Friday, June 21, 2013

'Mommy, what's that needle for?'
Highlights from a busy week of screenings

Chaplin the Cop sits on the syringe in 'Easy Street' (1917)

The title of this post is what I heard behind me while doing music for Chaplin's comedy 'Easy Street' (1917).

This is the one where Chaplin's gal, Edna Purviance, is menaced by a man who plunges a large syringe into his forearm. ("Say No To Drugs" was far in the future.) The needle is left on a bench, poised upright; Chaplin later sits on it, and the effect on him is similar to the effect of spinach on Popeye. In short order, he routs the bullies and saves Edna.

And in the middle of it all, the voice of a young girl asking, "Mommy, what's that needle for?"

Well, so much for the image of silent comedy as family entertainment. It's more like a mine field, actually, where every now and then something explodes into racism, sexism, or just plain bad taste. Drugs can pop up at any time, even in the most innocent of light comedies.

In 'Get Out and Get Under,' Harold Lloyd's car breaks down in front of an opium den. Harold borrows a syringe from a junkie and injects his recalcitrant engine; the car takes off with renewed energy and Harold must chase it down the road.

And then there's Douglas Fairbanks in 'The Mystery of the Leaping Fish' (1916) a Sherlock Holmes spoof in which Fairbanks stuffs himself with cocaine throughout the film. Really. His character's name is "Coke Ennyday," and the face of his apartment clock reads only EATS, DRINKS, SLEEPS, and DOPE.

Ah, the good old days!

But doing four screenings in four different states in one week can lend itself to a kind of hallucinatory state. Last night, while loading my gear in car after a screening of 'The General' (1926) at the Leavitt Theatre in Ogunquit, Maine, I told theater owner Peter Clayton that sometimes my head keeps doing music after the movie's over.

"Just coming out of the theater with my keyboard, I was thinking of a little arpeggio in F major," I said.

Who needs syringes when you have silent film music? And before experiences of the past week get buried by experiences of weeks to come, here's a quick round-up of impressions from four screenings in four different states.

Douglas Fairbanks and his ever-present cigarette in 'The Gaucho.'

NEW HAMPSHIRE: The Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center, Plymouth. 'The Gaucho' (1927) on Thursday, June 13. One of the few Fairbanks swashbucklers that I hadn't done before, 'The Gaucho' was well received by a relatively small audience of about 30.

I first saw this picture earlier this year at the Kansas Silent Film Festival, and it didn't do much for me, I think primarily because Fairbanks just shows up as the famous 'Gaucho,' feared by all. Why? To me, it was as though Fairbanks was coasting on the reputation of characters from previous films.

Same thing with "Ruiz the Usurper," played by Gustav von Seyffertitz. Who is this guy, and what is he usurping? We're never told, and Fairbanks seems to be just asking us to take it on faith that Ruiz is even nastier than the Gaucho. (He could have improved the film by borrowing a page from Harold Lloyd's book and having Ruiz do something like throw a stick at a cat, which Lloyd used to define the bully in 'Grandma's Boy.')

And then, in the climax, it's not Fairbanks who saves the day, but a huge herd of stampeding cattle! (Cue the jokes about stock footage.) Oh, for the magic of Fairbanks in 'Zorro' or 'Robin Hood' or 'The Black Pirate,' where he vanquishes hordes of villains single-handedly, without the help of a single steer!

So I was curious to see if music could help mask what I felt were some rough edges of what ought to be a major Fairbanks adventure from the height of the silent film era. What I found was that I couldn't do much for the character issues, other than to make the music for Ruiz and his cronies even more foreboding than that of the Gaucho. But the stampede really did come to life by amping up the accompaniment out of all proportion, which I imagine what a stampede must be like (I've never been near one) and is probably the effect Fairbanks was after.

