Monday, October 14, 2013

Scoring Pickford's 'Their First Misunderstanding'
and joining in the first-ever 'Terror-Thon'

My God, what a weekend for silent film in my part of the world! Not one but two special (and high profile) events to which I had the privilege of contributing music.

So, before we begin sprinting to Halloween with multiple screenings of 'Nosferatu' (1922) all over New England, let me take a moment to set down the highlights.

This run of good silent film karma actually began on Sunday, Oct. 5 with a packed screening of 'Safety Last' (1923) in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre just outside Boston. Here's a photo borrowed from Raquel Stecher, who blogs about vintage film at

The Somerville's main house prior to 'Safety Last.' Hey, is the accompanist (at far left) sporting a bald spot?

Look at that turnout! I was especially impressed because we had gotten a big goose egg in term of local publicity for this screening. So perhaps we've built up the series to the point where it has critical mass to continue on its own, more or less. We'll see.

Raquel was kind enough to write a detailed blog post that had a lot of nice things to say about the experience. I'm grateful for people who have such a passion for cinema as it should be experienced. Without them and their enthusiasm, none of this would be possible: the big screen, the live music, and (most importantly to me) the shared experience of silent cinema.

Also on hand was Annette D'Agostino Lloyd, who helped out with a brief introduction and had some Harold books for sale afterwards. Her willingness to join in on these escapades at the Somerville Theatre adds a nice touch of respectability to our efforts.

A follow-up screening of 'Safety Last' on Thursday, Oct. 10 at one of my monthly series (in this case, the Flying Monkey Moviehouse and Performance Center in Plymouth, N.H.) drew a much smaller but no less enthusiastic crowd.

I was especially psyched by an older couple from Meredith, N.H., first-timers who brought a friend to the screening on a "mystery ride." The friend was a keyboard player and church organist from the old school, and they all came down afterwards to swap stories, ask questions, and just plain revel in that now-familiar 'Safety Last' afterglow.

This takes us to Friday, Oct. 11, and the first-ever modern-day screening of 'Their First Misunderstanding' (1911), an early one-reel drama starring Mary Pickford thought lost until a print surfaced in a New Hampshire barn back in 2006.

The film has since been restored, and Friday's re-premiere at Keene State College in Keene, N.H. (which is shepherding all the discovered films through restoration) was an evening-long event featuring Pickford and also author Christel Schmidt, who hosted the program.

I'd never met Christel before but I'm glad our paths crossed. She's a worthy keeper of the Pickford flame, and perhaps just as much of a hot ticket as Pickford herself must have been.

Our schedules didn't allow for much social time, and she was there to sell books, not chat with yet another silent film musician.

But I stole a few moments with her after the crowds had dispersed, and found a woman with a wonderfully wry sense of humor. And, once she gets talking, she displays the rare gift of being able to take a "tell it like it is" approach to everything and everyone, but somehow make it seem refreshing and even endearing.

Sometimes I think that working in the vintage film community, with its out-sized personalities and fragile egos and no shortage of passionate people with any number of agendas, would make good training for the diplomatic corps. If that were true, then Christel might just be our next Secretary of State.

She did a great job introducing Pickford and her achievements, and from what I see on Facebook, she sold out of copies of her book, "Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies." It's an excellent piece of work and I encourage you to check it out—meaning actually buy it, although checking it out from a library is a worthy alternative.

Christel also gave me another nudge to try swimming more in the Facebook ocean. We'll see.

The program was, for me, one of the highlights of the year. Big crowd, lots of newbies, nice facility, all crackling with the special kind of electricity you get at a one-of-a-kind event. I'm so grateful to Ben Model (the New York-based accompanist who works a lot with Christel) for recommending me for this one. It was a great chance to do my stuff in front of a lot of big names right in my home state, all in the service of making silent film come alive —and silent film with a Granite State connection at that!

Congrats to Larry Benaquist and Peter Condon and everyone at Keene State who played a role in rescuing this film, preserving it, and arranging this event.

The program opened with not one but two Pickford one-reelers from 1911: the long-lost 'Their First Misunderstanding' as well as 'The Dream.' Knowing that we had the heavyweight feature 'Sparrows' (1926) still to come in the second half, I went with straight piano accompaniment for the shorts.

The more I do this, the more I find that shorter silent films of any kind (comedies, dramas, whatever) really don't lend themselves to the palette of the full orchestra. It bogs them down, makes them fraught with consequence, sets expectations maybe a little too high for modern audiences.

Piano for 'Their First Misunderstanding' was light and breezy: starting with scale-like figures drawn from the old Hanon technical exercises to show we're just starting out, and a brief explosion of Mendelssohn's wedding march to set the tone for the couple's departure.

And then there were scenes with a poet/pianist playing grandly away, for which I kept my foot down on the sustain pedal and worked through some portentious arpeggios of the type that I hoped would make Mary swoon. (It worked!)

And the action just went from there. Before I knew it, Mary was alone in a dark room, a fairly daring scene in terms of the technical limitations of early cinema, and which seemed to call for a delicate touch to round things out. Less is more.

So an emerging rule for my approach: save the big stuff for the bigger films—in this case, 'Sparrows.'

'Sparrows' is a GREAT film for music because it's loaded with atmosphere as well as a variety of scenes (including a lot of comedy) that lend themselves to musical settings that can build underneath to create some powerful stuff if it all works.

A great example is the 'baby death' scene, in which the wall of a grim barn attic disappears to reveal Christ tending a flock of sheep in a sunny pasture. Christ enters the barn, takes the expired child, then steps back and the barn wall reappears.

