Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Pulling out all the stops: Chris Elliott poses with one of the mighty organs that he uses to bring silent films back to life.
Silent No More
Understanding the almost-lost art of silent-film music with organists Chris Elliott and Dennis James
By Steve Palopoli
EVEN THE best movies have limits to their watchability. But imagine what it would be like if every time you saw your favorite film, it was a new and different experience. It seems impossible now, in this age of modern movies that couldn't be any less interactive, but there was a time when not just every film but every performance of every film was a unique work of art.
In the era of silent movies, presentation was not just a matter of mechanical function, as it is today, but a critical piece of the cinematic experience. Even the description "silent film" is a misnomer, since the musical accompaniment communicated the same range of emotions that modern movies often rely on dialogue to get across.
There are few places where the tradition of silent-movie presentation continues today; luckily, Cinequest is one of those. This year, the festival will screen two classics at the California Theatre: Buster Keaton's The General (1927) on March 2 and the Louise Brooks film Pandora's Box (1929) on March 9.
There are even fewer people keeping the tradition of silent-film accompaniment alive—about six, in fact, who travel regularly to perform at silent-film programs. Two of them have a connection to Silicon Valley: Christian Elliott lives in Santa Clara, and Dennis James is a San Jose expat who regularly returns to this area to play at the California or Stanford theaters. Both will perform at Cinequest—Elliott will accompany The General; James, Pandora's Box.
If you saw James accompany The Mark of Zorro at the California recently, you saw the crowd that mobbed him at intermission, wanting to know how he does what he does. There is a fascination with this nearly lost art, especially to an audience seeing a particular film (or perhaps any silent film) for the first time in such a setting. These moviegoers are often hungry for historical and artistic context, and more often than not these days it's the organist who is their guide.
So how do maestros like Elliott and James make these movies live again for modern audiences? Their art must be understood not just in terms of the music they make but also in the way they take on 10 specific roles during a silent-film performance:
1 | Translator The unfortunate truth is that many people are afraid of silent films, and the situation hasn't been helped by the proliferation of cheap home-video copies that feature no music or terrible canned music.
For instance, if one attempts to watch the scene of the theater crowd panicking in the 1925 Lon Chaney version of Phantom of the Opera on one of many VHS copies put out without music, it seems like ridiculous melodrama—actors and extras flailing their arms silently as they run for the exits. But when seen with the proper musical accompaniment by a talented organist, the meaning of the scene pops into focus: it's funny. Director Rupert Julian intended it as satire at the expense of the upper class. As in many silent-film scenes, the meaning is delivered by the music. Thus most people who think they don't like silent films have probably never experienced them the correct way. "So many people have a concept of silent movie music being an out-of-tune piano with somebody playing 'Hearts and Flowers' and stuff like that," says Elliott. "That's the kind of bad stereotype we're working against."
2 | Historian "While musical scores were written for the vast majority of the silent films in their original release, less than 1 percent of those survive," says James. "So when the original scores are missing, I seek to discover and re-create what was actually played by researching period reviews, trade news articles, talking to musicians who played the films at the time and scouring professional music magazines and journals of the period."
And that's just the beginning. "I also find the alternative period-published professional cue sheet directions to help the musicians assemble a locally compiled score," he says. "When these don't survive, I research what musical materials were originally used, or what were in use at the time to guide me in selecting the resources from my personal extensive library of compilation resources made up both of period-film generics and all of the variety of music used in silent film performances during the silent era."
This kind of research prepared him even for what he considers the most difficult film he's ever done, Aelita, Queen of Mars. "Only one theme survived, the historical documentation was mainly inaccessible, and the compilation source music was from an entirely different culture—the Soviet Union—long out of print, and very, very difficult to acquire," James remembers.
