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The Sound Of Silents
The men and women who labored in the ghostly light of the great screen to make the music that accompanied silent movies were as much a part of the show as Lillian Gish or Douglas Fairbanks
August/September 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 5
The 1928 Guide to Motion Picture Music listed more than six thousand tunes.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1920s, compilations, encyclopedias, guides, and manuals of film music poured from the presses. In 1925 Erno Rapee published the Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures, listing even more moods than his collection of the previous year and offering advice on how to handle special problems: two characters with different musical themes appearing in the same scene; long and short flashbacks; and different kinds of villains (sneaky, boisterous, crafty, powerful, and evilminded). Maurice Borodkin’s 1928 Guide to Motion Picture Music was still more ambitious; it listed more than six thousand musical numbers and classified them into more than one hundred and fifty different categories. In Motion Picture Synchrony for Motion Picture Exhibitors, Organists and Pianists, Ernest Luz proposed something entirely new for film-music classification. He assigned different colors to the basic human moods and suggested attaching gum tabs of the appropriate color to all musical selections. “Always remember,” he concluded his explanation, “that the Love Theme is White; the Villain’s Theme is Red; the Vampire’s Theme is Dark Green; the Heavy Agitated Motif is Dark Blue; the Light or Hurried Suspense Motif is Light Blue; the Lullaby, Pastorale or Characteristic is Brown; the Regal is Purple. …”
In Musical Accompaniment of Motion Pictures, Edith Lang and George West suggested different keys for different moods: A-flat and E-flat suggested warmth or languor; B-flat minor and G minor fit moods of sorrow or grief; A and D major lent themselves to “brilliancy”; E minor suggested “clear skies” or “the ocean’s wide expanse”; and the key of F was appropriate for scenes of a meditative or religious nature. “The key of C has nothing to commend it,” they concluded, “except that after long wanderings through the rich realms of sharp or flat tonalities, it is most gratifying to hear the crisp and bright ‘key of keys.’” May Meskimen Mills tried something different to help the overburdened accompanist. In her book on “photo-playing,” she linked some of the major Hollywood stars with music of a certain kind. Constance Talmadge and Billie Burke, she reported, required “music of the dainty 4/4 Moderates, with a broad and melodious theme.” For Douglas Fairbanks, she recommended a “humorous, snappy, fast and furious style of music”; for Mary Pickford, the “old fashioned type of eccentric comedy” music; for Theda Bara, music that was “cold, sensual, emotional and heavy dramatic”; for Lillian Gish, a “demure, plaintive, and heavy dramatic” music; and for Mary Garden and Geraldine Farrar, music that was “intensely dramatic and of the grand opera style.”
George Beynon, the most primly pedagogical of all the film-music instructors, predicted great things for the accompanist who took picture-playing seriously: “It has been said that genius is the art of taking pains. Every theatre can have a genius if the leader so desires it. A genius in the orchestral pit means a full house, a full house means a successful business and a satisfied employer, and the last two mean a raise in salary. It pays to be a genius.” Beynon went on to forecast a great future for silent-film music: “The future holds a promise, stupendous in its magnitude, that picture music will rank favorably with grand opera and symphony.” But while aspiring young film musicians were busily plowing through Beynon’s manual and consulting Rapee’s encyclopedia, motion-picture technicians were renewing their efforts to synchronize sound and sight and produce the kind of “talking pictures” that Edison had envisaged in the 1890s. By the mid-1920s they had succeeded in coupling projectors to sixteen-inch phonograph records with a fair degree of success. The fruits of their efforts, Don Juan (which opened in New York in August 1926, using a prerecorded musical accompaniment) and The Jazz Singer (which appeared the following year, containing a bit of song and dialogue), signaled unmistakably the beginning of the end of the silent era. The playwright Robert E. Sherwood, for one, was glad of it. Reviewing Don Juan, he noted that “it will be possible in the future to dispense with orchestras and organists in movie theaters.” He added: “Well, I for one will shed no tears. I’m tired of hearing ‘Hearts and Flowers’ during the views of the United States Cavalry riding to the rescue, and ‘Horses—Horses—Horses’ during tender love scenes.”
One movie musician lamented that Beethoven lived too early to write for films.
Sherwood was harsh. But even so dedicated a film-music specialist as George Beynon warned that much of the mood music written especially for the screen “holds no great merit,” and he lamented the fact that Beethoven, Liszt, and Berlioz “lived too early to furnish picture music.” Indeed, many of the great masters took quite a beating for their posthumous contributions to movies. Much fine music came to sound hackneyed and silly through overuse in movie houses, and some of it remains impossible to listen to even today. There was a great deal of truth in the charge of critics that silent-film accompanists “raped” and “murdered” some of the great music of Western civilization.