Okay, it's pretty simple-minded imagery. But my job as accompanist, I think, is to help connect the scene to Mary Pickford's character, teenage Molly, who is experiencing (or hallucinating) it. By that point in the film, we've seen enough of Pickford's character to know how important her faith his, even if she gets a lot of the details comically garbled.

But comic details be damned. The core belief underpinning everything, and how important it is and how central it is to her character, comes through so strongly and powerfully in that scene, in one sense it can be regarded as the film's climax, at least spiritually.

And so the music has to show reverence, awe, and respect, but not in a way that parodies religious music, with all trumpets blaring like the opening titles in a Monty Python sequence. Instead, it has to show the strength of Pickford's character, which to me transcends any particular religious iconography.

As Molly, Mary Pickford comically garbles the scriptures, but her underlying beliefs are dead serious.

She could be a Buddhist or a Unitarian Universalist or a complete atheist, but the moment would still be the same. It's not about religion. It's about her own personal experience of witnessing life moving from the now into the eternal.

Am I overthinking this? Maybe while I sit here typing, but not at the time the film was being screened.

During the film, my sense of what works just happens naturally. I felt the need to switch from full orchestra to just low brass to underscore that this was a special moment, and then built up some chords that lent weight to the scene. And yes, there was a bit of a blaze of glory when Christ receded and the wall was restored, but I immediately drew back to give Mary (and the audience) space to let it all sink in.

What follows is about 20 seconds of just Pickford's face (the baby, still in her arms, is out of camera range) reacting to what's happened. I almost didn't want to play any music at all here, because she communicates so much with the smallest gestures: the tilt of her head, her eventual glance upwards.

Is she grateful that the child has been delivered from a terrible situation, that the suffering is ceased? Is it the basis for the resolve she needs to engineer the escape? Something else? Whatever an audience takes away, it's a key moment, and a rich one, and too much music would sufficate it, I think.

So just an example of what goes on underneath the surface of playing music along a silent film, at least in the way I do it. I also had a lot of fun with a special effect: in this case, using an old brass school bell that belonged to my grandmother to make the sound of the bell used to gain entry to the dismal Grimes homestead.

Judging from comments afterwards, the bell was a memorable addition. Usually I wouldn't want to draw that much attention to the "soundtrack," such as it is. But the bell happens only twice, and early in the film, so I felt it was worth doing, especially because the synthesizer just wouldn't have been able to do as good a job, and I knew I wanted underscoring at the same time as the bell. So what the heck?

What was really satisfying for me was the feeling that I'd paced it right, holding back for most of the film and only getting truly frantic for the climactic post-swamps gun fight and then boat chase. It was a fun ride, with things amping up at just the right time, I felt.

And in the final scenes, I even managed to switch back to the low brass for the brief appearance of the hymn 'Shall We Gather at the River,' complete with sheet music on screen! No faking allowed on that one, as it's right at the end and anything else would have spoiled the moment.

I was gratified to find that the blogger (bloggess?) known as "Nitrate Diva" was on hand for the event. I continue to be impressed by her observations, which often give me fresh insight into films that I've known for years. I encourage you to check out her account of the Pickford program.

And then, after all this, come next morning, it was time for me to hightail it down to Somerville, Mass. for a noon-time screening of 'The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari' (1920) at the Somerville Theatre. Too much of a good thing? Well, you know what Mae West said about that. :)

'Cabinet' was the opening flick of the inaugural 'Terror-Thon,' a 12-hour marathon of vintage sci/fi horror flicks, one from each decade from the 1920s to the 1990s, all screened in 35mm in the Somerville's main theater.

This first-ever event, held Saturday, Oct. 12, coincided with 'Honkfest,' a sprawling festival of activist street bands in progress all around Davis Square. So it was quite a different environment from that of the Pickford program the night before.

And the audience was different, too. Rather than the usual silent film fans, it was more of a crowd of hard-core sci-fi geeks, which is another species altogether.

A face only a somnambulist could love.

And 'Caligari,' though a famous and ground-breaking picture, is not an easy go in terms of pacing or story-telling or many other things that die-hard sci-fi fans expect or demand when they're paying $35 per ticket. (One ticket for the whole marathon.)

So I had to really work to hold them and to help this film connect. What I came up with was more bombastic that I usually do, and more angular and arhythmic, in keeping with the film's visual design. Apologies to Mr. Igor Stravinsky for the shameless borrowing of figures and scraps from his immortal ballet score 'Le Sacre du Printemps.' And also to Mr. Bernard Herrmann for any number of purloined film music innovations.

Hey, if you're going to steal, steal from the best!

But I think it worked. I could tell the audience was into the picture, and it got a big hand at the end. So mission accomplished.

By the way, I got to use that same bell in 'Caligari,' as early in the movie, the Dr. rings just such a bell to attract attention to his carnival act. It happens three times, so it wasn't too much to be annoying.

This is similar to 'Sparrows,' a film that was supposedly created with the school of German Expressionism in mind. Up until now, I don't think anyone has identified the "bell" angle. Doctoral thesis, anyone? (I will resist the urge to make some pun about how this should ring a bell.)

Now I get to resume my regular life for a short while, at least until this Saturday, which brings the first of five (count 'em) screenings of 'Nosferatu' (1922) in various venues around New England.

Well, I often joke that I collaborate with dead people. So it shouldn't be surprising that things get especially busy around Halloween.

No comments:

Post a Comment