3 | Arranger After putting together a score from research or a cue sheet, today's organist can then spend hours mixing different pieces in different ways, testing what plays well and what doesn't, figuring out ways to create a bridge from one piece to another. That's the main difference Elliott sees between what he'll be doing at Cinequest and what an organist would do if The General was playing in his theater in 1927.
"I think that we have the luxury today of spending more time and maybe being more precise about what we're doing than they did back then," he says. "The movies changed every week or so, and the theater musician might not have the luxury of spending hours and hours and hours working with the film, rehearsing with it, timing out sequences that we do today when we present them." Some people prefer to play films "cold," but Elliott doesn't envy them: "They'll say, 'I'll wait till the inspiration strikes.' Well, I hope you're having an on night!"
4 | Artist Improvisation—or as James prefers to call it, "spontaneous arranging"—was one of the weapons in the arsenal of the solo organist back in the grand days of the movie palaces, and it still wows audiences today to observe an accompanist appear to be watching the screen for his cues. But what most audiences don't realize is that even when they're working from a score, these musicians have to keep their interpretive skills sharp.
"To include a particular generic film music composition, such as 'The Crown of Love' by J.S. Zamecnik, the organist must be able to play it in its original characteristic style (in the original, a romanza and specifically as a cornet solo), but also at any moment in 'light' style (such as a caprice), tragic (such as a dirge), comic travesty (altering rhythms, etc.), waltz time (with the original in 4/4 common time), march (a la Sousa), and, of course, all of the various inflections of love as expressed musically in the silent era: romantic love, mother love, married love, yearning, passion and the rest," says James.
5 | Empath Just as the audience is affected by what the accompanist is doing, so is the accompanist affected by what the audience is doing. "One of the neat things about these silent film performances is that every time you do one it's a little bit different, because the audience will energize me," says Elliott. "People really get involved in the films, especially the comedy films like what we're going to hear at the California. People are laughing and having a great time and it's a blast to play for films like that. Sometimes I'll get an idea and I'll just forget what I'm doing on the score and go with it. Every time is different. It is euphoric."
6 | Student Every silent-film musical master had to start somewhere, and one common guru for both Elliott and James was Gaylord Carter, a legendary theater organist in Los Angeles. Elliott, who grew up in Orange County, first saw Carter play when he was 14 or 15 and ended up studying with him for more than 10 years, even flying back to work with him after relocating to the Bay Area. James worked with a number of silent-film players from the '20s, including Lee Erwin and Dr. C.A.J. Parmentier of New York City, Leonard MacLain of Philadelphia, Lowell Ayars and Esther Higgins of New Jersey and Lloyd del Castillo of Los Angeles. "I consider all of them my mentors and I learned many important things from each," says James.
7 | Aficionado These people have to love their work, which means they have to love the films they accompany. Elliott says that when he's playing to a great film and getting a great response, there's nothing better. "It's some of the happiest times I've ever had," he says.
8 | Collector James has one of the largest private collections of silent film musical scores in existence. You would, too.
9 | Purist It isn't necessarily part of the job description, but both James and Elliott take authenticity very seriously. Remember that rerelease of Metropolis that featured an '80s synth-pop soundtrack? Yeah, that wasn't good. "It was designed for watching when you're high on cocaine or something," says Elliott. Nor is he a fan of cutesy. "I heard about a classical organist who improvises for Phantom of the Opera, and at one point when the Phantom and Christine are down in moats, he's playing 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat.' Well, what's the audience going to do? Laugh, of course. The music is then becoming the central focus of everyone's attention, which it shouldn't be."
10 | Ambassador A lot of times these days the organist is the only person around at a screening to introduce the film and talk to audience members afterward. James has fielded some questions that definitely speak to the inspirational power of music to stimulate the imagination. "I've had such strange questions as being asked why I called it a silent film—at a screening of Gary Cooper's Lilac Time—when the woman heard Cooper speaking! Also, quite often when screening a black-and-white print, many people comment on the lovely and highly realistic color process quite unexpected in films from such an early period!"
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