SILENT MOVIES LIVE AGAIN!

Text originally published in the Financial Times, November 22nd 1986

One of the regular high spots of the London Film Festival in the past half decade has been the presentation each year of one or more silent films with a live orchestra. Sponsored by Thames Television, these performances have not only resurrected the long hidden glories of silent cinema, they have also introduced their audiences to an experience of overwhelming intensity – a far cry from most people’s perception of silent films as dusty, dated entertainments to be watched stoically to the accompaniment off on out-of-tune piano in a cold, almost empty cinema.

The moving force behind this revival consists of David Gill, a documentary director and producer at Thames; Kevin Brownlow, director and historian of the silent era; and Carl Davis, composer and conductor.

(from l. to r.) Kevin Brownlow, Carl Davis and David Gill

In the late 70s, Kevin Brownlow’s classic book on the early days of Hollywood, The Parade’s Gone By, inspired Jeremy Isaacs, then Director of Programs at Thames, to give the go-ahead for a series about the American pioneers of film.  The aim of this series was twofold: to give a history of the early film industry, told largely in interviews with veterans of the period, and to present the actual footage of the time, be it clips, outtakes or newsreel, in as authentic and  pristine a manner as was possible.

This involved finding the best possible prints (not always an easy task), projecting them at the correct speed (thus eliminating the traditional “speeded-up” image of silent film), and providing music which would genuinely enhance the visuals. Recognizing Kevin Brownlow’s dedication to the original quality of these old films, David Gill nevertheless had misgivings about how a modern audience would react to them: “I still had a slight reservation because I had been away from silent films for so long.  We not only had to demonstrate these films existed and make an interesting, educational program, we had to build an audience, capture their imaginations, make it an entertainment – something they could surrender to.  And the only way I could see that happening was not just by using music, but by really spending so much money on the music — composing it and being able to afford a large orchestra, something which documentaries never envisage.  Then, as soon as we started seeing the results during the course of production, we were astounded by the effect it had on the film.  A whole new entity appeared, and we could see it from the reaction all people who saw the programs.”

Napoleon mesmerizes the audience at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland, 2012

Carl Davis had already worked with David Gill on a documentary series, The World at War, and jumped at the chance to score Hollywood.  “First of all I did quite a bit of research on how the film scores were created in the period.  The series really ran the range of all the styles of film of the period, and involved me  in thinking and creating for a great many clips.”  

Erich von Stroheim on set – note the musicians present to create a suitable mood for the actors
Film fragment of Stroheim filming with musicians on-set

Davis resorted to many of the methods of the silent era: borrowing chunks of the classics, cobbling together popular pieces of the time; anything that would go with the film.  Throughout he would interweave his own music, often finding inspiration in certain composers to reflect this style and mood of a film or actor in the accompanying music: Rimsky-Korsakov for Fairbanks and The Thief of Baghdad, Liszt for the soul of Garbo in A Woman of Affairs.  

Garbo in A Woman of Affairs

Not surprisingly, Davis was itching to try his hand at a full-length score for full orchestra to accompany a theatrical presentation of a silent film.  The opportunity to do so did not arise until the BFI earmarked Kevin Brownlow’s reconstruction of Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon for the London Film Festival in 1980.  In three months Davis had to produce five hours of music.  As much out of practical as aesthetic considerations he quickly settled upon the idea of using the music of Beethoven and his contemporaries as the backbone for the score, an apt choice in view of the youthful Beethoven’s admiration for the young Napoleon.  “One of the first things I  learned about silent film musicians of the time, when I was working on the Hollywood series, was that they had absolutely no inhibitions about robbing, like grave robbing, and using classical compositions to support the score.”

Sometimes an important film would be distributed with a specially composed score. Whenever possible Davis has made reference to these, and has often found useful source material (various army and popular songs of World War I for The Big Parade, for example), and on one occasion has reconstructed an entire original score – for D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms.   

