Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Accompanying 'The Square Deal Man'
at ... wait, where is this place again?

Show yer cards, stranger!

Had a great time out in Niles, Calif. this weekend doing music for 'The Square Deal Man' (1917), a typically grim William S. Hart western.

The show was Saturday, May 7 at the venerable Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

That afternoon, I stopped by the museum to find myself pressed into service manning the front counter while a tour was given to a visiting group.

I was there long enough to give a phone caller bad info about using public transportation to reach the Museum. But he called back later, and all was sorted out.

I usually confine my damage to the keyboard, thank you very much.

As is often the case at Niles, the evening program opened with a pair of short comedies.

First up was 'Two-Gun Gussie' (1918), an early Lloyd "glasses character" one-reeler notable for its beginning.

The film opens with a close-up of hands on a piano keyboard in the midst of playing something devilishly complicated.

We discover it's Harold, a concert pianist. In full Paderewski mode, he wows the ladies by flinging himself at the keyboard, pausing for drama, and displaying a technique worthy of Chico Marx.

Harold tickles the ivories in 'Two-Gun Gussie.'

For this, I basically improvised a dissonant farrago on the opening theme of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, doing my best to match Lloyd's flamboyant gestures.

But I have to wonder how musicians handled this when the film was brand new, almost a century ago now. Probably the same way: not so much music but some kind of concert-hall sonic chaos to help the humor come across.

More challenging was 'Curses' (1925) a two-reel Al St. John parody of dramatic serials that even then were seen as full of clich├ęs and conventions.

In scoring a film, I usually steer clear of what the general public might think of as "silent film music"—you know, that over-dramatic jangly piano sound.

But in this case, the goofy satire cried out for exactly that. So off I went, channeling all the Dudley Do-right music I recall absorbing as a child.

The best thing about this frantic parody (directed by no less than Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle under the pseudonym William Goodrich) is how it's broken into several chapters, just like a real serial.

Although instead of waiting until next week, we just have to wait a few seconds for the film to resume. It's very well done and lends a meta-air to the film that comes across as knowing and snarky even today.

I'm familiar with this film in a DVD version produced by Paul Gierucki, which comes with intertitles that really punch up the comedy, I think.

However, Niles showed an older 16mm print with intertitles that lacked the same impact, I felt.

I don't believe either set of intertitles was original to 'Curses.'

But it's a good example of how a sensitive restoration can make a difference in how a film plays. 'Curses' was enjoyed by all last Saturday night, but I felt the Gierucki titles would have made it click even more.

The Hart film, which I'd never seen, turned out to be just as over-the-top as the Al St. John comedy. But in Hart's case, he really meant it.

So I played it straight, building the score out of a pair melodic lines I brought with me: a "masculine" modal-sounding signature for Hart, and a "feminine" motif for more tender moments.

(There I go gender-stereotyping again.)

A third unplanned melody, for the Mexican antagonist, added some Latin flavor to the scoring. So it all came together nicely.

Although Hart films come across as a bit austere, I think people slowly became absorbed as the story unfolded.

By the end, I think the audience was with 'The Square Deal Man,' and deservedly so. Although it's no 'Hell's Hinges,' it's one I'd certainly program and run again.

Hart, by the way, is one of those performers I've yet to fully discover and appreciate.

I've never done 'Tumbleweeds' (1925), his final film, which is supposed to be good. And although many titles are lost, enough survive so that there's plenty to explore.

But you know Hart's one of the biggies because he and his middle initial show up in lyrics to 'Movies Were Movies,' the opening number of Jerry Herman's musical 'Mack and Mabel.'
And Swanson and Keaton and Dressler and William S. Hart!
No one pretended that what we were doing was art!
Let me tell you, I can relate to that.

By the way, kudos to my brother-in-law, who managed to get not one but two of his Facebook colleagues to attend the screening and check out the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.

Employer-matched contributions can't be far behind, right?

Looking forward to possibly being out there again in the fall: the first week of November seems to be my time.

Depending on who gets elected, I may be in the process of fleeing. We'll have to see.

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