From Chaplin to The Artist: Music and silent film as enduring allies

Cavallos Orchestra at Denver's Paramount Theatre Denver Public Library Western History Department)

This article was originally published by CBC Music on February 29, 2012. It appears here in a slightly edited form.

On the screen of the Museum of the Moving Image, Charlie Chaplin’s iconic Tramp character prompts roars of laughter from the audience. The film is The Immigrant (1917), and the seats of the Brooklyn-based theatre are filled with children seeing a silent film for the first time. Their eyes are wide, beaming, and the laughter is infectious.

For the last several years, New York-based musician Ben Model has paid a weekly visit to the museum to provide piano accompaniment for Chaplin’s 1917 film to groups of children. Model, whose career began as a student at NYU after volunteering in a film class taught by noted scholar W.K. Everson, says every performance of Chaplin’s film is different. “The audience’s reaction informs the music.”

A cue sheet for The Cameraman (1928) starring Buster Keaton. Credit: George Eastman House.

But his efforts are beyond selective improvisation. “You need to understand the era and the material you’re working with,” Model says, before summing up the silent accompanist’s mandate in the few words necessary to fill a silent film intertitle: “A bad score can ruin a film. A good score can take a mediocre film and elevate it.”

Model contends that the accompanist, usually seated near the front of the screen, must become as invisible as the projectionist running the film. “Never do anything that calls attention to the music. The whole idea is for you to disappear,” he says. “I see myself as a conduit between the filmmaker and the contemporary audience, to enjoy it as it was originally intended,” helping them bond with the film and make 90 years of time go away.”

On a deeper level, silent film accompaniment is an extension of the collaborative filmmaking process. “These [filmmakers] worked hard and that particular scene should get a big laugh. How can I help make it even bigger?”

Some directors made it easy; many routines in Chaplin’s films work within a musical structure. The Adventurer (1917), one of 12 films made for the Mutual Film Company, and a period that Chaplin would later refer to as “one of the happiest” in his career, features a cocktail party scene where Charlie stands around a group with an empty drink. “The way it’s timed and structured, musically, it just fits,” adds Model.

But Model is always up for a challenge, one he took head on when he composed a musical score for the DVD of Fritz Lang’s The Spiders, a three-hour spy thriller by the director of Metropolis (1927).“The challenge of doing something of greater length is that it’s so episodic, it never really ends. You have to build a few themes to hold it together to keep the sense of drama going.”

The silent era took music seriously

Although bereft of dialogue, silent films were never entirely silent. “That’s the great irony,” notes silent film scholar and official Chaplin biographer David Robinson. “Music has always been an important part of the process,” either through live musical accompaniment, mood music on the set during production or the attempts to record synchronized sound and film.

Silent film orchestra at the Allen Theatre, Winnipeg MB. Credit: Western Canada Pictorial Index 6521).

Silent era audiences also took the music seriously. While the bigger movie palaces employed large orchestras with renowned conductors like Jack Arthur of the Loew’s Uptown Theatre in Toronto, studios released cue sheets with mood and theme suggestions for the smaller theatres with single pianists. “Magazines were full of complaints about poor musicianship and inappropriate themes,” says Robinson, noting the cue sheet’s importance. “One of the forgotten reasons for recorded sound was to control the standards of film music.”

The cue sheets and the compiled scores of the era often featured familiar music. “Musical appreciation was much less sophisticated back then, but the compiled scores were very often intelligently done,” adds Robinson.

“People had less association and reference points,” says Model. In 1915, when “Ride of the Valkyries,” from Wagner’s opera Die Walküre, was heard during the climax of D.W. Griffith’s controversial film The Birth of a Nation, Model says people were overwhelmed. “But hearing that now, audiences think of Bugs Bunny and ‘Kill the wabbit,’ so that effect can be lost.”

Even if historically accurate, Model and most modern accompanists avoid quoting familiar material. “It’s too easy. There are too many other possibilities to explore.”

The Artist, Hugo mark today’s appreciation

The modern era of silent film music appreciation began in the late ’70s when Carl Davis scored the documentary series Hollywood, followed by Kevin Brownlow’s restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (which screens in Oakland in March). “It was explosive, a revelation,” reflects Robinson on hearing Davis’s score in 1980. “It must have been the first time in 50 years that anyone had heard a silent film accompanied by an orchestra.”

Model has made several compositions of public domain silents available online. Silent films abound on YouTube and the Internet Archive, but the music is often slapped on without discretion, Model says, hearkening the days that forced studios to provide cue sheets. “You always hear that one Jelly Roll Morton or Scott Joplin record,” he jokes.

Enthusiastic for his work, Model recently chronicled his exploits accompanying The Immigrant. He hopes the success of The Artist and Hugo – “two of the greatest commercials for the genre” – will help usher a new audience for the art and the appreciation of its music.

Top image: Cavallo’s Orchestra at Denver’s Paramount Theatre (Credit: Denver Public Library, Western History Department). Middle: Cue sheet for The Cameraman (Credit: George Eastman House). Bottom: Orchestra Allen Theatre Winnipeg (Credit Western Canada Pictorial Index 6521).

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