Though I've never been in the presence of an actual stampede, I've seem them in the movies. And I was very impressed with what Jon Miralis did this past March at Cinefest in Syracuse, N.Y.  when he accompanied a climactic stampede in 'Wild Beauty' (1926) not so much with music, but with some very deep and constant rolling and growling in the bass. I asked him about it afterwards, and he just said, "a lotta notes."

To understand what I did for 'The Gaucho,' you first have to understand that at the Flying Monkey, I plug my digital synthesizer into the house sound system, which is designed to handle extremely loud bands that are often booked into the space. So during the silent film sound check we have to take things way down to get the level that works for me. This usually means keeping my master volume at a fairly low level.

And now here comes the stampede, which I accompanied by this low and shifting trud in the bass and percussion. To bring it out, I decided to try something I never do—notch my volume output up just a bit as if to say "movie climax." To my surprise, it was really effective at creating this sense of dread and of powerful forces being unleashed, even as things were just getting started.

So, thinking you can't have too much of a good thing, I touched it up another notch, all the while building the booming accompaniment, which was really filling the hall by that point. And then again, and, as the action warranted, yet again, and also slowing increasing the tempo, too. It was very exciting and clearly had "BIG MOVIE CLIMAX" written all over it as the audience sat there mesmerized. (You can sense this from the keyboard.)

In one of those fortunate freaks of timing, I was able to build the sound up to a competely thundering degree at just the right moment, when the stampede allows the Gaucho and his fellow outlaws to rout Ruiz and his troops. Sitting there doing it, making all that noise as the film built to a climax, was one of those exciting, I-can't-believe-I'm-doing-this moments that I love.

So, note for the future: at the finish of 'The Gaucho,' take a cue from the cattle, and don't be afraid to let loose.

Prior to the film, I had one amusing line, I thought. I pointed out how in recent years, parental warnings about the content of contemporary films now include "scenes of characters smoking" as something to watch out for. If smoking is a concern, families with children might want to consider leaving now, I said, as would anyone trying to quit smoking.

Afterwards, a guy said something I thought was funny: "You know, if I could do what Douglas Fairbanks could do with a cigarette, I'd smoke all the time."

One of the joys of watching six Chaplin Mutuals in a row is getting to know Chaplin's "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" stock company, including (from left) Eric Campbell, Edna Purviance, and Henry Bergman.

VERMONT: Brandon Town Hall, Brandon. 'Charlie Chaplin Short Comedies' on Saturday, June 15. This was an unexpectedly tough program because one of the backers of this silent film series was tragically killed in a car accident two days before. Maxine Thurston, 81, was a lovely woman who had specifically asked us to do a program of Chaplin's short comedies this season. Her sudden death came as a huge shock to the whole community—and here I was, coming up to do a program of slapstick comedies two days following this horrible news.

In a word, awkward! Should we postpone? Should there be a Plan B? But I credit Dennis Marden, Mei Mei Brown, and all who organize the Brandon series for thoughtfully considering the situation and concluding that going on with the show is what Maxine would have wanted and was best for the community. So we did, with me saying a few words about Maxine's loss prior to the show.

Any thoughts that the program wouldn't be appreciated or appropriate were dispelled by a turnout of over 100 people, who roared at Chaplin's antics in 'Behind the Screen,' 'The Rink,' and 'Easy Street,' all Mutual two-reelers. It was during the latter that I heard the girl ask about the needle. Also, 'Behind the Screen' mocks homosexuality, which I sensed was another unpleasant surprise for some in the audience. Ah, the good old days!

For the program, I had chosen to show Chaplin's last six Mutual comedies, in part to make it easy on those manning the project. Just load them in and off we go! A fun two-hour show. But it took several minues to cue each film, and intermission ran long, and the films themselves are closer to a half-hour each. So the way things worked out, it took well over three hours, and I'm afraid the overall effect of all-night slapstick was like eating nothing but dessert for three hours.

Unlike the stampede in 'The Gaucho,' in Chaplin's slapstick, you really can have too much of a good thing.

One of those "perhaps a tear" moments in 'The Kid' (1921) where you can ramp up the accompaniment.

