Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Traveling through the centuries: film music at screenings in Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo

Just back from a mini-tour that took me silent film screenings to Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo.

And in terms of time travel, I created music for movies set in the 1500s, the 1600s, the 1800s, and the 1900s.

(Sorry, 1700s—maybe next time!)

But really, I'm grateful for the chance to do film accompaniment in so many places, and for so many periods, too. Here's a round-up:

Opening title for 'When Knighthood Was In Flower' (1922).

Wednesday, Aug. 29: Cinema Detroit. First time at this nifty independent theater. Local residents Paula and Tim Guthat opened Cinema Detroit five years ago, and have built it into a valuable cultural resource for the city. Housed in the back of a former furniture store, the cinema's two screening rooms offer a wide range of titles seven days a week.

It was a real honor to work with Tim and Paula on Cinema Detroit's first-ever program of silent film with live music. The movie: Marion Davies in 'When Knighthood Was In Flower' (1922), shown via DCP courtesy of Undercrank Productions and Ben Model, who was responsible for the film's recent restoration and re-release. Thanks, Ben!

For a first attempt, no one was sure how it would go, but interest turned out to be surprisingly strong. By showtime, Cinema Detroit's main screening room was about half-filled, which far exceeded expectations for a mid-week experiment. And audience response was strong throughout the film, showing that Marion can still hold the screen.

Paula speaks before the show.

And audience response was strong throughout 'Knighthood,' which is a real treat for an accompanist: many good scenes with characters interacting in ways that light underscoring can help sharpen, and also several well-staged swordfights and chases. And the final climax and chase builds during a storm, so there's a lot for an accompanist to work with.

Although 'Knighthood' is set during the reign of Henry VIII, I didn't play much "Middle Ages"-sounding music. I kept it light and breezy, which I felt help make it more Marion's film—one in which she was being her usual bubbly self, but which happened to be set during the 1500s.

So the keyboard was set for just standard orchestra (rather than something period-sounding like harpsichord), changing to a different texture only for one scene in which a guitar gets played on camera to accompany dancing. Overall, the improvised music was what I would call "classical neutral"—light opera stuff, but flexible enough to respond to the changing needs of the film's narrative.

It all seemed to work really well, with nearly everyone staying afterwards for a prolonged Q & A about the film, the music, and what might be next for silent film at Cinema Detroit. And afterwards I was taken to a great late night place, the Green Dot, that serves in sliders unlike any I've had at, say, White Castle.

Thanks very much to Paula and Tim for taking a chance on silent film and a silent film accompanist. I hope it's possible for Cinema Detroit to run more silent film/live music programs, and for us to work together again soon!

Lillian Gish and 'The Scarlet Letter' on the cover of this summer's Cleveland Cinematheque schedule.

Thursday, Aug. 30: Cleveland Cinematheque. For its ongoing "Second Look" series, the Cinematheque included MGM's 'The Scarlet Letter' (1926) starring Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, and directed by Victor Seastrom—the same team that would strike cinematic gold in 'The Wind' two years later.

But 'Scarlet Letter' is no slouch. It's filled with strong performances as well as arresting visuals and creative camerawork, so I was thrilled to do music for the Cinematheque's screening of a 35mm print supplied by UCLA Film and Television Archive.

The film is an adaptation, of course, of Nathanial Hawthorne's novel about adultery in Puritanical Boston of the 1600s. Hawthorne's novel is deadly serious, so what's surprising about MGM's 'Scarlet' is how much comedy is in it. As I mentioned to the Cinematheque audience prior to the screening, any film with Karl Dane in the cast is bound to have a quotient of goofball humor from MGM's go-to guy for comedy relief.

I think it's an example of a studio hedging its bets on a big-budget high-profile picture by ensuring it had a little something for everyone, whether or not that fit with the original author's vision. So we get the 'Scarlet Letter' story, yes, but also some yuks at the expense of those Puritans and their wacky ideas about courtship.

For this film, I did go with a harpsichord setting, which I think fit the production's design and feel, and helped convey the period without drawing attention to itself. It just seemed to fit. And I lucked out by having several effective melodic "hooks" (meaning groups of just a few notes) that I felt helped convey the changing emotional temperature of the story as I worked with them.

The 35mm print from UCLA.

I felt the big musical challenge was how the film opens with all the townspeople being called to Sunday service. So the first five or six minutes is interspersed with shots of church bells ringing, implying that they're being heard throughout the sequence.

To evoke that, I used two brass handbells I travel with. Holding them both in my right hand, I rang them continuously from the opening titles all the way through to when the service starts and we see the bellringers stop pulling down on their ropes. It produced a nice "clangy" bell sound—nothing like a big cathedral bell, but close enough to evoke a colonial church service, I felt.

While ringing the bells, I tried to be aware of how the film was cutting between different locations in the town. Sometimes loud, sometimes soft, depending on the action and how far different people seemed to be from the church. As Hester Prynne, Lillian Gish is first seen chasing a songbird out into the woods, so the bells get faint at that point.

