iowa. As a teenager in the late 1970s, this is the company that got all my pocket money in exchange for 8mm versions of classic silent films, which I'd run again and again. Ah, memories of a misspent youth. Well, not entirely misspent -- for example, I can give you a scene-by-scene description of 'Cops' (1922), 'One Week' (1920), and probably all the other Buster Keaton short comedies.

• I wouldn't take this as a comment on the vintage film community, but it's interesting that also booked into the conference center this weekend is the local "near-death experience" society.

• Personal notes: Ate breakfast this morning at the No Name Diner. It's called that because the restaurant wants to be known for its food, not its name. All patrons are entered into a raffle for $25; I'll make an announcement if I'm this week's lucky winner. Came back to hotel to get some work done, but realized I needed more sleep and so missed Phil's morning performance. Had dinner at Heid's, a roadside hot dog restaurant: a "sea dog" washed down with ginger beer.

Thursday, March 15: Cinefest, Day 1

Okay, the first full day of this year's Cinefest is done, so here's a brief write-up of the highlights as I experienced them. (Actually, it's not quite over yet -- they're still running an Adolphe Menjou film downstairs, but it's over for me.)

• What a thrill to hear my two fellow accompanists come up with music for obscure films they've never seen before. Phil Carli (who is suffering a cold) played for Hepworth's English melodrama 'Helen of Four Gates' (1921), while Andrew Simpson tackled two features: 'The Forbidden Trail' (1923), a lively Western, and 'Street of Forgotten Men' (1926), a dark Paramount drama. Andrew also "tackled" music for a few silent parts of a football short, the first film out of the can at 9 a.m.

I can learn so much by taking in their respective approaches. The big lesson is to keep something in reserve. No matter how exciting the opening scenes may be, keep it light so you have somewhere to go as the film progresses. Both Andrew and Phil do this very well, and it's something I still need to work at.

• I opened this morning with 'Bell Boy 13' (1923), a bouncy comedy starring Douglas MacLean. The music came out in bright primary colors, mostly around a simple tune that kept finding its way into everything, seemingly. It took awhile for me to settle in, but I'm feeling pretty good and eager to get to tomorrow's films. I have two: in the afternoon, a feminist drama called 'Partners Three' (1918), and then at 10 p.m. 'The Dark Mirror' (1920) a surrealist drama about a woman's dreams.

• I've been talking a lot with Andrew (here he is, above), and he's a really nice guy. His last name is Simpson and his hometown in Indiana is Shelbyville, so we immediately started singing bits from the 'Monorail' episode of The Simpsons, and then other musical parodies.

• This evening I got a chance to chat with movie critic Leonard Maltin, a long-time Cinefest attendee and supporter. I wanted to tell him that his book "The Great Movie Comedy Teams" was the first movie book I ever owned, and that I still have my paperback edition. Mr. Maltin was very gracious and eager to chat about all things film.

• Watched some but not all of the other programming. The highlight for me was 'Moonlight and Pretzels' (1933), a bizarre Depression-era musical from Universal that was screened this evening. Any film with William Frawley and a finale that includes stock footage of cattle and sheep (don't ask) gets my attention. And just to give you an idea about what the Cinfest crowd is like, the director credit for Karl Freund drew spontaneous applause!

• In non-film news, I squeezed in a three-mile run this afternoon (it's in the 60s here), preparation for the long run I want to do, probably on Saturday at this point. Also, I got up early and snuck off on my own for breakfast at the Miss Syracuse Diner. It's a bigger city than I thought -- something like 150,000 people in Syracuse itself, and 600,000 in the whole area. It's also where most of the salt came from in this country until about 1900.

The things you learn while on the road!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On the road to Cinefest in Syracuse, N.Y.

I'll be in Syracuse, N.Y. from Wednesday, March 14 through Sunday, March 18 as one of the musicians at this year's Cinefest. This is one of the big annual gatherings of vintage film buffs in the U.S., and I'm thrilled to be helping out. To any new friends, welcome to this running journal of adventures in silent film accompaniment!

Our first task comes Wednesday night, when the three accompanists gather with organizer Joe Yranski and decide who gets to do which film over the next four days. (Above: a scene from 'Hail the Woman' (1921), a melodrama on this year's program.)

Accompanists this year include veteran Phil Carli, whose work I find just phenomenal and who inspired me to start doing this, and Andrew Simpson, a very accomplished musician and composer from the Washington, D.C. area with a lot of silent film work to his credit.

Frankly, I'm amazed to be on the same program with talent of this caliber. I can only assume I was invited to serve as a "control factor" in some kind of experiment I'll learn about only later. "Hey, here's a study where they deliberately put a mediocre musician in among pros to see how listeners would respond." Or maybe they've worked out a promotional deal with a local grocer for low-priced vegetables, and want to ensure there's something to throw them at.

Seriously, I'm grateful to Joe Yranski, Ben Model, and other folks who've made this appearance possible. A public thanks to all!

Cinefest focuses on rare silents or early talkies that aren't generally available. In fact, many of the titles weren't announced until just last week, and the schedule is always subject to change. As for silents, this year's four-day program includes 12 features and a bevy of shorts, too, and yes, I've never seen any of them!

(If you're interested, here's the schedule; the festival is online at

So in terms of music, that means creating a score on the fly, which is always an interesting challenge. Sometimes things fall together surprisingly well; other times, not so much. As they say when you go car-shopping, mileage my vary.