MASSACHUSETTS: The Somerville Theatre, Somerville. 'The Kid' (1921) on Father's Day, Sunday, June 16. This all-35mm program at the Somerville was a high point, with more than 200 people showing up to laugh at Chaplin's antics in 'The Rink,' gawk at the propganda of 'The Bond,' and let the mastery of 'The Kid' wash all over them. Seeing these films on film and on the big screen, with master projectionist David Kornfeld in the booth, was an experience to be savored.

Musically, the Chaplin Mutuals the night before acted as just the right prelude, so I was able to get quickly into the zone and stay there. I started with organ accompaniment for 'The Rink,' which I think works well, if only because it has a kind of skating-rink feel to it. And the fact that I'd run the film the night before helped me nail much of the comedy, even as the print seemed to be running a bit too fast for my taste at 24 fps.

'The Bond' was a lot of fun, and special in the sense that I don't ever expect to see that film again in 35mm. And 'The Kid' worked well, with me coming in strong with dramatic music in the opening and then trying hard to back off once Chaplin appears. The comedy is on the screen, not in the music, but the right music can help the comedy. But you have to be careful not to overpower the comedy. Too much music, and the audience can't hear each other laugh. And that kills the audience experience, one of the great glories of silent film done right.

But then you can get dramatic when the occasion calls for it. Chaplin called his film a story with "a smile, and perhaps a tear," and the "tear" is when you can broaden the accompaniment into something a bit more robust. In the scene where little Jackie Coogan is being taken away from Chaplin, bound for an orphanage, I amped things up quite a bit, almost too much, I feared, because at the moment when Chaplin jumps into the moving truck to battle the orphanage thugs, there was no audience reaction!

What? Usually, that's when people break into spontaneous cheers. Rats! The moment passed and you have to continue on, but I wondered if I had somehow killed the reaction. I drew back just a bit, allowing the audience a chance to hear each other, and sure enough, we did get the cathartic outburst, a little delayed, when Chaplin scares off the driver of the truck by throwing bricks. Phew! The moment was not lost.

Overall, I felt it went really well. And this is in Boston, mind you—the big city around here, home to some of the world's best musicians and ensembles, from the Boston Symphony Orchestra on down. And here I was, right in the middle of it, doing my stuff in front of a large and appreciative crowd. I wonder...if I had pursued my adolescent desire to study composing at, say, Boston University, would I have ever made this kind of music in this kind of environment, and found it this satisfying?

As Roger Ebert sometimes would write: "I dunno." But I am profoundly grateful to the folks at the Somerville, including David and also manager Ian Judge, for their support of what I've been doing. And I'm really looking forward to doing music for the silent version of 'Ben Hur' (1925) on Sunday, July 14.

A vintage poster for 'The General' (1926), which Peter Clayton of The Leavitt Theater in Ogunquit, Maine went to the trouble of blowing up to actual poster size and putting on sandwich boards in front of his theater.

MAINE: The Leavitt Theatre, Ogunquit. 'The General' (1926) on Thursday, June 20. Opening night of our summer/fall silent film series was a success, with 54 people turning out for Buster's masterpiece. I just love the Leavitt because it's so improbable. Here's Peter Clayton, who's owned the hulking old building for 40 years, still cobbling together a living from renting out the storefronts and running the theater, spending all winter installing vinyl siding on the building's massive three-story north facade, seemingly as large as a football field on its side.

On show nights, he pops the corn, sweeps the lobby, and sits in the theater's tiny booth out front, selling tickets, all the while keeping up a running commentary on his efforts to broaden the theater's offerings as 35mm first-run prints become harder to book. Ogunquit has a big gay community, and so in July, he's worked with a group to book a specialty feature film about 'Bears,' which is the term for gay men who are large and hirsute. Two days later, the comedian Gilbert Gottfried is playing the Leavitt.