So that left my left hand for the keyboard, which was enough to do hymn-like cadences and other music to establish mood and get the film going. I wasn't sure how it came off, but afterwards people told me they didn't realize I was actually ringing actual bells as the movie got started. So it worked. Nice!

John Ewing and pianist George Foley give me a taste of the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells.

Audience response was strong here, too. Despite the comedy, 'The Scarlet Letter' gives Gish and Hanson ample opportunity to amp up the drama. For these moments, although I kept the harpsichord setting, I broke out of period-sounding music and went with more a more intense language that film scoring has developed since the silent era: some dissonance, some repeated notes, some dramatic silences.

Another great Q & A followed, with lots of interesting queries. Long-time Cinematheque director John Ewing was kind enough to comment on how he thought the music effectively tracked and underscored the film, which is high praise indeed! Thanks so much, John, for continuing to include silent film with live music in the Cinematheque's programming, and all you and your team have done to bring great cinema to Cleveland for more than three decades!

John Ewing checks the roster of digital titles in the booth of the Cinematheque as projectionist Mike Glazer looks on.

And afterwards, a late supper at L'Albatross, a nearby French restaurant that's to die for. We joke that the Albatross is the reason I actually visit Cleveland, and the screenings at the Cinematheque merely support my habit.

16mm prints of vintage films ready for their close-up.

Friday, Aug. 31 through Monday, Sept. 3: Western N.Y. Film Expo, Buffalo. My third year as accompanist for this festival found me doing music for silent features that ranged from well-known to unknown.

Among the well-known: Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore in 'Sadie Thompson' (1928); Harold Lloyd in 'The Kid Brother' (1927); Buster Keaton in 'Battling Butler' (1926), and another Keaton, 'Sherlock Jr.' (1924), run as a last-minute substitute when Eddie Cantor's 'Special Delivery' (1927) didn't show. We should have paid for special delivery, har!

As for the unknown: not one but two Rod Larocque features that I'd never heard of before: 1925's 'Braveheart,' which I gathered was not the film with Mel Gibson in it, and 'The Coming of Amos,' also from 1925.

Both were screened via original 16mm Kodascope prints that showed some wear but maintained excellent visual quality, and so were a real treat to see. This, plus the sound of the 16mm projectors clacking away in the back, is one reason that festivals such as this are worth attending. It's a great atmosphere for vintage cinema.

A projectionist's view in the Western N.Y. Film Expo's screening room.

As you might expect, the Larocque films were pure hokum. 'Bravehart' starts out with Our Hero as a member of a Native American tribe battling western settlers over fishing rights.

The tribe's strategy: send him East to attend law school and then fight the White Oppressor on his own turf, in court.

But then for the next 30 minutes, 'Braveheart' becomes a college football film! Really—suddenly it's Harold Lloyd's 'The Freshman,' but without Lloyd. Rah, rah! Go team!

That required the music to shift gears, and it made for an unusual mix: native American modal chord progressions mixed with college fight songs.

'The Coming of Amos' was less mind-bending, but no less loopy. Our Hero starts out in rough-and-tumble Australian sheep country, but then he's brought to the sophisticated French Riviera due to an inheritance, where romance blooms with a mysterious Russian princess.

Noah Beery then shows up as a truly nasty villain whose plot to kidnap the princess includes forcing her to wear an oversized clown head so they can escape unnoticed during the annual carnival.

And the climax takes place on an enormous castle set that I found surprisingly impressive until someone afterwards pointed out the same exact set was used in 'Stand and Deliver,' another Rod Larocque picture we screened last year.

Doing music for so many films in rapid succession has its challenges. But with me, one good thing it does is break down all inhibitions and self-doubt and anything else that holds back the creative energy or blocks the place the music seems to come from.

So after awhile, it gets to the point where the music flows quite fluently and naturally.

At the Western New York Expo, this happened most notably for me when it was time to rattle off music for some short silent comedies I'd never seen before. For each, I hit on a melodic hook right away and stayed with it throughout, transforming it as needed to follow the story, set up the situation, punctuate the comedy, and amp up the excitement when needed.

I have no idea where these tunes came from, and can't recall them even now. But they were there when I needed them, and serve the films well. And for a short comedy, often that's all you need. As accompanist Jon Mirsalis has said, it's not what you play, but it's how you play it.

Of all the films, it's no surprise that Lloyd's 'The Kid Brother' got the strongest reaction, with people cheering and applauding at the climax. Lloyd's films were designed to work with an audience, and they still work: even with diehard film fans who've probably seen it any number of times already. That's pretty impressive!

Speaking of which: once again I was impressed by everyone who works to put this event together: the projectionists, the dealers, the film fans, and especially organizer Alex Bartosh. Thanks to everyone for a weekend well spent in the dark!

Up next: the restored 'Sherlock Holmes' (1916) on Friday, Sept. 7 in Brandon, Vt., and then I go out to Sioux City, Iowa to play the Orpheum Theatre's mighty Wurlitzer to accompany 'Wings' (1927) as part of the Sioux City International Film Festival.

More on those later this week!

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