But in the case of Napoleon in 1980, Honegger’s original score had yet to be rediscovered, so Davis found himself plundering the treasure houses of Classicism.

Napoleon at the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square, 1980s

Yet he was careful never to use music which might jar with the film’s carefully constructed historical authenticity.  “I had a notion, which I always follow, which is to try and be faithful to the period, or at least to pay service to the period it was done in.  I would use Beethoven, but only up to compositions off about 1810, and I would not go into Berlioz, for instance, or Schumann or Wagner or any of those pieces which might be appropriate from a mood point of view, but which I felt would betray the spirit all of those wigs, corsets and breeches, so to speak.”

Napoleon screening at San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2012

In the films which have followed Napoleon, ranging from romantic melodrama to knockabout comedy, Davis has refined his techniques and approach.  Some have been recorded just for broadcast on Channel 4, which aids with the financing.  Each film is approached with a fresh musical concept, and careful attention is paid to orchestration to create a distinctive and individual sound world.  Structurally Davis relies on a simplified form of leitmotif technique, in which certain themes and characters are represented by easily identifiable melodies that recur throughout the score.

For the broadcast versions of the films, synchronization of picture and sound is achieved in the recording studio through close adherence to a time code printed on the film’s video copy (Davis’s guide when composing).  In live performances Davis the conductor has to rely on his internal sense of time and the rhythm, along with his detailed knowledge of the film (described shot by shot in the score), to keep him and the orchestra in the right place.

This year’s Thames Silent is Greed, the ”lost” masterpiece of Erich von Stroheim – a grim study of the darker side of human nature.

Davis has drawn his inspiration from Austrian and American music of the 20s.  “Though the film is set in San Francisco at the turn of the century, von Stroheim as a director is always very Germanic in his work. The thematic approach, the recurrence of themes, and the fact that the characters come from a German background even — certainly Trina’s Family does – made me lean towards German music, or rather Austrian music, of the early 20th Century.   I really didn’t want the orchestra in itself to have a very sympathetic, soft or romantic sound.  I wanted it to be harsh and clear – a quality which I think could also describe the way the film is.  Alban Berg and von Stroheim would be quite good partners in a way because they are both full of a mixture of banal phrases with a sort of torment: soaring lines and a ‘what-lies-under-the-skin’ kind of character.”

Erich von Stroheim

Davis omits strings, except for an elaborate violin solo, leaving wind, brass and extensive percussion.  In sequences where several planes of action are involved on screen, he has adopted an Ivesian technique of allowing simultaneous but different music to elide and clash.  “For example, during the wedding service a funeral procession passes by.  Now if we accept my job as being to bring out what is in the film, it seemed that there was no alternative other than to do a wedding and a funeral going on simultaneously.”  Therefore Davis collides Wagner’s Wedding March from Lohengrin in B major with the Chopin Funeral March in B minor, plus a popular song of the period, O Promise Me, in F major.

The Wedding in Greed. Outside the window a funeral procession passes by……

“This is simply doing what the film is doing, and because of the example of Charles Ives one wasn’t afraid of the clash, one welcomed it.  What von Stroheim is actually saying is – this is a wedding that is doomed – and my job then is to reinforce that idea.”

Elsewhere Davis has taken this technique a step further, to bring out what lies beneath the surface of a scene. Two friends quarrel and then make up in a seaside tea shop where a mechanical piano is playing: the steady honky-tonk prattle runs in counterpoint to their reconciliation. The music seems to say: will it last?

Filming Greed in Death Valley. Note musicians in foreground.

Kevin Brownlow comments: “The great director King Vidor says in the Hollywood series that music is 50% of the emotion, and I thought, ‘Come on! This is 30% over the top.’ But he’s right.  When you see it working you realize it’s the fusion off the two, like a carbon arc, that creates that fantastic impact.”