How do we decide who gets to tackle which film? From what Joe outlined, we simply take turns claiming titles until they're all spoken for. I wonder if it'll devolve into a silent film version of "Let's Make a Deal?" I'll give you a couple of Mack Sennett two-reelers in exchange for the Tom Mix feature... As a native New Hampshirite, I find myself drawn to 'Hail the Woman' (1921), which, according to Joe Yranski's notes, features "a bigoted New England farmer," a character type I feel qualified to conjure through music. But we'll see.

I'll report on things as I'm able. If you're at Cinefest, please say hello!

Update from Cinefest: Well, I'm here and it's Wednesday night. We've divided up the films and the features I'm playing are:

- Thursday, March 15, 9:55 a.m.: 'Bell Boy 13' (1923)
- Friday, March 16, 10:05 p.m.: 'The Dark Mirror' (1920)
- Saturday, March 17, sometime during 35mm show: 'Get Your Man' (1927)

Hey! That's only three. Somehow fellow accompanist Andrew Simpson wound up with five features instead of the four apiece. So I'll have to see what he'd like to do about this tomorrow...

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Deaf people, crazy kids, John Ford, and the Sherman Brothers

We drew a good-sized audience last night (Tuesday, March 6) for our showing of 'Hangman's House' (1928), a rarely screened Fox silent directed by John Ford that holds up really well. Although it includes a lot of horse action and the first notable cameo appearance by a very young John Wayne, the film isn't a Western, but is a drama set in Ireland. (Okay, maybe it's western Ireland.)

The music turned out well, I thought — I used a new "fanfare" theme for the main male character that worked wonderfully under a galloping rhythm during a key horseracing scene, and also a "fake Irish" tune that proved versatile in pumping up the drama. About 40 people stayed afterwards for a half-hour question/answer period, and many said they really liked the film.

But the experience was also notable for what happened off-screen. While setting up at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library, a man I'd never seen before came up and began loudly telling us to make sure we had the closed captioning on. "For a silent film?" I asked, in the middle of cueing up a projector, but then realized what was going on.

Turns out, yes, he's completely deaf. Years of asking for the closed captioning to be turned on had made him a creature of habit, and he'd forgotten it was a silent film. We chatted a bit — although he can't hear anything (including the music, which might have been to his advantage), he can read lips and communciate quite easily with others. I was so pleased he attended and hope to see him again soon.

I can't say the same, exactly, for a group of kids who noisily came into the auditorium about a half-hour into the screening and proceeded to act like they were in their living room at home and watching the big-screen TV. Well, this is what happens at the library, where everyone is welcome, so you need to have a "big tent" philosophy as far as audiences go.

But these kids were running in and out of the auditorium and creating a distraction for me, and for the audience as well. It never got so bad that I had to stop playing and say knock it off, but it came darn close. Still, new audiences have to come from somewhere, and afterwards they returned and we chatted briefly about "old movies." (One of them wanted to know if the movies we show are older than 'Titanic,' from 1997!)

And after the screening, when opening the auditorium's rear entrance to start loading out my gear, I was startled when the door bumped into a homeless man sleeping on the stoop. (He was startled, too.) The guy was nice enough, considering the situation, and he vanished quickly into the night, leaving me alone to ponder the glamour of cinema in New Hampshire on my own.

Coupla thoughts from last night's "talk" period with the audience. I think it's important to remember that 'Hangman's House' is not regarded as an all-time silent film classic. It's more of a typical release — the kind of film that Hollywood was cranking out on a routine basis in the late silent era. And yet it still has an astonishing ability to hypnotize an audience. So it stands as yet another good example of why people fell hard for the movies.

Directors such as Ford, with little background in the stage, were coming up with films that hold up well today because they're more natively cinematic, I think. The acting is more realistic, at least to our eyes, and a lot of the basic tools of cinema (close-ups, moving cameras, location shots, imaginative visuals) are present. They really knew what they were after by 1928, and that proficiency helps the films work today, even on an audience not used to silent film.

The other thing is to mention Robert B. Sherman, one of the songwriting Sherman brothers, who died yesterday in London at age 86. (The younger brother, Richard M. Sherman, is still with us. That's them with Walt Disney; Robert, generally the "word" guy, is standing.) Perhaps it's because I was marinated in their work as a child, but I regard the Sherman Brothers as the gold standard for simple, memorable melodies.

They had a knack for using very basic musical ideas to create tunes that sound like they've existed all along, but the Shermans somehow discovered them. (It reminds me of what I once heard about sculpture: it's already there in the stone. The sculptor just "finds" it.) And because their most popular work was for musicals such as Disney's 'Mary Poppins,' a lot of it has a theatricality that I find especially appealing. I recall as a child being tremendously excited by the tunes in the non-Disney film "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," and just as thrilled (as a big kid) when it was adapted a few years ago for a stage version in London.

And they're one of the models I have in mind when I do my own music for a silent film. Ideally, I try to create simple but memorable tunes that, by virtue of their recognizability, help a film score hold together as it unfolds in real time. And, once it's established, switching it around (using bits of it as connective tissue, changing from major to minor or back again, reharmonizing it) adds a whole other dimension to the possibilities — but only if people can recognize it in the first place.

So it all starts with simple, recognizable melodies, and I can say from experience that this sort of simplicity is not easy to achieve. So my hat is off to the Sherman Brothers, songwriters of my misspent youth, for showing how much potential remains in those white and black keys, even if you're courageous enough to aim for simple tunes, and persistent enough to burnish them to a high gloss.

Rest in peace, Robert!