But it's still a movie theater, which is why Peter agreed to a silent film series this summer as a way to hedge against thinning first-run bookings. He still gets them, but it's unpredictable for the summer-only theater. He opened in May with 'Quartet,' the Dustin Hoffman film that's been out for something like six months. But then, he was delighted to get a print of the new Superman movie, Man of Steel,' just for weekends. Even so, attendance is sparse at this time of year: our paid admissions of 54 for 'The General' was the biggest audience he'd had so far this season.

Things tend to pick up for the Leavitt in July and August, but ticket sales in recent seasons are nothing like the glory days of the 1980s, when Peter would pack the theater all summer long. Among the culprits: home video, changing tastes, and lousy movies, he says. But still, he perseveres, and I'm glad he does, because I love the place, which in many ways hasn't changed since it opened in 1923. Some of the wooden seats still have wire loops underneath them for gentlemen to store their hats during performances!

For 'The General,' I was off my game for some reason, and had a hard time getting into the zone. Not sure why, as I know the film and I love the way my synth and speakers sounds in the Leavitt, which is all wood from top to bottom and makes the accompaniment sound full and rich at all levels. I like nothing more than just sitting there before the show and playing different chords, enjoying the sheer quality of the sound. Perhaps I overdid it on the warm-up and so was tapped out by the time the film started. Sometimes that happens.

But the film is strong enough and the audience clearly enjoyed it, cheering lustily when Buster's cannon misfires but succeeds in hitting the Northerners on the curve ahead. (I've always been fascinated with that action scene, all captured in a single absolutely gloriously timed shot.)

Afterwards during Q & A, I was surprised to hear a woman say we should all be honored that Buster Keaton was with us tonight in the theater. I wasn't sure what she meant at first, but then I noticed her gesturing to an older gentleman sitting by himself. And then I realized what she must be getting at: that the gentleman's name was actually "Buster Keaton," and it was. (He even had a driver's license to prove it, which he had shown some people before the show.) Amazing! So we all gave him a round of applause and I congratulated him on a nice job. What else can you do?

I later found out that he's a regular presence around Ogunquit, and often attends movies at the Leavitt. So that's another reason to love the place: it's where Buster Keaton himself goes to the movies.


  1. Jeff,
    As always, I enjoy reading about your experiences playing for different films. While I have already seen most of the films you accompanied, they are also some of my favorites and it would have been interesting to hear your scores compared to others I have heard in the past.
    The only film I haven't seen is The Gaucho. Fairbanks has always been hit or miss for me, but I would have enjoyed hearing what you did with the stampede scene.
    Vermont is only a few hours away so one of these days I hope to make it to one of the films you play for there.
    Keep up the good work!
    Russ Arnold
    (One minor note - Cinevent is in Ohio over Memorial Day weekend. Cinefest is in Syracuse in March)

    1. Hi Russ! Thanks so much for your comments and yes, please do come up to Brandon, Vermont. I've never been to a place where silent movies are more popular! And thanks for the note about Cinevent/Cinefest. I fixed the original post. I've actually been to Cinevent a couple of times to hear Dave Drazin and the incomparable Phil Carli play; hope to go again some year. Thanks again and hope to see you in Vermont, or back in Syracuse next March! All the best...

  2. Jeff, If "the General" at the Leavitt was an off night for you, I look forward to hearing your best. I was bowled over. The movie itself was magnificent, the setting magical, but it was your accompaniment that really did it for me. Congratulations!

  3. Hi there! I'm so glad you enjoyed our screening of 'The General' at the Leavitt. Thanks so much for your kind comments, which I really appreciate. You know, I think there's definitely a gap between what I hear (and how I think things come across) and what an audience member might think. Maybe I should call it "the perception gap." Maybe I'm just too close to the material, or after a long string of shows maybe I'm just sick of hearing myself, but it can be surprising to hear how different people's impressions can be. All goes to show underscore one of those basic principles of show biz, which is: "Never Apologize."

  4. Hi Jeff, I see that there is a photo of you playing at Cinefest in this month's issue of Classic Images. Great job!