The Art Of Accompanying Silent Films

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One of my most cherished musical pleasures is accompanying silent films. My drive for complete
authenticity when creating silent films scores is motivated by my deep love, appreciation, and
commitment to the artistic and musical culture of the silent film era.

There are many ways to provide musical accompaniment to silent films, but I have adopted
the following philosophy:

The experience of watching a silent film today is enhanced when the accompaniment reproduces
to the greatest extent possible the style of accompaniment that the film in question would have
received in its day by the best cinema musicians.

Accordingly, a film that was released in December 1926, for instance, deserves to have a musical
accompaniment that is exactly like the accompaniment that a fine cinema pianist or organist would
have given it in December 1926. This means that all the music used in compiling the score will have
been published prior to December 1926. I find this approach deeply satisfying because it honors the
silent film and shows the deepest respect for the era in which the film was produced. This approach
enables modern audiences to imagine that they have been transported back in time. Thus, not only
can they enjoy the film on its own merits, but they can experience the added richness of a live
musical recreation.

I compile scores for silent films exactly the same way that cinema pianists and organists compiled
scores back in the days of silent films. There is really no mystery to it. Movie studios frequently
hired composers and arrangers to produce thematic cue sheets, which were issued with each film and
distributed to cinema musicians. These thematic cue sheets told the pianist what to play and when to
play it. The "cue" in "cue sheet" was a point in the film that signaled the musician that it was time to
change the music in order to support effectively the shifting action on the screen. I am very fortunate
to have a large collection of original cue sheets for silent films. In those instances where I do not have
an original thematic cue sheet for a film that I have been hired to accompany, I create my own cue
sheet modeled on the same pattern used for published sheets, using a mixture of classical music,
semi-classical, and popular songs.

Here is an example of the first page of a thematic cue sheet for the Paramount film The Popular Sin,
which was released on 22 November 1926.


 

The musical cues for silent films were a mixture of classical music, semi-classical music, and popular
songs. Each would be chosen because the piece fitted the mood and supported the action on the screen.

Popular songs in the compiled score had an added significance because mass audiences during the
silent era would have been expected to recognize the song's title and to know its lyrics. The musician
could convey additional information to the audience through the clever selection of a popular tune for
a particular moment in the film. For instance, if the pianist starts to play the hit song "Too Many
Parties and Too Many Pals" when a particular lady enters the scene in the film, the audience instantly
knows what sort of lady this is.

 

Music publishers also stepped in to make the job of the cinema pianist simple by publishing volumes
of generic film music to fit a variety of scenes and moods. Publishing houses commissioned the best
film music composers of the silent era to write folios of film music. Composers who published such
volumes include J.S. Zamecnik, Dr. William Axt, Irenée Bergé, David Mendoza, and Albert W. Ketelbey.
Many of these composers went on to compose scores for talking pictures and were considered the best
in the business. My music library also includes many volumes of this nature. They are enormously useful
in compiling authentic silent film scores.
 


 

In addition to these musical sources, music publishers published songs that were intended to commemorate,
popularize, and figure into the accompaniment of silent films. Many of these songs were written by the
composer of the published compiled score. For instance, J.S. Zamecnik wrote the compiled score for the
1927 Paramount film Wings and also the popular song commemorating the film. When I accompany a
silent film, I always work into my compiled score any popular songs written for the film. These songs make
wonderfully appropriate opening numbers for the title sequence of a film.


 

These then, are the musical sources that I use to compile an historically accurate, respectful, and exciting
score for the silent films that I accompany.



Here is a short list of some of the films that I have accompanied since 2009:

Feature Length Film Scores

The Ace of Hearts (1921)
Arms and the Girl (1917)
Atlantis (1913)

The Battle of the Sexes (1928)
Blackmail (1929)
Blonde or Brunette (1927)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)
The Canadian (1926)
Chicago (1927)
The Circus (1928)
The Circus Man (1914)
Clash of the Wolves (1925)
The Crackerjack (1925)
Cyrano de Bergerac (1925)

Destiny (1921)
Dollars and Sense (1920)
The Duchess of Buffalo (1926)

The Eagle (1925)

Free to Love (1925)

The General (1927)
Gigolo (1926)
The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926)
Greed (1922)

Hands Up! (1926)
The Heart o’ the Hills (1919)
Hell's Hinges (1916)
The High Sign (1917)
Hot Water (1924)

The Iron Horse (1924)
It (1927)

Keno Bates, Liar (1915)
The Kid (1921)

Ladies Night in a Turkish Bath (1928)
Little Annie Rooney (1925)
The Lost Express (1926)
The Lost World (1925)
The Lucky Devil (1925)

The Man from Beyond (1922)
The Man On The Box (1925)
Manhattan Madness (1916)
Manslaughter (1922)
The Matrimaniac (1916)
The Mark of Zorro (1920) 
The Marriage Circle
(1924)
Master of the House (1925)
Metropolis (1927)
Moran of the Lady Letty (1922)
Mother (1926)

