Monday, July 6, 2015

Dogs, the French revolution, spies, and trains: Accompanying four feature films in four days

Rin Tin Tin proves way smarter than his human co-stars in 'The Night Cry' (1926), coming up on Thursday, July 9 at the Flying Monkey Moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H.

I'm revving up for what amounts to a home stretch of silent film accompaniment prior to taking some time away from the keyboard for the rest of the month.

That means four films in four days, and in four different theaters, too. It's the silent film equivalent of hitting for the cycle, I guess.

But before getting into the details, let me address yesterday's screening of 'The Big Parade' (1925) in 35mm at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square.

An original poster for 'The Big Parade' (1925).

We had a pretty strong turnout for the last day of a three-day holiday weekend—and for a matinee on a beautiful summer day at that. It wasn't too long ago when Davis Square was all but shut down, the streets clogged with four feet of snow.

But they came to see 'The Big Parade,' in the form of a great 35mm print on an enormous screen in a big old movie theater. (And unlike all the 4th of July parades this year in my home state of New Hampshire, there was nary a presidential candidate to be seen.)

It's a familiar film to me that I love accompanying. And because it's one of the big ones, it's worth reviewing prior to a screening just to make sure all the cues and cuts are fresh in your head.

This is especially important with my referee's whistle, which I match to the half-dozen times a whistle gets blown on screen as a key part of the action: the police who break up the fight in Champillon, the mail call scene, and several other points.

I think it adds a nice burst of sonic realism, but of course it has to be right on the money if it's going to work and not draw attention to itself. So it's worth getting to know those points of the film extremely well.

Same with the bugle calls, of which 'The Big Parade' has several. And on that score, not all bugle calls are alike. The purist in me, for instance, knows you really shouldn't play "Reveille" when the troops are being called to chow, as happens in 'The Big Parade.'

Instead, you should play "Mess Call," which goes like this:

Likewise, when a bugle is played calling the troops to assemble and move out, you ought to play "To Arms," which sounds like this:

Most people at a screening wouldn't know the difference. But for those who might, it's one more thing done "right" that doesn't break the mood and thus keeps the spell of silent film intact.

As you may know, all bugle calls are based on a simple triad, or the notes in a major chord. Because of that, it makes them easy to fit around other material—including the big love theme I was using in yesterday's score.

So this all works out really well in the big "moving out" sequence in 'The Big Parade,' where repeated shots of a bugler alternate with scenes of the troops assembling, and then footage of John Gilbert and Renee Adorée frantically searching for each other amid the chaos.

I was able to mix "To Arms" with the love theme pretty fluently, modulating all over the place and sometimes even playing the love theme using the rhythms of the bugle call just to add to the chaos.

Renee Adorée and John Gilbert providing reason for a "love theme" in 'The Big Parade' score.

But the most important thing about 'The Big Parade' is to HOLD BACK. As powerful as many of its scenes are, it's crucial to save something for the climactic battle scene, which Vidor cut together with the rhythm of a good 4th of July fireworks show.

At the battle's true climax, the screen is filled with a blinding series of rapid explosions that lasts only just a few seconds, but it's enough—any more would have probably been excessive. And it's only THEN that you hold nothing back, musically, I think.


Tom O'Brien, John Gilbert, and Karl Dane prepare for the climactic battle.

At the end, it was gratifying to hear such strong applause for this 90-year-old picture that still plays so well. It's a great honor to do music for it, especially on a 4th of July weekend, and I hope to play for it again very soon.

Okay, here's a brief round-up of the four upcoming screenings. I'll post detailed press releases later as we get closer. If nothing else, this is just to help me keep them all straight.

I had no idea that dog star Peter the Great started out as a stunt double for fellow canines Strongheart and Thunder the Wonder Dog.

• Thursday, July 9, 2015, 6:30 p.m.: "A Dog Double Feature" spotlighting silent-era canine stars Peter the Great and Rin Tin Tin; The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performance Center, 39 South Main St., Plymouth, N.H.; (603) 536-2551; . In 'The Sign of the Claw,' a police dog helps solve a crime wave. The only surviving film of Peter the Great, a popular German shepherd performer. 'The Night Cry' (1926) finds iconic dog superstar Rin Tin Tin accused of killing sheep. Can he find the real bandit and clear his name? Part of a monthly silent film series at a newly restored moviehouse in Plymouth, N.H. Admission, $10 per person.

With hair like that, no wonder there was a revolution.

• Friday, July 10, 2015, 7 p.m.: "Orphans of the Storm" (1921); Red River Theatres, 11 South Main St., Concord, N.H.; (603) 224-4600; Just in time for Bastille Day, D.W. Griffith's sweeping story of two sisters (Lillian and Dorothy Gish) caught up in the throes of the French revolution. Griffith's last major box office success fills the screen with a succession of iconic images. Silent film with live music at this popular venue for independent and arthouse cinema in New Hampshire's state capital. Admission $10 per person.

In my favorite scene from 'Hands Up!' (1926), Raymond Griffith teaches his Native American captors the latest dance moves.

• Saturday, July 11, 2015, 7 p.m.: "Hands Up!" (1926) starring Raymond Griffith; Brandon Town Hall and Community Center, Main Street/Route 7, Brandon, Vt.; We mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War with this uproarious Raymond Griffith comedy. A southern spy must work every angle to prevent a shipment of western gold from reaching Union forces. Plus Laurel & Hardy comedy shorts! Join us for series silent films and live music in a wonderfully restored town hall in Brandon Vt. that features great acoustics. Admission free, donations accepted, with proceeds to help continuing preservation work.

Looking for big-screen thrills and spills? With 'The Great K & A Train Robbery' (1926), even this poster is action-packed.

• Sunday, July 12, 2015, 4:30 p.m.: "The Great K & A Train Robbery" (1926) starring Tom Mix; Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H.; (603) 654-3456; Treachery on the rails as our hero goes undercover to learn who is tipping the bandits. One of the best Tom Mix films, with plenty of action and some fantastic stunt work. Part of a series of silent films with live music at a theater where movies have been shown since 1912! Admission free, donations of $5 per person encouraged.

Hope to see you at one or more of these screenings. And if anyone makes it to all four, I'll buy you lunch at the nearest White Castle. (Transportation not included. By the way, it's in the Bronx.)

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