Some examples of scenes from Thames Silents productions, all with music by Carl Davis:

From King Vidor’s The Crowd

Further articles on Kevin Brownlow, Napoleon, Carl Davis, and their revival of silent films with orchestral accompaniment:

Napoleon Redux: The Emperor of Films Returns

Filmmakers on Filmmakers: Alan Parker on Kevin Brownlow

The Greatest Film Ever Made? Napoleon on Bastille Day

HOLLYWOOD by STEICHEN

steichen gloria swanson

Years before Gloria Swanson declared she was ready for her close-up and took the long walk down that storied staircase on Sunset Boulevard, she sat for another close-up with the legendary photographer Edward Steichen, and created the indelible image above.

It’s an image which embodies something essential about our relationship with screen goddesses. The combination of her direct gaze, mediated by the presence of a veil, captures the pull-push dynamic of the Hollywood glamour shot at its zenith. “Come here, this is all for you, just for you, EXCEPT — don’t touch! Merely watch. Keep your distance. Get too close and you might end up like William Holden — face down in my swimming-pool.”

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The other day I was strolling with my 16 year-old daughter through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which, funnily enough, we had reached by driving down Sunset Boulevard), when we found ourselves confronted with the arresting image of Gloria Swanson in her prime.  We were in an obscure corner of the American galleries and had stumbled upon a treasure trove of Edward Steichen’s work, some of it less well-known.

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It was a newly endowed collection of Steichen’s photos, focusing mainly on Hollywood stars and some choice photos from the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair. It’s fair to say that during his years working for Conde Nast, Steichen more or less invented glamour photography and the high toned advertising money-shot. “Steichen was a perfectionist,” says Howard Schatz, a fashion photographer whose portraits of actors appear in Vanity Fair. “His precise eye for lighting and design makes his pictures from the ’20s and ’30s, though clearly of their time, still much admired by fashion photographers today.”

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Steichen is the photographer by whom all others must be judged.  His photos feel as if they are alive, and his portraits – drawing on his background as an accomplished painter – use light and shade to draw out the inner life of his subjects like an old master.  Indeed, walking past a Sargent and a Rembrandt later in our perambulations we did not find Steichen wanting in the comparison.

In fact, in this early self-portrait which opens the exhibit, you can see how Steichen has physically manipulated the emulsion to bring a mysterious, painterly quality to the image. It’s as if the subject of the self-portrait wants to hide within the image.

steichen self portrait

Contrast this with his famous self-portrait of later years which is all about the virtues of modern photography: clarity and candor in the pose and lighting.  Yet there is a mysterious force in those eyes, a power that draws the viewer in. “See what I see” they temptingly offer, “if you dare.”

Steichen self portrait w:camera

Looking at the photos of Hollywood celebrities, it was striking how Steichen had managed to reveal some of the more hidden corners of his subjects’ personalities, and in the process modify the way we view them.

Chaplin’s obsessiveness –

chaplin steichen

Lillian Gish’s poise, confidence, and a beauty more profound than that habitually revealed by the moving camera in her films….

lillian gish steichen

Clara Bow’s sadness and even loneliness – all the flap of the “It” girl lost in a gaze to a horizon she can no longer see….

Steichen clara bow

Garbo’s abiding discomfort within her own skin….

garbo steichen

Loretta Young, stranded at the top of a staircase, seems lost and imprisoned at the same time….

SteichenLorettaYoung

Douglas Fairbanks, almost lost in shadow, shares an intimacy with Joan Crawford…

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This photo of Walt Disney (not in the exhibit, but I just had to include it) is prescient in its placing of Mickey and Minnie in the power position. Walt looks like a man trying to shake off a pair of gremlins whose malevolence has been manifested in oversized ears. “Yes” he seems to say of his teenage offspring,”I know they’re mine, but you can’t hold me responsible for everything they get up to!”

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Again not in the exhibit is this portrait of legendary interpretive dancer, Isadora Duncan. The setting perfectly mirrors her absorption in classical notions of dance….