My Best Girl (1927)

The Night Cry (1926)
The Night Patrol
(1926)
The Nut (1921)

Old Heidelberg (1927)
Old Ironsides (1926)
Old San Francisco
(1927)
Orchids and Ermine (1927)
Orphans of the Storm  (1921)
Outside the Law (1921)

Passing Fancy (Dekigokoro) (1933)
Paths To Paradise
(1925)
Peck’s Bad Boy (1921)
Peter Pan (1924)
Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Power (1928)
The Pride of the Clan (1917)
The Prisoner of Zenda (1922)

Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917)

Reaching for the Moon (1919)
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)
Reggie Mixes In (1916)
The Roaring Road (1919)
The Royal Pauper (1917)

The Scarlet Letter (1926)
The Secret Game (1917)
Sensation Seekers (1927)
The Sheik (1921)
Shoulder Arms (1918)
Show People (1928)
The Sign on the Door (1921)
Sky High (1922)
Son of the Sheik (1926)
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Stella Dallas (1925)
Storm over Asia (1928)

Tempest (1928)
The Three Ages (1923)
Tol'able David (1921)

Underworld (1927)
The Unholy Three (1925)

The Unknown (1927)
The Unknown Soldier
(1926)
The Untamed (1920)
Up The Ladder (1925)
Upstream (1927)

The Valley of the Giants (1927)
Victory (1919)

When the Clouds Roll by (1919)
Where the North Begins (1923)
The Whistle (1921)
Wild and Wooly (1917)
Wings (1927)

A Woman of the World (1925)
The Wrecker (1929)

Young Romance (1915)



Scores Composed and Compiled for Performance on DVD
The Clinging Vine (1926) Score recorded November 2005 for DVD
issued by Image Entertainment
Produced by David Shepherd. Click here for product details.



A Silent Double Feature Starring Wallace Reid
The Roaring Road (1919) Score recorded December 2005 for DVD
issued by Unknown Video. Produced by Christopher Snowden.

Excuse My Dust (1920) Score recorded December 2005 for DVD
issued by Unknown Video. Produced by Christopher Snowden.




Nickelodia Volume One: Six Complete Films From The Nickelodeon Era
Score recorded March 2006 for DVD
issued by Unknown Video. Produced by Christopher Snowden.


Contents:

1. A Country Cupid (Biograph, July 24, 1911).
    Directed by D.W. Griffith. Starring Blance Sweet and Edna Foster.

2. The Adventures Of Billy (Biograph, October 19, 1911).
    Directed by D.W. Griffith. Starring Donald Crisp and Edna Foster.

3. The Charge Of  The Light Brigade (Edison, October 11, 1912).
    Directed by J. Searle Dowley. Starring Ben Wilson.

4. The Egyptian Mummy (Vitagraph, December 16, 1914).
    Directed by Lee Beegs. Starring Billy Quirk, Constance Talmadge, Lee Beggs, Joel Day.

5. In The Tennessee Hills (Kay-Bee, February 12, 1915)
    Produced by Thomas Ince. Directed by James Vincent. Starring Charles Ray, Enid Markey, Clyde Tracy.

6. Broncho Billy's Sentence (Essanay, February 13, 1915)
    Directed by G.M. Anderson. Starring G.M. Anderson, Carl Stockdale, Virginia True Boardman.

BONUS:
Broncho Billy's Niles, California: Then and Now.


The Silent Comedy Mafia Volume 1
Score recorded April 2006 for DVD
issued by Unknown Video. Produced by Christopher Snowden.

 

Contents:

1. Idle Eyes (Weiss Brothers Artclass, 1928).
    Directed by Leslie Goodwins. Starring Ben Turpin, Billy Barty, and Helen Gilmore.

2. Just Rambling Along (Rolin Film Company, November 3, 1918).
    Directed by Hal Roach. Starring Stan Laurel, Clarine Seymour, and Noah Young.

3. The Janitor (Morris R. Schlank, 1918).
    Starring Hank Mann and Madge Kirby

4. All Jazzed Up (Christie Film Company, January 10, 1920).
    Starring Bobby Vernon and Helen Darling.

5. The Bath Dub (Reelcraft, January 1921)
    Directed by Thomas La Rose. Starring Billy Franey

6. The Big Idea (Hal Roach Studios, January 13, 1924)
    Directed by George Jeske. Starring Snub Pollard, Blanche Mehaffey, George Rowe, and Billy Engle.

7. A Prodigal Bridegroom (Mack Sennett Productions, September 26, 1926)
    Directed by Lloyd Bacon and Earle Rodney. Starring Ben Turpin, Thelma Hill, and Madeline Hurlock

BONUS:
A Lightning Round of Rare Ben Turpin Clips (1915-1932) and a Photo Gallery of Mugshots.