Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Notes on scoring 'King of Kings' (1927)

Sometimes it's all a matter of perspective.

After taking in Kevin Brownlow's massive 5½-hour restoration of 'Napoleon' (1927) on Sunday, April 1, last night's screening of Cecil B. DeMille's 'The King of Kings' (also 1927) came off as a mere trifle. At just 2½ hours, it was practically a short subject!

But in truth, 'King of Kings' is cinema on a grand scale -- a big bombastic biblical blockbuster. In accompanying it, you really need to pace yourself, or you can run into problems.

This morning, for example, I'm nursing a sore index finger on my right hand thanks to overdoing it last night. I know, nothing compared to what Jesus does in suffering for mankind's sins, but even so! If you over do it, you end up paying a price, which I'm currently doing right now as I type these words.

'The King of Kings' is actually so long (155 minutes) that it forced us to push our usual starting time from 6 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. to fit it all in before the 8:30 p.m. closing time of the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library, which hosts our monthly screenings in its nifty 1913 Carpenter Memorial Auditorium.

Because of this, I kept my opening remarks brief, completely forgetting to mention two important things. One is that the restored print includes two sequences in color. (Sure enough, afterwards I got questions about why parts of the film had been "colorized.") Also, among the heaving crowds of extras was a young Ayn Rynd, who met her future husband Frank O'Connor on the set.

Even though we got an early start, we were only just getting to the big crucifixion climax when I glanced up at the clock and saw it was past 8 p.m.! I wasn't sure we'd make it, but the film finished at 8:20 p.m., sparing us all from being locked overnight in the library. Oh well, at least we'd have stuff to read.

Interestingly, the audience included a priest in full priest uniform: black clothes, white collar. He didn't object to anything in my abbreviated introduction, in which I explained how movies were originally regarded as the work of the devil and it took awhile for them to become respectable enough to depict Jesus.

But he did wonder if Ernest Torrence, who played Peter, ever was cast as "Hopalong Cassidy" in talkie Westerns. (I didn't think so, I said, because Torrence died in 1933; I just checked and phew, I was right. Don't want to go around giving bad info to a priest!) I didn't get a chance to talk to him but hope he comes back again. Love to get his perspective on the Cecil B. DeMille treatment.

I was pretty happy with the music, which was created from almost completely new stuff. (One exception: borrowing the octave leap for 'King of Kings' from Handel's Messiah.) Holy stuff was indicated by a minor chord resolving to a major chord one fourth above. (Try it, it works.) Evil stuff was shown by a climbing minor scale under a rhythmic accompaniment that evolved quite a bit as the evening wore on. Mary Magdalene had her own 3/4 melody (the only one all night) that indicated sin and temptation, later transformed to virtue and devotion. I had a fanfare ready that I had used in prior screening, but it never came up this time. Weird!

But truth be told, I'm still recovering from the marathon 'Napoleon' screening in Oakland, Calif. this past Sunday. I will endeavor to write about it before the passage of time dulls the immediacy of it. So stay tuned...

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