VanityFairIsadoraDuncan

The exhibit is rounded out by some non-celebrity photos, providing a resonance that seems to then inform how one looks at the more famous portraits. (Unfortunately I could not find online samples of Steichen’s early “product placement” advertising shots).

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My daughter declared the following her favorite. I am inclined to agree. Steichen has caught a sublime moment of connection between a couple. Completely wrapped up in each other, they see not the world around them. But for the prescience of the lurking photographer, we easily might not have seen them either.

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Steichen in 1955 assembling an exhibition of photos for New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Steichen in 1955 assembling an exhibition of photos for New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited, and the wealth and confusion man has created. It is a major force in explaining man to man.  

Edward Steichen (1879 – 1973)

The Child Man Steichen

THE GARBO EFFECT

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Today would have been Greta Garbo’s 108th birthday. She is still considered one of the greatest sirens of the silver screen, a truly iconic figure embodying all the mystery and allure that the camera can bestow on the feminine form.

Garbo The Temptress

Want proof? Look no further than the following.

The year was 1926.

Filming a pivotal scene for Flesh and the Devil, the story of an illicit romance á la Anna Karenina, director Clarence Brown had little idea of how life was about to mirror art.

It was the scene where the leading lady, Greta Garbo, was to meet her great love, John Gilbert, for the first time. In real life as well as on screen.

Flesh and the Devil station

It’s the scene in the train station (alas, not available in clip form). When you watch it, you can almost believe you are watching the actors falling in love at the same time as their characters do. According to Gilbert’s daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, whom I met at a screening of the film in New York, that is exactly what happened.

garbo-gilbert-flesh

Director Clarence Brown later remarked upon his leading lady:  “She had something behind the eyes that told the whole story. On the screen Garbo multiplied the effect of the scene I had taken. It was something she had that nobody else ever had.”

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Creating Garbo’s deliriously sensual aura was the work of cinematographer William Daniels, a veteran collaborator of maverick director Erich von Stroheim. Using heavy gauzes and filters over the camera lens, he wraps the lovers in a shimmering passion and eroticism.

Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Listen to how Carl Davis’s score enhances the effect with its allusions to Richard Strauss, especially the Moonlight music from Capriccio.

You’re about to watch the climactic scene where the lovers kiss for the first time. It begins at a ball. Gilbert can think only of the woman he met at the train station. Will he see her again?

They move into the garden…..

Gilbert and Garbo were to marry. The story goes that, on his wedding day — a grand, Hollywood affair — Garbo failed to show. Gilbert got drunk and took it out on his boss, Louis B. Mayer. Mayer swore he would destroy Gilbert’s career. Gilbert never made the transition to talkies, ostensibly because of his reedy voice. But maybe the apocryphal version of how events unfolded holds the greater truth: could any man ever survive loving Garbo? (Or pissing off Louis B.?)

Garbo insisted that Gilbert co-star with her in Queen Christina (1933)

Even though Gilbert’s career was in decline, Garbo insisted that he co-star with her in Queen Christina (1933)

While Gilbert spiraled downwards, Garbo continued to ascend higher into the Hollywood heavens. With the arrival of talkies her accented voice beguiled as much as her looks, and she later revealed a talent for comedy in Lubitsch’s sublime Ninotchka (1939). Audiences were so accustomed to Garbo smoldering rather than smirking that the studio used her new-found levity as a log-line on their posters.

ninotchka

If you’re ever in need of a cinematic pick-me-up, look no further.

Garbo and Lion

Even MGM’s Leo the Lion seems cowed by the Legend that was Garbo

Forget Helen of Troy.  It was Garbo who not only launched a thousand and more ships of romantic dreams, but then dashed them upon the rocks of her early retirement and retreat from the world. She was, finally, alone.

Greta-Garbo-on-her-yacht-1929

But in the garden of film immortals she awaits her lovers still….

Garbo reclining